By Leslie Lindsay
I absolutely fell in love with THE MEMORY OF US, a gorgeous historical fiction debut from Camille Di Maio. Her prose is absolutely stunning, the pacing and emotional arc is quite eloquent and moving. I simply couldn’t put the book down until I knew how everything unfolded.
Julianne Westcott is a gorgeous Protestant socialite from a prominent Liverpool family in the midst of WWII. She has everything at her fingertips, including a mother who could only hope to marry her off to a fine, upstanding gentleman worthy of her hand. But Julianne has other plans; she enrolls in nursing school in London, though her parents aren’t 100% behind her.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. When Julianne inadvertently discovers an institutionalized deaf and blind twin brother, she begins visiting him at his place of residence. It’s there that she first lays eyes on the gardener, Kyle McCarthy, an Irish seminarian.
Falling in love, Julianne and Kyle will do all it takes to end up together; but the stakes are high. Julianne has an obligation to her school, Kyle to his vocation, and then there are her parents who forbid any such union.
Grab your coffee (or a spot of tea) and join me and Camille as we chat about THE MEMORY OF US.
Leslie Lindsay: Camille, I really, really loved THE MEMORY OF US. I found I couldn’t put the book down. The pacing was impeccable and the story of Julianne and Kyle really pulled at my heartstrings. What was your ultimate inspiration, the very first kernel that got you excited about this story?
Camille De Maio: Thank you, Leslie! I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. My answer here might surprise your readers. My original inspiration came from dragging my four kids along on errands, and setting my iPod to shuffle while I drove. Out of five thousand songs, it picked “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles, one of my favorites. But this time was a different experience for me. I found myself wondering – who was the lonely priest? Who was the lonely woman? What if they had a history together? And it snowballed from there. The song was released in 1966 – the 50th anniversary is actually this week – and I counted back to their youth, which I set around WWII. So, it’s a story of young love in the shadow of war. I was particularly excited about it when a pivotal scene came to mind – something that changes both of their lives radically – and I couldn’t wait to start putting it on paper.
L.L.: Your characters are vividly rendered, complex, and linked so well throughout the novel. Your sense of place is astute and the story propels the
reader deeper and deeper into the folds of war, love, and family expectations. I’m sort of amazed that this is your first book. Do you have other manuscripts shoved under the bed? Can you talk a bit about the journey to publication?
Camille De Maio: This was my first attempt at a book. And I’d have to say that I consider myself a reader even before a writer. That’s essential, in my opinion. I am a voracious reader, and although I have no formal training in writing, I have hundreds of books that I’ve devoured. So, I think I picked up, without realizing it, a sense of what works in stories. Hope for amateurs everywhere! I do have a second manuscript – this one set in Texas – that will be released in May 2017. I’m deep in edits right now, so I’m going to be a hermit for the next week or so.
I wrote the first draft of THE MEMORY OF US in six weeks, knew nothing about the process, and sent it out to a bunch of agents. Of course, I received just as many rejections. But I used each rejection to understand how I needed to make it stronger. So, between work and kids, I spent six years working and reworking it until the final version, which is draft seventeen. Once I was confident that I had something worth sending in again, I submitted it out to several agents, taking the time to really study their lists, and two were interested in it! I signed with Jill Marsal at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Several months later, we had a book deal with Lake Union, and they have been fantastic to work with at every stage.
L.L.: THE MEMORY OF US is an epic tale, spanning several decades (1930s-1960s), all set in England. How did you decide in which ways to structure this novel? As I’m sure it could have gone lots of different directions.
Camille De Maio: Although the book is not “about” Fr. McKenzie and Eleanor, I did use the song as inspiration for the framework. I set it in Liverpool, the home of the Beatles. A key scene takes place in August 1966, the release date of the song. And, there are lots of little hints for fans of the Beatles to enjoy as they read it. For example, one scene takes place on a bench in front of the cemetery of St. Peter’s Church in Woolton. That is actually the church where Paul McCartney and John Lennon first met. There is also a point in the book where the characters take a trip out to Wales. The towns that they pass through are the towns that the Beatles played in during their only tour through Wales. The setting – time and place – also provided the framework. I loved the research stage of it. My favorite was learning about St. Dwynwyn, who is the patron saint of lovers, like our Valentine, but in Wales. I set a scene there, one that I never intended to write, after reading about her legend, and knowing that I had to incorporate it in to the story.
L.L.: As much as I loved THE MEMORY OF US, I had difficulty placing it in a specific genre. Not that it really matters, does it? Part of me wants to believe the book is historical fiction because its set during WWII, another part of me says it’s romance because of the relationship between Juliana and Kyle. And finally, there’s a bit of mystery in there, too. Does genre matter? And should writers write toward a specific genre, or just tell a good story?
Camille DeMaio: Good question! I’ve had to come up with this description: it’s historical fiction with strong romantic elements. There is a lot more history in it than you usually find in a romance. But, there is more romance in there than you usually find in historical fiction. It was important to me, first of all, to tell a good story. And, as it was set in the past, I wanted the history to be both interesting and accurate. But I didn’t want it to bog the pacing down. This is not a story “about” the war. But, the war does play a role in shaping what happens to the two main characters. More interesting to me was studying the details of the time and place – fashion, culture, speech, etc.
I think we see more and more blending of genres, and it’s a good thing. Because of writing this book, I’ve read more romance than I had in the past. (Although, I’ve learned that I’m a “low heat” reader! Nothing too steamy for me.) And, romance readers have told me how much they enjoyed the history. So, I just believe in telling a good story and not worrying about how to categorize it.
And you’re right – there is a bit of mystery. I’ve read every Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Hercule Poirot that exists. I’m sure that rubbed off on me!
L.L.: I have to admit, I kind of fell in love with Kyle a bit, too. Did he have a similar effect on you? Was there a character that was more fun to write, that seemed to flow most effortlessly? One that was more of a challenge?
Camille De Maio: Yes, I did fall in love with Kyle, and I’m glad you did, too! While this wasn’t a conscious action, I think that as a member of Twilight’s “Team Edward”, I was drawn to a character who is very good, very kind. And, since he was studying for the priesthood, it seemed natural for his character to have these traits and still (hopefully) seem real. My favorite scenes with him were the ones in which he was encouraging Julianne to do the right thing in her relationship with her parents.
Julianne was more of a challenge. She has to have this arc of being a socialite, somewhat vain, all of which set her up for a very big fall. But, in the beginning, I had to be careful to give her these traits and still make her “likeable.” There are a small handful of reviews from readers who don’t like a particular, radical decision she makes in the book. However, not only did it have to happen to propel the story forward, but it was appropriate to the time period. A modern woman with more social resources at her disposal could have made a different choice. But, a woman in ravaged WWII would not have had the same options.
L.L.: In real life, if a seminarian falls in love, how easy is it to leave the vocation? In THE MEMORY OF US, it appeared to be less dramatic than I envisioned.
Camille De Maio: It is not a particularly dramatic event. A man is in the seminary for eight to ten years before becoming a priest, and a big part of that period of time is a chance to discern his calling to this tremendous sacrifice. Perhaps if I had told the story from Kyle’s point of view, there might have been some tough discussions with his teachers at the seminary, but nothing, ultimately, would have stood in his way from the choices he made. He would not have taken final vows for many years.
L.L.: Aside from your job as novelist, you’re also a homeschooling mother to four and you run a real estate business. I’m tired just thinking of it! Yet, there’s something about busy-ness that sort of lights a fire. Can you speak to that please? And what advice would you give to others who want to write, but finds that “life gets in the way?”
Camille De Maio: Isn’t there an expression that says that if you want something to be done, ask a busy person to do it? Maybe that describes me. Although, I am having to learn the art of saying “no”. What I believe in is balance. Now that writing is a big part of my life, my role in our real estate business is changing, and we’ve hired two people to assist with some of that work. And, I make sure that my writing time is early in the morning or late at night, so that it doesn’t take away from my family. In order to bring something in, something has to go. Thankfully, I’m a deep sleeper, and I seem to thrive on less of it. According to my husband, I snore “like a fright train.” Yikes!
As to those who say that “life gets in the way”, I offer a thought, which was told to me by my priest: “You will never find time to do something. You have to make time to do it.” I think this is so true. If you wait until our kids are out of diapers, until there are back in school, until they are out of the house, until you work less hours, etc., you may never write. If writing is a goal, you have to make it fit. Maybe that means waking up a half hour earlier. Maybe that means turning off the TV at night and putting five hundred words on paper instead. It’s all about choices. What are you saying “yes” to that is making you say “no” to writing? Think of this: if you wrote five hundred words a day over the course of a year, you’d have over 180,000 words – that’s about two books! And, ask most writers – once you’re in the groove of your story, five hundred words is a cakewalk. Half hour kind of stuff. (Side note – that doesn’t mean it’s GOOD writing, necessarily. First drafts are notoriously awful. But write them anyway!)
L.L.: What are you working on next? Do you plan to stay with historical fiction?
Camille De Maio: I didn’t set out to write historical fiction, but when I look over all the books I’ve read, I’ve clearly gravitated towards that genre. I do love the research – it gives such wonderful depth to a book. My second one, in fact, is set in Texas in the 1940s in a women’s prison. While reading about that particular time, I discovered that there was an annual prison rodeo, and in that particular women’s prison, there was an all-girls string band that had a national radio following – yet they were all incarcerated! Talk about fodder for a storyline. Alternating chapters are set in modern times as a journalist and a doctor try to discover the truth about what happened to two sisters, one of whom was accused of murdering the other.
I’m editing that one right now, but I have been mulling over my third book. It will be set in New York City between 1890 and 1963, surrounding a very particular piece of that city’s history. I have my structure in mind, but I need to fill it in with characters. I should start working on that in earnest this fall.
L.L.: What is obsessing/inspiring you these days? What keeps you awake at night?
Camille De Maio: Some writers excel when they are in a solitary place, perhaps a writing nook, where they are alone with their imaginations. Other writers (definitely me) do best when they are constantly in different environments. I am an observer, so if I’m traveling and I have my laptop, I cannot keep up with the words that fly from my fingers. So, added to the natural addiction I have for travel, I am constantly thinking about the next place I’d like to go. I’ve traveled to most of the states and four continents. With my first book set in England, the second in Texas, and the third in New York, I think I might be accidentally creating a pattern for myself of writing books that are set in very distinct places.
What keeps me awake at night? Well, as a deep sleeper/snorer, apparently, I’m out as soon as my head hits the pillow. My poor husband – he’ll be in the middle of a conversation with me when the kids have finally gone to bed, and mid-sentence, after being completely coherent, I’ll just pass out in an instant. But – as to what worries me – I would have to say the state of the world. I know that sounds like a Miss America kind of answer. But it’s true now more than ever. It dawned on me the other day that I’ve seen the flag flown at half-staff more days than not in the past few months. Or so it seems. I really want to bring joy and love in to a world that is starved of it right now.
Camille De Maio: I would like for people to know that although my name is on the front of the cover, writing a book BY FAR is not a solitary event. It started with my mom encouraging my dreams as a kid. My dad passing along his enthusiasm for the Beatles. My husband telling me that I could do it when I didn’t think I could. My kids for being patient as I did this. My agent for taking a chance on a debut novelist. My publisher for doing the same. My editors for showings me how it could be better. The cover artist for making it gorgeous. My friends for reading awful first drafts and telling me that it was the best thing ever. My publicist for getting the word out. The book bloggers and promoters (like you!) who write about the books they love. The readers for spending hard-earned money on it, and the ones who take the time to review it. My author friends who understand this crazy life in a way that no one else does. My brother for making my book trailer, and my sister for being a sounding board. If you look at the acknowledgments in the back of my book, I went on and on. But I absolutely must emphasize that this does not all happen in a vacuum. I get all the credit and the mentions, but at every turn possible, I want people to know about everyone who has held me up.
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About the Author: Camille is an award-winning real estate agent in San Antonio who, along with her husband of 19 years, home schools their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She’s lived in Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and California, and spends enough time in Hawai’i to feel like a local. She’s traveled to four continents (so far), and met Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. She just about fainted when she had a chance to meet her musical idol, Paul McCartney, too. Camille studied political science in college, but found working on actual campaigns much more rewarding. She overdoses on goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. “The Memory of Us” is Camille’s debut novel. Her second, “Before the Rain Falls” will be released on May 2, 2017, and is available for pre-order.
[Cover and author image provided by C. Di Maio and used with permsission. Image of St. Peter’s Church in Woolton retrieved from, Ben Franklin quote retrieved from, it takes a village quote from and Liverpool skyline from , all retrieved 7.28.16]