Friday, April 6, 2007

Are We All Nuts?

What do you call someone who is detached from reality and lives in a fantasy world? A schizophrenic? Delusional? How about a writer?

People have told me they think Ian, the main character in my book Dot Dead is really me. That’s flattering since he’s younger, more attractive, and smarter than I am, but it’s just not true. In fact, I think those people have the situation exactly backwards. While writing the book, I became Ian. I lived in an alternate world as Ian and made my way through that messy place as him. When he checks voicemail one day, Ian gets a message left for him by a person since murdered. A shiver went up my back and my scalp tingled when I wrote that. I was there. I was Ian.

Back in grad school when I was writing my thesis on British diplomacy just before World War II, I caught myself writing checks dated 1939. (No, I was not in grad school then. I’m old but not that old.) For ten or twelve hours a day, I time-traveled and became Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, and company trying to figure out how to deal with the Nazi menace. Putting yourself in another time and place, walking in another person’s shoes – isn’t that what writing is all about? And there’s no need to defy the laws of physics to do it. You just need a laptop and the ability to live in an alternate world.

Some writers do meticulous outlining before starting the first chapter. Not me. I write in the first person because I want to be in that alternate world and experience what the narrator is seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and thinking. So I can become him. Tess Gerritsen recently blogged about this: “I have no idea where my story will take me when I sit down to write the first page.” Me neither. Finding out where I'm going in an alternative world is what makes writing so exciting to me.

It all kind of reminds me of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, hero of A Princess of Mars, who magically travels between two different worlds. (Same thing for the kids in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.) Don’t we writers escape from the workaday world and move to another, more interesting one while thumping on the keyboard?

So where do you draw the line between being a writer and being a little unhinged? As for me, I draw no line, but a circle. I’m both.

Keith Raffel

P.S. Just in case you were wondering what I had in common with Zach Braff, Marilu Henner, Bob Marley, Michelle Phillips, Billy Dee Williams, Merle Haggard, André Previn, James Watson, Walter Huston, Butch Cassidy, and Raphael.... We were all born on April 6!


Candy Calvert said...

Happy Birthday, Keith!

And, yes, it is strange to spend so much time immersed in "alternate worlds." Stranger still when those worlds overlap: Not long ago I received an e-mail (via my website contact link) from . . . Darcy Cavanaugh. Seriously. I saw it in my inbox and there was this dithering moment where my real and fictional worlds collided. Until I read the note, found out that this Darcy Cavanaugh wasn't my book character at all. She was a respiratory therapist in Idaho Falls who'd finished a grueling night shift, and "Googled" her name--only to find out she was "starring" in a medical mystery series. I think Darcy was a boggled as I was. Then she rushed out to buy the books. Which was a win-win for both of us! ;-)

Susan Goodwill said...

I second the Happy Birthday, Keith!
Candy-- that's funny. So, folks buy the book if they 'star' in it, huh? Maybe John Smith should be my next protagonist...
There is an actress named Kate London-- my protagonist's name, and I believe there is writer, Cait London. I have yet to find a match for two of my characters though-- Nancy von Dickel-Schnebbly or a CSI named Elvis-Presley Zowicki. Maybe it's the hyphens.
I think it was Larry Block who wrote that his wife would say, "My husband--he's not all there." He would agree-- he was in his book world being someone else.

Mark Combes said...

Happy Birthday Keith/Ian~

I wish I could remember who said it, but the paraphrased quote goes something like: "If you know where your story is going, so will the reader."


Michael Patrick Leahy said...

Happy Birthday Keith !

That makes you... about 39 again, right ?

Julia Buckley said...

Birthday greetings, spring baby! As you know, I love the name of your main character. I know exactly what it feels like to become your character, and I say THANK GOODNESS for that. Our writing allows us to have experiences we would otherwise never have.

Have a slice of birthday cake for me! There's another sort of vicarious living.

Joe Moore said...

Keith, regarding living multiple lives while writing, Virginia Woolf once said, "I was in a strange mood, thinking myself very old. But now I am a young woman again as I always am when I write."

Happy Birthday!

Nina Wright said...

Happy birthday to you, Keith! I think writers write for the same basic reason actors act, allowing for a different sense of exhibitionism: to safely experience what we otherwise can't. And so we get to try on another gender, age, personality, history, set of values, set of problems, set of friends, set of lovers....

To a lesser extent, that's also why we read, isn't it?

Bill Cameron said...

This also happens to be the birthday of a certain young man named Justin Cameron. Age 12 today! :D

Happy Birthday!

I'm definitely a "become the character" kind of writer. In a sense, writing for me is about enlarging the world I live in. Kinda selfish at first, but then after early drafts I try to figure out why anyone else may care about what I'm writing about as well.

There was a quote I read once. Something like, "Traveling is like falling in love. The world is daily made anew." Writing too, for me.

Mark Terry said...

You're all crazy, but I'm perfectly sane.

[although a friend did give me a Darth Vader Pez dispenser, claiming I deserved it because I've killed so many people]

Bill Cameron said...

How many people do I have to kill to get a Darth Vader Pez dispenser. Not that I'd actually kill anyone. You know. Over a Darth Vader Pez dispenser.


Keith Raffel said...

Thank you all for the good wishes. I feel a lot bit better knowing that if I'm nuts, I have lots of hi-fautin' company.