In her first novel, the high-concept thriller Yesterday, Felicia Yap explores memory and its effects on relationships. Half the book's characters are "Duos," who can only remember the last 48 hours. The remaining characters remember even less; "Monos" only recall yesterday. While characters constantly write in journals ("iDiaries") to save present details for future review, in many ways their lives are a constant surprise.
Yap's ideal creative environment shares characteristics with her fictional world. She writes best when she's on the move, in impersonal public spaces that hold no memories. "My favorite writing venues are on a train, on planes, I've tried writing on busses," she told Spine. "When you're traveling you're always in an unfamiliar and unexpected environment, and for me that triggers ideas." She also appreciates the defined temporal boundaries travel provides. "You know your journey will take, say, two hours. That gives you a deadline."
Travel earns credit for Yesterday's very inception. Yap was in transit to a ballroom dance session with her partner Alex when the question at the heart of the book popped into her head: How do you solve a murder when memory only stretches as far back as a day?
Yap was on hiatus from her work as history lecturer, focusing on research and writing academic papers. She had time and space for thinking, and so she refused to let the question sit. "I started writing the next day and it was quite exploratory at first. I went to a café the next morning and just started writing. I was curious to see if I could answer this question as a story. In my case, I worked out the fine details as I went along. "
Some of the book's pivotal scenes, crucial to the novel's exploration of love and memory, appeared as Yap flew between the UK and North America. The final twist arrived in Yap's mind as she rode the train between London and Winchester. As Yap travelled, so too did she set her four main characters on trips of one sort or another. "I deliberately sent all my characters on journey. There's an arc that they all go through.
Though Yap began writing from the viewpoint of Claire, a housewife, she ultimately wrote the book from four perspectives. As she created, she received valuable insight from her writing instructor Richard Skinner and classmates at Faber Academy, a literary educational offshoot of UK publishing house Faber & Faber. One of her biggest challenges came not from her high concept or multiple POV streams, but from creating a believable world to hold her complex characters. Again, travel boosted her process.
"When you're on the move, when you've got a journey, you pick up small details on the way." Those everyday elements, Yap believes, are what transform a sharp concept into a fully realized story. "What really matters are small details which are relevant to the characters. They make a novel alive to the reader, make it sing, make it resonate."
Yap spent about a year spinning her narrative before seeking agents. As part of her Faber coursework, she and her classmates read a passage of their novels in progress to a roomful of agents. More than 20 agents followed up with Yap, but she told them her novel wouldn't be ready for a few months. Then she hyper-focused and travelled … a few miles.
"In hindsight, what worked well for me was single-minded determination at the very last phase of writing, making sure I got everything the best I could possibly get it. The last phase just before I sent my manuscript, I checked into a hotel about 20 minutes down the road from where I live. I was there for about a week."
"In hotel rooms you can just concentrate on the manuscript," she said. "It's an environment with no distractions. It removes you from routine, from repetition, which happens to me when I'm at home. … Being physically present in a space which is not yours is quite conducive to the writing process." The absence of the familiar allowed Yap to sink into the world she created.
After a week, she finished Yesterday, checked out of the hotel, and froze. "I checked out at noon and I was too terrified to send it out to anyone. Finally, at five o'clock, I sent it to eight agents from the hotel lobby and went home." Geller responded the next day at noon, Yap signed with him, and Yesterday arrived in bookstores last August.
Yap's currently tackling a schedule full of book events, which means more travel, which means time to work on her next project: Today. The book focuses on one of Yesterday's four main characters, a detective who only remembers the last 24 hours, but pretends as if he remembers the last 48. She set the book 15 years before Yesterday, and noted "it was fun to rewind the clock."
She's also just teamed with Curtis Brown to award the first Yesterday scholarship, allowing an aspiring writer who might not otherwise be able to afford it, the chance to take a writing course in London or online. Yap's PhD was funded by a scholarship, and she's happy to pay it forward. "I understand personally what a difference generosity makes."
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Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.