I was talking with a friend last week, someone I’ve known since graduate school (Harvard, in case I haven’t mentioned it in the last 10 minutes). She had just gotten through the first draft of my newest novel, a suspense thriller with the backdrop of the Catholic Church and its pedophilia scandal. She liked it, but she had the same question/feedback that other early readers have had. Namely: “You’re a pretty regular guy with a good sense of humor. Why not channel that into your work, instead of all this dark stuff? Your first book was about sexual violence, your second was about the Holocaust. And now pedophilia. Are you really that dark, and if so, why don’t friends like me know that about you?”
This might be a better conversation for my therapist, but it’s a good question. I could come up with a witty answer based on the old writer’s maxim: Write what you know, but I really don’t think that applies in my case. Certainly, as an ex-professor of Holocaust Studies, I know that turf, though not on a first-hand basis. But I’ve never been abused by a priest (or been raped in prison, as in my first novel). So where’s all that darkness come from?
As part of that answer, here’s an anecdote from my year where my first novel (which never saw print) was sponsored by the Nieman Foundation. They had a writing group as part of that program, where we read each other’s work. As my novel developed, with all its dark themes, the head of the program said how about I take a break from the novel and try my hand at a short story for the next session. So I wrote a story about a farm boy who moves to the Big City and is so isolated and paranoid that his only outlet is to take the one piece of greenery in his neighborhood (a mid-size park) and keep it pure by eliminating the prostitutes and druggies that corrupted it. Violently eliminating, I should add.
So I took the story and read it aloud to the group. No praise, no criticism, just a lot of awkward silence. The leader told me afterward that the group had been worried that I was too wrapped up in the theme of sexual violence and had wanted the short story to be a release from that. I wish she’d told me that at the time of the assignment. Either way, no one wanted to sit next to me for the next couple of sessions.
But the real reasons I focus on themes like sexual violence and pedophilia is that they are true mysteries to me. I may lead a sheltered life or I just may be blissfully unaware of the activities of friends and associates, but I’ve never known a man who admitted going to prostitutes or who liked to ‘slap the little woman around a bit.’ I do know women who have been raped, but it’s not a topic I (or they) feel comfortable revisiting. So I write about what fascinates me and do enough research to fill in the blanks.
Also, I’d have no idea how to write a ‘humorous’ novel. Humor is not something I associate with long-form fiction. Sure, Catch 22 is hilarious, but it’s not humor but the horrors of war that sustains the action. And Cannery Row is definitely rich with humor, but it doesn’t set out to be a ‘funny book’. Quite simply, I can’t think of a comic theme that I could sustain for 200+ pages. Humor to me is an ingredient rather than a main course.
Back to my conversation with my old friend. We were kicking around ideas for my next novel, which will most likely be set in the world I know best—technology startups and the VCs who fund them. It would show all the travails of a startup, with the further complication that the founder is a woman in her late 30s (Silicon Valley is notoriously sexist and agist when it comes to funding and CEOs). I told my friend about the bittersweet ending I had in mind—where the woman cracks the code on the disease she’s been seeking to solve (one that is killing her mother), but in that greatest moment of triumph we see that she’s developed the same symptoms and is now in a race to turn her research into reality, both for herself and her mother.
My friend said: why don’t you have her break the code, make a billion dollars, and retire to do philanthropy? Why the bittersweet and open-ended conclusion? My response was: who wants to read a book like that. Her response: I do.
So there. Still working on that ending.