A couple years ago, I wrote an article about a bizarre competition called the USA Memory Championships, in which "mental athletes" (that's really what the competitors call themselves) memorize decks of playing cards, poems, pages of random numbers, and much else. One thing led to another, and a guy named Ed Cooke, the second-ranked mnemonist in the United Kingdom, ended up taking me under his wing.
Ed became my coach and mentor and taught me everything he knew about the art of memory. A year later, I competed in the contest as a sort of exercise in participatory journalism. I wanted to find out what separated these incredible memorizers from normal people like me. But my experiment went completely haywire and I unexpectedly won the championships. Then I went to the World Memory Championships in London as the official representative of the United States.
I was in way over my head, and I'm sorry to say I gave the world a miserable impression of American memory. But I did beat the French guy.
What interview stood out in the process of researching and creating this story?
The afternoon I spent with EP was a real revelatory experience for me. Memory is the essence of personhood. You can't understand just how true that is until you meet someone who has no memory at all.
Describe the process of finding the different individuals whose memory you write of in the story.
When I first read about AJ, my initial reaction was this must be a hoax. People like AJ aren't supposed to exist. She defies everything I thought I knew about memory. And yet, her talents are very real.
AJ is an extremely private person, and it took several months of emails just to get her to talk to me on the phone. Eventually she agreed to meet me near her home in California. We totally hit it off.
I won the memory championship, but she's the real queen of memory.