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Killer Voices: Violence and Danger in Writing

I am back on a Round Robin post today, and we have been set the following topic:

How do you handle/use violence, or any type of danger, in your stories?

This is a fascinating topic for me because my most recent novel, which is currently going out on submissions via my agent, is about a serial killer. Not only that, it is definitely NOT a crime story!

But thereby lies the dilemma – I have written a literary fiction book that focuses on the internal world of someone who kills, and the friendship he forms with a woman who was born profoundly deaf. They share a very internalized sense of the world and a common love of the Lincolnshire fenland landscape where the book is set. The writing is descriptive, but the subject matter is harder hitting than is normal in ‘literary’ work.

This is a book that I am proud of. I believe I have written something with integrity and I want it to find an audience. Its origins stem from the well-loved Quaker phrase: ‘that of God in everyone’. It got me thinking: as we can find ‘that of God’ in all people, what is it in some people that allows them to kill or to commit awful crimes?

This is the question that the book tries to answer in some way.

So: I did my research. I read about ‘types’ of sexual offenders and serial killers and the different ways and means that aggression is expressed. In rape, for instance, patterns of behaviour may be based on anger (sexuality becomes a hostile act), power (an expression of conquest) and sadism (where anger and power become eroticized). I probably ducked the difficult options in choosing that Michael, my character, would be an anger killer – it’s easier to see the humanity in someone who loses control without pre-planning anything, and where there are trigger events to explain it. It also meant introducing backstory to show how he came to be the person he was – and I based this on research and reading interviews with real rapists and killers.

The other thing I decided with this novel was to let the reader know from page one that Michael had killed in the past. This brought in a sense of jeopardy for the other characters that he met and it meant that his own journey was about trying to control his anger and not to kill again. His crimes involve sexual violence, and I did write the scenes fairly factually – the reader sees what happened and it’s hard to tell how an individual reader feels in reading these scenes. Each crime shows the lead up and what triggered Michael’s loss of control – and the randomness of who becomes the victim. Because the land and cycles of nature are central to the book, I also show how the bodies of Michael’s victims decay and become a rich source of nourishment to the landscape – a sense of the earth reclaiming its own.

All this is brilliant, except…. I appear to have shot myself in the foot by crossing traditional genre divides. This is literary fiction but it features a serial killer. Crimes are committed but the focus is on the reaction of the community and the characters involved, not police involvement or solving of the crimes. Feedback from publishers has been extremely positive but the book does not ‘fit’ their normal categories and it is hard to find it a home. One editor put it this way: ‘having a serial killer as a main character [in a novel that is clearly literary in nature] will put it into a certain category that will alienate some readers and potentially appeal to the ‘wrong’ readers in other cases, who will expect something more narrative’.

Another dilemma posed by writing storylines that involve violence from both a perpetrator’s and a person-centred perspective is that people are not always comfortable with being asked to treat a serial killer as a human being. One editor expressed discomfort at the feeling that they were being asked to sympathise with a serial killer – not my intention, but perhaps it shows that I did manage to get across my character’s humanity despite his capacity to kill.

I have dealt with violence in other novels – self-harm and domestic abuse, an overheated argument leading to death by dangerous driving – but Out of Silence retains a very special place in my heart, and will continue to do so whether it finds a publishing deal or not.

See how other writers deal with danger and violence in their work:

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1i2
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Anne de Gruchy https://annedegruchy.co.uk/category/blog/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Judith Copek, //http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com

© Anne de Gruchy

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In Praise of Ten Under-Appreciated Things – No 3: Human Beings

What is the difference between this photograph…

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Shutlingsloe

…and this one?

The answer? PEOPLE! (Well, you may just see a disappearing blob of orange in the distance in the first photograph, but we do have to keep the detail-spotters happy).

Of course the scenery is beautiful either way (we were walking at Shutlingsloe) but the whole point is: people make things better. Not only do they make things better, they help us to gain perspective – whether that’s the size of the mountain we are climbing or the way we relate to things and to other people day to day.

Why am I suddenly so interested in people as an under-appreciated thing? Well, recently there have been two factors that are steering me to value all over again how amazing human beings are. I thought I’d share them with you.

Firstly, I have been having spammer problems with this WordPress blog. Of course we are all used to spammer problems in this weirdly wired-up society, but it doesn’t half irritate me. Also, if I am not in a good state of mind, it can make me extremely anxious. I don’t need to know, repeated times a day, that gobbledygookname@outlook.com is following my blog and will receive an email whenever I post. And it doesn’t help that goobledygookname does not appear in my list of subscribers so I am denied the satisfaction of deleting them.

The problem with spam emails resulted in an acquaintance of mine suggesting that I add in one of those neat little tick boxes with the words ‘I am not a robot’ beside it. This is apparently not within the remit of the basic WordPress functionality that my blog is limited to, but it got me thinking about how, in a world where we have to formally admit to all and sundry that it is actually a human being trying to communicate online, we totally under-appreciate the qualities and importance of other people in our lives.

Secondly, and following on from this, is the fact that I am currently battling depression again big time. I sit around weeping and trying to force myself to face the day. It hasn’t been this bad since I was in my dysfunctional twenties and it’s scary. However I have become more resilient and self-aware over the intervening decades and when I hit rock bottom recently I pinged a few texts out to some of my lovely friends and waited on the outcome. The result was supportive phone calls and texts from a couple of friends and a lovely day out walking with another. Human beings are what make life meaningful and we just don’t appreciate them enough!

I am going to leave you with a quote that just pinged through into my email while I was writing this post. It was shared by one of the local Quaker meetings in our Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Area Meeting who kindly do a weekly email update giving the insights and conversations they have had. This week they shared the philosopher Mencius’s concept of the capricious world, and it so totally describes what I believe it means to be a human being that I had to pass it on:

‘Living in a capricious world means accepting that we do not live within a
stable moral cosmos that will always reward people for what they do… if our
world is indeed constantly fragmented and unpredictable, then it is
something we can constantly work on bettering. We can go into each situation
resolved to be the best human being we can be, not because of what we’ll get
out of it, but simply to affect others around us for the better, regardless
of the outcome. We can cultivate our better sides and face this
unpredictable world, transforming it as we go.

‘It is a very different vision from asking grand questions such as “Who am
I?” and “How should I plan out my life”. Instead we work constantly to alter
things at a small, daily level. And if we’re successful, we can build
tremendous communities around us in which people can flourish. And even then
we can continue to work. Our work – of bettering oneself and others to
produce a better world is never over’

(p84 The Path – A New Way to Think About Everything: Michael Puett &
Christine Gross – Loh: Viking: 2016)

© Anne de Gruchy