M: We’ve been acquainted for a number of years, and I’ve seldom seen you without a smile on your face. It’s hard to imagine you writing some of the dark and disturbing things that happen to Irene.
JB: I'll have to give a complex answer this one. Hmmm... such a long one, that I think I'll have to post something to my blog on the subject. But in the meantime, believe it or not, here's the short version:
I am an optimistic person, and believe firmly that we will only move forward in life if we allow our hopes to be stronger than our fears. This is, in essence, Irene's journey throughout the series. For there to be any sort of redemption in the books, as she makes this journey her best attributes — her loyalties, her beliefs, her determination, her intelligence — all combine with her sense of humor and her willingness to accept the help of others, and allow her to triumph over her deep, understandable and genuine fears.
Like a great many others, crime and violence have touched my life in a number of ways. Friends and family members murdered, assaulted, raped. Missing persons cases and more. Violence and its results are not imaginary.
So what to do when imagining violence? As a writer, I try to find a balance: while I don't want to gloss over its impact, I don't want to present a gorefest. I aim for intensity, and if you look through the books, I think you'll find most of those scenes are relatively short.
All of which brings me to the dilemma I found myself facing when I began writing the second book in the Irene Kelly series, Sweet Dreams, Irene.
I had seen so many books of crime fiction in which the heroes got the hell beaten out of them. In the more "realistic" ones, these heroes were bruised and bandaged over the next couple of days in the story. With very rare exceptions, though, books that showed the psychological consequences of violence were nonexistent. (One of the few, oddly enough, was Hammett's Red Harvest.) The hero went right back out there, carrying a big ol' can of whupass.
But if you truly know anything about violence, you know that bruises and broken bones are often not the worst consequences for those who survive violence. The emotional toll is often the greatest.
Among other influences as I wrote Sweet Dreams, Irene, I thought of a friend who had, some years before, been brutally attacked in her home by an escaped convict. The police later shot and killed the man. So she had nothing to fear, right? Wrong.
My friend, an intelligent, strong, rational woman, still lived in terror, still trembled whenever she was out in public places, and often thought she saw her attacker in crowds. She was smart enough to get help. I also saw something else in my friend. It was that kind of courage that ordinary people display in such extraordinary ways — she moved forward even though she was afraid.
I wanted to write about a protagonist who had that kind of courage, not the bravado of a dimwit who doesn't know enough to be afraid or a superhero who either has no reason to be afraid or isn't human enough to have fears.
It seemed to me that it would be dishonoring my friend and others like her to write another "big girls don't cry" kind of book. Irene had to be bone-deep afraid, and had to have good reason to be. And she had to move on from there, step by step.
So I intentionally created a book that would mean that for the rest of the series, my protagonist would not be someone who viewed violence through a window or at a distance or strictly after-the-fact. She survived an event that was personal and terrifying. And moved forward even though she remained haunted by it.
Part of that change in thinking also included decisions about creating what my protagonist was going to be up against. The events that changed her were going to be more than a passing blow or a bar fist-fight or even gunshots exchanged over barriers. If I write about a Nick Parrish, I am going to research the hell out of what such a one does, who he is, how little he cares about anyone but himself. And I'm also going to research the hell out of PTSD and other effects of violence on survivors. (I owe a lot to experts who've helped me with this research.)
I don't put violence or darkness in my books to make them violent and dark, or those passages and the endings would be quite different. But I do want to create characters who are affected by violence in real ways, either because they are violent themselves, like Nick Parrish and his sons, or because they are like Irene, survivors who find within themselves courage they doubted they had, who will set aside their fears to do the right thing. That is more interesting to me than pretending that murder is tidy.