Author Interviews
4:13 pm
Sun June 1, 2014

'Remember Me Like This': A Family Rebuilds In Tragedy's Aftermath

Originally published on Mon June 2, 2014 7:21 am

For all of the novels that have been penned about dramatic kidnappings and abductions, few tell of what life is like after a loved one's return. That's where Bret Anthony Johnston's book, Remember Me Like This, begins.

It follows the Campbell family in a small town in Texas as their son Justin is returned four years after his disappearance. Rather than focusing on the details of the abduction, Johnston tells the story of a family as they struggle to rebuild.

"We don't have a lot of narratives in our collective consciousness of people trying to be a family again, and that was really fascinating to me," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "How do you relate to each other after the worst has happened? And because that book really didn't exist, I had to write it to find out what it would be."

Despite the heavy subject matter, Johnston's goal was to make sure readers don't step away devastated.

"This is a book about being found," he says. He adds, "I think there is a victory in a story being told. I think for this character to be able to have his story told, I think there's hope in that."


Interview Highlights

On getting inside the heads of the characters

The book took me about five or six years to write, and it went through a lot of revisions. And I think every sentence that I revised, the goal was to get deeper into the consciousnesses of these characters. I wanted to know what it would be like for the parents of a kidnapped boy to watch him eat his first meal at the dinner table, to watch him to find out if he still cuts his food with his fork rather than his knife. ... I kept pushing deeper and deeper into the physical details of the story to understand the emotions of the family members.

On not including details of what happened to Justin during the years he was held

I really didn't include it because I wanted to respect the character. I wanted to spend most of the time on the page with his family and not with what had happened to him. I understand that the reader is going to be curious about it, but I didn't leave it out for any kind of tactical reason. I think the information is in the book, it's just there in small, obscure, kind of off-the-page ways. ...

That was one of the big surprises in the book for me. I thought I would need more of that, but come to find out, it had been with us the whole time. We all knew what was going on. So when it actually appears in the book ... it's kind of a knockout punch. But I don't think we could have endured any more. And I certainly didn't want to put any of the characters through any more than they'd already been through.

On how skateboarding has influenced his life

I've been a very serious skateboarder for over two decades. I've come to believe that skateboarding has made me better at every part of my life. I've taken so many hard falls ... that the idea of taking a sentence through hundreds upon hundreds of drafts, that doesn't phase me in the least. And if I get banged up and bruised in the process — as a writer or as a skateboarder — it's still worth it at the end of the day. It stills feels like I'm doing something that matters.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Roth. As we heard at the top of the show, family and friends of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl continued to celebrate today. After five years of captivity in Afghanistan, the soldier now has the to rebuild his life. Rebuilding a life after a long captivity is the subject of the new novel "Remember Me Like This." I spoke with the author, Bret Anthony Johnston, earlier this week. "Remember Me Like This" starts where most books about kidnappings end. The story focuses on the Campbell family, who live in a small town in Texas. Four years after his disappearance, their son Justin is found only a few miles away.

JOHNSTON: This is a book about being found. And from Elizabeth Smart to Michelle Knight and the other women who were recovered in Ohio, we root for the victims. We relate to them. What I've found, though, is we don't have a lot of narratives in our collective consciousness of people trying to be a family again. And that was really fascinating to me. How do you relate to each other after the worst has happened? And because that book didn't really exist, I had to write it to find out what it would be.

RATH: The boy who is abducted and returned to his family - his name is Justin. He is 11 when he's abducted and 16 when he returns. You know, aside from the process of writing it through, how were you able to get inside the heads of people who have been through this kind of extreme emotional experience - you know, the psychology of all of it?

JOHNSTON: Well, the book took me about five or six years to write. And it went through a lot of revisions. And I think every sentence that I revised, the goal was to get deeper to the consciousnesses of these characters. I wanted to know what it would be for the parents of a kidnapped boy to watch him eat his first meal at the dinner table, to watch him to find out if he still cuts his food with his fork rather than his knife. I wanted to know what it would be like for strangers to come up and ask him for his autograph because he's a local celeb. I kept pushing deeper and deeper into the physical details of the story to understand the emotions of the family members. So how did I do it? I just worked as hard as I could.

RATH: The abduction and the return affect all of the family members in profound ways. You talked about how it's about finding yourself and they're all kind of finding themselves in this process.

JOHNSTON: That's exactly right. And I think they're also finding each other. When Justin was missing, the family splintered in a really profound way. They all tried to take shelter in different places. Justin's mother becomes obsessed with trying to save a bottlenose dolphin that has stranded itself on the beach. His father is a history teacher. And he's really struggling with the fact that he doesn't know his son's history. There's a period of many years that he will never have access to. One of the things that the book really tries to explore is how do you return to being a family? What happens if those loved ones are changed by the experience?

RATH: You know, so many of these stories of abduction - they get kind of the tabloid treatment in the media. There's a sorted fascination with the true crime details of the abduction. You stay away, really, from all of that. Was that a conscious move on your part?

JOHNSTON: It was a conscious move. I really didn't include it because I wanted to respect the character. I wanted to spend most of the time on the page with his family and not with what had happened to him. I understand that the reader is going to be curious about it. But I didn't leave it out for any kind of tactical reason. I think the information is in the book. It's just there in small, obscure, kind of off the page ways.

RATH: And it gets an interesting reader response, at least with me, because, close to the end of the book, one of the side characters actually mentions some of the horror that Justin went through. And it's just one line talking about how he had been assaulted routinely. But when you hear it - just that one line - it's devastating.

JOHNSTON: It is. And that was one of the big surprises in the book for me. I thought I would need more of that. But come to find out, it had been with us the whole time. We all knew what was going. So when it actually appears in the book, it's kind of a knockout punch. But I don't think we could have endured any more. And I certainly didn't put any of the characters through any more than they'd already been through.

RATH: You know, this is a family going through a devastating experience. And, in some ways, even by the end of this book, they're just starting the emotional ordeal. But you don't leave us with a devastated feelings. There's a real feeling of hope.

JOHNSTON: Well, I really appreciate you saying that and I'm very proud of that. I think, there is a victory in a story being told. I think, for this character to be able to have his story told - I think, there's hope in that. I hope there is.

RATH: Maybe shifting gears here, but before you were a novelist, you had a career as a skateboarder, right?

JOHNSTON: I wouldn't say that I had a career. But I've been a very serious skateboarder for over two decades. I've come to believe that skateboarding has made me better at every part of my life. I've taken so many hard falls that the idea of taking a sentence through hundreds upon hundreds of drafts - that doesn't phase me in the least. And if I get banged up and bruised in the process as a writer, or as a skateboarder, it still feels like I'm doing something that matters.

RATH: Bret Anthony Johnston's novel is "Remember Me Like This." Bret, thank you.

JOHNSTON: Thank you, Arun. I can't thank you enough for having me. And thank you to your listeners. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.