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.”