On Van Gogh and other Mysteries

Hey all, Gerry Boyle here. I’ve been thinking about this post all day and about how not long ago a high school student got in touch and asked if he could job-shadow me.

Really, I thought. Flattering, but what would we do? I would sit in my study and stare at the computer monitor. He would stare at me staring at my computer monitor. I would type some, look at my notes, delete what I just typed, then look at my notes again. He would look at  me looking at my notes. Then maybe I’d get up and look out the window at the bird feeders.

“Hey, a red-bellied woodpecker on the suet,” I’d say. “You know they used to be a southern bird.” And he’d say, “I thought this was supposed to be about writing.”

And a glamorous job it is.

So that wouldn’t have worked, which is why I declined the opportunity to be shadowed. Again. The reality is that writing is only interesting to the person who is doing the writing. And then it’s only interesting when it’s going well. A lot of the time this business is about staring and typing, mostly in furious bursts.

Which is why I hesitate to inflict writing talk on the audience for this blog. I could go on about how I’m digging into the relationships of my new protagonist, the conflicts he’s had with his father, how that has followed him into his young adult life, how no matter what he does it’s really a reaction to his father’s disapproval. How do I bring him from normal life to mystery life, which involves violence, both received and inflicted, and make it seem natural and normal?

Hey, you asked.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about father-son relationships, since when I’m not thinking about my work in progress (40 pages in) I’ve been reading a biography of Van Gogh called Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.

This book came out last year and I’ve had it on the shelf for a while. A couple of weeks ago I opened it up and I’ve been glued to it ever since. It’s a great book, tracing (so far) Van Gogh’s erratic early life as he tries to show his social-status conscious parents that he’s worthy of their love.

It’s a tough road for Vincent, partly because he’s clearly off his rocker (my term, not the authors’). He goes from brothel-hopping to evangelical fervor and back again, spends a year proselytizing to starving coal miners in Belgium, asks a woman to marry him and when she says “Are you nuts?” (in so many words), he decides she’s just playing hard to get and pursues her for months until her family hides her and bars the door.

At some point Van Gogh becomes Van Gogh, but I’m not there yet. I read the book every night, not just because of the art part but because I’m fascinated by how character is developed, how people are shaped, how as children we react to formative forces beyond our control.

Anyway, I was doing a book talk a few weeks ago and I mentioned this, how much I liked this Van Gogh bio. This came up as a response to the question, “Who do you read?” I guess they thought I was going to say James Patterson and instead I said, “This week?  Gregory White Smith.”

Which is a long way of saying that when I’m sitting in the study (sans job shadower) staring at the computer, I’m not necessarily thinking about the crime novel currently residing on the bestseller list. I’m thinking about how my character reacts to his father’s disapproval, his mother’s denial, his sister’s disdain, and his brother’s indifference. How is he like Van Gogh? If he is rebelling against his family (my character, not Vincent) how is he also tied to them? No matter how far we run, can we really escape who we are? What is it that drives us to seek our parents’ approval?

You don’t have to read crime novels to know about crime motives. (There’s a good group post in the works here about what us crimewriters read when we aren’t reading crime). You do need to know about human behavior and what makes all of us tick. Because that’s really what we write about. We just add guns and murders and cops and coroners. Peel that way and it’s still about the mystery that is at the heart of all of us.

So in conclusion, I’d like to say I could be available for a job shadow as long as my shadow is prepared  to watch me stare at the computer. And when I’m not staring, we’ll talk about Van Gogh. The job shadower who understands why is ready to be a writer.


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5 Responses to On Van Gogh and other Mysteries

  1. Good for you, Gerry. I was at your panel when you said you were reading this book, and I had to smile….

  2. Interesting post, Gerry. I had a job shadowing request a few years ago and had the same reaction–the kid wants to watch me type? We compromised. A young man with aspirations to be a professional writer came over to the house and we spent an hour in my office just talking. I just hope I didn’t discourage him by being honest about things like how hard it is to sell a novel and how paltry the financial rewards usually are!

  3. thelma straw says:

    Gerry, this is a very thought-provoking article for us writers ! I never heard the term job-shadow before – and I put bread on the table for decades as an executive career consultant!!! But, now that I write crime novels fulltime, and after reading of your experience I am giving it a deep down thought. Since I read this I’ve been acutely aware of all the little quirks in my life as a writer… and wondered how I’d feel with somebody sitting here watching me!!! Wow! This will stay with me a long time, and I appreciate your sharing your thoughts! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  4. Gerry Boyle says:

    Honesty is always the best policy, Kaitlyn. There are faster ways than writing to become rich and famous. Some of them are even legal.

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