I caught up with the best-selling English author of the novel Room 15, Charles Harris to discuss his writer’s life, views on amnesia in fiction and more. Room 15 is a psychological thriller, with a case of amnesia at its centre. It was released in 2020. A short review is followed by an interview with the author.
The Room 15 story
Imagine you’re holding a party in summer one minute, and suddenly you’re alone in the street with snow falling, blood running from your neck and on your hands. What has happened in-between times, you have no idea. This is an early scene from Room 15. The reader sees the world from the narrator, Ross Blackleigh’s perspective, and so, like him, we find out through a series of surreal experiences that 18 months of his life have been wiped clean from his memory.
Ross is a detective inspector in the midst of a murder investigation. He soon remembers his police work and identity, just not what’s occurred in the last year and a half. What’s more, someone is trying to kill him. In order to solve the murder of a nurse—whose last phone call was to him—it is crucial for Ross not to let on to those around him that he has trouble with his memory.
Father and son complexity
As someone who had profound amnesia myself, I liked a lot about this novel’s handling of Ross’s memory loss. It is a different variety to the retrograde version I experienced, but nevertheless, it rang true to me. The veracity of Ross’s forgetting is done particularly well, so that we get a strong sense of how de-stabilising it is not to remember one’s own history. Ross often feels frightened. Amnesia is frightening in itself, especially so in his already frightening circumstances investigating not just crime, but corruption within the police force itself. Despite the high drama consistent with the thriller genre, there is a surprisingly nuanced realism to the inter-personal relationships in the book. The tense and complex relationship between Ross and his policeman father is drawn so convincingly, I felt I had walked straight into their hard-boiled world.
The framing of Room 15 involves Ross’s court case for four crimes that he insists he didn’t commit. He goes against his counsel’s advice and takes the stand. When he does, it is his tale of coming to consciousness in snowfall that he relates. This story within a story framing reminds me of one of the great spooky stories of all time, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
The contrast between the book’s stylistic simplicity, with its clear, clean language and its complex plot, with lots of twists and turns, makes for compelling reading. There is a lot going on simultaneously: Ross investigates one murder, tries to prevent another, dodges attacks, holds together his disintegrating marriage, all the while being forced to investigate his own recent history and character. Challenges to the notion of the singular coherent self are brought into focus as Ross investigates who he is, and whether he is the ethical man he purports to be.
Charles answers my questions about writing Room 15,
why we love amnesia stories and more.
On characterisation, inspiration and amnesia
How did you come up with the idea for the characterisation of policeman Ross Blackleigh, who wakes with a form of amnesia that has stolen 18 months’ worth of his memories?
Good question. I think we all get moments when we re-evaluate who we are and are forced to lose a few illusions about ourselves. That we are maybe more flawed than we thought. Or maybe it’s just me. Some time ago I had a moment like that, but that got me thinking about a story about someone who was forced to rethink all his preconceptions about himself. I began to create the character of a man, a policeman, who had lost a period of time in his memory. Because he was a detective, he’d have certain skills in solving mysteries, but now he’d be investigating the mystery of his own mind and, as he began to look into his missing past, he’d discover that he was in fact quite different from the Detective Inspector Ross Blackleigh he thought he was.
Much of what I wrote at this time has stayed almost unchanged in the final book. However, I did have to engage in a considerable amount of research into amnesia, because many writers get it totally wrong. One issue that came up, too, was that so much of a character’s personality is tied up with their memories that when you remove those memories you risk losing any sense of the character. So I had to work hard to dig out exactly how much of Ross remained and to build on that, to ensure the novel remained satisfying to readers.
I grew up with my mother’s and maternal grandparents’ Holocaust survivor stories told to me from a very young age, and they feature in my memoir about my own case of amnesia. Do you think being a Jewish person influenced your decision to write about amnesia? Any related thoughts on this?
I don’t feel any Jew today can not be affected by what has happened in the last century. At the same time, while I grew up knowing about the Holocaust, no one I knew talked about their experiences in it. That has only begun in the last thirty or forty years.
You could widen the question, though, because when you look at the traumatic events of the last two centuries or more, there is a great deal that people might not want to face. All kinds of inhumanity that we’ve wrought on ourselves. And indeed, there has been a rise in stories involving amnesia over that same period, both novels and (more recently) films. It’s as if we need to address two fundamental drives – to forget and to remember.
Your book is very dark and gritty; ideas of betrayal and corruption. Where did these ideas come from in relation to your interests?
I look around society at the moment and I see betrayal and corruption everywhere. In politics, in the way that business has tried to close its eyes to the climate crisis and indeed lie to the public about it… as I write we see it in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But as a Green, as a human being, I also believe that we can be better than that, and that writing about it might – faint hope – help us overcome the darker sides of our nature.
On writing Room 15
Was it hard to write this first-person account of someone with Ross’s sort of memory loss?
As it happened, I played around for some time with the first and third and even the second person. The second person actually worked, and fitted the alienation that Ross is feeling, but it made it more difficult for a reader to engage with him, so I went back to the first person. I actually believe that the first person is only appropriate to certain stories – it tends to be overused and can be very claustrophobic. As can the present tense. But given Ross’s amnesia, I felt that both were appropriate here, plunging the reader into experiencing the same uncertainties that Ross himself is going through.
What are some strategies you used to portray this character’s mental condition as it unfolded?
That was possibly the most difficult part of editing the book. Once I had the rough shape of the story, I had to go back and map very carefully what Ross felt and remembered at each point. I found myself stopping at times and asking myself, “What does he know now, and most importantly, what does he not know?”
I tried to evoke those stages through the writing style and through the gradual process of investigating the case. In many ways, it followed the same path as investigating a crime—you find clues, red herrings, new information that makes the picture come clearer, step by step, until you finally get there—or not as the case may be.
Did your knowledge of scriptwriting help you write this book?
To some extent, yes. Scriptwriting is probably the most difficult kind of writing there is. You have nowhere to hide. You can’t cover up a plot hole with a bit of purple prose. So it forces you to be very clear about structure and how the story moves on, page by page. One thing that has pleased me is the number of reviewers who have said that my novels are page-turners.
At the same time, a script is incomplete – 90% of the movie comes from the camera, the actors, the director, the music, the editing… When you’re writing a novel you have to provide all that yourself. You become, in a sense, director, actor, costume designer, location manager… etc, etc. The whole crew. And, unlike a movie, there’s no one else to blame.
Do you see the memory loss component as a device, a theme or something else entirely?
The memory loss is central to the whole idea of the book. It’s much more than a device; it’s the whole reason for it. And the deeper I went into it, the more I discovered how psychologically revealing it was, if that doesn’t sound paradoxical. We go into some very dark areas, but there is also a sense of courage and nobility too. Ross looks deeper into himself than most of us are brave enough to do.
Did you seek out books and films with characters with memory loss in them prior to your research? Can you say a little about either your broader consumption of books and films along these lines, or your research process for Room 15.
When I started, I was thinking of writing it as a movie. There was almost nothing on film, and then came ‘Memento’ and I thought “That’s it, I’ve lost my chance. Amnesia has been done.” Then I began to notice more movies and books with amnesia themes – films: the Bourne franchise, ‘Total Recall’, ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ – books: Before I Go To Sleep, Elizabeth is Missing (both adapted later for the screen, too). I realised I could add something. But that it would be stronger as a novel.
However, I did feel it was important to get amnesia right. Two memoirs on Dissociative Identity Disorder were very useful – Sybil 1and A Fractured Mind. I also talked to many psychotherapists, neurologists, psychiatrists, you name it. But there comes a point when you have to let go of the research and just swim – or the novel can become very bogged down in stuff that is fascinating but doesn’t push the story or characters forward.
Do you research before you start to write, during the writing or both?
Both – when I start a project, I don’t really know what I need, so I do enough research to feel I have an idea what I’m talking about, but then when I look at the first draft I realise there are massive holes to be filled in.
On our love of stories about forgetting
Did your ideas about amnesia change in the course of writing and researching this book? If so in what ways?
Do you think there will be a spate of COVID amnesia stories and climate change amnesia stories on their way?
Who knows? Things aren’t always predictable in that manner. Just because something is important doesn’t mean that the unconscious part that’s so essential to writing will engage with it. That’s part of the fun. After all, we’ve had pandemic movies for years, maybe seeing the real thing will put us off. Or inspire us in a new direction. And then there’s the readers and viewers. Look at the critical reaction to the climate change satire ‘Don’t Look Up.’ The critics said, virtually with one voice, that they didn’t believe the premise–that journalists and TV presenters would never make fun of a subject so obviously vital to our survival. To which I say, have you actually looked at your newspaper or TV station’s coverage of Green issues for the past four decades?
Responses to the book
When did you realise Room 15 was popular on Amazon and what has this meant for you as a writer?
It’s always great to find your book has become a bestseller, especially when it has taken many years and a great deal of work. It sounds very cliché but it makes it worth doing. There’s a lot of staring at screens and hoping for the best that goes on in writing, and in the darker moments it helps to know that people appreciate what I write and get enjoyment from it. And that my books make them think too.
Have reader responses suggested Ross Blackleigh rings true? (I was convinced).
Well, I’ve been very pleased with those who have said it rang true – you were one of the ones for sure. I appreciate that.
Work in future
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a conspiracy thriller that I also started many years ago. In fact, it was taken up by Hollywood and was going to be made with a big name actor and director, but as with so many things it didn’t quite make the final hurdle. But I always loved the story, so I’ve gone back to it and am solving a few plot holes that I’d never quite sorted out to my satisfaction. It’s very challenging and tremendous fun. There are some very interesting characters, who I always felt deserved their time in the sun.
Will you return in future to a work with an amnesia component? If you did, what sort of work could we expect?
Probably not. I feel that seam has been mined for me now, though of course you can never say never. There may come a time when that unconscious writer-mind comes up with an idea…
Sybil, Flora Rheta Schreiber
A Fractured Mind, Robert B. Oxnam
Before I Go To Sleep, S. J. Watson
Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
King Lear, William Shakespeare
If you want to find out more about Charles Harris, check out his author website: Charles Harris
- You mentioned Sybil, where do you stand on the allegations that it was faked?
I do know about the allegations and I don’t pretend to have the expertise to pronounce on how authentic Sybil is. (Not that this seems to have stopped other people). My only comment would be that it seems to be very much in line with other descriptions of experiencing DID.
With this disclaimer, I might add that I’m not sure it makes a difference if Schreiber told Mason about the altars she’d seen her exhibit. [‘Alters’ are alternate personalities.] The same happens to Oxnam, who states in his book that he was entirely unaware of the altars until his therapist told him about them. What he was aware of was gaps in his memory.
I’m not even sure if it matters dreadfully if Mason “made up” the altars. In one sense, she did anyway, either unconsciously or consciously. Indeed, we all have altars in our psyche, one way or another. In helping develop writers, for example, I often come across people who are divided in themselves. For example, a writer who says that part of her wants to write novels, but this writer-part is in conflict with another part which wants to devote herself to caring for her elderly mother. Is there really a massive difference between such conflicts and full-blown DID? Or is it a question of degree?