A reader asked how I deal with the darkness of my work in my own life. Here goes.
I’ll begin with a digression. Mr. Lippman and I were discussing the big news events of the week, as I assume many are, and we went back to 9/11. Mr. Lippman said the terrorists probably realized that the 9/11 plan was their one shot to take that kind of action; they had to know that cockpits would be secured in the future and there would be a protocol on what to do if hostages were taken and/or killed. I said that terrorists have one enormous advantage over people not inclined to use violence to achieve their ends: Their imaginations take them where most of us can’t quite go. After 9/11, IIRC, the U.S. government consulted with some famous thriller writers to brainstorm what they might want to anticipate. Personally, I think horror writers would be just as useful.
The two Kings — Stephen and Laurie, both heroes of mine — have noted that some writers write against their fears. Imagine the worst, then make it a story and thereby control it. So far, I really haven’t done that. My work has more of a Sliding Doors/Post-Birthday World aspect. I look back and see things I’ve done, or almost done, and think about how it might have gone differently. What if I had gotten into strange men’s cars? (Actually I did, just once, at age 21, and it was an oddly benign experience. But that was just luck.) What if I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Or I think about a story that is familiar to me, but not mine. A serial killer leaves his penultimate victim alive; how does that person feel? Two sisters disappeared. How can that be? What would happen to their parents? And what if someone showed up thirty years later and claimed to be one of them?
Inside these stories, it’s not as bleak as you might think. It’s a kind of psychological spelunking. I can see where I’m going and I know the way out if it gets too scary. Interestingly — well, it’s interesting to me — I often have the most fun while immersed in the POV of a character with whom I don’t agree. Trudy Tackett in I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE is a good example. Trudy’s beloved daughter, Holly, was murdered by a serial killer and she thinks his execution will make her happy. But she also harbors an intense rage toward the girl that the serial killer didn’t kill. Because, like most people, I tend to think well of myself — that is, most of us think well of ourselves, not that everyone thinks well of me — I want to believe that I would not be so twisted by tragedy that I would vent my frustration on another victim. But when I allowed myself into Trudy’s world, that changed. I had to wonder if I would be as good a person as I would hope to be in the wake of an enormous tragedy. Like Trudy, I don’t think I’ve been particularly hubristic. I’ve tried to acknowledge that I was born on second base, if not third, and that I’ve had a pretty steady stream of luck most of my life. But where is it written that recognizing one’s own luck has any talismanic effect, that it safeguards one from tragedy? It is possible that such a person would be more bitter than most. The Trudy chapters required me to suspend judgment, to contemplate choices that — I think — would not be mine.
Almost everyone, I have found, shares the common fantasy of wondering what happens behind the lighted windows we see as we walk through a neighborhood at night. I feel that way about people. I want to know what goes on behind everyone’s eyes, even if it is uncommonly dark. I have very little interest in sociopaths, which I believe are a better fit for the horror genre. Perhaps that’s why I don’t feel particularly burdened by the stories in which I immerse myself. I write about people, _most_ of whom are doing their best, muddling through. Even Walter, the pathetic killer at the center of I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE, has his side to the story. I don’t agree with him, but I understand why he thinks he was justified in doing what he has done.
It’s hard for me to think about how to make this post interactive, so just consider it open mike night in the comments.