It’s cynical of me to say so, but there’s money in misery. But, suffering is a part of life. As Woody Allen lamented:
Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon.
I’ll never be a fan of misery memoirs, though perhaps I should write one, as this genre is said to be the most rapidly expanding. Many stories of suffering have been faked, though I was impressed by Jung Chang’s Wild Swans.
I write in the crime genre, which enables me to tackle some contentious issues in society, as well as the vile behaviour of criminals and the deplorable attitude of the public who get a thrill out of being gawkers and trolls.
I’ve written about murder, kidnapping, poisoning, sexual assault, blackmail, prostitution, drug dealing, incest, violent assault, genocide and human trafficking. Some of these crimes were prompted by unpleasant human events, such as mental illness, bereavement, suicide and assisted suicide, long-term unemployment and debt, cancer, PTSD, and homelessness.
These are things that have happened to my friends, acquaintances and family members, though I never write so closely that they could be identified. Some crimes, accidents and tragedies are stuff I remembered from the news, going right back to my boyhood. For instance, my last novel includes a corpse being found incompletely embalmed, which is a newspaper story I recalled from the 1960s where a man attempted to preserve his wife in this way, living with her body for thirty years. This only came to light, after he died alone and his putrefying remains alerted neighbours that something was amiss. He was laying on the bed next to his beloved.
I also draw on first-hand knowledge, including violent confrontations and fights, (where I was sometimes on the losing end), meetings with career criminals and racists, a near-death experience, finding a corpse, being burgled and the ramifications of mistaken identity. I didn’t know it at the time, but my suffering has provided me with the perfect material for writing novels!
It’s said ‘To write what you know about’, but I have no way of telling whether the passages based on what actually happened to me read truer than those created by my imagination. In rough times, I certainly thought “This will make a great story one day,” which only goes to prove that my writerly brain was observant, even while dormant.
Have you ever written anything based on personal suffering, or of sadness that happened to those close to you?
Are there any books that make you howl with anguish? I recently read Plainsong, written by Kent Haruf, in which an abandoned pregnant girl is taken in by two farmer brothers. The kindness of these simple souls to her made me shed a tear—fortunately, I was on the loo at the time—so tissue paper was handy!
What do you think of misery lit?
Is there anything that you wouldn’t write about? I tackled paedophilia in my latest novel, The Dead Need Nobody, which made me uncomfortable, though I wrote about this most hideous of crimes partly as a plot device, to have my protagonist lose control of his temper to batter the offender so severely that he dies, meaning he gets suspended from duty. He was fighting for his life, stabbed with a sword and bleeding out, meaning he’s in a coma at the end. Quite what his fate will be in Book 6, I’ve yet to decide.
If reading can be therapeutic, I guess that writing about the dark side of life could be healing.