Title: Black River Falls
Author: Jeff Hirsch
Publication Date: July 5, 2016
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Format: Hardcover, eBook, audiobook
Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Cardinal has escaped the virus that ravaged his town, leaving its victims alive but without their memories. He chooses to remain in the quarantined zone, caring for a group of orphaned kids in a mountain camp with the help of the former brutal school bully, now transformed by the virus into his best friend. But then a strong-willed and mysterious young woman appears, and the closed-off world Cardinal has created begins to crumble.
What research did you do for your book? Especially involving a virus that wipes memories.
When you write a book about a small town that’s quarantined due to an outbreak of a virus that causes amnesia, you’re definitely setting yourself up for a bit of research. Luckily, I’m still close to a good friend from high school who grew up to be a professor of biology. He’s kind of become my official science advisor. (Side note to all you aspiring writers out there, especially writers of genre fiction: Befriend. Scientists. It pays off big time.) For Black River Falls he hooked me up with a couple friends of his on the neuroscience side of things who were nice enough to let me pick their brains with abandon.
The most interesting thing I learned was just how little we really understand about how memory, or the brain for that matter, actually works. Favorite quote from one of my scientist sources: “…hey, it’s the brain, there are so many unknowns that anything is possible.” There’s literally nothing better you could say to a writer!
That said, there are a few things we’re reasonably sure of, or at least sure enough that I felt comfortable including them in the book. The first is that there are three basic categories of memory: episodic, semantic and procedural.
Episodic is what most of us probably think about when we think about memory. It’s a kind of autobiography that lives inside your head. That time you and your whole family took a road trip to the Grand Canyon. The day you met your first love. The clown that performed at your sixth birthday party and scarred you for life. It’s events, times and places.
Semantic memory deals with things that would be considered common knowledge within whatever culture you’re a part of. Your name. The names of your family members. Who the president is. Basic math. Knowing that we live on a planet called Earth and that the big burning ball of gas in the sky is the sun. You probably don’t have any specific memory of learning these things; you just know them. It’s as if certain ideas are simply in the air and you absorb them.
Procedural memory is like your muscle memory. It’s things you’ve learned to do through repeated practice and now do automatically. How to walk. How to ride a bike. How to tie your shoes. How to play an instrument. Things like that.
In Black River Falls I wanted the amnesia virus to wipe out all of a characters episodic memory and some, but not all, of their semantic memory. Their procedural memory would remain intact. At first I was a little nervous that this might seriously stretch credibility but luckily science was there for me. (Go science!) My source explained that this could be possible because of the way memory is stored.
Typically we think of memory as being like a single lock box nestled deep in our brains. When we want to access a memory the box opens and all the details are retrieved. If memory did work this way I would’ve been in trouble since that would have meant that memory loss would be an all or nothing kind of thing. Lucky for me, it turns out that this is not the way it works. As best as we understand it, memories are stored throughout the brain in a diffuse web of neurons. When the right combination of neurons are triggered to fire you get a specific memory in all its richness. Episodic memory and semantic memory are separate but they’re generally stored fairly close together in this web so it becomes possible to lose one or the other, both, or some combination of the two. Problem solved!
My favorite, slightly terrifying, thing I learned in my research? I thought the idea of a virus that causes amnesia would be the big sci-fi idea of the book, something a little crazy and implausible that readers would just have to accept in order to continue on with the story. Not quite. My science friends assured me that viruses could theoretically be engineered, or naturally evolve, to do virtually anything. That’s one of the things that makes them so scary. In fact, there’s even a precedent for a virus that, among other things, causes memory loss—the herpes encephalitis virus. Who knows, maybe with a little genetic tweak here and there the Black River Falls’ amnesia virus could be headed our way…
Meet The Author
Here are some things about me.
I live in an extremely Brazilian section of an extremely Greek neighborhood—Astoria, Queens, which is just to the right of Manhattan. (That’s as you face Manhattan. If you were, say, lying on your back in the middle of Central Park with your head in a northerly position, we would be to your left) I live there with my wife who has a blog and our two cats who do not. One day I hope to have a very large dog that I can name Jerry Lee Lewis.
I used to write plays (I actually have an MFA in it, which is currently number 8 on US News and World Report’s annual list of the top twenty most useless masters degrees) and now I write books for teens. I’ve written two. One was about a girl who wanted to be a rock star and could graciously be called a learning experience.
The second, is The Eleventh Plague and it comes out Sept. 1, a fact I still find pretty amazing.
3 winners will receive a finished copy of Black River Falls
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