Preview: The Memory of My Shadow
Some backstory on how this novel came to be
I’m so excited to be introducing you to a story I’ve spent a lot of time with for the past five years. It’s been a mostly solo journey up to now and I can’t tell you how good it is to have some company for the rest of the trip. Designing the cover, producing and performing the audiobook version along with a musical score, and video trailer has been and continues to be deeply satisfying for my DIY/OCD tendencies.
In this post, I’ll share “the pitch” for the novel so you can get a sense of what it’s about. I’ll also share some of the ideas that inspired me to write the book and influenced the themes that emerged. As you will see, there are some heavy themes here, but I promise you, Dear Reader, I’ve not forgotten that my primary job is to entertain you. After years of working in user experience designing software and performing as a musician, I never forget that the meter is running when you have the precious attention of an audience. I think you’ll enjoy this ride.
The Back Cover Pitch
It is the year 2052. Artificial Intelligence has arrived and already become big business. Magdalena is a brilliant and tenacious computer scientist who led the A.I. charge and profited greatly when she founded Commune, the company that successfully planted Digital Companions, or DCs, into the heads of most of the world’s population. But at the height of her success, she mysteriously walks away from it all.
From a remote compound deep in the mountains of North Carolina, Magdalena writes her story with the help of her latest creation, Meela, a DC imbued with the personality and emotional intelligence of a human. Magdalena’s obsession with mapping the personalities of real people to DCs is fueled by a longstanding obsession that is far more than scientific curiosity. At sixteen, she survived the deadliest school shooting in American history—and the shooter was her twin brother, Joe, who died in the aftermath. When Magdalena begins mapping her latest model, a charismatic West Coast artist named Evan, a confluence of events forces her to confront her motivations for her work. But is it too late? The virtual monster she has created could prove to be a destroyer of worlds, just like her brother, whom she simultaneously reviles and mourns.
“The Memory of My Shadow” is an exploration of consciousness and technology, the origins of violence, and the price it exacts from those in its wake. The story unfolds through the eyes of a boundary-breaking woman at her breaking point as she exposes the wiring of the human brain and its complicated connection to the heart.
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It Sounds Like Sci-Fi, Sort of
I didn’t set out to write science fiction. While I love the genre, I just don’t think I’m smart enough to write it. But also, much of the writing leaves me cold because it rarely attempts to engage the emotional understory of the characters which is what I enjoy reading and writing most.
I’ve earned my living for a quarter of a century working with computers in a variety of roles and for this reason, had a front-row seat to our ever-evolving relationship with them. From early skeuomorphic interface designs and dorky little assistants like Microsoft Word’s Clippy to the present where we have 24-hour in-home surveillance from Amazon Alexa and the OpenAI Chat GPT engine that could easily write this post for me, we have an insatiable drive to push our relationship with computers to the next level. Many smarter people than me are surprised and more than a little afraid of how much faster things are moving than early predictions. I wanted to not just explore this theme on its surface, but to dig into our underlying intentions to understand what it is we’re searching for in our pursuit to create artificial intelligence.
This led me to think deeply about the nature of consciousness. What is it? Where does it begin? How can we even define who or what has it and more importantly, what does not? This led me to another jumping-off question. Why is it impossible for anyone to write a utopian story in a future where we coexist with artificial intelligence? Answer: because we are warring, violent, and destructive creatures. How could we make something in our own image that would not be the same or worse?
Still, I wanted to try. I wanted to try to write an optimistic human story of love and loss that just happened to involve A.I. But then there was another school shooting. And another one.
The Epidemic We Don’t Want to Discuss
When the Columbine Shooting happened in 1999 I was the father of a three-year-old and after giving up on making a go of it as a musician professionally, I was in my first legit computer job. That day in the office alongside my cubemates, I followed the chilling story as it unfolded on our microwave-oven-sized CRT monitors. We experienced the same crushing disbelief, fear, and hopelessness that was just the opening act for what would come a couple of years later with 9/11. How could this be happening? Why is this happening? Over two decades later, we are still watching these shootings happen in our schools and restaurants, and shopping malls and we are still asking these questions with no satisfying answers.
From the time I was eighteen and the first Gulf War was still just saber rattling, I registered as a conscientious objector. I’ve never owned a gun. I understand all the arguments. I grew up in Boone, North Carolina. I hold to the simple belief that violence begets violence and always will. If I’ve lost you at this point, Dear Reader, that’s okay. This book might not be for you.
If you’re still reading, I will say that the continued escalation of mass shootings, particularly ones in schools has deeply affected me in ways I don’t think I can fully explain. The event that drove me to pull this in as a theme for my novel was the Parkland School shooting, not because it devasted me, but because it didn’t. Like so many other people, I had become completely desensitized to these events. It was a what-the-fuck moment for me a day later as I actually processed what had happened and came to accept my initial tepid response to such an atrocity.
I began to see a distinct relationship between the themes of A.I. and gun violence and the story began to form in my mind. But who should tell it?
My Feminine Side
I had a strong feeling from the beginning about not wanting to tell this story from the perspective of a man, which is unfortunate because I am one, well mostly. I think in many ways I’ve identified more strongly with women than men in my life. It’s not women who have declared war or shot up schools historically. This has been the work of men. For this story, grounded in the dark works of men, I thought it would be best told through the eyes of a strong woman.
I did a considerable amount of hand-wringing with this decision and I continue to as I record the audio narration. I have strong concerns about appropriation and attempting to speak for someone with an identity different from mine. But ultimately, I believe art, and writing by extension is an act of moving outside of ourselves, making the attempt to understand someone else’s perspective. It’s why I love writing. Being able to lose yourself in another person, even a fictional one is a transformative experience. So, Magdalena was born and the story began to unfold faster than I could type it some days.
Beyond casting the first-person narrator as a woman, there were other aspects of gender I wanted to explore in the novel. Most notably, I created the character Henri Choo, Magdalena’s quirky and eccentric business partner who happens to be non-binary. I can’t explain why I was drawn to do this, but I began to hear Henri’s voice and it was irreverent and funny and I loved them so much I wanted to keep going. For some perspective, it’s important to know that I grew up in a time and place where a person who defied traditional gender roles did not even exist and if they did, they would be in mortal danger. Little did I know as I was completing the first draft of this book my nineteen-year-old was working up the courage to come out to me as trans.
At a conscious level, I had no idea my child was struggling under such an enormous burden, so her coming out was a complete surprise and began an emotionally powerful journey for us both. Watching her transition and grow into the woman she always was has been one of the great gifts in my life. Having her home with me through the pandemic allowed us the time and space to have long conversations and slow time making food together, reading, walking, and watching television.
As I look back at when I started to write the character of Henri, I realize that my artist self knew somehow what was to come and was guiding me to explore the ideas of gender before my conscious self was even aware. I’ve found that this happens a lot in my work. I will write about something long before I actually feel it or experience it. It’s strange and curious.
Into the Woods
The last important ingredient in this story is the setting, specifically the mountains of North Carolina. The place I will always consider home. While I love being in midtown Atlanta for all the cultural things it has to offer and the fact that it’s a safe place for my daughter to be, I deeply miss the quiet of the woods.
There is no better inspiration for art than nature and I am a sucker for writers like Peter Heller who make nature a character rich with personality and detail in their stories. I wanted that for this book which is so much about technology and the works of man. Having Magdalena live out in the woods and nature be a huge part of her daily life provided a nice juxtaposition and relief to the story. It allowed it to breathe.
Get Ready, Here We Go
That’s more than enough preamble I think. Hopefully, this has given you some confidence in the novel and gotten you a little bit excited about jumping into this journey with me. I will be going along with you as I will be narrating the chapters as they drop weekly. If I know myself, I will likely be making edits to the text even as I commit it to audio! The joys and tyranny of doing this on my own.
Thank you so much for your support of my work and I sincerely hope that you will enjoy this story that has given so much to me in the process of bringing it to you. You can expect the first installment in your inbox on Monday.