picture ted bundy with a whisk and a head of red hair

When you ask me what influenced the creation of a novel about intergenerational mental illness and abuse, our sexist perception of the “good girl”, and the lengths children will go to forge a family, I offer this…influence doesn’t have a single point of origin.

 

1.

Listening to Ted Bundy for two days in a cold room in Southern California does things to you. You play the interviews over and over until Bundy’s slow, assured drawl beings to disturb you because it’s oddly comforting. You’re surprised by his voice, the ease, and coolness of it. The patrician charm of it. How he considers his words before he says them, how he hits his consonants like a melody. For a moment, divorce yourself from the man who took meticulous care of the skulls he collected, how he witnessed the skin pale and crack. If you can forget the monster that is Ted Bundy, you might think to yourself that this is the sort of man you’d want to meet. Remember, Bundy was a man who once studied law. Bundy saved countless lives as a volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline.

There exists no binary. Watch him. He’s witty, self-deprecating, and beguiling.

Let’s just get a map out, he says when asked to recall where he buried the remains of the women he murdered. Let’s see what we have. We have to get down to business here. I want to be as specific as I can be. Was it a burial, an officer asks. Yes, yes, a burial, Bundy affirms. I gave them a burial.

This is the savagery of the psychopath: the ease in which they assimilate and shift masks based on whom they need to manipulate. They’re brilliant at mimicry. Studies suggest they have the capacity for empathy; it’s just a muscle they willfully allow to atrophy. It’s easier to feel nothing that bears the weight of guilt, sorrow, remorse, compassion, and empathy. It’s easier to be cruel and it’s work to be kind.

When I write I start from the place of a character. I build out an entire person, the complexities of their world, and I follow what they do on the page. For my novel, Follow Me Into the Dark, I knew almost all of my characters before I got to the page. When I created Kate, the educated, genteel, soft-spoken baker, she was only fully realized after I locked myself in a room with Ted Bundy. Because it’s horrifying when the kind person you’ve known for years, the blushing girl behind the counter serving your muffin, is actually callous and calculating; she’s someone who takes inordinate pleasure in the depraved, feels joy when others are suffering. It’s scarier when you don’t see your villain coming.

This is what all those women must have thought. When Bundy feigned broken limbs and disability to lure women to his car, they probably thought this is someone who is in pain rather than a monster who delights in inflicting it. Imagine the space between Bundy, the charming, handsome man on crutches pleading for help and the man who takes a lead pipe to your head. That’s the terror.

It was only when I met Ted Bundy through a computer screen did I see Kate, a woman who uses a veneer of innocence and society’s sexism to navigate through monstrous acts, relatively unscathed.

2.

Who didn’t fall in love with Alice Morgan, a prodigy who studied dark matter distribution and murdered her parents and dog just to see if she could get away with it? A brilliant woman, a player of games, although I imagine that Vegas would fail to challenge and amuse her because she’s someone who would usurp the adage the house always wins. Alice Morgan would’ve torched the joint before the first hand was even dealt.

I struggled with sex in my book. How much of it do my characters use to get what they want? Basic Instinct bored me because it was all sex and no intrigue. There are four women in my book, all in various stages of beauty and undress, and while some of the characters use sex as an obvious weapon and as bait, some, like Alice, simply offer a suggestion of it. Sex is not on the table but it’s not entirely off, either. It’s one of many weapons in her arsenal that she’d use if and when the occasion called. At first glance, perhaps you wouldn’t think Alice to be conventionally hot (personally, I’d disagree) and maybe her body wouldn’t put you on pause, but there’s something about her that sucks you in. Like a black hole. Her ferocity and intellect are bewitching. However, it’s that ease — like Bundy and fly tape: a seemingly harmless object that will seduce, trap, and kill you — that excites you. There’s something sexually thrilling in that dichotomy (the harmless and the murderous), which made Alice an easy model for two of my characters, doppelgangers Kate and Gillian.

3.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the old deaf artist who painted savagery on his walls. There was a need to correct the serene and sublime, to undo the harm that portraits of refined gentry had done, and the artist was something of a fakir drawing out the barbaric. A still-beating heart held in one hand and a scissor in the other. The artist made a mural of the macabre, replete with Viejas conjuring, a Sabbath, and a mad Greek devouring the limbs of his newborn. The child is rendered in a chilling white, but all I can remember is the cavern that was the father’s mouth. — From Chapter 1 of my novel.

Years ago I visited the Prado during a storm. All because I wanted to see Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings. Late in life, Goya painted 14 paintings of madness and the macabre on the walls of his home. They represented his fear of insanity, his bleak view of humanity, and the fulfillment of our darkest urges. Imagine being greeted with the barbaric and terrifying when you stepped into someone’s dining or living room.

Possibly the most iconic of the Black Paintings is a portrait of Saturn devouring his son. I remember standing in front of the canvas for nearly an hour, mesmerized by something so utterly horrifying, but at the same time I thought of something different. What if Saturn was protecting his son from the evil and treachery of mankind?

It’s the dual nature of murder as hate and murder as sacrificial love that drove me to write some of the horrible things the mothers in my novel do to their children. Many of the characters in Follow Me Into the Dark suffer from mental illness. When Ellie is temporarily institutionalized for trying to bathe an infant Kate in bleach, she rationalizes her heinous act as one of love:

In the morning, I tell the doctors that they’ve got it all wrong; I don’t hate my daughter. There will come a day when I will have to hand her over, when she will emigrate from my husband’s house to her husband’s house, and her name will change and her body will breed, and on it goes. The incident with the bleach was my attempt to scrub the man out of her. Wipe the slate clean.

“Don’t you see,” I say. “The thing with the bleach. What I’m trying to tell you. What you need to know is this: I’m trying to get my daughter back to zero, but I ended up burning her. No one gets it; no one wants to.”

They are wrong, of course, unimaginably so, but it was only until I saw what a parent can do to a child (see also Euripides’ Medea) through the lens of illness and insanity did I conceive of the dual acts of hate and love the mothers in my book inflict on their progeny.

4.

What happens to children who are isolated from parental love, locked away in an isolated boarding school in South Africa with nothing other than books and a vivid imagination to give them shelter? Sheila Kohler, in her exceptional novel, Cracks, balances a landscape of ethereal beauty with cold, cruel violence.

One hot summer, a beautiful aristocrat, Fiamma, vanishes into the veld. Decades later, at a reunion, thirteen members of tightly-knit swim team gather to reminisce on the weeks leading up to Fiamma’s disappearance. As the memories and secrets unravel, we learn the horrific, violent lengths adolescents will go to when faced with obsession, jealousy, sex, and maternal longing. I loved this book primarily because the children are lost, rudderless, their sense of what it means to be a woman and a mother comes from the books they read. Their barnacle-level attachment to their swim coach, Miss G., demonstrates how desperately children need familial love. The characters in my look don’t understand love because they’ve lived in homes robbed of it. So they try (and fail) to create a home and this failure is their ultimate devastation.


I’m never quite sure whether people are interested in what goes into the creation of a book, so perhaps this is merely an exercise in me documenting what drove me to write my second book and debut novel, Follow Me Into the Dark.

Upcoming Events: I’ll be in New York next week for some readings. Come on down!

book buff

the first hurt

photo-1473637634738-0bded2eac096

Back in the day there wasn’t a cigarette we wouldn’t smoke or a chicken skin we didn’t wrench from its bone. We put the television on blast because hearing Archie Bunker yell at Edith was better than the thumping from above and below. Heads got smacked into walls, babies were crying in every direction, and there go Luz smashing Bacardi bottles on the floor as her man made a run for the door. I mean, wouldn’t you want earmuffs? One time, the boys were roof jumping, trying to impress the girls with the slim hips. Girls who maybe got the bleed but compensated by slashing red on their lips. On the block, red lipstick meant you were a woman but one borough over it just meant you were Puerto Rican. Everyone was trying to be grown, even when they knew that right now–the gum they smacked and the loosies they smoked–was as good as it’ll ever get. Anyway.

So the boys were posturing, practicing their look at me when a girl jumped out of a window. Marlon was on the roof while Ricky was in midair and one of the girls screamed and Ricky lost his concentration, tumbled down, and wasn’t he lucky that the girl who jumped broke his fall. They covered the girl with a sheet because who knew when the ambulance would come. On the way to Maimonides, Ricky kept screaming in the back of the Chevelle that he couldn’t feel his legs. Are they there, man? Are they fucking there? Because I can’t feel them. Back on the stoop, mothers wrapped their daughter’s hair while they took sips from bottles in brown paper bags, talking about Marlon’s birthday at Sizzler. All the garlic bread you can eat. When word got back that Ricky was paralyzed from the waist down, the mothers held their grand pieta complete with head-shaking and teeth-sucking, and thank god he ain’t mine. One said: that’s one less casserole we have to make. That’s cold, said another. Nobody talked about the body gone blue in the alleyway because that’s how it was back then–trash got picked up faster than the bodies.

That was the summer they put bars on the windows and deadbolted roof doors. Nobody asked why a ten-year-old girl jumped out of a window but everyone understood why Ricky wheeled himself out to the street. Smack in front of an oncoming bus.

*

A woman falls asleep and wakes next to a man who’s killed more than a hundred women. Andy is a neurosurgeon who owns a tabby cat called Edith. For a time, Andy was a therapist who worked in a clinic that took patients on a sliding scale, when he met the woman who would become his wife. She walked into his office with a box of razor blades she ordered off the internet. I need you to take this, she said, handing Andy the box of blades. I need some distance from this. She wasn’t suicidal, he determined, she was more like one of those cry-for-help types, yet he found her gesticulations curious and her non-sequiturs endearing, albeit mildly tourretic. I have so much pain and I don’t know where to put it, she said. Do I put it in a box? If so, how big of a box? What are its dimensions? Do I take this box filled with my wants and my sadness to the beach? Should I ease it into the water and wait for the space between the box floating and the box being subsumed by the water? Do I mourn the box’s passing, the inevitable swallowing? To which Andy responded, fuck the box. Lay down your pain. Right here. The woman grew quiet and finally she said, do I get visitation rights? Can I come back for my pain once in a while?

Andy laughed, shook his head and said, you’re not a circus and this isn’t the zoo. Later that night, he drafted a paper on the structure and function of a psychopath’s brain. He wrote about the reduced structural integrity in the white matter fibers connecting the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. How the two disparate parts of the brain–the former controlling empathy and impulse control and the latter controlling fear–failed to communicate. It’s like two men on the range drawing their guns at dawn, only, in this case, no man is left standing. Sometimes, he thought about his parent’s boat, engulfed in flames, sailing in the distant horizon. Sometimes he remembered a book of matches of his hand, but mostly he thought about the fact that over the years he’s refined. He’s better at his work.

But he never tells his wife this because hers is possibly the one heart he can’t bear to break. His wife is clean, unlike the others. The others are gruesome, sullied, and deserving of the bleach that paled them down to bone.

There was a moment, though, when he thought about closing his hands around her neck. He even went as so far as to follow her home from one of their sessions. Andy watched her pause in front of her door. He watched her close her eyes and part her mouth and he could see that she attempted a scream but no sound came out. And as if nothing had happened, she then opened her eyes, slipped her key into the door, and made her way in. Andy witnessed her hurt, the whole of it, and realized his therapy failed to make a difference. He wondered, briefly, if her pain exceeded his. For weeks, he followed her home and saw her repeat the ritual. Home wasn’t safe, it wasn’t a refuge, rather it was a temporary container for her hurt. Once, he approached her door and leaned against it, hoping to hear her breathing from the other side.

Nights, he studied his brain scans and saw a small glimmer of a connection between polar states. It occurred only when he thought of her.

On their honeymoon, she tossed and turned at night. Her body was volcanic. Andy held her when she woke up screaming. She told him the story of a distant cousin jumping out of a window, her body left covered by a sheet for three days until the men came and took her away. In a span of a newscast from her home in Long Island, she learned that a part of her family died. Her aunt of a heroin overdose, her cousin who couldn’t bear child services and chose to jump instead. She remembered her mother snatching the remote out of her hand and changing the channel to All in the Family. Her mother said, that’s not our family. That’s not our kind. Years later, she would discover that her mother was her aunt, a woman who couldn’t bear children and relieved her sister of her burden instead. The woman on the television screen, the aunt who died of a heroin overdose and the mother she barely knew, was, in fact, her kind.

Andy asked why she never brought this up. Somber, his wife said, we fell in love and I had to find a new therapist. Remember?

Come morning, they learned that a woman in their hotel had been strangled in her room. The wife was scared, drew Andy closer. Should we leave? Andy shook his head, smoothed her hair like did his Edith and kissed the red lipstick off her mouth when he said, I’d never hurt you. I’d never let anyone hurt you.

*

 

Hers was the kind of grave you couldn’t wait to dance on. It’s callous to say that, I know, I know, respect the dead, but we so rarely get the opportunity to say what we really think. What would you say if your mother’s been dead for a decade and bill collectors are still calling you in hopes of reclaiming her debts? Why should I be responsible for her ransacking the Fingerhut catalog? No one told her to buy seven of those QVC toasters. When it comes to my mother, I don’t have Hallmark feelings. When it comes to my mother, I don’t feel anything at all.

Did you see that TV special about the rich doctor on death row? That man killed 200 women and he only got caught when his wife discovered his lockup with four of the bodies. You didn’t see it? The special about Doctor Death? This is why I hate hospitals.

*

Kitty Katherine Knox once said dead people are always so messy. Look at them, blood splashing around. They don’t even look like people anymore. Before the good doctor, Andy Knox was executed by lethal injection in the State of California, he looked at the faces belonging to the families of the victims and said, I like you. I’m going to come back for you and all you love. Mark my words.  The morning of the execution his wife’s hand was shaking as she applied red lipstick.

 

*

Marlon was the miracle child, a stone that held its weight. Eve was set to have her tubes tied because what did she need with another girl in the family when she already birthed three of them? Children were a chorus of puckered mouths clamoring for the teat. Smacking their lips with that wet sound they make. The years had cradled her in sorrow. Kids she knew hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, their eyes and the tips of their fingers jaundiced. And although the police finally arrived three hours later from the time you called them, they still managed to toss lit matches into burning buildings. There they go covering the bodies with soiled sheets because they ran out of tarp. You could still see a row of toes, a patch of unblemished skin peeking out. Cancer and tumors emerged as the new breath-robbers because who could afford to go to the hospital and wait the night it took you to see a doctor who would only tell you that the swarm advanced, your body was a contagion of growths, and here are a few things left for you to consider. Have you thought about your final days? We thought about the dolls we used to have and how we hid coins, marbles and baby teeth in the trap doors that were their insides. Flip open our flap of fabric and there goes death multiplying. Did we think about our last days? Sure we did. Hand me my smokes, do my hair good, dress me in my Sunday best, and leave me out with the rest of the trash because no way can we scrape together the bills needed for a funeral. Slow-sing over the heap of us, will you? Sing me Nina Simone, as loud as you can.

People laughed during episodes of Good Times that played on televisions suspended from the ceiling, although we knew that times were far from good. Somewhere, in the distance a phone rang. The forecast called for thundersnow. A woman studied a piece of paper, a form she was supposed to complete. I can’t read. We have these forms in Spanish, the receptionist said with a kindness that made the woman who held her frayed purse close grip it tighter. The woman shook her head and stared at the floor. Come here, mamí, the receptionist said. Let me read it to you.

The night Marlon was born Eve threw her 8-tracks out the car window on the way to the hospital. Eve drove with one hand at the wheel, breaking lights. Her water broke twelve weeks early and she knew this couldn’t be good. Her body hurt like Riker’s, and Eve wondered if this what happened when you were a mother to a child making a prison break from the womb. In the emergency room Eve sprawled across two plastic chairs and pushed out a small mess of a child that weighed three pounds while the girls behind the desk were snapping their fingers to Rose Royce, and will you bitches get out here because there’s blood on the floor, blood everywhere, this black boy is fucking blue, and will someone call a doctor? Will someone cut the cord?

Marlon was a black boy gone blue, but he kept on breathing.

 

Image Credit: Mike Wilson

Uncategorized

I've been busy…producing and taking care, offline

1-nNIEz2COHGMYNFm12pmh6Q

There’s been silence on this space but I assure you a lot of good, healthy things are going on. I’m spending time with friends on the phone, on Facetime and in-person. I’ve been making calls to find a person who can help me sort everything out and get me back on track and I’ve been producing. A lot. I wrote an email to my agent relaying that I will likely have to drug him to read a story collection, but the work I’ve been producing, and the velocity of it, excites me in a way that you can’t imagine. In three weeks I’ve 120 good pages of a new story collection.

You can read “There Was No Shade, Only Sun” on Medium.

Also! I’ve decided to launch a weekly newsletter. It’ll be a sweet compilation of links, finds, and oddities online + off. And I promise–no spam. One email, once a week. I’d love for you to subscribe!

Photo Credit: Unsplash

book buff

short short: the man and the rice girl

fiction
Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

I held her. Both arms. And asked her to stop. She shrugged me off and told me to where to go. Then she fell. Knocked her head against the table. I heard her neck snap. I wanted her to rest somewhere beautiful. Somewhere where I could see her every day at the exact center of my world. Here. She looked so beautiful. –From Hinterland, “The Girl in the Water”

The sun came down on the branches, lit them up in a pale fire. A man leans back, considers his life. The whole of it. Thinks about the girl he left in the field, which puts him to thinking about the girl he used to love who worked in a church. She was the rice girl, responsible for harvesting the white pearls just as quickly as they were hurled at couples, who seem to perpetually move in slow motion. Couples who were once sepia and sun-kissed, but the rice girl knew that sepia invariably crescendos to color to only tumble to black. She knew this because the women who shook rice out of their hair would one day charge back into the church and ask a man of cloth if it was possible to once feel a love so great her heart would burst to then feel nothing at all?

The rice girl told the man this while he cut the ends of her hair. She liked this, she thought, the feeling of damage being excised, removed. How do you tell them that their faces will be a river, the rice girl said, to which the man replied, what do you do with the rice? Throw it away? The rice girl laughed, said that would be bad for business. No, she said, we box it up and onto the next. The man considered this act of recycling life, of throwing the same seed. This didn’t sit well with the man, no it did not, and he considered ending it, ending her, until she interrupted and said that municipalities were cracking down, laws were in the process of being rewritten, and now she’d been forced to be creative. The rice girl rose from the bed where the man held a pair of sheers in his hands and she came back with packets of sunflower and bird seed. She said why not get to straight to the point because one day one of them will decide to leave.

Because people always leave.

My hair, please cut it, the rice girl said. She couldn’t imagine parts of her still broken, breaking. He had to cut it all, she thought, there’s no other way.

The man met the rice girl on a cold beach and felt something resembling affection when he caught her staring at a little boy longer than she should.

The man realized that she would bring him seeds and then nuts and then he’d have to leave her because who up and kills the nut girl? You can’t rationalize that. He liked them simple, knocked-kneed and wide-eyed. He preferred their vocations to be among the unnecessary, the exotic, the no-one-will-ever-miss-you variety. The woman in Japan who was responsible for pushing people onto trains during morning rush. The woman who fluffed pandas. The woman who was paid by doctors to feign illness for internists to diagnose. The woman who dressed circus elephants in all their silks and finery.

These were women who hated their mothers and secretly thought about killing (or fucking) their fathers. They were brilliant but they would come undone in the face of simple arithmetic. And they needed to hold every single kitten on pet adoption days. The rice girl was all of this–beautifully insignificant, and then she started talking about nuts and possibly a day job in an office with air conditioning because she’d never been in a place that was temperature adjusted, unless you count the mall.

The man cut more than he should have. How did she fail to notice the sweep of hair blanketing the bed? How hadn’t she noticed her cool neck? For a moment he pressed the metal against her shoulder, let it linger and the girl moaned and wondered aloud if living with air conditioning was like boxes of scissors pressing up against your body.

Something like that, he said, rising from the bed. I got to go, he said. I have a shift, but he didn’t have a shift or a job or a home. He lived where they lived. He occupied their territory, learned their passwords and pin codes and paid their bills on the 1st and 15th. He wondered about supermarkets, if there were people who still bagged groceries or was it all just self-serve now?

Where does everybody go when they say they have to go, the rice girl asked. He distracted her with talk of packets of petals and dried leaves, other things one could throw. For some reason this made the rice girl nervous and she cut the bags of seeds open and began eating until there was nothing left.

You can leave, you can leave, the rice girl said.

Please leave, the woman in the field says, now. Give me the dignity of not having to die next to the man who killed me. Give me at least that.

the gathering kind

the avalanche of books (this month's recommended reads)

Untitled

Over the past two years I’ve managed to whittle down my life to that which is essential. I have what I need and nothing more. I no longer care about investing in exceedingly overpriced designer clothing, rather I buy sensible clothes for work, home and working out. It took some time, and frequent trips to other countries, particularly Southeast Asia, to make me aware of my excessive materialism. Now, my home is relatively sparse with the exception of books.

I have a problem with books. I like them. A LOT. So much so that I bring home books I’ve found on the street. Every week I’m greeted by a cardboard box from Amazon. When friends move, I stand aside patiently waiting for the moment when I’m allowed trespass to their leftover book collection. At my height, I stored over 3,000 books in my apartment–now I think I have 1,000. No matter how hard I try to refine my collection, there’s always a new book, always something to learn, always a need to discover what I don’t know.

Don’t you dare talk to me about e-readers or books that don’t have paper (Pft!). You are likely speaking a language I do not understand. I spend most of my days in front of a computer screen. I equate computers with work or getting things done, and no, no, I don’t want to relegate books to that lot. Books are pleasure. Books must be accompanied by popcorn and feet tucked under blankets. Books are better than work.

But truth be told, I’m getting a little anxious when I see the towers looming, and I’ve decided to do a mini clean-out this weekend of books I haven’t read in over a year. Pray for my strength amidst all the hardcovers.

This month’s lot is an exciting one, a combination of street finds, recommendations from friends, and books I’ve discovered through my Twitter feed. Right now I’m thick in Marilynne Robinson’s prequel to Gilead, Lila, and it’s nothing short of remarkable. I only dream that my writing will one day have Robinson’s quiet strength, that steadfast precision.

Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me might be the first true crime book I’ve owned and I’m SO EXCITED to read it. My hairstylist, Sarah, and I always talk about books; we’re always trading recommendations. Sarah’s one of the few who agree with my belief that Zadie Smith is a far better essayist than novelist (I did order NW, as that’s the only Smith novel I haven’t read), so there’s trust there. Last week I was telling her about my novel, how I’ve become fixated with the dual nature of sociopaths, and she immediately recommended Rule’s book. Rule spent two years working with Ted Bundy at a suicide crisis hotline, and she would correspond with him until his execution for having murdered 40 women. I’d no idea that Bundy, a man who was described by Rule as “sensitive,” counseled people into not taking their own life (the irony!). This striking dichotomy of self got me excited so I ordered the book immediately. I’m actually making myself move through Lila so I can get to this.

The Rule book promises to be a swift read, so I’ll tackle NW next. The same day I got the Rule recommendation, I scanned Twitter to discover that Sheila Heti (!!!) and Heidi Julavits collaborated on an edited collection of essays, Women in Clothes. Candidly, I was trepidatious, especially after having read Worn Stories, short essays that stood beautifully on their own but grew tiresome in a collection that could have used a heavier editorial hand (as well as a narrative arc). However, I have much admiration for Heti (an extraordinary writer) and Julavits (author + Believer editor), so I’m excited to dive in.

Finally, I found two books on the street and immediately I scooped them up: Sherman Alexi’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (so hilarious, witty and well-written) and Teresa Carpenter’s New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009. Part of me wishes I could keep a diary (I guess this blog is one of sorts, albeit edited for television), so I was intrigued by this exhaustively-researched tome filled with diary entries from Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, and other literary heavyweights on being in, or traveling through, New York.

Suffice it to say, I’ve got a BUSY month ahead of me. What are you reading?

book buff