A few years ago I was reading a women’s magazine and came across an article written by two adult women—sisters—who’d been raised by a mother suffering with Bipolar Disorder. They related how when they were as young as six and eight years of age, they were responsible for getting dressed and fed and finding their way to school. As a mother of two, this horrified me. I couldn’t imagine how traumatic this must have been for both the girls and what far reaching consequences it would have.
The story haunted me and I knew I had to use it in a book. I just needed the right book to come along. As with all story ideas, they need to simmer on my mental back burner for a while so that the flavors can strengthen and I have the chance to add more elements to make the story richer.
At about the same time I read the article about the two sisters, my own children entered their teenaged years and a whole new dimension to sibling rivalry erupted in our house. I bought a puppy to help me deal with it (but that’s another story entirely) and as writers often do, threw my emotions and their erratic behavior into that simmering pot along with the two girls raised with a bipolar mother, and out came the central plot for The Memory or Water. What if? I asked myself. What if two siblings are raised by a mother with a serious mental illness and become half of the other’s soul because of the experience? But what if something terrible happens and the sibling rivalry that has always stewed between them erupts and tears them apart for ten years? And what would happen if they were forced to reopen old wounds and bring the darkest memories of their past to the surface in order to save a life?
And then I tried to do what I attempt to do with each novel—I stepped out of my comfort zone to write about something completely unfamiliar to me and made the protagonist of The Memory of Water, Marnie Maitland, an avid sailor. She’s been living in the Arizona desert for ten years, far away from the ocean and her Lowcountry childhood home. To understand what Marnie once loved so much and what she now fears, I faced my own fear of deep water and took sailing lessons. I can’t say that I’m a proficient sailor now, only that I can at least understand what a thrill it can be to trick the wind into moving your boat, and the unpredictable strength of the sea.
Ultimately, this is a story of two sisters both united and divided by their love for their mother and for each other, of the family tragedy that is mental illness, and the power that forgiveness has to heal the past.
Karen White is the author of the fiction novel, THE MEMORY OF WATER. You can visit her website at www.karen-white.com.