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.
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.
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.
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.
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!