Exorcism, Escape, and the Book That Wants to Be Written

by J.D. Rhoades

One of the questions I get asked a lot these days is, "Why a standalone?" That is, why did I break from the Jack Keller books and write an entirely different set of characters in a different fictional setting?
I have a lot of comebacks, some serious, some not so much.

The fact is, though, this was just the book that wanted to be written.

People often look strangely at me when I say mystical stuff like that, which is why I have all the other responses. But it’s true. I’ll spend some time kicking around ideas, writing the beginnings of several projects, sometimes even doing two at a time, going back on forth between them, a process a friend of mine once dubbed "book adultery."

Eventually, though, one story will start to break through.That’s the one I start seeing scenes from in my head. That’s the one whose characters I hear whispering in my ear. That’s the one I have to write, whether I’d really planned to or not. I wrote BREAKING COVER as a standalone because the voices I was hearing this time weren’t those of Jack Keller and Marie Jones. They were the voices of  Tony Wolf and Tim Buckthorn and Gaby Torrijos and Johnny Trent (and let me tell you, that last one is a voice you don’t  want to hear in your head for an extended period of time).

As I think  I’ve said here before, when people ask me why I write, the answer I often give is "mental illness." I write, I often say, because if I write down the movies I see playing on the inside of my skull, I can tell people it’s because I’m creative and not having a psychotic break.

I’m only partially joking.

Writing for me sometimes is like exorcism, because the stories and the voices are often the embodiment of topics that nag at me, sometimes to the point of obsession. Topics like: the different faces, sometimes even different names we wear with each other; the randomness and futility of violence; the emotional damage that violence does to both the victim and the perpetrator; crimes against children.

Which leads us, at long last, to the question for discussion today. I’ve talked to writers who’ve told me that not everybody sees writing the way I do. Some time back, I was talking with a friend who was going through a particularly harrowing personal crisis and was having trouble working. "Write it out," I said. "Put the pain onto the page." No, my friend said, it doesn’t work that way. For my friend, writing is a means of escape, not catharsis, and the events in the work in progress cut a little too close to that particular bone.

I have to confess, that one rocked me back a little. Not having the solace, however slight, of being able to put what’s riding you you onto the page and thus achieve some measure of control over it? Man, I thought, that’s got to be hard.

Then I started thinking about the divide between the readers  who like their crime fiction dark, violent, maybe even grim, and the people who won’t even look at a murder mystery with too much blood and violence. "I read to escape," this second kind of reader tells us, "and all that dark stuff just depresses me."  I, on the other hand, and I suspect  people like me, find some comfort even in the darkest, grimmest stories.

The Greeks, as they say,  had a word for it.  Aristotle wrote that the purpose of tragedy was to provide  catharsis (literally "purging") through the evocation of "horror, pity and fear." I suspect that Aristotle would not have been a fan of cat mysteries, but he would have loved him some Ken Bruen.

So how about it, writers and readers? Do you write what you write, do you read what you read, for exorcism or for escape, or for something completely different?

28 thoughts on “Exorcism, Escape, and the Book That Wants to Be Written

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    Dusty, I read so much stuff at work, regulations, permits, case studies, etc. I merely read to escape. Bring on the blood and gore.

    Oh, if you ever make it to St. Louis, I’ll show you where they kept the boy that William Peter Blatty based “The Exorcist” on. It’s a Jesuit Ministry Retreat just down the road from me.

  2. Catherine

    For me it’s a bit of both. I can disappear into a well written book pretty well. Reading is one of the few socially acceptable ways to just not interact with others. Unless you’re on a plane…where sadly this is not an absolute.

    Anyways,I find reading crime, mystery, and or suspense of the mostly dark variety brings areas of my own life into focus. It causes me to reflect on how I have felt and how my thinking now, may of shifted with time and extra input.It tests my boundaries. Reading well crafted fiction reframes my reality in positive ways.Cheaper than therapy.

    It can also bring to the forefront issues or fears I didn’t know I had till they’ve been tapped on the shoulder (figuratively speaking) by someone’s writing. I’m still impressed by the power of the writing and slightly freaked out by the vivid dream I had after reading Robert Gregory Browne’s Kiss her Goodbye.

    So for me reading gives me insight into another person’s imagination, which in a weird way can be reassuring… illuminates my own dark corners and also provides escape.

  3. Jake Nantz

    Honestly Mr. Rhoades, I’m not sure what it is for me. For one thing, I write in general because I love to tell stories. I can, on rare occasions, be an attention hound, and in those circumstances telling stories is my way of remaining the center of attention.

    But as to why I read and write the darker stuff? I think it’s a way to enjoy those dark urges without acting on them. If I took an enemy and slit him from his belly to his jaw and beheaded him, as Macbeth did Macdonwald, I’d be locked up for life. But if my villain does it? I get to enjoy gutting some shitbag who probably deserves it without all that messy prison/execution stuff.

    I sort of identify with what you’re saying about catharsis, because it’s still a way for me to purge, but it’s not really my pain I’m purging. It’s more of an oftentimes angry and violent nature that society would probably frown on. I guess that would make it mental illness for me too, huh? Funny, because I always thought writing was what kept me sane, but I guess it just helps me mask my insanity.

    Good topic. I never really looked in the mirror like that. Not sure I like the reflection, but I am who I am.

  4. ljsellers

    As a writer, I’m with you, JD. I write about the things that haunt me. It’s a way to work through fear and frustration. But I also understand not wanting to put emotional pain on the page while it’s still fresh. Sometimes you have to wait for a little healing first. As a reader, I generally avoid cat mysteries too. But I don’t rule out anything. I like compelling stories, dark or not. I read for entertainment!

  5. JDRhoades

    Jake: Maybe not mask the insanity, so much as channel it into a socially acceptable form?

    And I hadn’t considered schadenfreude as an alternative until Louise brought it up. Nor had I considered Catherine’s alternative of someone else’s dark corners providing reassurance about your own. I get that feeling of identification, of “you’re not alone” from music.

    Will: that sounds very cool. I’m working on it…

  6. R.J. Mangahas

    JD — If you will allow me to paraphrase Isaac Asimov, here’s my reason for writing: “I write for the same reason I breathe – because if I didn’t, I would die.” This does hold pretty true for me because writing has helped me through some really tough times in my life.

    I like to write what I read, but at the same time I like to try and expand and try different things.

  7. Rae

    As a reader, what I read and why depends completely on my mood.

    Sometimes I want a comfort read, so I dive into an old favorite. Sometimes I want to be educated, sometimes I want to completely escape. It’s all about what’s going on in my world at the moment I pick up the book.

  8. Bill Cameron

    I tend to find my writing to be the place where I’m tangling with my demons. Sometimes that means it’s a place to escape from them, sometimes it’s a place to face them head on. The same is true of my reading. Sometimes I want to go somewhere new, be a tourist, and sometimes I want to face my own darkness. And sometimes I want to do a little of both.

    The mood of a piece may or may not be reflective of what I want out of it as a writer or a reader. Sometimes a lighthearted romp is exactly what the catharsis ordered. Sometimes a grim descent into some living hell is pure escape. It all depends on where I’m at.

  9. Stacey Cochran

    Great post, Dusty.

    There’s a field of humanistic psychology that has studied things like how creative expression affects your immune system, how creative writing helps survivors of trauma from war-torn countries, etc.

    I’ll be teaching a section in my 101 this fall at NC Sate, where one of the essays is an exhaustive study quantitatively examining the question of whether writing about your life’s worst trauma in a focused, consistent manner affects the immune system, levels of adrenaline, and amount of sleep.

    The findings in the study are remarkable.

    Of course, I’m sort’a preaching to the choir here, but regular creative writing as a part of your daily activities is undeniably healthy.

    Now, getting published and having to deal with deadlines and remainders and agents and publicity, etc., is a whole other issue…

    But the act of writing itself is good for you.

  10. Brett Battles

    I’m with RJ on that Asimov quote. That’s exactly how I feel. If I didn’t write, I’d die…maybe not physically, but emotionally and mentally. Why I read the dark stuff? Not so sure about that. There’s definitely some dark stuff I avoid, and some I’m drawn to the second I hear about it. Weird…

  11. Lorraine.

    I’m surprised. I thought mystery author’s writing was about me — the reader. That you were writing to please and entertain me and now I learn that you’re resolving your own angst and facing your demons, etc. And that’s probably why thrillers don’t work for me. My morning newspaper provides more horror and pain than I can stand most mornings, so I read for recreation. It’s the puzzle, the intellectual exercise of following the solving of the crime that appeals to me, and that dictates the books I read, even cat mysteries, if the cat is clever.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’m not doing much wrestling with my own demons, even though I write about other people’s demons, and just demons, all the time.

    I guess I am attracted to dark books that depict the dark, analyze what the dark is, and let me vicariously overcome the dark (at least temporarily) along with the characters.

    And that’s pretty much what I write, too. I need to know that it can be overcome. Maybe that’s catharsis or maybe it’s more like transcendence.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    PS – Lorraine – no, writing is NOT about you, the reader. 😉 I think writers primarily write what THEY want to read, and hope to collect readers who like to read the same things they do.

    I know for sure if I could find the books I’m looking for already on the shelf, I wouldn’t be going through the hell of writing.

  14. JDRhoades

    RJ, Brett: I hear you, friends. As anyone who knew me will tell you, I was a miserable bastard before I started writing again.

    Rae, Bill: I suspect that “it depends” is probably going to be the most complete answer here. As it is to so many questions.

    Lorraine, there is a part of us all I think that wants to please and entertain, to be accepted by the reader…which raises the question, of course, why do we care if total strangers are pleased and entertained? Altruism on that scale is pretty dang rare.

    Alex, you’ve touched on something very much like a theory I heard Lee Child put forward in a talk at…was it the first Thrillerfest? I can’t remember, one hotel ballroom looks pretty much like another in my memory. Anyway, Lee was discussing why we need stories. What primal survival need do they fulfill? He gave a very evocative description of primitive man, huddled in a cave, cold, hungry, with the tigers snarling and slavering outside. For those poor cavemen, stories of heroes who slew monsters gave them the hope they needed to survive. So yeah, knowing that the fear can be overcome…that’s another reason.

    Stacey: Hey, thank you, man!

  15. Jake Nantz

    “For those poor cavemen, stories of heroes who slew monsters gave them the hope they needed to survive.”

    Interesting point. Sorry to get all “teacherish”, but that’s why Beowulf was originally sung…long before it was Biblicalized, and then Hollywoodized. The Celts were constantly defending their lands against invaders (including against the Danes). So here comes a story about a monster so great that the Danes need the help of a Geat, one of the Celt tribes, to save them. Why should they fear invaders when one of their own was able to defeat an evil that the entire people of Denmark couldn’t stop?

  16. pari

    JD,LAY OFF the cat mysteries . . . remember I’ve got a black belt. (heh heh. You’ll be at Bouchercon, right?) — and I don’t even write “cat mysteries.”

    I tend not to read or write very, very dark because my life is full enough of worry and so forth that I don’t find adding it to be consoling or cathartic. That said, I’ll try just about anything and if the story pulls me in, I’m there heart and soul.

    One thing I’ve found that is odd. When I write in 3rd person, my work tends to be much darker than when I write in 1st. I wonder if there is more of “me” in the latter somehow?

    Oh, my. A bit profound and introspective . . .

  17. James T. Simpson

    I read for pleasure and escape. However I’ve never differentiated between books that were dark and the ones that were just light and entertaining. For me its about being sucked into the story and with a really good book being moved. Writing on the other hand is a combination of both. Thanks for a great post.

  18. Catherine

    The stream of comments presents rich array of different opinions today. I find Stacey’s course very interesting.

    I recently read a keynote speech to Librarians from Stephanie Laurens delivered at the 2008 RWA.

    “In her non-author persona, Stephanie has a BSc(Hons) in Immunology and a Ph.D in Biochemistry, and in earlier times spent two decades engaged in biological research in institutes in Australia and the UK.”

    So she links some interesting ideas into her speech, one of which is …

    ‘Genre Fiction exercises imagination, which increases creativity, which is essential for species survival.’


  19. woodstock

    My tendency is to read on the dark side of things, and I think it’s because I see quite a bit of the world as a dark place. But I also read to take pleasure in a well written turn of phrase, pace of action, depth of characterization. It seems to me that I enjoy books with the same part of my brain which enjoys music, painting, theater, and the like. There’s a strong element of escapism in my approach to a good read. And cats in books – most of them drive me crazy. I am stupidly fond of my own cats, and dote on them in a rather ridiculous fashion, but most cat books leave me cold. There are a few cats IN some books which are done exactly right – Robert Crais, Keith Snyder to name two. But I would not regard either author as writing a “cat book.”

    Nice, thoughtful post, Dusty.

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Great post, Dusty.

    Just about everyone has added something pertinent to this. Alex’s comment really nailed it, too – if I could have found what I was looking for, I probably wouldn’t have felt the need to write it.

    And Lorraine. However dark and bleak a crime novel is, at least you know you’re almost always guaranteed some form of closure and justice as you turn the final page. Sadly, that’s rarely true of stories you read in the newspapers, or see on the TV news.

    Crime has been the most-borrowed genre of fiction from the UK library system for the past couple of years. As the real world turns noir on us, I wonder if that has anything to do with it.

  21. Catherine

    I agree with what Zoe says about closure. I think somewhere in that Stephanie Laurens speech there is something about this too..about how genre fiction also answers a need generated by society.

    I think sometimes crime novels do answer a need we have to digest the snippets of sheer awfulness we as a whole do to each other. (although there is good too which Louise’s post yesterday touched on).

    I find the sheer volume of knowledge we receive through a variety of media forms overwhelming sometimes. At least in a book there is an end,sometimes redemption, a making sense of…it gives a different venue to dissect, reflect and understand.

  22. j.t. ellison

    Dusty, sorry to be so late to this. Awesome topic.

    I’m driven to write and I don’t know if I want to know why. But when I’m working, I’m so lost in the story that I have a hard time separating reality from fiction. This new book has been giving me horrid nightmares. It’s fiction, for God’s sake. But my mind can’t process it properly.

    I don’t ever write down my problems. I’m just not a journaler.

  23. Rob Gregory Browne

    It’s 9:21 pm in California, and I’m coming in after most people who read Murderati have gone to bed, but better late than never, right?

    To answer your question, Dusty, I think the reason I write my own stories is the same reason I write my own songs: I have an itch that needs to be scratched. It is difficult for me to pick up a book or listen to a song without feeling that itch set in and I just have to go at it with a really sharp set of nails.

    Is it escape? I don’t think so. But it IS therapy of a kind. Thankfully other people have found value in my work as well.

    Which brings me to Catherine. Thanks so much for the kind words about my writing and about Kiss Her Goodbye. It’s heartening to know that something I wrote can have such an effect on someone.

  24. jeanne Ketterer

    A little late here — I’m on another awful insomnia roll — just wanted to say I write simply bec I want to understand why people do what they do. ~Why?~ The whole process of figuring it out or not.

    But here’s this other thing — I (~think~) I look like an ordinary, average person, sort of fade in the background and I’ve become more and more introverted (for some reason or another), yet what I write tends towards violence, guns guns guns, etc. And then it’s like you have to add oh, but no, I’m really not a violent person, I don’t have these issues, no this didn’t happen in childhood, etc., etc. (My mother says, why can’t you write a nice story? Which is somewhat understandable bec her family always told stories that were very funny.)

    And what Alex said above in her first comment. Absolutely.

    Dusty, I just can’t imagine your other side as you’ve described. But then I also hear these voices or something and I’m always asking them, what is it you want, or say or … Also, I must see the story as if I’m watching a movie. Once this happens, I just zoom it out in words.

    Stacey, your course subject sounds very interesting and something I’d like to explore.

    Good post today, Dusty.

    Goodness, it’s late. I”m not going to proofread this so hopefully I’m coherent and not rambling too much.

    Jeannebroke personal record yest. morning: awake until 5:38 am.


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