27 Feb 2017

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVV3XeAevc8&feature=player_embedded

 

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!

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  • When I was in Cape Town, I was supposed to have been making headway with my new book—the first story since I started my last novel in 2013 that’s excited me. All my books have been about familial, specifically maternal, discord. A mother and daughter never made whole. And this is the first story where parents don’t play a role. At the heart of the story is the friendship between two broken, flawed, and funny women who lean on one another to crawl out of darkness. It’s hard for me to write about love, but this, I think, is the closest I’ve come to it.
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I like these characters. I like imbuing my dark sense of humor into my work. I like leaning away from. The weight of language and literary fiction to tell a story as simply as possible. And believe me when I say that simplicity is fucking hard. Writing lean, impactful sentences are hard. Conveying so much in a small space feels, in a way, like poetry.
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I WAS supposed to have made headway, but that didn’t pan out and it’s okay because I was more focused in relaxing. I was more in awe of the landscape and people than I’d anticipated so all I wanted to do was be outside. Funny for someone who holes up in her Los Angeles apartment, but I digress.
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I’m back and the story is coming, albeit slowly, but it’s coming. There is a plot only I don’t know it completely yet. I know the ending—I can see it clearly—it’s just the path there is a little foggy.
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And this is the first book I’ve written that is more linear than anything I’ve written.
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I’m proud of this.
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And I’m trying not to think of the business of books. The chore of searching for a new agent after I fired my one of 20 years. The chore of overcoming my last book’s Bookscan numbers, the pitching and the selling. The fucking preening. I want none of it.
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So, for now, I just think about the work.
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  • So...apparently I’m writing a new book. It’s interesting (or odd, depending on your view) that new work comes in my darker moments. I started my last book after I had a breakdown from a job (and sociopathic boss) that was killing me. I was in Biarritz when I started what would become my second book, which is darker than my first book.
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This time, I’m toying with what happens when you climb out of the dark (my first two never got to that place). The book is titled The Only Possible and it centers on the close friendship between two broken women who are climbing out of their familial and person wreckage. This might be the first long work that ends with hope. I have this marker for myself, which is totally arbitrary. If I get to 50 good pages, the book is real.
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I’m at 52, so I suppose this thing is real. Light in the dark and like that.
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A brief thank you to the people who’ve been there for me these past few weeks. The ones who haven’t ignored or muted my posts—you are true friends and allies. Thank you for your friendship and kindness. I don’t give my heart and trust to many people for these obvious reasons, but I’m grateful to those that have it.
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I think it’s important to learn from the experiences we’re desperate to forget. Some of my greatest teachings come from working with terrible clients and sociopathic bosses. I wrote about this on medium (@felsull) and I’d love for to check it out, clap, and share.
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But remember this. Don’t let anyone define your worth. Only you have the right to that math. No one deserves to be yelled at. No one deserves verbal abuse. No one deserves to hear that they’re worthless, stupid, or an idiot. You are the guardian of your worth.
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Constructive feedback is a valuable tool, but it doesn’t define you as a person. We will fail. We’ll botch a job or make mistakes. Value comes from learning from the missteps, in creating systems and processes for yourself that reduces the likeliness of that mistake from happening again. Your worth is not the measure of your failures, but how you’ve rebounded from them. How you’ve grown professionally AND personally. It’s about you standing up in the wreckage and saying, okay, let’s keep going.
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Your worth is not bound to your work product — it’s defined by all the things that make you, you.
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  • I used to be this intense person and I assure you this is not a compliment. I went at everything so hard. I worked through pain and exhaustion. I cleaved to velocity — a body in motion stays in motion and like that. Force = mass x acceleration and like that. I placed more value on outcomes than inputs. I cared about what people thought of me and wanted to please everyone at the expense of my well-being. I placed an unhealthy level of emphasis on amassing a large collection of people in my life more than cultivating richer relationships with a handful. I pursued things at the expense of the quiet nobility of living an honest, full life.
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My wake-up call was a phonebook packed with numbers but no one to call when I was breaking. What changed during that dark time was this: I began to live small and this is, I assure you, is a good thing.
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Small isn’t a pejorative. It’s about getting surgical about the people and things that inhabit your life. Cut the barnacles. Eliminate that which is extraneous and unnecessary. Don’t settle for common or this is how it’s always been done. Small is about the amount of noise you allow in. It’s about making the choices that won’t please the majority of people, but you end up pleasing yourself. It’s the difference between living in a mansion and creating a house that is a home. Fewer, better are words whose meaning has shifted for you. They are words of wealth. And more suddenly feels like a burden.
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For those who suffer from depression, meds and therapy simply level the playing field. They elevate you from negative integers to zero. It’s easier to build from zero than from mounting losses. Meds and therapy don’t create shiny, happy people. There are days that are dark and tough and what’s allowed me to function during that time is the concept of living simply and small.
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