To the brain, pain is pain, regardless
I’ve been spending the past few weeks in France, exploring cities like Paris, Brest, Rennes, and St. Malo. I’ve traveled through time and space to do so, all from the comfort of my writing chair here in my house in Sweden. No flights were needed, no train rides, although I’ve experienced the passage of time from regular trains to France’s modern TGV high-speed trains. I’ve had to re-experience the death of people close to me, and it’s been an emotional rollercoaster, with a lot of painful moments, but what is fictional pain, and is it different from “real” pain?
A long-held dream
To write the story of Michel has been a long-held dream, ever since he had to be “killed off”/written out of the novel about his boyfriend Haakon in The Fallen Angels of Karnataka. Michel and Haakon fall in love, but their love gets in the way of the novel’s grand scheme of travel. Besides, with a great love story, it would’ve been a very different book, and not the one to be written then. Michel passed away, on a bench in Paris, on November 29, 1986, and Haakon embarked on his journey around the world for many years.
But Michel never really let go of me. And even though I’m not in the business of telling you which of my books is my favorite (that age-old question every interviewer asks), I can easily attest to the fact that Michel always was one of my favorite characters, and that hasn’t changed as he’s finally been allowed to tell me his story.
The sadness of letting go, again
When you start to write a book about someone you’ve already killed, you realize two things: a) writing an ending worthy of Her Majesty‘s approval will be hard, and b) it’s going to tear open old wounds again. I knew it would be a painful task at times. It’s also challenging to write a story where the actual death is part of another book, published years earlier. I had no interest in including that very scene again and had to find ways to deal with it. I hope you’ll enjoy how I’ve dealt with that sad day.
It’s been an emotional journey for me, to get to know Michel better. While it was plausible enough to have him die from the complications of his HIV infection, it was 1986 after all, but it’s a different thing to learn just how he did get infected in the first place, especially given his young age. Michel’s youth turned out to be very different than I had imagined, despite the guidance–limited as it was–from the original novel. To flesh out Michel’s parents, his friends, and to learn more about his life in the city where he grew up.
The pain of a character is my pain
I shed a lot of tears when I write, and I laugh at times. Michel is a dark story, given the ending, and the topic, but it’s also a story full of love, full of hope, and to see that Michel’s chosen family stood by him through thick and thin, that they provided a support net throughout was a pleasant surprise. I sometimes wonder just why the loss I feel is so strong, so palpable. These are, after all, just fictional characters, it’s fictional pain. They’re not real, they have not lived, they’ve never interacted with me physically. And that is true of course.
True is also that the memories of our actual life are shared in the same place as the memories of everything else, movies we’ve watched, books we’ve read, or books we’ve written. Chemically there is little difference, and if you’ve ever studied the concept called “false memories” you’ll understand just how real even fake can be. Indistinguishable for our brains. Fictional pain it may be, but it hurts just the same.
I for one spend a lot of time with my fictional characters, and to complicate matters further, those characters do spring from real life to a degree. Not that I could tell you the exact composition of each character’s personality, life experiences, etc., but I know that each and every one of my characters also includes a pinch of my secret sauce, to make sure they are life-like. It is that combination of real life, real people, real places, real emotions, real experiences with a pinch of the secret sauce that makes for realistic characters, and the pain I feel when they suffer, and the immense feeling of loss I sense when they die.
A word of caution
Knowing how our brain works, how easily we are absorbed into a story when reading a sequence of black letters on paper, and just how realistic that feels, I worry about the announcement from the Zuckerverse yesterday. While others have written books and made movies on the subject before (in other words, I’m far from the first to realize this risk), it scares me to think that we one day soon will be able to actually disappear into a virtual reality world.
Our eyes are so important to our brains in terms of how we experience our surrounding that it frightens me to think how easily people will be absorbed by virtual reality apps, and how easily they will be manipulated. At least I always know that my characters, as painful as their loss may be, are a figment of my imagination, but what’s to say that things you “see”, things you “experience” are not? Especially if you’re not adequately prepared? A scary prospect.
I’m heading back to Rennes. Michel’s mother wants to talk to him, and I have no idea what she has to say…
Have a great weekend,