This is how I write. I write in my home on my couch with feet up on this table, with the doors locked and a single song on repeat. The song is deliberately chosen–it gets me in a headspace to move (right now, I’m listening to this as I type this post). I read dialogue out loud as I write because I need to hear the words to see if they’re right. The cadence of the prose needs to follow the rhythm and logic I’ve defined for it. I need to know my characters, bury myself all the way in. If I’m skipping paragraphs that means I need to delete them. Every line has to work on multiple levels.
Someone asked me the other day about the kind of man I’m looking for, to which I responded, I want someone who’s been through war, still has some of the bruises, but isn’t still changing the bandages. Dressing the wound. And then I thought about my work, and this logic fits there, too. I write about broken people dressing their own wounds and people who pretend the wounds that are blistering and raw, pain the rest of us can so easily see, don’t exist. I’m best in the dark.
After I published my first book, I was exhausted. Writers tend to write out their obsessions, the things that seize them when they wake, and for years my mother was my singular subject. So after the book was published I knew I couldn’t go back to that dark country. I’d made sense of our history (or so I thought), and I needed something new in which to fixate.
I started stories that I deleted. I read 23 books about Jim Jones and typed one chapter I hated. I took a job that would occupy me for nearly four years. And soon I stopped writing. However, my friend Sarah will tell me that just because you’re not typing doesn’t mean you’re not writing. Who knew that after those four years I will sit in a hotel room in Biarritz and write. The story felt like it had come from nowhere, but it came like a torrent. The story swiftly took shape with a command of language and structure that frankly surprised me. I’d always had the problem of filling a white page with type, now the issue was: what do I do with 80 pages of insanity? It was good madness, the stuff one keeps, but it was madness nonetheless.
I mean, my first chapter is about a woman who sets her father’s mistress’s hair on fire. That should tell you everything.
A year and a half later, multiple drafts, early and late readers, and my novel, FOLLOW ME INTO THE DARK, is finally ready for submission to publishers. In retrospect, I didn’t love my memoir. I wish I would have waited until I was older. While some of the chapters are quite good, I cringe at others. It’s weird being in the present tense and reading what you’ve written when you were another version of yourself. I guess it’s like re-reading your childhood diaries as an adult. CRINGE! MAKE IT STOP!
But I love this book. Every page of it. And I’ve also learned to love the version of myself (an extremely flawed woman waging her own private war against addiction) who wrote that first book.
My agent asked me to write a paragraph on what my book is about, and naturally, I’m struggling. I could say that the story is about two adults, step-siblings, who are bearing the weight of their families’ mental illness and cruelty, and how broken children keep breaking even when they desperately try to dress their wounds and stitch themselves up again. It’s about trying to understand the pathology of sociopaths, and finding the humanness in a person even after they’ve committed inhuman acts. I’ve three main characters: Kate, an obsessive-compulsive baker, who we think has a psychotic break after her mother dies and she seeks revenge against her step-father’s mistress by setting her hair on fire, although we’ll learn that her pathology is infinitely more savage. There’s Gillian, the oversexed, hyperintellectual woman who’s engaging in an affair with Kate’s father. Finally, there’s Jonah, Gillian’s sociopathic, yet loving, brother who is actually ‘The Doll Collector’, a hunted serial killer who’s committed gruesome acts against women across the country. Jonah is the key link between the two characters and how the story unfolds. We learn about these three characters by understanding their familial history–2 generations of emotional and sexual abuse–and how the weight of their history bears on the choices they make now.
In all candor, it was initially challenging to show that one’s actions don’t define one’s character. We have a tendency to ascribe mistakes people make, or, in this case, the horrific acts that one does, to one’s person. We’re binary in our reactions: The person who commits murder is pure evil! The person who attacks someone else is crazy! And I’m trying to detangle act from person, and somehow show the complexity of mental illness. There’s this wall we put up when we hear that someone is ill, an “otherness” is created, and do we ever make a true attempt to understand those who are ill. Do we see the complexity in them, their ability to love amidst their propensity to hate?
So, we’re ready for prime-time, I guess. And I’m glad that this time around I don’t have the same ego and ambition as I did with my first book. My novel need not be hardcover. I don’t need the fanfare and confetti and bananas advance, I just want to be able to share this story with people–regardless of form.
If you’re interested in checking out my first chapter, click here.
Wish us luck!