Writing on “Heavy” Topics

I know writers who won’t write anything other than a happy ending or who will only write light, upbeat fiction. And that’s fine. You write what you feel comfortable with, and if you don’t want your readers to experience dismay, that’s fine, too.

I guess I’m too much of a realist. I haven’t had a hard life, but I’ve had a difficult one: the deaths of my parents and my brother at far too early ages; two failed relationships, one with an abuser and one with an alcoholic; job disappointments; politics not going the way I think it should, among others. However, I’ve never had to flee my country in fear of my life. I’ve never worried about where my next meal was coming from or whether I had a roof over my head or whether I’d lose a job without cause.

It’s been a privileged life, and I’m aware my efforts to help those less fortunate are in no way a balance.

But it’s a life that has left me cynical of politics, human relationships (though not people themselves), and organized religion. I take that back. All religion.

I don’t believe in shielding children from reality. I didn’t sugarcoat deaths of family members or pets. I emphasized cause and effect and that doing what you wanted to do to disastrous results wouldn’t be brushed under the rug.

So, when I sit down to write, my paradigm of self controls what emerges, and that’s usually dark. I don’t apologize for that.

History is Real

We are in the midst of a debate about the history taught in our schools. Some, myself included, want children to learn what really happened. At the beginning of the pandemic when a grandchild had virtual school (4th grade) several days a week at my house, I supplemented her sanitized Virginia history course with reality.

Now, lest you think I brow-beat her, relax. I posed questions, and we found the answers together. The result, she not only had a fuller picture of history, but she learned to question what she hears.

There are people who think children should only receive a whitewashed version of history. Emphasis intended. How would these people have written about the Oklahoma City bombing or the attacks on 9/11?

In regard to the Oklahoma City bombing, they would prefer that you accept the bomber was an evil monster and that if the government hadn’t been so oppressive it wouldn’t have happened. Regarding 9/11, their history would emphasize that Islam is a terrorist religion.

When I wrote about the Oklahoma City bombing, I focused on the dark extremism behind it: white supremacy, racist religion, and armed paramilitaries. I’m now writing about 9/11, and I am putting blame for the attacks where it belongs, on radicalized Muslims, who are in no way indicative of an entire religion. (There are good and bad Muslims, as there are good and bad Christians, etc.) I am also pointing out the failures in the U.S. intelligence system that meant the attacks could happen in the first place.



History Doesn’t Make it Easy

Despite my acceptance of the reality of history, I had moments while writing the series A Perfect Hatred where the research dragged me down. Reading about paranoia made me paranoid. What if some extremist didn’t like what I’d written? What if they found out where I lived? At times, my then-spouse had to talk me down. Reading what some people in this country believe, dark and wrenching prejudices, and religion used as justification for killing the “other,” only deepened my cynicism. But, as I said, I never lost my faith in human beings. For every racist “patriot” determined to destroy this country, there are far more of us who want to preserve it. True then and now.

Similarly, when I started writing my novels about 9/11, it was difficult to relive that day. Indeed, to this day, I have only watched one series about 9/11. (The Looming Tower on Hulu, based on Lawrence Wright’s book.) I’ve attended only one commemoration after I moved to where I live now. The local fire department erected a monument to the firefighters killed that day. The memorial was a piece of the support girders for one of the twin towers. I have read perhaps one or two books that have 9/11 as a backdrop. My research for book one of my new series, Meeting the Enemy, consisted of reading history about the World Trade Center. Though the timeline on that day is firmly ingrained in my memory, I referred to articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post to make sure I got the minutia right. For some things, all I had to do was walk down the hall of my federal building to the Office of Accident Investigation.

It was hard. It was depressing. I felt helpless and angry and defeated, but I’m also not one to give up. The story I started to show that someone escaped the rubble–far too optimistic for my paradigm of self–had to grow beyond that. There were victims’ families’ oscillating emotions, from hope to reality yet again. There was survivors’ PTSD and survivor guilt. There was the U.S.’s reaction to having been attacked, which began in nobility and devolved into a second war based on false intelligence.

Still depressing.

But I continued to write because I still had a story to tell about history and reality. It’s cynical, it’s dark, but it had to be told.

As I’ve said before, history is sometimes uncomfortable and often dark, but it’s a reality we have to acknowledge. And listen to. And learn from, not simply to prevent repetition of the “bad” parts but to save ourselves.

Can we do that?

I’m a cynic, remember.