Wednesday, March 7, 2007

We Are What We Write...?

Sandra Parshall

I opened the latest Writer’s Digest and saw this header on the editor’s column: You Are What You Write.

Now there’s a scary thought. Makes me very glad Thomas Harris doesn’t live next door.

But is it true? If someone writes about murder, intrigue and deceit, what does that say about him or her as a person? If you attend a mystery conference, will you find the hallways crowded with weirdos, their eyes glittering maniacally as they contemplate killing off the competition?

Sorry to disappoint you, but no. Mystery writers are some of the friendliest, most down to earth people I’ve ever met, and I wouldn’t be afraid to encounter any of them in a dark alley. The majority of authors at the conferences I’ve attended have been middle-aged (or older) women, nicely dressed, well-groomed, and resoundingly normal in their behavior. When they start talking about their work, though, you realize these aren’t ordinary folks. They can describe myriad ways to kill other human beings. They know what acid will do to your eyes and what insecticide will do to your liver. They can tell you how long it will take for rigor mortis to set in after you die, and how long it will take flies to discover your corpse. They can happily chat about such matters over soup and salad, without the slightest sign of queasiness.

Does this fascination with murder mean the writer is capable of committing the acts she allows her characters to perform? In my own case, at least, the answer is no. I’m such a wimp that I would probably have trouble acting in self-defense, and I can’t imagine killing another person for any reason. I’m basically a pacifist, and I’m always shocked when someone chooses murder over divorce or a lawsuit. I find it mind-boggling that anybody could kill a neighbor over a property line dispute or an estranged spouse over a financial disagreement. I write crime fiction precisely because those extreme actions baffle me. I want to understand the emotions and thoughts of people who overstep the boundaries of accepted behavior even though their problems appear fixable to onlookers. And I like knowing that in the end, whatever the killer’s motive, I can decide what the punishment will be.

Maybe all that sounds too high-minded. Maybe it doesn’t explain how I can become immersed in a book or article about the different ways a human body decomposes under various conditions. Not all mystery writers can stomach the graphic stuff, and when they write about corpses they use vague, general terms that won’t turn anybody’s stomach, including their own. Many writers are aiming for an audience that enjoys the puzzle but doesn’t want to dwell on the physical act of killing and its aftermath. To me, though, murder is a serious business, and I want the reader to feel the reality of it, to see the victim as an individual whose life has been wrongly taken. Sometimes that requires describing the sights and smells of death.

I do have a morbid side -- my friend Alex Sokoloff flattered me by calling it my “simmering dark streak” -- and that side is reflected in my writing. But a writer’s nature, like anyone else’s, has many facets. I would describe myself, first of all, as someone who loves nature and animals, so I do have that much in common with one of my characters, veterinarian Rachel Goddard. My life isn't filled with high drama and intrigue, however, and I don't want it to be. I would have been happy living in a forest with only animals around me. But as it turned out, I’ve spent my life primarily in the company of humans, and I’ve chosen to write about the worst acts humans can commit. That isn’t me, though. I am not what I write.


Lonnie Cruse said...

As someone who has taken a basic death investigation class online, (and boy howdy did that require strong nerves!) I certainly agree with you that we writers often need a strong stomach. But such research does help us to communicate the horrors of death to our readers, often with just a whisper of a suggestion rather than having to beat readers over the head with it.

Great post, Sandy! And count me in as a little old lady who can sip tea and discuss blood spatter patterns with the best of 'em. Muwhahahaha!

Julia Buckley said...

I've often fantasized about living in a forest, Sandra. Maybe we can have separate houses in the same forest, and then when we feel sociable we can wander over and share some tea and cookies.

I'm reminded of P.D. James, who was on David Letterman to promote her book Devices and Desires (is that the one where the women keep getting killed on dark country lanes?)

In any case, Dave said "Your books involve a murderer who cuts off his victim's hair and shoves it into their mouths. Who comes up with this stuff?"

And P.D., who sat there demurely, looking like someone's sweet grandma, said "I'm afraid I do, Dave."

Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, Ruth Rendell is another one who looks so prim and proper -- just a quiet little old lady -- but she dreams up stuff that must make PD James shudder. (They're close friends, and James says Rendell is her favorite crime fiction writer.)