For readers, fiction offers ways to stare down fear from the safety of an armchair. Fear loneliness, and find love between the covers of a romance. Fear crime, and find criminals caught and justice served in a mystery. Fear conspiracies and disasters, and find them exposed and conquered in a thriller. A reader’s fictional roller coaster ride—inching up the precipice of taut suspense, plummeting over the edge of catastrophe, spinning in loops of danger and desire—is as timeless as it is satisfying. But what of the writers who construct the roller coasters? To engage readers’ emotions, to delight, mystify, and thrill an audience, writers must test the rides they design and very possibly face their own fears.
For novelists, writing our fears offers us ways to explore, understand, and articulate the disturbing and horrific, to bring pattern to chaos and language to the unspeakable. Sometimes we write from the dark personal center of ourselves, sometimes from our perception of sweeping events, finding in both approaches the inextricable link between the specific and the universal.
One of my fears—that of madness robbing us of who we are—and my outrage at those who abuse their positions of authority combined in Women of Magdalene, a novel exploring misogyny and racism in a post-Civil War women’s asylum. Through my publisher, Kunati Inc., I have met other writers who keep faith with Kunati’s commitment to “provocative, bold, controversial” books and face an array of fearful topics: war, corruption, paranoia, disease, abuse, kidnapping, suicide, and murder. One of those writers, Karen Harrington, focuses her debut novel Janeology on the aftermath of a mother’s murdering of her own child. Murder is murder, perhaps—yet cases of mothers killing their own children have an overwhelming power to shock. The person, whom we believe should be most trusted with and devoted to a child, destroys the child, a crime that stirs the most primal of fears.
At Houston’s Murder by the Book, an independent bookstore, I moderated a panel entitled “From Mothering to Madness” to explore that primal fear. Joining me were Karen Harrington and Dr. Debra Osterman, a staff psychiatrist at the Harris County Jail. Dr. Osterman treated Andrea Yates shortly after Yates was arrested for the June 2001 drowning deaths of her five children. And the Yates case was certainly an influence on Karen’s work.
I asked Karen what drew her, a mother of young children, herself, to write a fictional account of such disturbing events. Her reply echoed that of many writers who write through their fears: by creating a fictional situation and exploring the motives and actions of her characters, Karen strove for and found a clearer understanding of human nature’s dark side. She asked herself how this terrible thing could have happened. How might it have been prevented? How does the relationship between nature and nurture affect us, particularly in regard to aberrant behavior?
When a novelist writes about difficult subject matter, how he or she approaches the story has a powerful influence on the reader's perception and willingness to take the fictional journey. In Janeology, Karen Harrington reveals the aftermath of Jane's actions from her husband Tom's point of view, giving readers someone to care about and follow as he tries to make sense of tragedy. In Women of Magdalene, I look at the mistreatment of patients through the eyes of an idealistic physician, who challenges the asylum director. And while Karen and I wander the labyrinth of fear and danger in our imaginations, Dr. Debra Osterman addresses mad and criminal behavior daily in her line of work. At the end of our panel discussion, after some lively give-and-take with the audience, Dr. Osterman explained how she copes with the grim aspects of her profession. She renews herself through positive connections with family and friends, good advice for writers, too—and she reads novels, especially mystery and suspense.
For both readers and writers, imagination and realty form not a dichotomy but a symbiosis. Experience creates narrative, and a narrative enlivened with characters, dialogue, and plot becomes a novel, which becomes a roller coaster ride that sends us plunging, spinning, and soaring. Then, we return to our armchairs, a little shaken and a little more emboldened to read and write our fears again.