Our own worst nightmares: wrestling with violence in (my) fiction

One Tuesday this past June, I was planning to run a few errands, do a little grading, and then settle in for a long afternoon of proofreading my Civil War novel, Hagridden. At the time, it was still a couple months from publication, and I was going through the last edits in the proof copy. But before I got to work, I turned on the morning news and heard that there had been a shooting at a high school in Troutdale, Oregon.

This high school is just 30 minutes from my house in Portland; it’s just a few blocks from the house I lived in as a toddler in Troutdale, and just a few blocks from the college where my wife works now. She had just driven past the high school minutes before the shooting occurred.

I spent the whole morning and part of my afternoon watching, reading, and listening to the reports. One student killed. Another student, the shooter, dead as well. A teacher wounded. A community wounded, in shock and grieving.

But then the news took a break, and I still had errands to run, so I left the house. I dropped off the dry cleaning and some library dvds, I deposited some checks at the bank, and I stopped at a café for a beer. I took out my novel and a pencil, figured I might as well get to work.

In chapter one, my two main characters murder three men and dump their bodies in an abandoned well. And I realized I might as well have never turned away from the news.

We’ve been wrestling with violence in literature — in art in general — for about as long as art has existed, though historically that violence has been either an expression of nature (beasts emerging from an unknowable darkness to devour us, storms ravaging the relative calm we’ve grown accustomed to) or an expression of the abnormal in an otherwise ordinary world (monsters in hidden dwellings, the occasional brutality of warfare or self-defense).

Hagridden, rooted in a frightening past, addresses all these things: there are the women desperate to survive by any means necessary, their neighbor haunted by his wartime experience, a lieutenant driven mad by combat, the swampland legends of the wolf-like rougarou, the desolation of the bayou and the devastation of a hurricane . . . .

But I have always maintained that, like science fiction, historical fiction is never as much about the time it depicts as it is about the time it was written, and I’m very much aware that Hagridden is a modern novel. And this issue of violence in fiction has been a particular thorn in our modern side, especially for Southern fiction. In the general sense, this is perhaps because, in our modern era, we’re more aware of ourselves, and so we’re more aware of the dark reality that we each are the authors of our own worst nightmares, that we are the monsters we fear the most.

The past couple of months, I’ve been working on a new novel. This is also set in the South, it also deals with a violent historical period, just after the Civil War, when divided sentiments and racial tensions and deep mistrust of government authority manifested in localized and deeply personal wars.

And on the news, I hear about the deaths of John Crawford and Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice; I read about divided communities, racial tensions, and a deep mistrust of the police and a legal system that allows them to kill unarmed civilians without consequence.

People have taken to the streets in furious protest all across the country. As I write this, huge crowds are marching downtown in my own city of Portland. And I love those people and I support them with all my heart. But personally, I don’t know how else to respond to the violence in my world except to write it. Because in writing about violent characters and characters who are the victims of violence, I have to put myself in their places and imagine their lives.

In a world so full of violence and so compelled to report on it and consume it, what can a writer do but explore that phenomenon on the page, to try to understand it?

There are happier things to write about, like love and friendship and community support, and when they work in a story I want to use them, to celebrate them. But these are the things that heal the conflicts in our lives, not the conflict itself, and whatever resolution a story might find in the end, all fiction is driven by conflict.

And so I write a war on the page.

Some people have called my novel Hagridden “dark.” It’s a word I know from my youth, when my mother sometimes worried over my Stephen King novels and my grotesque attempts at writing horror: “Everything you write is so dark,” she would tell me.

But when we write about violence, when we confront it on the page, it isn’t about the darkness of it — it’s about bringing that all-too-human horror into the light where we can see it. Where we can know it for what it is.

We write it in order to expose that darkness and in the clean light of print on page, challenge it. I think that violence in fiction is just the manifestation of human beings wrestling with ourselves.

And so I wrestle on.

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3 thoughts on “Our own worst nightmares: wrestling with violence in (my) fiction

    1. There’s been a lot of buzz this past year about research that shows how reading fiction makes us more empathetic human beings, and I for one completely buy into that. I think that’s even true of reading fiction and characters that repulse us.

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