Jim Hayman: (The following is a second take on a topic I first wrote about on this blog some months ago.)
Like a lot of writers, one of the questions I get asked most often at readings and other public events is, “The people in your books seem so real. How do you get so completely into the heads of the characters you create?”
In some cases it’s relatively easy. My ongoing hero, Detective Sergeant Michael McCabe was created to a large extent in my own image. All I really had to do was imagine myself as a career homicide detective rather than as a career writer. McCabe and I are both native New Yorkers who moved from the big city to Portland, Maine for both personal and professional reasons. We both share a love of old movie trivia and good scotch. We both have slightly warped senses of humor. We’re both avid New York Giants fans. And we both live with and love women who are talented and successful artists.
There are also a lot of differences. As I’ve often noted before, McCabe’s braver than I am. He’s a better shot. He likes boxing. He doesn’t throw up at autopsies. And McCabe’s favorite Portland bar, Tallulah’s, is, sadly, a figment of my imagination while my favorite Portland bars are all very real. In any event, McCabe and I are very much alike. In order to communicate what McCabe is thinking or feeling, or how he will react in difficult or dangerous situations all I really have to do is look inward.
The same holds true for McCabe’s partner, Maggie Savage. Much of what Maggie thinks and feels grew out of discussions I’ve had with my daughter Kate, a woman who is roughly Maggie’s age and who shares many of her ideas and attitudes.
The challenge of making characters real becomes a lot tougher when the character in question is totally different either from me or from any of the people I know intimately. It got a whole lot tougher in the case of Abby Quinn, the witness to the murder in the second McCabe thriller, The Chill of Night. Abby is a twenty-five year old woman, the daughter of a deceased Maine lobsterman who was born, raised and still lives on a small island in Casco Bay, a mile and a half out to sea from the city of Portland. More critically she’s also mentally ill. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic in her early twenties, and has since tried to commit suicide twice by throwing herself off the rocks into the ocean. She can only live an approximately normal life by staying on a strict regimen of anti-psychotic drugs. To make Abby real, I had to try to begin to understand what living inside the mind of a young female schizophrenic must be like.
I started by discussing the general subject of schizophrenia with an old friend, Dr. Ted McCarthy, who is head of Psychiatry at Mercy Hospital in Portland. Ted told me a lot about what is known about the disease and a lot about the effectiveness and side-effects of many of the anti-psychotic medications currently prescribed to control the symptoms. He also told me pretty much what my fictional psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Wolfe, tells McCabe when McCabe asks him if Abby might have committed the murder herself:
“Abby’s schizophrenic. She inhabits an alternate reality. If she’s been off her meds for a while–or if they’re starting to lose their effectiveness–she’s capable of damned near anything.”
“So you’re saying she invented the story of the monster with his face on fire?”
“No. Probably not,” Wolfe said. “A monster with his face on fire may in fact be exactly what she saw whether she killed Goff herself or just witnessed the murder. Either way.”
“You better help me with that, doctor. I’m a little slow today.”
“Let me give you a little background. Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that’s characterized, more than anything else, by a profound disconnect between perception and reality. Like most schizophrenics Abby suffers from delusions, things that are false but that she believes to be real. She also suffers from hallucinations. False sensory perceptions. She’s sees and hears things that aren’t there. But she really does see them. And hear them. They’re as real to her as that coconut shrimp you’re eating is to you.”
As helpful as my discussions with Dr. McCarthy were and as well as other general research I did on the subject on Google, I felt neither gave me the genuine sense I wanted of what it really was like to be Abby Quinn, to live inside head of a young schizophrenic, to experience the alternate reality McCarthy described first hand.
For that I turned to several very special books. The first was a novel titled Lowboy by a writer named John Wray. Lowboy tells the story of a fifteen-year old male schizophrenic living in New York City who spends most of his time riding the New York subway system and encountering a number of others who inhabit this strange subterranean world. According to an interview on NPR (National Public Radio), to do his research, Wray had himself committed as a patient in a psychiatric hospital for several weeks living with and observing schizophrenics first hand. My research didn’t go quite that far.
Instead, I read a number of memoirs written by schizophrenics that described in heart-rending detail what it must have been like for the authors to have suffered from this dreadful disease. Two of these books stood out. Both are mentioned in the acknowledgements in The Chill of Night. The first was The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness by Lori Schiller and Amanda Bennett. The second was The Center Cannot Hold:My Journey Through Madness by a remarkable woman named Elyn R. Saks who, in spite of her illness, has become one of America’s leading experts on the law as it pertains to the mentally ill.