There’s a fine line between real life and video games in this engrossing novel that’s part Kathryn Erskine’s Mockingbird, part Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.
Severkin is an elf who slinks through the shadows of Wellhall’s spiraling stone towers, plundering ancient ruins and slaying mystical monstrosities with ease.
He’s also a character in a video game—a character that twelve-year-old Nick Reeves plays when he needs a break from the real world. And lately, Nick has really needed a break. His mother had an “incident” at school last year, and her health has taken a turn for the worse.
Nick is convinced his mother’s illness has been misdiagnosed, but no one believes him. His only escape is the online world of Wellhall, where, as the elf character Severkin, he can face any problem. But when Nick finds himself fighting alongside another elf who reminds him of someone he knows in real life, his worlds begin to collide. . . .
I’m so excited to share this sneak peak at The Memory Wall, the upcoming new release by Lev AC Rosen! The Memory Wall will be released September 13, 2016… and I encourage you all to stop right now, open up a new tab in your browser, hit up Amazon or your favorite online bookseller, and hit the preorder button. You can thank me later. (And now come back and finish reading my post!)
The Memory Wall is an unusual, surprising read — aimed at younger teens, but definitely appealing to grown-ups as well. Don’t be deceived by the cover. While the game and fantasy elements of this book are quite important, it’s the real-life Nick and his disintegrating family that are the heart and soul of the story.
For me personally, Nick’s family, school situation, and inner struggles are the most engrossing elements of The Memory Wall, but the in-game portions are equally well-written and have a propulsive energy all their own. As you’ll see from the Q&A below, it amazes me how well certain elements work together — elements that I never in a million years would have expected to fit into one book — but they really do come together in unexpected but really cool ways.
I’m really thrilled to be able to share this Q&A, but let me just add more note: Lev AC Rosen is an amazing writer who deserves much wider acclaim! Not only does he write great kids’ books (see my review of Woundabout here), but he’s also written two of my absolute favorite books for adults, All Men of Genius (which I read before I was a blogger, so no review… but maybe I’ll revisit in a future blog post) and Depth, which is just awesome (review here).
As a side note, I ended up asking Lev a bunch of questions that relate to the fact that I have a 14-year-old son who’s obsessed with video games. Just FYI.
Without further ado, I’m proud to present:
A Q&A with author Lev AC Rosen, author of The Memory Wall
Note: Mild (very mild) spoilers ahead…
Q: I never would have guessed that Alzheimer’s, gaming, and the Berlin Wall could fit into a single book. Did you set out to write about all three of these elements from the start?
A: I’m a big believer in the idea that every book writes itself differently. Sometimes the whole idea comes to me fully formed, like a seed, and planting it lets that idea grow. Sometimes it’s more like assembling a puzzle from the pieces that are just floating around your mind. For The Memory Wall, it was the latter – I knew I wanted to do a book about someone playing a video game, and use that as a story-with-a-story format, where the two stories could actually be pulled apart and still stand on their own. But the age group, the characters, the world, the Berlin Wall, Alzheimer’s – those all sort of snapped on, one by one, because they were already floating around in my head as things I wanted to write about. Maybe puzzle pieces isn’t the right metaphor – maybe it’s more like trying on clothes. I had this body – video game, story-within-story – and I assembled an outfit on it from the clothes in the wardrobe of my brain – and that included Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall. The outfit just looked good. And I didn’t start writing until the outfit was assembled, because the outfit is the idea. Before that, it was just disconnected ideas. Once all the pieces were together, I had an idea, and then I started writing. So Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall were there from the moment I was typing. But the core was the video game, I guess.
Q: What was your inspiration for The Memory Wall?
A: Well, I just sort of answered the inspiration for the book part – I could talk more about my personal experiences with Alzheimer’s, or this great German film teacher I had in college, but I’m going to talk about those elsewhere and when I first read this question, I thought you were asking about the literal wall in the book, and I really want to answer that version of the question, because it’s not something I’ve been asked: This book is so much about history, and finding ways to preserve history – whether personal, or societal. Nick’s dad writes about Black history. His mom never talks about her own history in East Berlin. His mom is also losing her own history, and that means Nick feels he’s losing his history with her. So I was thinking about history, and the way we map it, and try to remember it – books, photos, dates, family trees. The ways we quantify history. And I wanted Nick, at some point, to (light spoilers) destroy that in some way. I wanted him to tear down the history he felt had been thrust upon him and realize that history – whether personal or societal – is something that changes all the time, depending on who you talk to, how you look at it. Sure, we can write down dates, map our great-great-grandmothers, but history lives in us. In stories, in memories. It’s not carved in stone. So the memory wall, in the book itself, is this sort of literally carved-in-stone family tree. And I’m trying to go spoiler-light here, so I’ll just say that it’s a history that is put upon Severkin, Nick’s in-game avatar. And when he realizes how his history – and everyone’s history, especially his mom’s – is more than names and dates, that it’s something more fluid than that, he gets to literally shatter the stone. That was satisfying. Plus, of course, calling it the memory wall ties into the Alzheimer’s and the Berlin Wall. But the original inspiration was that I wanted a family tree that could be destroyed in some way. Not to say that his history isn’t that, but to say it’s more than that.
Q: Race and identity are important elements for Nick and Nat, and this is also reflected in their in-game characters. What would you hope that kids reading the book would learn from this?
A: I don’t know if I’d say I want kids to learn anything, exactly. There was this article going around a while back, about a study saying that those who read fiction tend to have more empathy. Reading literally puts you in someone else’s head, so you learn how to do that with real people, too. I think of that whenever I’m writing, because that’s important. That books can change the world – and I don’t have many skills, so this is the thing I can do. But to really expand that empathy, I need to have it, too. As an author, I can’t just write about people like me – I can’t just write about queer Jewish men from NYC. Besides being wildly limiting, it’s also boring, and isn’t what the world looks like. Authors have the responsibility to put themselves into the minds of different people from different backgrounds – and to do so respectfully. Because when we do that, our readers experience it as well. And that’s the important stuff. So, when I knew Nick had to have a background with strong historical elements, one mapped, one hidden, and I knew so much of the book was about duality – secret/exposed histories, game/real world – I decided Nick’s two sides of the family could be two races, as well. Luckily, I have multi-racial friends, and they were willing to talk to me, and give me books and essays to read so that I could explore that perspective as much as someone without it can. What I hope is that kids enjoy the book, and if they’re multi-racial, they see themselves in it, even if Nick isn’t really like them. And if they’re not multi-racial, hopefully they come out of it with a bit more understanding of the perspective of those who are. Which isn’t to say Nick represents all multi-racial people, but just that he is a fully fleshed out person who the kids can get behind.
Q: Were you at all tempted to have Nick’s mother not have Alzheimer’s, proving Nick right?
A: SPOILERS! This is a fantastic question, and yes. So much yes. I actually tried really hard to go in undecided. To be like “this could go either way.” But the more I realized how much Nick’s parents were keeping from him, the more I knew she had to have it. I did lots of research on Alzheimer’s, talked to doctors, and there are lots of things that look like Alzheimer’s – lots of things Nick could hold on to and say “it’s this, and this is so easily curable!” But the doctors can test for most of those. But I needed hope to be vibrant through the entire book. I needed to hope with Nick.
It’s interesting – people who have read it who have had personal experiences with Alzheimer’s – who have lost someone to it – never believe that Sophie has been misdiagnosed. They tell me they experienced so much of what Nick did, but as readers, they never doubt the diagnosis. Those readers who don’t have a personal experience with Alzheimer’s, though, think it’s possible Sophie has been misdiagnosed. So I feel like that’s a good balance to strike.
Q: As far as I know, most kids don’t play video games with their mothers. (Mine doesn’t!) I love this element of Nick’s relationship with his mom, and how their game connection was a part of their real-life connection. (Sorry, this isn’t really a question so far.)
A: I may be dating myself here, but my mom and I played Legend of Zelda on the original NES. I don’t know if she enjoyed it, or if she was just humoring her six year old, but I like to think she had fun. That being said, as I got older, and games got more complex, she didn’t play with me as much. But we both really liked Zelda. I think.
But Sophie, I think, besides wanting to humor her kid, took a real interest in this particular series because it’s supposed to have this background in myth and culture. And as an anthropologist, she could see those roots and point them out to her son, which I think, for her, gave the game more value. Plus, games are fun. I think she had fun, too – it’s just that her fun was colored by her academic background.
Q: I think most adults/parents these days automatically see video games as a waste of time or not healthy for their kids. The Memory Wall shows a lot of positives related to gaming. Do you think there’s a healthy balance? What are the positives you see in gaming for kids?
A: Well, everything in moderation. Sure, too much video gaming is bad. So is too much anything, really. But do I think gaming is generally a good thing, or at least has the potential to be? Absolutely. When the printing press first made literature easily available, people freaked out about young people reading. It would make them imagine too much. They stopped doing what they were supposed to, like dueling and needlepoint and socializing, and instead had their noses in books all the time. THE HORROR! Video games are another form of storytelling. Yes, it’s more interactive – button pressing, in game decision making, etc. Those choose your own adventure books had decisions, too, though. And, like with books, there are bad games out there. But generally speaking, games are great. There are stories told in games that can’t be told other ways, and some of those stories are truly beautiful. Can they be violent? Yes. So are movies. So are books. The thing I’d worry most about in video games is the treatment of women and sex. That can sometimes get a bit weird, I think. Women are sexualized (like in movies, TV), but when it becomes about pressing buttons to seduce a woman, that… is a little weird for me, especially if the player is a young man. Women don’t have buttons. Some games do it well. Some don’t. I think as long as you’re raising your kids to have a healthy respect for women and realize that like the violence in games, this “seduction” aspect is pure fantasy and sometimes dehumanizing, then it’s ok. And of course, watch for those game ratings.
But overall, I think games have the potential to have a really positive aspect on kids, by letting them explore worlds much larger than their own. Or just to solve puzzles or get good at button pressing – which isn’t a bad skill to have. For Nick, the game lets him essentially live out his fantasies and then deal with his reality. He gets to go on one last adventure with his mother – he gets to try to save her, and learn about her, and contextualize her in his fantasy world. And then (big spoilers), when it turns out he was living in a fantasy, he gets to punish someone for it. Because, I’d imagine Nick has a lot of anger at his mother by the end of the book. She lied to him. She kept her condition from him. She gave him hope when there wasn’t any. And Nick should feel angry about that, he should want to punish her in some way, but instead he gets to take it out on Reunne, who wasn’t trying to protect him, but was this malicious manipulator, feeding off his hope. And I think kids can do that with games. They can see symbols, see their own life, and in some way, express who they want to be. Sure, the chances of a kid today growing up to be a space marine are slim, but that kid gets to experience what that version of herself is. And hopefully, there are things she likes about that version of herself and can then work on bringing into her real self. Games can be empowering for kids in that way. And that goes for everything – space marines, or fashion designers on iPhone games.
Q: Do you feel the positives/negatives change based on the kind of game (i.e., role-playing fantasy vs first-person shooter games)?
A: It’s funny you use those two genres as examples because there’s such overlap between them now. I think genre does influence the scope of the game, and games with bigger scopes are often more interesting (though not always). Fighting games, for instance, give you one way of interacting in the world – you fight. You push buttons, your avatar kicks, punches, etc. But the choice is always fight. A larger open world RPG, like the one Nick plays, or like Skyrim or Fallout, gives you more ways to interact – talk someone out of violence instead of fighting them, collecting items for someone so they won’t die, etc. So I think those games tend to have more positives because they offer a larger scope. Each genre has it’s own plusses and minuses, though. Japanese style RPGs, for example, which aren’t open world, and more streamlined, tend to play more like a movie with tactical fighting interludes – not many choices in those, either. And plenty of shooting games these days have massive online battle zones. That’s more like a big game of laser tag, to me. Other games are like really complex games of chess. But I do think that games with more choice and more things you can do within the world tend to have more value just because choice means more figuring out what you’d choose. And figuring out what you’d choose – being able to experiment with it and see the consequence, being able to do something really awful, just to experience it – that’s the good stuff in gaming, I think.
Q: Are you a gamer? Were you a gamer during your school years? And if so, any favorites? Anything that you particularly took from your gaming experiences as a kid?
A: Yes, and yes. When I was a kid, my favorite game was Final Fantasy 3 (6, really, but they called it 3 when they released it in the US). I LOVED that game. It’s an amazing, epic story. My friend Liz and I wrote fan fiction about that game. Man I loved it. Still do. Great game. It was also one of my first experiences with Steampunk, so it was a big influence for All Men of Genius.
I think my modern favorite would be Bioshock, though. That is a brilliant story, too, beautifully done, so smart. It’s a shooter with RPG elements – and they’re remastering it for the PS4. Out soon, I think. If your son hasn’t played it, that would be a great one to get and be like “okay, I get to watch you play this because I hear it’s amazing.” That’s something parents are allowed to do, right? It’s just so smart, and has ties to US history and philosophy, like the game in The Memory Wall has ties to East Berlin. It was a game that really showed me how history can work in games, how games can relate to the real world and interact with them.
And Portal! While we’re on recommendations to watch your kid play, or even, in the case of Portal 2, play with them, I highly recommend Portal, which is a puzzle game that looks like a shooter. It’s really smart and funny. There are a lot of great games out these days. Lots of bad ones, too – that’s what happens when there’s more of anything, you get more bad, too, but lots of good ones. Plenty for tablets and phone, too. I loved Transistor. Beautiful piece of art. There’s so much good stuff out there. I could go on for ages.
Q: You’ve written books for adults and for kids. Do you prefer one or the other? What do you enjoy about each? Is your process different for adult vs kid books?
A: I don’t know. I don’t really think of them that way. I mean, I know the age of the kid I’m writing for, but I’m pretty much always writing for me. Maybe 8 year old Lev, like for Woundabout, or 11 year old Lev, like Memory Wall, or 22 year old Lev, like All Men of Genius, or present-day Lev, like Depth, but I’m always writing for myself, somewhere on the spectrum. Like I said, I’m a big believer in the idea that every book writes itself differently, so it’s not so much about “writing for children” or “writing for adults” – it’s writing this book. That’s how I think about it. And the process, and what I enjoy varies depending on the sort of book it is. For The Memory Wall I think I really enjoyed crafting the world of the game by using various influences based in East Berlin and Germanic myth. That was a fun. And I really liked being able to express Nick through Severkin. Using his avatar as a way to say things about him that maybe he couldn’t acknowledge about himself.
Q: Can you share a little about your next project or projects? Any chance we might still see a sequel to All Men of Genius or Depth? (I can’t get the images of a drowned New York out of my mind – please tell me there’s more coming set in this world!)
A: I’m a bit of a busy bee, flitting from flower to flower. I don’t stay in my lane long enough to do sequels much. All Men of Genius I had never intended one for, and then folks wanted one, and I tried my hand at it, but it didn’t feel right. Depth I’m more open to exploring sequels for because I had more of “mystery series” mindset going in. But sales aren’t really justifying it, plus my amazing editor left that imprint and I don’t know anyone else there. But I have been thinking of maybe writing a sequel and self-publishing it, just to see what that experience is like. But those are on the back burner. I have other projects right now – a too-long-to-be-a-short-story that’s sort of Greek Myth Noir. I’m trying to find a place for that, but it’s like “novelette” length, which is weird, and anything not a novel is outside my comfort zone, too. But I like it, and I need to do research on people who publish that length. Or maybe that could be the self-publishing experiment. Then I have two finished drafts of books. Both YA. One is a fairy tale retelling, and a lot of fun, and the other is a contemporary sci-fi spy story about motherhood. We’re still putting together lists of editors to send those to. We’ll see what happens, but fingers crossed. And I’ve just started a period 1940s noir. That’s for adults. It’s… stranger than it sounds. Maybe? I’m sort of all over the place, like I said. Which I love about myself, even if it hurts my overall career. But sometimes I can get people to read something outside their usual zone, and that’s pretty awesome. That’s a good feeling.
Q: Are you sure I’m not a bad mother if I let my 14-year-old play Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty?
A: Well, with no other evidence, it’s hard to say. But if you’re worrying about it, and talking to him about it, probably not.
But seriously, if he has a PS4, go get the Bioshock Collection remaster that’s coming out the same day as my book. Sit him down and be like “I’ve heard this is amazing, but I’m awful at video games. Want to help me experience it?” and see what happens. The first one in the collection is really fantastic. The other two are good, too, but that first one. Yeah. Play Bioshock with your kid. That’ll definitely make up for any bad parenting. 😉
I can’t thank Lev enough for taking the time to answer my loooong list of questions!! Thank you, Lev — it’s a pleasure to have you here as a guest at Bookshelf Fantasies. Wishing you the best of luck with the release of The Memory Wall.
The Memory Wall will be released September 13th. Go get yourself a copy!
To learn more about author Lev AC Rosen, visit his website at www.levacrosen.com
Title: The Memory Wall
Author: Lev AC Rosen
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: September 13, 2016
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Middle grade/young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author