Monday, March 31, 2003

March 31, 2003
Two Identities, but One Compulsion

In the fall of 1959 Rosalie Silver, a teacher at the Yeshiva of Central Queens in Jamaica, informed her fourth-grade class that poetry didn't have to rhyme. Mrs. Silver encouraged her students to experiment with words and drilled them in the fundamentals of grammar. I sat in that class and began writing fiction. I've continued to do so, compulsively, since that autumn.

That same year I found a volume of short stories by the great social realist James T. Farrell on my parents' bookshelves. Farrell's take upon urban life was raw, morose, assertively sexual. The book was completely inappropriate for a 9-year-old. I read it under the covers by flashlight and was astonished by the author's forging of a brutal yet strangely sanctified world. A fantasy seeded: it would be great to do this.

Still, I saw writing as release, not a career possibility. I loved to paint, too, but the notion of art as a job was remote. I decided I was going to become some sort of scientist.

In 1966 I entered U.C.L.A., having graduated from a private high school with a senior class of 21. Now I was sitting in lecture halls with 600 fellow freshmen. My niche was the student newspaper where for four years I drew five editorial cartoons a week, wrote arts reviews, tried straight reporting and ended up as an editor.

In my senior year I was co-writer of an allegedly comic novel that won a Samuel Goldwyn Creative Writing Award. Film agents called me into their offices and barked, "Well, kid, what do you wanna do?" I had no desire to write movies and told them I was planning to get a Ph.D. in psychology. They stared at me as if I were psychotic and shooed me out. What I did want to do was write books, and when a New York literary agent agreed to take me on as a client, I wondered if I could make a living fooling with words. A prize, an agent: I was hot stuff at 21.

That was 1971. My first novel, "When the Bough Breaks," was published in 1985.

For 14 years I was a failed writer with a really good day job. I married, had kids, earned that Ph.D., got a medical school professorship and a job at a pediatric hospital. I specialized in childhood trauma and augmented my academician's salary by treating private patients after hours.

For 14 years I typed away from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. in a spider-infested garage, churning out a slew of novels that earned me enough rejection slips to paper my house.

During that time, creating fiction remained catharsis rather than profession. I wrote but didn't rewrite, assiduously neglecting the basics of story structure.

More damaging, I segregated my identity as a psychologist from my writing, partly out of concerns about patient confidentiality but mostly due to cowardice: I was afraid of revealing anything about myself and conjured tales that bore no semblance to my reality or anyone else's.

Stripped of the life I lived as a psychologist, I had nothing to say.

By day I treated thousands of children afflicted by tragedy, deformity, disease. Rather than finding all of this depressing, I got hooked on adrenaline and was buoyed by what I learned about the resilience of the human spirit.

During the 1970's I happened to be the psychologist who treated several children who were sexually molested by a day-care operator. As I helped my patients deal with the emotional fallout, I found myself, atypically, shocked. Knowledge about sexual crimes against children was so skimpy back then that when a colleague attended a seminar on incest, the rest of us were puzzled why she'd want to learn about something so arcane.

The children who'd been molested responded well to treatment, but their ordeal continued to resonate. This was a betrayal of innocence so profound that even I, who thought I'd seen everything, couldn't put it out of my mind.

I quit my hospital job and expanded my private practice to full time, determined to attempt yet another novel. My practice booked up quickly, and I continued to type away from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. in the spider-infested garage.

This time I outlined meticulously, dreamed about my characters, gave myself headaches nailing down the twists and turns of my story. Confidentiality remained sacrosanct, and I took pains to avoid exploiting real patients. Instead I stretched the "what if?" and concocted a tale of perversity, deceit and multiple murder set in the third world colony where I live — Los Angeles.

I plunged in and created a psychologist protagonist who bore similarities to myself. Alex Delaware evolved as a troubled, restless man, overwhelmed by horror. He emerged braver, thinner and better looking than I was: a Walter Mitty fantasy sprung to literary life.

Though I was less concerned with solving mysterious puzzles than in exploring human behavior under extreme conditions, this was shaping up as a crime novel. I needed a cop.

I created a gay homicide detective because I wanted to avoid clichés, and a gay officer was a revolutionary concept. But Milo Sturgis's homosexuality would not be glossed over. Being an outsider in a paramilitary organization that one Los Angeles police detective had described to me as "devoted to destroying the individual" would provide great dramatic tension. Milo was created out of whole cloth, as are all the characters in my novels.

"Bough" was a hard sell. Publishers praised my style, but were repelled by the subject matter. Finally, three years after submission, the manuscript was accepted. Violating everyone's expectations, including my publisher's, the book won the Edgar and the Anthony awards and became a word-of-mouth best seller.

I said, "Well, as long as they've let me in the club, I'll try another." The dark tone and childhood cancer subplot of my second novel, "Blood Test," seemed to preclude fat sales. It, too, became a best seller.

Since 1985 I've published 18 novels, including 16 Delaware books, translated into a couple dozen languages. I'm not frustrated by writing a series. Alex Delaware is a terrific vehicle for telling a certain type of story, one that explores the unpredictability of human nature. A series imposes limits, and I do my best to test them. Delaware and Sturgis go through life changes, including the aging process, though their maturation occurs in mercifully slow time.

As a psychologist I attempted to construct rules about human behavior. As a novelist I'm obsessed by the exceptions.

I love my job, look forward to the blank computer screen every morning. Protracted periods of no writing leave me grumpy. I outline in fine detail; an editor who worked with me, a man with a background in literary fiction, told me our relationship gave him a new appreciation for "the architecture of writing," and I believe that to be a perfect description of skillful story construction.

I write for myself, never for an audience, but I do strive for entertainment as well as erudition. The crime novel employs an abhorrent act to catalyze the human chess game, but I believe all good fiction is mystery writing; the reader must be compelled to find out what happens next.

I have never combed my patient rolls for characters, and virtue has been much more than its own reward. Too much reliance upon reality stiffens and cripples fiction. The roman à clef is an inferior art form.

Professional ethics forced me to imagine, and that made me a better writer. The reading public has been very kind to me. I'm thrilled but puzzled because my tastes are not commercial: movies I admire usually bomb, the music I listen to rarely makes the charts. No complaints; this beats honest labor.

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