A Tourist in Crazyville

Indulge me for a brief paragraph of cringing self-promo, if you’d be so kind. Unbound is out today. Mentioning that seems relevant, as this book is wonked as all-get-out. I’ve talked about my experiences while writing it on Wonkomance before—in a spoilerish post about the deeply problematic hero, an alcoholic recluse with a sexual fetish (I won’t name said fetish here, as people seem to be treating it as a big reveal.) And also regarding the formerly-fat heroine, a challenge I wrote about a few months back. So I won’t go on about the book. It’s out! The hero’s basically a hermit! Read it if you like!

I feel like I’ve been thinking about this book, working on it, or worrying about it nonstop for a year, so it’s most certainly been on my mind in the run up to release day. This story makes me anxious, and part of me is afraid a poop-ton of readers who’ve only read After Hours or Willing Victim will pick it up and shortly thereafter hurl their Kindles across the room, as its hero is basically the anti-Kelly Robak.

I was visiting my parents last week, and on the guest-room bookshelf my mom had a copy of Writing Down the Bones (I say had, because I promptly stole said copy; much easier to leaf through than the audiobook version I own.) While skimming it, I came across one of my favorite chapters, the one where Natalie Goldberg talks about obsessions:

Every once in a while I make a list of my obsessions. Some obsessions change and there are always more. Some are thankfully forgotten.

Writers end up writing about their obsessions. Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be released.

Oh, do we ever. We have themes we come back to over and over, and archetypes. Some people tend to write super-alpha heroes in every book, or have a penchant for friends-to-lovers plotlines, or quirky small towns. Horses. Motherhood. The ocean.

The thing that comes up in just about every one of my stories is mental illness. Emotional disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders; addictions, compulsions, etc. Which aren’t all that sexy, and aren’t the most useful obsessions when one writes erotic romance. But I find myself falling into orbit around these themes again and again, a magpie drawn to the shiny chrome winking from a car crash.

I consume a lot of documentaries and books about mental illness and addiction, especially the sorts where people make massive train wrecks of their lives. I think I’ve even mentioned this before on the blog. Some of these shows can strike one as exploitative, despite what I choose to believe is a genuine desire on the producers’ part to help the subjects get treatment. I love them anyhow. Not because of schadenfreude, or because I feel better about my own fairly functional life and score some hit of seeming security by judging those who are struggling. I’m just genuinely, inexplicably magnetized by it.

I remember when I was about ten (and was growing bored with endlessly rereading Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Ghost at Dawn’s House—Babysitters’ Club #009), I took a nonfiction book out of the middle-grade section of the library, titled simply, Schizophrenia. You know, for fun! I also treasured my hardcover copy of The Annotated Alice—which I read nearly to the point of memorization and still have on my bookshelf today—and was riveted to learn about hatmaking, a vocation that drove its practitioners insane from mercury poisoning, once upon a time. I would’ve killed to take a tour of Arkham Asylum. My terror-infatuation with that crazy hunchbacked witch in Labyrinth was but a precursor to my infatuation with Hoarders. I’ve read Valley of the Dolls about twenty times since college, and my favorite parts are the bits where Neely is self-destructing on pills and Scotch and caviar.

I write in what’s considered by many to be an escapist genre. And for a lot of people, addiction and mental and emotional imbalances are complications of real life they’d be quite happy to shove to the periphery and forget about for 350 pages. But we can’t choose our obsessions.

I think for me, the reason I might find these things so compelling is that an honest part of me can’t help but watch say, Intervention, and think, “Man, I could so imagine that being me, under different circumstances.” There’s a breathless quality to my voyeurism, because I can see myself in many of those people. The adrenaline-spiked terror/relief of a near-miss.

If my parents hadn’t been as awesome as they are, perhaps, would I have gotten into drugs? Would my enjoyment of alcohol more closely resemble abuse? Would my occasional bouts of manageable anxiety require medication, or keep me from leaving my house? Would my erstwhile eating disorder have gone on, or morphed into some even more destructive behavior?

I never tried smoking because even at sixteen I was self-aware enough to realize, “Man, I would be way too good at that.” So good I’d probably still be smoking today, had I started.

I feel like a non-practicing addict. One who’s never been bullied hard enough by setbacks or circumstances to fully come into her dependence. A crazy girl to whom her mother gently gifted the emotional tools to help her avoid blossoming into a crazy woman. (“Does everyone feel this way?” I sometimes wonder. Does anyone truly feel a hundred percent sane? If so, what does that feel like? Is it really boring?)

Maybe that’s why I’m compelled to write about struggling people. Characters wrestling with alcoholism, OCD, crippling phobias, obsessions, drug addictions, anxiety and panic disorders. Why so many of my heroes are either eccentric right up to the border of Crazyville, or else utterly unflappable in the face of others’ irrationality. Why their parents so often are bipolar, or hoard, or neglected them through spells of pitch-black depression, or “chose” to love a substance more than their own child. I want to explore what could have been, for me. To root around in my own alternate reality.

I don’t write about this stuff because some harp-strumming force in my head chimes, “These sorts of issues are so common, and the people dealing with them deserve love, too!” That’s all true, and I wish I could say I’m that altruistic. But no, I write about this stuff because I can’t help it. It’s what gets me excited. It’s my Goldbergian obsession.

These kinds of obstacles are more interesting to me as a writer than a shadowy stalker or a zombie apocalypse. They’re organic, complex, tendrilous obstacles, and they weave themselves through the characters they affect. They can’t simply be cut out. There’s no clean fix. My OCD hero never sought any treatment in his book. The prostitute with the panic disorder is still suffering anxiety attacks by the time he gets his HEA. And by the end of Unbound, the love of a good woman hasn’t magically cured Rob’s alcoholism or de-kinked him of the fetish he resents.

It isn’t true love’s job to cure us. In fact, most of us have some damage or other that we’d be wise to sort out before we make lifelong promises to another person. Love might be the catalyst that pushes us to examine and change our more harmful patterns, but it’s not magic. Not in my fiction, anyhow. And so I’ll keep on turning over the rocks, peering into the centipedey shadows, and exploring the dysfunctions that whisper lovingly to me, “I could’ve so easily been yours.”

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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22 Responses to A Tourist in Crazyville

  1. Lammie says:

    The first book of yours that I read was After Hours. I loved it, even though I hesitated to read it because of the mental hospital location and my personal family issues with that. I loved it so much, I then read Willing Victim, and loved it too. I guess I am the reader you are worried will throw my e-reader across the room, but I have been looking forward to the release of Unbound since I finished After Hours.

    I don’t think I will be throwing anything, even though what you write may take me to uncomfortable places. I read to be entertained, and to take me away from some of the unpleasant aspects of real life, but I also read because sometimes I learn things about myself. Because of family issues with mental illness, I have avoided some books and movies (I have never been able to bring myself to see A Beautiful Mind for instance – I don’t find schizophrenia entertaining), but I don’t feel that hesitation with your book. I guess I enjoyed the two books of yours that I have read too much to stop reading you now! If I don’t like the book, I know it will probably be more about my idiosyncrasies and issues than yours. Keep up the good work, and thanks for the great books.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Oh, well thank you! And thanks for reading. Fingers crossed I don’t get hurled…though not every book will work for every reader, and this new one’s most certainly among my weirder titles. It probably has an uphill battle ahead of it, out in the larger world :-) Hopefully it won’t implode my readership too badly—can’t wait to show everyone what I can do with a convicted felon hero, come April!

  2. Sarah Wynde says:

    I was writing about this on one of my blogs just the other day. I write light, fluffy romances. But wow, they sure are filled with a lot of dead people and abused children. And it’s definitely not what I set out to write, it’s just what happens as the words flow. Not many people seem to notice, though. Out of a couple hundred positive reviews on Amazon, I think there’s only one that mentions the dark undercurrents. A friend told me it’s because I’m writing fairy tales–the dead mothers are just a stepping-stone to the HEA–which I thought was a nice way to look at it. I suspect the more I write, the closer I’m getting to the Brothers Grimm instead of the Disney versions, however.

    Anyway, speaking as a non-tourist in Crazyville, I’m grateful that you don’t solve your character’s problems with the wave of a magic wand and/or the love of a good partner. I’m happy to read books that feel entirely unreal, but books where the problems are real but the HEA easy never quite sit right with me.

    And you visit Crazyville well, too. I hope this sounds like a compliment–I mean it as one–but I couldn’t make it through the Curio vignettes. Way too uncomfortable for me. Nora Roberts has a book with an agoraphobic character, too, and I didn’t mind that one because she felt completely unreal, I didn’t relate to her at all. But reading about Didier hit too close to home. (I’m not sure this sounds like a compliment, but honestly, it is.)

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Oh God, the body count for dead parents in Romancelandia must be GIGANTIC. And fiction sure does love an orphan, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s like shorthand for “extreme underdog.”

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Oh and no worries AT ALL that you couldn’t get through the Curio books! I hear that. I’ve put down my share of stories I thought were perfectly compelling and well-written, because they just stabbed a little too hard at the softest parts of my heart. Reading should be pleasurable, above all, and challenging as well—but hopefully never outright painful.

  3. Ruthie says:

    Spent the entirety of my shower this morning thinking about this post. It’s interesting to think about obsessions, because it’s not quite core narrative, is it? But it’s in the same neighborhood. I’m really interested in people who hold themselves back — in the power of fear to limit the choices we give ourselves. I can always tell when a reviewer isn’t interested in my same obsessions, because they say things like “Why doesn’t she just grow a pair?” or “I got tired of the endless whining about …” or even “Oh my god, NOTHING HAPPENS.” And then I find myself wondering what their obsessions are — what is it like to inhabit their brains? I would like to borrow other people’s brains for a few days here and there, just to find out what it’s like.

    I, of course, love your crazies. I will always love them. You could write nothing but books with mentally ill characters in them forever, and I’d be ecstatic.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Yeah, we both obsess about and re-examine things that hold our characters back, really. Only yours is subtle and layered and nuanced, and mine’s more like, MAN-BITCH BE CRAZY! And writing obsessed characters is a blast. Didier made me nearly want to take up clock repair.

      I hadn’t put that together about your books, actually, but it’s totally true! There’s a bit of self-sabotage in there, nearly. Or…doubt, maybe. Of course now I will be looking for it like Waldo!

  4. willaful says:

    I used a major spoiler space in my review (which isn’t out yet) because I loved the slow reveal so much and didn’t want to ruin it for anyone.

  5. Mary Ann Rivers says:

    I think I get really wrapped up in limited perspective, so much so, that I tend to constrain things like POV. I’m obsessed with the idea that it’s impossible to know everything before you make what are very complex decisions, or that many people aren’t interested in knowing very much at all before they make a decision, or that some things are just true for us as humans, like who we love, without any clear perspective on why.

    Or that perspective can be gained through change or time or new information. And that parts of our lives can be as beautiful as a puzzle box, but all put together tight, with no clear way to the seams to take it apart, and then some small thing loosens a piece, and the box is open and you wondered how it was ever mysterious.

    It’s something different than secrets, though sometimes it is about information people do and don’t tell you about themselves. Or what our parents don’t say, or the parent a character never identified with, but does, later, and it changes their relationship with everyone. Or even actual, literal perspective, like looking at an object close-up, versus in its context, or how one way, a drawing is a bunch of lines, and at an angle, it’s a landscape filled with animals and people.

    So I get really hung up on who’s telling the story, and why, and what they can know, and how they are applying what they know, and what they see, and don’t see, and how they won’t ever get it, but what it is they are wise about when no one else is. Which is why I love things like epistolary, and overly populated books, and treasure-hunt things, and time-travel things, and signs and symbols. Like a story is a sculpture, and what you see depends on where you’re standing, or if you’re touching it or not, or if you care anything at all about sculpture.

    The nice thing about writerly obsession, I think, is that you can play with your obsession in really overt ways, or it can just be something that flavors what you’re doing in some sly way that is mostly for yourself.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      “And that parts of our lives can be as beautiful as a puzzle box, but all put together tight, with no clear way to the seams to take it apart, and then some small thing loosens a piece…” [heart-gasm]

  6. Adriana says:

    I think it’s because you see yourself in those people that you are one of the best authors out there today–romantic, erotic or otherwise. I write for fun and because writing’s become a bit of an obsession, so I understand the challenge of creating honest characters.

    What I like about everything you write is that I see messed up little bits of myself in them, and I trust you to handle them with care. So many of your stories have small things that I can relate to, perversions that I understand, insecurities I feel or cuss words I over-use. Even your experiences you mention in this post resonate, although I was the girl who, at 15, picked up the cigarette, knew I’d like it too much, and thought, ‘feck it’ before taking that first drag.

    I’m addicted to reading and have been since the age of 12, when my father bought me a ridiculously inappropriate novel that I’m afraid to re-read because it’s sure to disappoint. For me, reading is definitely escapism and, because the genres deliver, I enjoy romance and especially the more erotic stuff out there. Of everything I read today, I know that I can open my next Cara McKenna and escape… to someone else’s messed up life, with some glimmer of redemption along the way. I got Unbound on my Kindle today and I swear it was like Christmas.

    Of what I’ve read thus far, you’ve continued to earn my trust as an author: the characters are whole, deep, meaty in a way I so rarely see – you make us all into voyeurs. And, even better, each story opens up a whole different existence, a new place, a new set of experiences. Your books tear me apart and then put me back together in a stronger configuration.

    There, I’ve been shy about posting here, but it’s done!
    Keep writing. Please.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Dude, never be shy here! We’re all like, the dorkiest dorks who ever dorked. Join the dorking!

      Writing is definitely my obsession, too. In good ways—I think the constant mental and emotional immersion in my works-in-progress is ultimately good for the finished products—and also not so good ways—losing one’s self in the author identity, as opposed to getting lost in the act of writing. But in five short years it’s come to define me more deeply (and with more fidelity and satisfaction) than any other aspect of my life. Maybe that makes it my compulsion, a little bit? I suspect it’s an awfully gauzy line that separates passion from obsession.

  7. I so love this post, Cara! Obsessions make us not-normal and it’s so easy to feel bad about them or try to ignore them and iron them out, and it’s fun to read how this obsession became such a gift for you as a writer, not that you had a choice, but, you know. How you stayed with it.

    And I so can’t wait to read this book!
    I so agree with your last bit about curing. Sure, in a lot of ways, love is about challenging each other to be our best selves but I do think the pinnacle of love is letting each other be messed up, and the freedom to be your messed-up around this other person and they’ll still love you.

  8. Tamsen says:

    This is what I call the “There but for the grace of God go I” phenomenon. I love to read them and I love to write them and I think the very best ones make me a little uncomfortable.

    I think it makes characters more believable when the author can understand their psychology even if they don’t share that particular, amplified version of those impulses, feelings and ultimately actions.

    Writing fooked up people with whom you share certain characteristics provides a safe place for wrenching things out of whack in a person’s psyche and pushing them with What Ifs in a way that you would never willingly subject yourself to. And giving them an HEA is a way to assure yourself that even if that way you went, you would still be capable and deserving of love. And you know how much I heart Rob xoxo

  9. What? No love for Island of the Blue Dolphins? But, but, but…..

    Aside from that, I am thinking hard about this post. When I grew up obsession was always a negative thing. It implied a dangerous focus that shortchanged the “important” parts of life. Part of that, I think, was the inability to connect with others who shared the same focus. The internet and our connectivity has changed all that. Now, an obsession can be a key to bonding and sharing with others in ways that make everyone feel better informed, understood, and less alone.

    • I was obsessed with Island of the Blue Dolphins as a kid. I couldn’t get over her aloneness and that the story, in real life, was even worse.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Oh, SO MUCH love for Island of the Blue Dolphins. I daresay I read it fifteen times in a single summer [obsessive, no?] all the while mentally pronouncing the word “abalone” as “ala-bone.” Because shells are kind of bone-ish. When a teacher corrected my pronunciation during a book report, in my head I was like, “What? It can’t rhyme with baloney! Fuck this shit!”

      And yeah, the Internet is BUILT for obsession. We could never filter for our kindred crowd this easily, back in the day. Kids like my brother had to just roll a twelve-sided die and luck into crossing paths with their like-minded D&D-loving clanmates.

      Of course then we have to wonder, now that the filtering IS so easy, what are the dangers of that? Of the ease with which we can surround ourselves with people like us, who share our views, agree with us? If we can build insulating communities of support a hundred members thick, all nodding their heads in time with us, are we losing the benefits of being forced to hear dissenting opinions? (Cable news, I’m looking at you.) Like everything to do with the Internet, it’s such a double-edged sword.

      • I see that refusal to even discuss alternating views every hour on Twitter.

        It is a very detrimental thing to democracy and the social contract. We are seeing the results of monolithic thinking run amuck in our latest governmental crisis.

        It’s one of my least favorite things about my modern world.

        • Cara McKenna says:

          That, and the retweetesque, meme-ish way opinions spread—the way political arguments have become little more than meaningless catchphrases and misleading sound bytes in the past decade.

  10. “I was self-aware enough to realize, “Man, I would be way too good at that.””

    I laughed because that is so me. I used to joke that I’d waited to drink and when I did I loved it. And I waited to try sex, and when I did I loved it. So when people offered me other temptations, I drew the line – because I figured I didn’t need to find out what else I loved to distraction.

    Interesting that so many of us are fascinated by obsessions. I don’t write about that extreme so much but my usual theme is transformation. Like Ruthie, I love to explore what a person lets hold them back – and what it takes to make them let go of it and become someone new.

    Just bought the book and looking forward to reading it!