About Keeping Watch
One thing a writer looks for in the story she is shaping is patterns—landscapes that transform the plot line; individual tales that find an echo in a larger story; events and attitudes in one character that illuminate the life of someone else.
I am of the generation that came of age in the Vietnam era. I grew up with the voice of Walter Cronkite in my ear every evening, giving body counts and pronouncing strange, faraway names. I watched the black-and-white faces of boys my age as the brutal war aged them and took them far away. I was there when many of those previously young men came home to utter alienation, half a million soldiers trying to rejoin civilian life and finding, not the appreciation and camaraderie given veterans of previous wars, but fear and even disgust. And I was there when some of them reacted to the rejection of family and country with acts of violence, against themselves or others.
Thirty years later, with children of my own old enough to register for the draft, I saw Columbine and Paducah, saw boys who had been alienated and brutalized turn to violence, and my novelist’s mind began to perceive a pattern.
How do you make a killer? Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes asked himself that question and came up with Why They Kill, in which he follows the life and work of “maverick” criminologist Dr. Lonnie Athens. Both men are survivors of abusive childhoods; both men managed to avoid what Athens terms the process of violentization, in which children are first subjected to violence, then taught to enact it. Children—or young soldiers.
Keeping Watch is my own fictional exploration of violentization, in which one young man learns his violent response to the world in Vietnam and spends twenty-five years rebuilding himself, and another boy finds his violence in the home. Their lives come together, the patterns of each character’s story finding echoes and contrasts in that of the other. It is a story about strength and redemption, and about how strength is not always apparent from the outside, and how rescue comes from unexpected directions.
|One day, deep inside a knotty bit of research, the plaintive thought occurred to me that I really should follow that most basic of writing recommendations and write a book involving a subject I already knew something about. Gardening was a chore and child-raising too complex and immediate, but there was also house repairs… And with that thought, Rae Newborn was standing before me, a strong if damaged woman with a hammer on her hip.
Of course, Folly eventually required just as much research as any of the other books, from mental illness to Great War soldiering, but at least I knew first-hand how a house was constructed. As for researching the San Juans, all I can say is that some forms of research are more welcome than others.
The structure of the book follows Rae’s reconstruction of her great-uncle’s house, from clearing the ground through foundation and walls to raising the roof beam, and if the parallel story of the rebuilding of her own life is a tad obvious, well, not all plot elements of a mystery have to be hidden.
About A Darker Place
When I was in high school, back when computers were the size of dirigible hangers and the Beatles hadn’t yet discovered India, I had a dream. More of a vision, really, or the visitation of an archetype—the inner acquaintance of a Wise Woman, a middle-aged figure who lived in a cabin in the woods with her dogs, and who walked with a limp that evoked a dark story. Nothing more than that, no daydreams that she was my secret and long-lost grandmother or some prosaic version of a fairy godmother, just the image.
Thirty years later, turning over ideas for a new novel that was not one of either series that I wrote, the woman returned, enigmatic as ever, her authority undiminished. She formed the core of the novel, a woman with dark deeds in her past, a woman still struggling to make something of herself, to make sense of her world. Anne Waverley leaves her cabin to look at the inner workings of various religious communities, the sorts of places that sometimes explode and are dubbed “cults” by the media.
The book, as with a number of my novels, makes use of my background in theology. In this case, the ideas of alchemy come into play, the transformation of lead into gold, of muck into Philosopher’s Stone, of base human into enlightened being. Darkness and light combine in the alchemist’s alembic; similarly, light is found within A Darker Place.