Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband, who is a law professor, and her West Highland terrier, who is a law unto herself. Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, is in bookstores now. You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.
Writers often talk about getting inside their characters’ heads, about listening to their characters and even becoming their characters. Is it method acting, imaginative empathy, multiple personality disorder, or all of the above?
In researching my next Dinah Pelerin mystery to be set in Berlin, I’ve been reading about a German writer named Karl May, best known for his adventure novels set in the American Wild West. During his lifetime, he was variously described as a born criminal, a pathological liar, a con man and a cheat. Since his death in 1912, he has been posthumously diagnosed as a narcissistic personality, a manic depressive, and a victim of dissociative identity disorder. This postmortem psychological assessment stems from the fact that May over-identified with his fictional characters, at one point claiming to be one of his creations incarnate. He said, “I have given my mind and soul an earthly garment, called a novel . . . this garment is the only body in which it is possible for the people inside me to talk to my readers, to make themselves be seen and heard.”
That doesn’t sound so crazy to me. For those of us who have chosen a life of telling lies, and who devote our energies and talents to making people believe those lies, having other people inside our heads is an occupational necessity. But is there a link between the make-believe characters writers think about so deeply and intensely and mental illness? Sigmund Freud thought so, and depending on how dominant these internalized “other people” become, any number of psychiatrists would probably agree with him.
Grey Owl was definitely a bit bonkers. He was a hugely popular Canadian writer during the 1930’s, attracting such large crowds when he lectured in England that the police had to be called to control them. He gave a command performance at Buckingham Palace and his books about nature and frontier life were translated into eighteen languages. The son of a Jicarilla Apache woman and a Scot who served as a scout in the Southwestern Indian wars, he lived in the Saskatchewan wilderness in a cabin shared with his Ojibwe wife and a family of beavers who built a dam in the living room. Or so he said. But it turned out that Grey Owl was really an Englishman named Archibald Belaney who traveled to Canada, became enamored of the native culture, and evolved into a myth of his own making.
Writers strive to make their characters come alive for the reader and that requires that they come alive in the writer’s mind. We invent a world separate from reality and invest the inhabitants of that separate reality with a high degree of emotion. Some writers create alter egos, characters whose thoughts and words reflect their own attitudes and beliefs. The creator and the creation lead parallel lives and sometimes, the life experience of the fictional creation mirrors that of the creator. For Somerset Maugham, fiction and fact were so intermingled that he claimed he couldn’t distinguish one from the other. He felt that he was made up of several personalities, “but which is the real one?” he asked.
There is obviously a crossover line beyond which the creator loses his essential self and drifts into a schizoid state, forgetting what and who is real. The experts may be correct in their postmortem diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder for Grey Owl and Karl May. On the other hand, mentally ill people don’t turn out successful novels on a regular basis as they did, let alone sell two hundred million copies as May did.
With every book, fiction writers assimilate a whole cast of characters. We allow ourselves to be serially possessed. In the book I’m writing now, I am both my amateur sleuth Dinah Pelerin and her deceitful mother. I am a nine-year-old boy who wants someday to be a racecar driver, and I am a scheming tax cheat who wants to disappear. I am a German romantic who wishes he were an American Indian from a previous century, a blackmailer who preys upon his victims’ fears, and a frustrated policeman. I am an embittered lover, a flippant teenager, and a reluctant murderer. And that’s just in the first two hundred pages.
I don’t know if my internal diversity would cause Sigmund Freud to pronounce me nuts. Reality is an imperfect, arbitrary thing. Not even the physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking knows exactly what it is. He tells a story about the city council of Monza, Italy which banned the custom of keeping goldfish in curved glass bowls because it distorted their view of reality.
I wonder which causes the greater distortion. Looking out at the world from a single pair of eyes all the time, or looking through a variety of different eyes?
Jeanne can be found hanging out at an Orange County Sisters in Crime event—
Ladies of Intrigue—on March 29th in Huntington Beach. Check
out http://www.ocsistersincrime.org/ for further details.