Cannibalizing Myself

Before he became famous for writing novels like THE BIG SLEEP and THE LONG GOODBYE, Raymond Chandler wrote a bunch of short stories for magazines like Black Mask. If you read those stories, you can clearly see the development of his style and the beginnings of what would one day become the character, Philip Marlowe.

When he started writing his novels, Chandler did a bit of what he called “cannabilizing,” which was to basically steal from his earlier work and expand it.

What follows is a bit of cannibalizing. But without the expanding. In fact, it’s reprinted here exactly as is. And if you went to Murderati last week, you’ll surely recognize it.

Please forgive me. I’m smack in the middle of writing a new novel and blogging these days has become extremely difficult. I hope you understand…

ARE WE WHAT WE WRITE?

My wife is concerned.

“I think you should blog about it, Rob. See what other people think.”

She works in the office of a public high school. When it came time for my first book, KISS HER GOODBYE to be released, she was sure to let everyone at work know, and helped generate a huge gathering of well-wishers at my Barnes and Noble launch.

A lot of her colleagues came out and bought a signed copy of the book, and I was, to say the least, grateful. Grateful to all the people who showed up and, of course, grateful to my wife for getting them out there. No one could ask for a more exciting and successful launch (we sold every book in stock — close to sixty).

But, as I said, she’s concerned.

You see, there are parts of my book that aren’t exactly politically correct. Some of the characters, being bad guys, are vile, bigoted creeps. One in particular, a guy by the name of Bobby Nemo, treats women as sex objects, utters profanities, racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, and is generally not a very pleasant guy. The words that come out of his mouth, the things he thinks, are not pretty.

And this is what has my wife concerned. She worries that all those people who showed up to buy my book, all of those colleagues — people she sees day in and day out — will read the book with its slimy characters like Nemo and wonder what kind of man she married.

She’s afraid they’ll read the book and think that its characters and situations are a reflection of me, of the way I think and feel.

I remind her that I’m writing crime fiction, that the people who populate that world are not very nice, and that unless my characters think and speak the way criminals and cops think and speak, I won’t have much of a book.

I also try to point out that I’m just about the polar opposite of Bobby Nemo –

– yet she still worries. Her colleagues don’t really know me, she says. And what if they assume that I’m some sort of racist pervert. How embarrassing.

To complicate matters, she recently listened to my first podcast with Brett Battles — a podcast on creating characters (battlesandbrowne.com) — and I happened to utter the words, “all of my characters are me” as I explained my approach to writing.

And this is true. In a way, all of my characters ARE me. I’m like a method actor taking on a role, using details of my own life to flesh out each character I’m trying to portray. It’s something that can’t be helped. By using my own experiences, coupled with imagination, I’m able to create what I hope are very compelling, three-dimensional people.

That still doesn’t mean that Bobby Nemo ever, for even a moment, speaks for me.

I seem to recall the young Stephen King running into all kinds of trouble with his early books. Who is this guy? people wondered. He’s gotta be sick in the head.

But as we all now know — or at least assume, based on his appearances on various TV shows — Mr. King is a relatively mild-mannered guy who, like me, shares little, if anything, with the whacked out characters he creates.

Or does he?

All of this gives rise to a question: how much of ourselves do we consciously or unconsciously put into the people we create to populate our novels? Do our novels give us an excuse to allow our long suppressed emotions and beliefs to come out?

I can confidently so no, that isn’t the case for me. I just make stuff up.

But what about you? Are YOU what you write?

6 Responses to “Cannibalizing Myself”

  1. Comment by Lisa Kenney | 06/20/07

    This is a great question and I’m sure you’ll have as many different answers as there are comments, but I’ll go out on a limb and give you mine — qualifier is that I am not published, am an aspiring novelist, but don’t write crime, horror or in any genre with exceptionally horrible villains — sort of. By sort of I mean that I believe that perceived “normal” people have behavior that falls on a spectrum of saintly to pretty despicable. There are people among us, neighbors, friends and relatives who all lead a secret life that only they and the people who live behind closed doors with them really know. Spousal abuse, child abuse and self-abuse occur at all levels from verbal to physical and sexual. A character who hides a drinking or substance abuse problem from the world also lives with a hidden shame that manifests itself in what may on the surface be illogical or puzzling behavior — they may be incapable of closeness with others or they may be workaholics and overly controlling on the job. In my experience, a gifted author is capable of creating a character who we may not like at all, but by fleshing the character out more fully so we can see what made s/he become the person they are, we are able to see them as more than a cartoon or an evil entity — we see shades of gray. The father figure who is verbally abusive to his family and strict with his children may become somewhat more sympathetic if we learn that his upbringing was horrific and by comparison, he’s doing the best he can. That doesn’t provide my personal answer to the question, which I suppose is probably mostly no, but only because if I tried to infuse my characters with my own personal beliefs, they’d be much more virtuous than I am in my own life. As far as working out emotions — nah, that’s what journals and shrinks are for. Sorry to go on such a ramble, but you really got me thinking — thanks for doing that!

  2. Comment by Rob Gregory Browne | 06/20/07

    Brett Battles and I talk about this on our first podcast, about creating characters that are layered. That should obviously be the goal of any writer. Layers make even the most disgusting character more human and, at least to some point, more accessible to your readers.

    For example, in KISS HER GOODBYE, my villian, Alexander Gunderson, has many things wrong with him, but the one thing he DOES get right is his love and concern for his pregnant wife. This helps make him human and deepens his motivations — especially after his wife is injured.

  3. Comment by Jeannie | 06/20/07

    No prob Rob. I can’t wait for your next book to come out so a little cannabalizing is understood. Keep writing! When is your next due out?

  4. Comment by Rob Gregory Browne | 06/20/07

    Jeannie, to be honest, I’m not sure when WHISPER IN THE DARK is being released. At one point there was talk that it would be summer of 2008, but now I’m not sure. I can tell you that it’s in the can, has been approved and after the copy editing process (grammar/spelling/fact check/consistency corrections) is done, it’ll be ready to go.

    But St. Martin’s is currently brainstorming different ways to market and build my presence as a writer, so they’re probably trying to come up with a strategic release date.

    I don’t really have time to think about it right now because I’m under deadline for book three.

  5. Comment by Erin Huffstutter | 06/21/07

    I first met my then-future-husband, Gregory Huffstutter, when he was in the middle of writing his second book. After a few months of dating, he asked if I wanted to read the manuscript, thus far. So I did…and I got REALLY WORRIED.

    You see, his book focused around themes like the struggles of a closeted gay man, “Furry” subculture, violent murder, Hollywood excess, etc. After I read the manuscript, I felt cold. I really liked this guy, but was his book trying to clue me into an extreme, creepy type hiding just below the surface?

    Typical of a woman, I went back in my mind hyper-analyzing ever conversation Gregory and I had ever had…to see if I saw any red flags indicating that he was a closeted gay man, a Furry or a killer.

    Needless to say, I stuck with him despite my initial fears and we are now happily married.

    But, it wasn’t until I saw how he worked, day after day, researching characters, interviewing people and struggling to find just the right “voice” for his book that I realized it really is more like method acting (like RGB said) - and not at all like confessions to a secret diary.

    Today, I no longer worry that his characters are really deeply repressed, hidden truths about my husband’s true self. If anything, I’ve realized the CREATIVITY of writing a novel comes when you first develop the plot and cast the characters. But as anyone who is married to a novelist knows, bringing those freakish, scary, extreme, or creepy “people” to life, is actually a lot of very unglamourous grunt work spent behind a computer screen, typing and retyping lines of dialog, at odd hours of the day or night.

    Now, if I can only find a way to explain it to my parents and our one-year-old daughter. Yikes!

    :-) - Erin

  6. Comment by Allison Brennan | 06/23/07

    LOL, Erin! I love your story.

    I write pretty creepy killers and I touch upon unpleasent subjects. I get a lot of, “Why, you’re such a nice person! Where do you get such scary stories?” My books lean to the dark side.

    I agree with you, Rob–I AM my characters when I’m writing them. I think what they think and feel what they feel. How else can I possibly understand why they do what they do? But that doesn’t mean I have their personality, traits or background. It doesn’t mean that I would have the courage to be a beat cop or the hatred to kill.

    Great blog. Sorry I missed it at Murderati!

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