As I write this, America’s most reclusive author is in the news. No, Harper Lee didn’t die, although she is 88. Rather, she found the novel she wrote prior to her iconic “To Kill a Mockingbird.” in a box. Titled “Go Set a Watchman,” the book will be published on July 14–Bastille Day. It is already #1 in books on Amazon, despite not even being published yet. She’s that legendary.
Every author hopes her book will be a best-seller. But not all authors want to be in the public eye. Lee has kept an almost secretive profile in the 55 years since the 1960 publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
I’ve been a journalist for 30 years. Journalists are notorious for not being known until something goes wrong–witness New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, The New Republic’s Stephen Glass or currently, Brian Williams, News Anchor and Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, all caught in lies about their reporting.
Pulitzer Prizes–the top journalism award for reporters–are awarded every April. I have been nominated for the award myself several times, for both reporting and commentary for my work at daily newspapers. It’s an honor–I have also won numerous other journalism awards–but I am very aware that there are few Americans who are not themselves in the newspaper business, who can name any reporter who has won a Pulitzer or one of the other top awards.
Reporters who are focused on doing their jobs like I have done all these years rarely make the news. Our lives are not written about unless we write about them ourselves. You are taught from day one by your editors to keep yourself out of the story, to be objective, to not insert opinions into what you write.
In my new novel, “Ordinary Mayhem,” I wanted to write about the complexity of being a journalist who has reasons–complicated reasons–for being reclusive. I also wanted to write about how stories get told and the impact those stories have on the reporter herself–in this case Faye Blakemore, my main character.
This novel began as a short story in “Night Shadows,” edited by Greg Herren and J.M.Redmann. Some stories take on a life of their own and this one did that for me. The story was a success–it won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012, where I was listed right after Stephen King. But I knew when I was writing it that the story wasn’t over. I needed to know more about these characters, especially my central character, Faye, and I needed to know how Faye got to be who she was. I also needed to hear her voice–in the short story she is somewhat distanced from both the reader and me, the writer. In the novel, I can hear her clearly, see her clearly. And I am terrified for her.
We talk a lot about trigger warnings these days–everything seems to come with one, as if we have somehow all become too fragile to live in the world without covering our eyes or ears. Faye’s all about triggering her audience. She wants them to know what she knows–that the world can be a terrible, grim place filled with mayhem. She wants them to know that daily life is often covering up “ordinary” mayhem, notably the violence against women that impacts one in three women worldwide. One in three who will be a victim at some point, of male violence. Wherever Faye goes, that violence is hovering nearby.
That reality is the real trigger warning and the one Faye lives with. It’s one I have lived with myself over my years as a reporter. When you cover stories that touch you deeply or that remind you of your own most terrible experiences, some acutely harrowing, that line of objectivity blurs badly. That’s what happens for Faye, it has at times happened for me.
When you cover stories that are just horrible, they impact you, hard. You can’t explain that to people who aren’t on the front lines–sometimes literally–because they haven’t experienced what you have experienced. And that’s what happens to Faye. She’s on the front lines all the time and there is no respite from the reel in her head. Not just the photographs she’s taken, but everything she’s seen. The pink mist that sprays over everything when a car bomb goes off, for example–that’s the liquifying of human bodies. That mist gets on Faye–literally and metaphorically–and she can’t wash it off.
There are horrifying scenes in “Ordinary Mayhem,” but there are no supernatural creatures. Everyone is real–which makes the horror all the more intense. There is nothing in this novel that I didn’t cover myself as a reporter or that I didn’t write about in some way. Conversely, while I feel I know Faye and know her well, she is not me and I am not her.
Which is a good thing, because blur that line too much and, well, ask Brian Williams.
While I was writing this book I would read sections to my fiancée. I write at night. It’s quiet, it’s atmospheric. I love the night and stories come to me then with clarity I don’t get during the day when I am doing journalistic work on deadline. Writing fiction and writing fact are so very different.
My partner would be lying in bed, reading, ready for sleep and I would say, “Let me read you this.” Over the years we have been together I have often read her pieces that are difficult–I want to be sure everything works. But as I read her more and more of “Ordinary Mayhem,” she would say to me, “Should I be worried that you wrote these scenes? That you came up with these ideas?”
After a while, she didn’t want to listen. “I have nightmares about these things, the things you have written, “she told me. “I’ll read it when it’s finished. Maybe.”
It is easier to read about zombies or vampires or the paranormal than it is about what we are capable of doing to each other at any given time. We know those things–zombies, vampires– aren’t real. We know there aren’t revenants. We know we are safe from the undead.
But are we safe from the men who come in the night and break down the door and kill everyone they find, and kill them horribly by torture and inhuman acts? No, we are not. In fact, sometimes those people are members of our very own families.
That is the story I wanted to tell–the story of the trigger warning, the real one, the one our bodies evolved over millennia to include, the one where the hairs go up on our necks and our hearts start to race and our skin flushes and we feel a little sick. I wanted to tell the story of what makes that happen. And I wanted to tell the story of how and why it happened to Faye. I wanted to layer the mayhem she covers for her job with the mayhem that is happening in her personal life. I wanted to show how isolated she was, but also how she reaches out to other women for solace.
As a journalist, I wanted to invite you into the story and how it is told. As a reader, I wanted to know what came next. As a lesbian, I wanted to know how a woman like Faye found someone–anyone–to be close to. And as a novelist I wanted to put those things together and make a story that you could peel back, layer after layer, and still not be certain if what you were reading was true or the hallucinations of a mad woman.
That mad woman might be Faye or it might be me. You will have to read “Ordinary Mayhem” to find out..