Do you write in the dark times?
This question is lifted from author Sahar Sabati's informative Ask an Author series, which ran from 2015-2016 and included responses and reflections from English-speaking authors from around the globe. Since I'm often asked these questions by readers, I have republished my answers here with Sahar's kind permission.
Dark times come to all of us at some times in our lives, and how we cope with those situations tells something of our character. And while it might seem cold-hearted and even callous, dark times are something writers exploit, throwing their imaginary characters into trying and sometimes tragic situations to test and challenge them, to discover the extent of their resilience. It becomes a device to move a story forward, to explore difficult themes, and examine the human condition. I admit to being guilty of this as my YA novel, Misplaced, is inspired by a true-life event, the real disappearance of my friend Florence, and explores the loss and crippling uncertainty which arise when you don’t know what might have happened to someone you love.
In the story, when his mother Tiffany Creighton goes missing, Adam’s father becomes strangely distant, their busy-body neighbours want in on the made-for-television drama, and his aunt, who moves into the spare room to help, drives Adam crazy with her jabbering. Only Adam’s friends really help him out, and without his having to ask. While Adam’s mates, seventeen year olds, Kieran and Corey, can do little to resolve the problem of finding Adam’s mother, they’re there for him: with their daily emails, taking notes for him at school, coming up with ideas to take his mind off the situation, helping him to stay out of trouble (and covering up for him when he does), and most importantly, ‘staying real’. It’s important to Adam that his friends don’t tiptoe around him, mollycoddling him as if he were broken, or like certain ‘old family friends’, whom Adam might have expected to step up in a crisis, but instead turn out to be all “cooee and can’t get away fast enough”. Instead, Adam’s friends treat him as they always have, with typical teenage scorn and derision, and perhaps it’s that constancy which helps him the most.
Here’s a sneak excerpt from Misplaced in which all three friends appear:
‘It’s just I feel like I’m going to explode, you know?’
‘You so need to get laid,’ Kieran announces bluntly.
‘Yeah, right, Kieran,’ Corey says, eyes rolling under his straight black fringe. ‘Let’s keep it real. Adam’s lost his mother, not his virginity.’
‘Too true, young Corey,’ Kieran says in the plummy tones of British entertainer Stephen Fry, one of his favourite affectations. ‘And one expects Adam’s mother will turn up well before the arrival of a young lady dense enough to boink him.’
Adam laughs. Of the three of them, only Kieran has ever done the deed, going out with Felicity Graham for what appeared to be a magical three-month shag-fest before she abruptly dumped him for Mikey. Until circumstances change, the tacit rule of their threesome is that both Adam and Corey will grovel at the feet of Kieran’s greater knowledge concerning the predilections of the fair sex. Still grinning, Adam mimics a cuff in Kieran’s direction. It’s just like his mates to take Adam out of himself, reminding him how small and inconsequential he is.
‘So, Kieran. You got any practical suggestions for dealing with Adam’s frustration?’ Corey asks.
‘Achievable ones, Kieran...’ Corey taps his foot in exaggerated scorn. Adam bats absently at the swing ball.
‘Geez.’ Kieran looks at the tennis ball. After a minute, he says, ‘What say Corey and I whip down to the supermarket and buy some melons? Then we’ll climb up on the roof of your dad’s garage and throw those babies onto the driveway. It’s practical, and legal.’ He throws a look at Corey. ‘And it should definitely squash a bit of tension.’
Adam has to admit the idea, while puerile, has its appeal. He pictures holding a melon out over the roof edge, lingering momentarily before thrusting the ripe orb over the edge into space. He imagines the delicious instant that the melon is in mid-flight before it shatters on the ground, pulp splashing back over the garage doors. Maybe Kieran is onto something? Could smashing melons be the perfect stress buster? But suddenly, the melon becomes a head, a fractured skull, its grey matter bubbling through the open rictus to be splattered in impressionistic splodges on the concrete. Adam shudders. Fortunately, Kieran and Corey have already discarded the idea and moved on.
‘No, no! I’ve got it. Since you’re stuck here, I’m going to bring my punch bag over. Hang it in the garage. Corey can hold the bag and the two of us will take turns pummelling it into oblivion.’
‘Hey!’ Corey protests.
‘Don’t whine, Corey. You should step up and do this for Adam. We’ll call it a gym session, Adam, and get ourselves a head start ticking off the training boxes on Reece’s schedule.’
‘I vote no,’ Corey says.
‘Shit, Corey, this is about Adam and what he needs. Anyway, I don’t suppose you’ve got a better idea?’
Corey shrugs, dropping another shower of crushed hebe leaves.
But Adam doesn’t have a better idea either, and since legions of dense girls don’t appear to be lining up to boink him, Kieran’s latest suggestion will have to do.
It’s only been four days. Barely ninety hours since Mum disappeared.
In Misplaced, the other key character who helps Adam to cope with his heart-breaking ordeal is Skye. While Adam knows of Skye—she’s in his English class at school—she’s a new friend, someone Adam really only gets to know after the disappearance of his mother. Of course, it helps that Adam is attracted to Skye, but when he discovers she also has a missing parent, something they have in common, this provides the pair with a shared goal, and although neither of them are able to resolve the problem for the other, ultimately their friendship allows both teens to come to terms with the situation they find themselves in. They become a tiny support group of two, striving to answer the questions ‘why?’ and ‘what now?’. Thus, in fiction as in real life, common experience can help us to overcome adversity, to help us through those dark moments. Friends who have shared experiences remind us that we are not alone in our suffering, because other people out there feel as we do. They can empathise, sympathise, and perhaps even understand. But maybe the truth is even simpler than that. Perhaps it’s as the old adage states: ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’.