The Big Idea: Daniel O’Malley
There’s an observation, made by humorist Robert Benchley, that says that a man may do remarkable things, so long as it’s not the thing he’s supposed to be doing at the time. Daniel O’Malley has put that into practice — from a series of boring meetings has come the idea that animates his novel The Rook. And the idea? Well, let’s just say it’s something like identity theft, only much cooler and with more intriguing implications. O’Malley will explain it to you now.
How well could someone fake being you?
Put aside the issues of looking like you, or having your fingerprints, or matching your voice. Those things are taken care of. But how well could they walk into your place of employment, wearing your clothes (and your body), and conduct your business, without anybody suspecting that there was something extremely suspicious going on?
The reason I initially asked myself this question is that, in the course of my education and my career, I’ve had to attend a lot of meetings. And I tend to get bored during meetings. Not every meeting, you understand, but a lot of them. And when I’m bored, I will occasionally pretend that I’ve just been placed into my body, and now must pass for myself. It’s not necessarily the most professional of pastimes, but it keeps me entertained for a little while. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that, in order to take someone’s place as them, to take over their life, you’d really, really need to plan ahead.
Now, personally, I like to plan ahead. I don’t enjoy flying by the seat of my pants. I’m not the kind of person who, on a vacation, will just breeze into a town, and assume that a bed will present itself. This may be the result of my once failing to book accommodation in New York City during a layover, and ending up sleeping in the airport. I was woken up by a security guard who ordered us to move on (‘us’ being me and the homeless gentleman who had apparently curled up next to me while I was asleep), and I spent the rest of the night drowsing fitfully in one of those chairs where you sit when someone is polishing your shoes.
In any case, I like to plan ahead. The idea of planning out everything you’d need to take over someone else’s life seemed like a cool idea to me.
In my novel The Rook, a woman with no memories takes on the identity of her former self, a woman named Myfanwy Thomas. Myfanwy Thomas (the former) knew that she would be losing all her memories. She also liked to plan ahead. She has left behind letters and files and dossiers, prepping her successor for the mission of, well, being Myfanwy Thomas. Also for the mission of figuring out who has betrayed her and stolen her memories.
This was the big idea, out of which everything else spiraled. It kept prompting questions. How could Myfanwy Thomas know that her memories were going be stolen? For that matter, how can you steal someone’s memories, anyway? And how many suspects can there be wandering around for whom memory theft is a viable modus operandi? And who the hell are these people? And why don’t we (the normal people) hear about them? And what do they do all day?
Seriously, I had no idea what the answers were going to be when I started writing this book. The first question in particular, gave me some real problems, even though it ended up defining what sort of book it was going to be.
So, Myfanwy Thomas (the one with amnesia) has to come into work, pretending to be her former self. Naturally, work ain’t a normal place of business. When you’re Myfanwy Thomas, you’re a high-ranking commander in the Checquy, a secret Government organization that fights (and is staffed by) the supernatural. If you’re masquerading as her, you’ve got a lot of high-level responsibilities. Plus, you also have those first-day-at-work nerves, compounded by the fact that you’re faking pretty much everything. Which is a feeling that everyone has probably experienced at one point or another. I was able to tap into some pretty gut-churning memories when writing those parts.
And it isn’t just the big things, like dispatching troops, or briefing the Prime Minister. It’s trying to keep track of the multitude of little things that make us who we are. How you like your coffee. How you interact with specific people. How you sign your name. How you activate your supernatural ability to control others. Can you stay in character all the time? And for how long? And really, what proportion of who you are is defined by what you remember, by your experiences? And how long can you angst about all that while Belgian alchemists are invading the nation?
In the course of answering all these questions (and many others, which insisted on presenting themselves), I wrote The Rook.