What Brooklyn author Meredith Westgate’s evocative novel does not let us forget
"The Shimmering State" comes out in paperback August 16.
Today we can keep up with thousands of people a minute on social media, use virtual reality technology to transport ourselves anywhere in the world, and yet we can never truly experience someone else’s life. In Meredith Westgate’s novel “The Shimmering State,” Westgate introduces a pill, Memoroxin, that let’s individuals do just that: with one shiny pill, someone else’s memories will become your own.
Brooklyn author Westgate’s novel “The Shimmering State” dives into the world of memory and emerges with a dazzling tale of love, loss and forgetting. “The Shimmering State” is the story of the colliding lives of Lucien, a photographer, and Sophie, a dancer, as they battle addiction to Memoroxin and find themselves at The Center to recover.
The Brooklyn Eagle sat down with Westgate to talk Brooklyn vs. Los Angeles, the power of perspective and film possibilities for the novel. “The Shimmering State” comes out in paperback on August 16th.
Find the podcast of the interview here.
When did you start writing “The Shimmering State?”
It began back in the summer of 2012, and the kernel of it started as a short story. It was much different. It began with the premise, the idea of this treatment, a way of being able to share memories through something like a shimmering pill. Honestly, the inspiration for it really came from watching social media, especially Instagram. I was fascinated, and sort of disenchanted, watching people use their phones to take photos of a meal or a moment that’s special and taking themselves out of it. People sacrifice some of that moment to have the ‘memory’ after. I was interested in, where does that leave us and what would the extreme of that be? The short story was much less grounded, it didn’t have any of the characters that are in the book, and it was more of a heady, abstract idea of the premise. But it wasn’t until when I moved to LA, a year later, that I began to expand it into a novel. I was in LA for the summer and then ended up staying for a full year, and everything clicked into place that this was where it should be based and set. I started to explore not just memory, but identity as performance and the idea of what’s behind the surface of these memories. With social media, we control what we share and curate our own memory, and what I’m exploring is that façade, and how all that falls short. These memories lead to very false narratives of other people’s lives. If only one could experience that moment in their perspective, could you understand what it actually feels like? Or what that moment actually means to someone? And at the same time, I was reading Proust and fell in love his way of writing memory and I started exploring perspective as an involuntary memory and trance of being transported into something visceral. Memoroxin allows you, instead of looking at a photograph or even hearing someone’s memory, to see through the filter of years and years past.
What was it like to take the premise from a short story to such a perspective encompassing book? What was lost and what was gained in expanding?
I really love the form of a novel because it lets you live with the story. I read somewhere that like a novel is a question that you want to ask or explore. And you do it over years and years, and everything that you encounter, read, watch or experience starts to of infiltrate that. Everything becomes part of that world that you’re living in, versus a short story which feels so intentional to me. I found it really liberating once I expanded it into a novel because I could find room for all these different facets of what I was interested in exploring. And a lot of it became about inherently memory, but a lot of it related to grief, loss or loneliness, and these themes started to make it much bigger than just a premise heavy, short story. The life of this book has had so many different versions. I fully rewrote it at least two or three times, and then I was revising each one fully in between. There was an earlier version that was much more of a multi- ensemble with less of a linear movement, so I think the biggest change was paring it down to give it the room to have an arc for Lucien and Sophie.
Speaking of Lucien and Sophie, emotion and pain take such different forms for each of the characters. There is familial love, friendship love and eventually the romantic plotline between Lucien and Sophie that begins at The Center. So, to what extent do you consider the novel to be a love story?
That is a beautiful question. The central arc of the book is a love story between Lucien and Sophie. But I think so much of it is about all the different forms of love that anchor us and that are so important to being a fulfilled and whole person, and the ways that love can just devastate you. I think for Sophie, someone who struggles to connect because she’s so driven and such a perfectionist, what it does it takes for some people open themselves up to that kind of love? Whereas Lucien has been surrounded by such close love with so many women in his life, yet at the same time, he has a lot of trouble connecting with women his own age romantically. I’m also so fascinated by a male character who’s really defined by the women in his life, his mother and his grandmother. For other characters like Dr. Sloane with her daughter Remy, she operates from a place of desperation for love, even if her actions are harmful. I really do love looking at the book as a love story, even though the love story between Lucien and Sophie was something that I found much later on. In the final version, I added the parts at The Center. I thought the novel should move around in perspective, but it should also do the things that memory does, which is interrupt present narratives. As memory moves around, it is juxtaposed against the present reality. Once I started experimenting with that, I found how much Sophie and Lucien needed each other. That was the biggest surprises and treat in the final shape of the book, letting them find each other in that way.
You chose to expand the novel to so many different perspectives in such a beautiful complexity, such as with memories of Florence and Dr. Sloane coming in from the past. What led you incorporate multiple crucial characters and so many different memories?
In part, it is what I love to read. I love books that have conflicting narrators and multiple points of view. Especially in investigating memory, I’m interested in the ways that we assume that our perspective of a moment is somehow the truth, when everyone has their own versions of reality that are often conflicting. It was really important to have all these characters intersecting and sometimes seeing things differently or missing each other. This was one of the things that made it particularly complicated to revise the novel, because of the way Memoroxin is, some characters remember things when others don’t, and some, and once they’ve taken Mem, are not really themselves, and so they can’t operate the same way. Revising the later versions of it was really complicated, because I really had to keep track of who knows what when, and who has now forgotten what when. But it made it so much more interesting for me to play with those things. I think the complexities that that I added to the process of writing it and revising were really what I wanted to work with. It almost was an added bonus, once I got to the point that it got so complicated, it was like “this is what I want to be working with.” There are two characters that aren’t even in this book. Some of the pieces that remain are little glimmers of certain things that are actually the tip of the iceberg of a story that’s not there anymore. You can always cut those things to have this rich little gem that doesn’t have a lot of the work that you’ve done to make it. I don’t think I could write that without having done the stuff that didn’t make it.
You mentioned instances that one character or one individual remembers something entirely different about a moment than another. One of my favorite quotes is when Lucien takes his grandmother Florence’s Memoroxin, and he looks at himself from her perspective many years prior. “He smiles earnestly back at her, at himself, he’s not wearing his signature preteen scowl, not seething with the insecurity he remembers at the time. Who was mistaken or were they both and neither at the same time?” How does the book confront memory as a potentially mistaken reality?
That is exactly what I think is so interesting and yet so tragic about human existence is that we have these narratives that we tell ourselves about who we are or how we present. And you can never really know how other people actually see you. And sometimes that’s really tragic, because maybe other people see you in such a wonderful way, but you’ve got something going on where you don’t understand that. I’ve always thought how potentially wonderful, but like we see with Dr. Sloan, how potentially heartbreaking it could be to really see yourself. We can’t ever step outside of ourselves, and sometimes that is be a real blessing. It would be a curse to understand other perspectives of you, even if they’re kind. The ways that we experience any given moment are so complex that I think the human consciousness is too fragile to stand to feel the layers of other people’s eyes on us. But I also think it could be the key resolving conflict and having more empathy in a much more peaceful world, if we could actually experience a moment in the person’s eyes that we deeply disagree with. I think it would be really hard for people to hate other people. You can see why a pill like this could potentially be so revolutionary, but the dangers of it would be catastrophic.
I remember the moment that Lucien is in the café while he is taking Florence’s Memoroxin, and his consciousness is so far infiltrated with Florence’s memories and perspective that he sees himself differently in the present too. I just thought to myself, finally, a moment where a man understands what it can be like to walk around as a woman. It feels like a gift, even though he is suffering, addicted to Mem and losing himself.
I always like to say, “walk a mile in someone’s shoes,” and I think it would be really fascinating for anyone to be in the body of someone that’s different from how they identify. Sophie, at one point experiences a similar thing when she takes another pill and experiences sex from the opposite gender. We’ll never have access to understanding something so intimate from another perspective. And yet, how mind blowing that would be to have a glimpse of that? There’s the quote at the beginning of the book, “The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes.” At some point, Ray Delaney alludes to that we’ve seen everything, but the only thing we haven’t seen is what it’s like to be someone else. I think that’s something is so relevant today. So many people are struggling with mental health, and it doesn’t matter if you seem to have everything, if there is something you’re really struggling with, there’s no escape from it. Going on a vacation is not going to take you out of your own mind or your own pain. And I think that’s, for example, what Lucien feels. It’s the desperation to get out of the loop that you keep playing in your head. And I think that is something that draws people traditionally to drugs as well. But Mem is the added experience of understanding someone else’s narrative or their story for a moment outside of yourself.
You invented a reality that’s just ever so slightly futuristic, with additions like ‘Drivr’ and other Virtual Reality features into the mix of what is already familiar to us, alongside the threat of climate change with fires and mudslides. Why did you decide to write in this ‘present adjacent’ reality, using present tense and multiple timelines?
I started the book when I was living in LA for a year, and then actually wrote most of it when I was back in New York. But I moved back to LA for a few years before the pandemic, and that was when the wildfires were starting to encroach more than ever on LA. And of course, every year now they have gotten more intense and closer in the city. I remember when I was first there, I was so unsettled by the wildfires, the smoke in the air and seeing ash on your car in the morning or the windowsill, like a layer of black soot. Knowing that that’s in the air and it’s people’s couches, its cars, it’s things burning, not just a bonfire or something. It is upsetting to imagine people’s homes burning, that they’re losing everything, but also to imagine the toxins. I was so unsettled by that. I just remember people that I knew in LA were sort of, like, “it never comes into the city, it’s just kind of a part of just that wildfire season.” I find that so at odds with the other environment in LA, which is the wellness focused and organic lifestyle that is in such contrast. This really informed the revision of the book, and I let that sort of permeate the atmosphere of the book. And I finished the first full draft of the book in 2016 before the 2016 election. The character Ray Delaney became relevant to the Me Too movement, but he was already a bad character in the book. These feelings of dread and power being wielded in dangerous ways just permeated the book in a lot of ways that were not even necessarily intentional. I was riding through feelings of fear and anger over these things. And in terms of the driverless Uber and the VR, I found that inserting something like Drivr as an element in the background was a way to invite people into accepting Memoroxin as something that exists, just like this driverless Uber that might be on the horizon too. A friend of mine, when she read the book, she was like, “I didn’t know they had driverless Uber in LA,” she thought that Drivr was real. The more you insert these little leaps of something that feels like it could already be here, the more likely people are to take that leap to accept Memoroxin. And so much originates in California, so that was always part of the idea that LA would be the start of something that maybe you haven’t heard about in the Midwest or in New York, because it hasn’t made its way over yet. But eventually, most things do kind of come this way.
The idea of a New Yorker that has been transplanted to LA is central to the novel. How does your own experience fit into that as a Brooklynite writing about the West Coast after living there?
That was a really fun part of writing the book because I started as a New Yorker who had moved to LA, a lot like Lucien’s experience, which was a nice outlet for how I was feeling, kind of disoriented and missing New York, but also enchanted. It was very helpful for me to try to make sense of my own feelings about LA while I was living there through Lucien. And then vice versa, I find it really helpful, and somewhat easier, to write about a place when you’re not there. A lot of the parts in LA that are sort of those more enchanted, magical scenes of a party in the Hills or driving through those beautiful winding roads were especially fun to write being back in New York. When you’re not in a place, you can conjure it in memory in a way that lends itself well to writing.
Are you living in Brooklyn currently?
Yes, I really wanted to move from LA because although being there in the pandemic was easy, as you can drive places and be outside really easily, I still missed New York so much. In terms of moving back to Brooklyn, I get so much inspiration writing here. I find it so generative to just be able to walk here. That was always how I would start a project, just walking around the city and exploring new neighborhoods, encountering things that you aren’t expecting. I found that really difficult in LA where you have to drive most places. I found it hard to just wander the way that you do in New York. We’re living in Carroll Gardens, and it’s a very lovely place to walk from and explore other parts of Brooklyn. I think that’s been probably the most exciting thing about being back. I feel like I’m back in such a vibrant city where you’re always seeing something new and around other people, and you just can’t find that anywhere else.
How do you view the book fitting in to the genre of science fiction, and the realm of memory manipulation and AI, etc?
It is a complicated question because I love literary fiction with speculative fiction, and the intersection of the two is some of my favorite writing. I don’t read a lot of straight science fiction that’s very interested setting something further in the distance. What I love about writing something speculative is being able to shift one thing very slightly, and then explore our world today. And I think that at its best, science fiction reveals something about our world today by looking at something in the future. I’m always using character, and Memoroxin is really a way to look at why these different characters are drawn to Mem and what that exposes about them. Each character is either grappling with or revealing something different about themselves by what draws them to Mem. Sophie, for example, being slipped this Mem that unravels something within her too. I’m not interested necessarily in writing something that’s just imagining a dystopian version of the world without using it in that way to develop character.
And are there film possibilities for the book?
I had been working on adapting the book for TV last year, and it got to a point where we ended up not going for the development. Now we’re taking it out again, to see if film would be a better fit than TV. But the exciting thing TV is that I have so many characters, and tangents that didn’t make it into the book. I think there could be so much to explore about the novel’s world and all the different facets of that. I was interested in the other sides to it to like, who gets the privilege of using these pills recreationally without facing punishment for it? In an earlier version, I had someone who was part of the selling of the pills and the ways that he was punished highlighted the privilege of someone like Lucien who finds himself in this rehabilitation center without much struggle in between. There is so much that did not make it into the book that would be fun to explore for film or TV.
Are there any films that you would point to that have dealt with these ideas in some way?
I loved Her. It is beautiful and it also takes place in LA, in a strange future. It is quiet, slow and character driven. That was almost 10 years ago and even today I feel like we’ve gotten closer to it. I also love this film Marjorie Prime that was originally a play. I thought about it a lot when I was writing. The tone of it is very grounded and organic, and it is a really beautiful film. There are three characters in the whole movie, and the main character is an older woman and she’s lost her husband. There is a hologram service for people who have lost a loved one, and you get to choose the age that your loved one comes back in the hologram. I love Station 11, and I think the way they develop the flashbacks from the book is beautiful too. They translated it so well to TV.
I am fascinated by the decision for Sophie’s experience on Memoroxin to be violent and almost thriller-like in nature, as she gains the memories of a violent man. What went into the decision to have her experience be filled with horror?
I always wanted someone’s experience to be and go to that extreme. Memoroxin was created for Alzheimer’s treatments, for people who have suffered from PTSD, or who are maybe in treatment for violent crimes. That is an extreme version of who would be benefiting from this kind of experimental treatment. One of the most dangerous things about using it in that kind of a circumstance would be that these pills are suddenly incredibly dangerous if they are sold unregulated on the street. Whoever is buying it is playing Russian roulette, as you don’t know what you’re getting. And that is part of the thrill for people. But for someone like Sophie who is very sensitive and has been swallowing so much mistreatment as a dancer and a waitress. Just being a young woman, so much of her work and her life is navigating pleasing other people and swallowing her own resentments. I was also interested in exploring female rage, something that a pill could unlock within her, that is that even more terrifying to herself as it excites something that she’s been suppressing. The idea that the pill could sort of lattice itself to her, and pull on those pieces that she’s trying so hard to suppress. What would it be like to truly experience something that takes you out of your idea of what right and wrong is? What would it mean to live with yourself after experiencing something thrilling or so horrible?
The book alludes to something that remains when memory is wiped, Sophie says at one point “the body remembers.” The book tracks the trauma of all the characters, and Dr. Sloane hopes to erase the memories of trauma in order to ‘cure’ the characters. What are your own thoughts on the moral ambiguity of Dr. Sloane’s perspective? Is she a villain for her failures in this pursuit?
I always wanted her to very human, not a maniacal doctor or someone who’s out to ruin the world. I wanted her to be driven by the desire to help, despite what we see, which is how much pain she’s causing, even to her own daughter. When she makes choices for Remy it’s almost like she’s choosing not to see the harm that she’s causing, because she has such a blind spot for needing this to be right. The reality of what we see in the real world is often that the harm that comes from people in power, making decisions that they think are right and not being able to see the potential harm that they cause, but not necessarily being driven by a desire to harm people. When I was first writing the book, and as the years passed, I was always kind of tracking what’s actually happening in that kind of research. When the book came out, there was an article in an academic journal about being able to remove a traumatic memory, especially for people with PTSD. There is such a difference between emotional traumas, and trauma with a capital T. When there is something incredibly traumatic, it can so affect your body. I think there is piece of that in the research, the idea of saving so many people from so much pain and the curse of caring that thing. In terms of what Dr. Sloan advocates for with Lucien, she tries to curate his memories so that he doesn’t have to carry the guilt of not being there for his mother when she when died. That is something that I just can’t imagine. I think we’re built as a compilation of everything we have happy and sad and challenging. But I also feel like if someone felt like they needed to move on, who am I to say that that’s wrong. Even looking at something like Instagram, it’s such a part of our culture today curate what our lives look like.
Writing this book that takes place in an alternate reality in which you play the role of of the psychiatrist, inventing the drug Memoroxin, alongside historian as you trace history intertwined with the personal history of the characters. Was it difficult to wear all those hats?
Writing fiction lets you explore areas that you’re interested in. I love painting, I love dance, and I got to go down a rabbit hole of experimental dance and Gaga and all these things that adds so much to the experience of a story. If you’re a writer, you also get to have all these other careers because you’re writing about those things. But I think certain parts of the novel drew me more towards the photography, painting and dance. I was always gravitating more towards those things than the Dr. Sloane side. In earlier versions, I was trying to figure out how to make the psychology and science aspect seem like enough on the surface, that people will believe how it works. I never wanted to go into the nitty gritty of the treatment, or the extraction process, but I did have to imagine them for myself, just so that the places that it touches on are consistent. Like the tip of the iceberg, that people will believe that there’s a full iceberg underneath, even if they’re only getting a bit of it. That part of it, imagining how this would work and doing research to on the brain and memory, was fascinating, but it was probably the part that felt more like work. Getting to do more research on Martha Graham and all that kind of stuff was a treat that you get to put into a project. I’ve been thinking about that for my next project, where do I want to spend time? What are the things that I love that I want to just spend time learning about and pretending like I’m doing for the time that you’re writing the book? I think that’s another cool thing about the novel is that it is such a hodgepodge of things that maybe seemingly, don’t go together.
Learn more about Meredith Westgate and her work here.
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