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Of Secrets And Science

Of Secrets And ScienceTufts’ Michelle Simons explores the neuroscience of memory and how family stories shape us.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [11.10.05] Memory, Tufts' Michelle Simons has come to realize, is a mystifying thing-especially when it comes to family secrets and stories. The English Department lecturer is currently at work on a nonfiction book about the neuroscience of memory-specifically, she says, "how we remember family stories, and how they shape us."

For Simons-who has written three acclaimed mystery novels under the name Michelle Blake-this venture into nonfiction is a highly personal one.


Simons talks about her decision to write a nonfiction novel

Simons explains what she hopes readers gain from her novels

"There was a family story I wanted to find out more about," explains the Texas native, who teaches creative writing at Tufts. "My family-like many families, as I'm finding out-was quite secretive. A lot of [times], you kind of knew something had happened, but you never knew what-someone had died or so-and-so did this, but no one ever talked about it."

Spurred by her desire to uncover the truth about that particular family story, Simons-who has a longtime interest in science-soon found herself immersed in the broader issues, both emotional and scientific, that arose about memory and family.

"I wanted to find out about this story, and as I started doing that, it [all] became pretty compelling," she recalls. "And then, as I started doing research, I started getting a lot more memories-things I didn't know I remembered. I started thinking, ‘How is this working? How come I didn't know this, but know it now?'"

Answering those questions has been no easy task for the mother of two. "When you write a book, you want it to go like this," Simons says, drawing her hands together neatly. "But with this book, it's going like this!" She flings her hands apart and throws her head back. "I'm really loving it," Simons says, "but it's daunting. It's a lot."

Simons was influenced to make the leap to nonfiction writing by a Tufts colleague: fellow English lecturer Michael Downing, who writes both fiction and nonfiction. Though he's written four novels, his latest book, entitled Spring Forward , explores the complex history of daylight saving time.

"One of the things I noticed is, when he writes nonfiction, he's in the world in a different way," Simons observes of Downing. He and other non-fiction writers, she elaborates, are writing about widely recognized subjects, rather than characters they have created. "So when you do interviews and when you do tours, you can talk about something other than ‘your writing'-which is really fun," she smiles.

"And also, I love science. I do a lot of science reading, and always have," Simons continues. "So [writing a nonfiction book] really had to do with deciding I wanted to be a writer in the world in a slightly different way, and not wanting to just be a fiction writer."

While researching the ways in which her family and other families remember and pass on their pasts, Simons has found that she's not alone in finding her family's history to be riddled with holes.

"I thought that was specific to my family, but of course it's not," says Simons. "Almost every time I describe this [phenomenon], someone says, ‘Oh, my family, too!'"

-- Patrice Taddonio

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