Over the Top, and Right Over the Edge

Today TKZ welcomes author Laura Benedict, whose novels ISABELLA MOON and MR. LONELYHEARTS are both favorites of mine. Her latest, DEVIL’S OVEN, was just released.

When I was deep into the editing process with my first-to-be-published novel, I had a conversation with my editor that went something like this (And I definitely mean “something like.” I have a terrible memory, but I suspect he wouldn’t mind the paraphrasing.):

Editor: “We need to talk about Character X’s murder.”

Me: “Really? What do you mean?”

Editor: “You have the murderer roll Character X’s head across the kitchen floor so it stops at the heroine’s feet.”

Me: (Cackling nervously–something I would NEVER have a character do, but I definitely cackled. Nervously.) “I know! Isn’t it awesome?”

Editor: “Well, it’s certainly dramatic.”

Me: “It’s deliciously evil, don’t you think? It just came to me. Wild, huh?”

Editor: “You might want to think about writing the scene another way.”

Me: “Really? Why?” (My heart was sinking. I knew this wasn’t going well.)

Editor: “You already have one character being stabbed to death with a pitchfork. I think the detached, rolling head is, I don’t know, over-the-top?”

Me: “But it’s what the murderer does. He’s a murderous psychopath!”

Editor: “It’s not the kind of thing people expect in a book like yours. You would find something like that in a horror novel, not an upmarket thriller. I think you could pull it back a little and still have it be effective.”

Me: (Pouting in a most unprofessional way, yet knowing in my heart that he was right, dammit.) “I’ll give it a shot.”

In the end I listened to him because I really did know he was right. I had known the battle was lost before I even sent the revision in. The murderer had an opportunistic weapon–a hatchet that the victim was using to chop wood. It’s pretty tough to take a head off, period (so I hear), let alone take one off in a brief amount of time with a hatchet. It just seemed so diabolically fun! So surprising! Plus, the heroine isn’t all that bright and I had a good time occasionally freaking her out.

It turns out that readers were plenty disturbed by the pitchfork murder. Since I had to choose, I’m glad I chose the pitchfork. It was so much more elegant. (The same editor also told me never to kill a dog or cat in my work. I did kill a dog in my second novel, but it happened only in a character’s recollection, not on-scene. Readers still hated it. Learn from me: Never. Kill. The. Dog.)

Three books later (including my WIP), I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t write straight horror fiction and never really have. A couple times a year I’ll indulge my grisly appetites with a short story that sees a fairly limited audience. The beast needs to be exercised once in a while, right? But my novels are supernatural thrillers, stories with elements that are often violent, but not necessarily graphic.

I don’t like to think that I’m censoring myself. I choose to think of it as self-editing. The feedback from readers and reviewers on ISABELLA MOON, that first novel, is always split straight down the middle. People either love it, or they hate it with a passion. (I’ll take that. Eliciting any sort of strong reaction is a good thing.) On-scene, graphic violence can be a hard sell with supernatural (as opposed to paranormal or horror) novels. Ghosts, not gore, please.

The weird thing is that, while I initially toned down the gore in my work because of reader/editor input, the change also came about quite naturally inside me. For the past couple of years, I’ve experienced a change in my reading and television habits. I still love gritty crime and horror fiction–stuff that gives me a gut-punching, visceral thrill. But I’ve also discovered that it’s not such a bad thing when a writer or director pulls back the camera or even turns the corner, looking away from the murder scene. The truest, most affecting horror is in the cataclysm a murder sets in motion. Writers like Louise Penny and Elizabeth George do this very well. John Hart does it well. Stephen King does it both ways–and does both well. There’s tension in subtlety. There can be terror in subtlety as well. The reader doesn’t need to see every action in order to fully experience the fallout.

It’s all rather like a strip tease, isn’t it? (Yes, I’m going to go with this metaphor, God help me.) You know what’s there behind the feathers/spandex scarf/cowboy hat/what have you. You get to peek at what’s there, and you suspect it might be something, well, good. Attractive. Stimulating, etc. And, at the very end, you get to see the whole picture–the big payoff. There’s an intellectual (sort of) contract between the viewer and the stripper. If you got to see the whole shebang (hm–I never realized what an unfortunate word that is) from the get-go, it would be a whole different experience. Pornography like the stuff you see on sexmature works this way. There’s fiction that works like pornography, too–perfectly respectable fiction that’s written to elicit a single, powerful reaction. It’s reliable. Uncomplicated. Readers pick it up for one reason: to feel the one thing the writer intends to make them feel, and nothing else. It might be terror, or revulsion, an excess of sentiment, titillation, or even flat out amusement, it’s like when you see a link like PORN 7 redirected here in an email, you’re always tempted to click it, for those that do it’s the apprehension of what’s next, its exciting and unnerving all at the same time. It’s comfortably predictable. (Okay. Done with that awkward metaphor.)

Violence needs to fit the prose as well as the story. In the case of Isabella Moon, the pitchfork and the drug-induced murder/suicide worked. The Kentucky Hatchet Massacre? Not so much. Trust between a writer and reader is critical. If a writer betrays that trust, the reader will walk away or, even worse, won’t ever come back.

Have you ever felt betrayed by a writer in the middle of a novel? Who are the writers you trust the most?

Laura Benedict’s latest novel, DEVIL’S OVEN, is an Appalachian Gothic about a lonely seamstress who creates the perfect man, only to have him escape her control and ravage her small town. Her earlier novels, ISABELLA MOON and CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, will soon be available again as ebooks at www.gallowstreepress.com, Amazon and BN. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Noir at the Bar, and numerous other anthologies. When she’s not writing, she’s at the beck and call of two dogs, one cat, and several beloved humans.

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No Kids Allowed!

LBenedictAug08 We’ve been graced with some extremely talented guest bloggers these past few Sundays, and today is no exception. I’m thrilled to introduce author Laura Benedict, whose debut ISABELLA MOON kept me up all night when I read it (and certain passages induced further insomnia the nights that followed). Her latest is CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, and based on the stellar reviews it’s also a must-read.

Without further ado…
I worry sometimes that I’m corrupting the nation’s youth. (Okay, maybe just a teeny-tiny portion of the nation’s youth. Perhaps nine or ten of the little darlings.) I worry that the line between adult and young adult fiction—particularly fiction with a supernatural bent—is so blurred that young readers are stumbling into material that they shouldn’t be exposed to. Back in the day (let’s not go too deeply into which day), the lines were pretty clear: Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Dean Koontz were all the rage with their edgy language and adult situations. Fourteen and fifteen year-olds could pick up the books without too much criticism, though they were hardly fodder for school libraries. Soon after, the brilliant R.L. Stine came along for the younger kiddies, and J.K. Rowling blew off the door to the (not too) dark side for eight and nine-year-olds. The kids who grew up reading Harry Potter, as well as their younger brothers and sisters, are now looking for more: more fantasy, more witchcraft, ghosts and vampires. They’re looking for escapist literature.bene_lonely heartscopy

Many have found Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series. My own teenage daughter adores these books. I haven’t taken the plunge. At sixteen, Pomegranate’s a fairly mature reader. She’s got a strong background in Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman literature, so she’s no stranger to edgy sexual and social relationships in fiction. She loves Shakespeare. I don’t worry too much when she reads, say, The Godfather or Hannibal because she seems to keep the violence and language in perspective—plus, we talk about what she’s reading.

A few days ago, I was signing books at my local Barnes and Noble when an eleven or twelve year-old girl picked up one of the paperback copies of my novel, Isabella Moon. Isabella Moon is a ghost story. The girl started reading the copy on the back of it, and when her mother came up to the table, the girl told her she wanted to buy it. I tensed.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to sell books. I just don’t want to sell books to children. I don’t write books for children. I write books for adults.
Both Isabella Moon and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts are full of what one might euphemistically be called “adult situations.” Meaning lots of sex, buckets of violence and language that might not make a sailor blush, but will instantly bring a scowl to my mother’s face. There are vast numbers of adults who don’t like their books spiced with such things, and sometimes it’s hard to tell from a book’s cover what it might contain inside. (Sometimes clichés are spot-on.)

I’m certainly not casting any blame on J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. I celebrate them because their books have brought kids to the bookstores in droves. It’s their subject matter that muddles the situation. J.K. Rowling’s books—for the most part—have a Halloween kind of darkness to them. Like every good Disney protagonist, her hero is an orphan. He lives in a boarding school. He’s goofy, but kind of cool. My understanding of Stephanie Meyer’s vampires is that they’re edgy in a West Side Story kind of way. Strictly PG or, maybe, PG-13.
But true evil isn’t PG-13. I look at evil as something that can insinuate itself into a person and wreak emotional and spiritual havoc. I look at it as something that can overflow into life-shattering chaos. Its habits and proclivities can be seductive, but they can also be brutal, sexually-charged and terrifying. Evil is chaos. Evil is unpredictable. It’s never pretty—at least not for long. I explore evil through my own work, but, in the end, I know that my work—just like Rowling’s and Meyer’s—can only approximate true evil. Even so, I have to ask, "How much is too much?"

My daughter has read my books in manuscript form, though I must confess that they were lightly redacted versions. Several pages had large Post-Its placed over the titillating parts like pasties on an exotic dancer. (Yes, the last time I saw an exotic dancer was in an Ann Margaret movie!) I don’t know if she peeked. Perhaps she did. And that would be a shame-on-mommy kind of thing. But I know her. I know that if she has questions, or something freaks her out, I’m there to answer her honestly.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there for every thirteen or fourteen year-old who picks up my books. I can only hope their parents are around, paying attention.

I told the mother of the girl at Barnes & Noble that she might want to look at Isabella Moon before her daughter read it, that it contained some adult material, and was quite frightening. The mother appeared unconcerned, and even bought Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts for herself, bless her. Perhaps the daughter was a mature reader, just like my daughter. I’m skeptical, though. I gave them my card with my email address and asked them to email me with their thoughts about it.  Maybe it’s just the mother in me, worrying.

So, speaking as a mother, if you’re under seventeen, don’t buy my books!

www.laurabenedict.com
Notes From the Handbasket
CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, Now available from Ballantine Books!
ISABELLA MOON, Available in trade paperback

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