The first question people ask is how I go about writing. You’d think that would mean what inspires me but more likely it means: When do you sit down in the morning? How many hours do you put in? Do you plan the whole plot ahead? Well, I tell them, I sit down in mid-morning after I’ve exhausted every possible option for wasting time. Once started, I write all day, not counting lunch, after which I exhaust every possible option for wasting more time. And, no, I never plot the book ahead – not that I wouldn’t if I could. A lot of people do it very successfully, spread-sheeting the entire story before they write a single word and saving themselves the terror of confronting a blank screen each morning. Believe me, I’ve tried, but I simply can’t visualize a book that way. Sometimes I know the beginning, sometimes the end, sometimes both, but the middle usually eludes me.
Then there are writers who start with a character or voice, and that sustains the whole book. And I’ve done that – my debut novel, BANANA KISS, started with a page and a half in the voice of Robin, a young schizophrenic girl living in an institution, and Robin ended up writing the whole book. Or Guy, in BORDERLINE, a sort of young Holden Caulfield who detests his younger autistic brother and feels ignored: Teen-aged. Angry. Lost. Smart-ass. …But I’ll get back to them at a later date.
The fact is that, generally, I start out with an idea and then have to look for a good story to embody it. Fortunately, I’ve always been fascinated with science and manage to wind my plots around it. Whatever it may be – quantum physics, time travel, or consciousness – such mysteries allow me to explore the big questions.
Over the next few blog entries, I’d like to work backwards in time over my ten novels, supplying the inspiration for each and how it plays out in the book. See? I’m doing it already – finding an organizing concept and winding my blog around it. It’s just the way my mind works, I guess.
Anyway, nature vs. nurture has always been one of those mysteries that beckoned to me, and that happens to be the inspiration of DAMAGED PEOPLE, my newest novel.
Some years back I heard about a study of a tiny 19th century town in Sweden. Overkalix was so isolated that if the harvest was bad, everybody starved. If it was good, they stuffed themselves for months. Analyzing the town’s meticulous agricultural records to determine which years were feast and which were famine, scientists researched the long-term effects on generations of children growing up there. What they discovered was surprising, to say the least.
For one thing, they found that when pregnant women had little to eat, their children were much more likely to have cardiovascular disease as adults. That was surprising. But even more so was the fact that boys who enjoyed abundant harvests produced sons and GRANDSONS who lived shorter lives – up to decades shorter! Overall, the results showed that a single winter of overeating as a youngster could set off a cascade of events that would lead one’s progeny to die decades earlier than their peers. Unbelievable, I thought. How could this be?
The answer, I learned, lay in the new science of epigenetics. Epigenetics, which means “over genetics,” explains how the environment leaves chemical marks or tags on the genes, activating them or shutting them down. These tags can alter function or behavior and even cause disease, all without ever changing the DNA itself. Amazingly, science has even found that epigenetic marks may be inherited along with the genes, short-circuiting evolution and passing along new traits in a single generation.
I was blown away. Everyone knew that Lamarck was wrong. The 18th century naturalist’s theory of acquired characteristics – that giraffes got their long necks because their ancestors had stretched theirs to reach the leaves on the top of trees – had long since been debunked. Changes in the genetic slate were always wiped clean from one generation to the next….
There was definitely a book in all this, though who and what and how, I didn’t know yet. Eventually, it all came together in a New York family wounded by a single tragedy that propagates itself from person to person and generation to generation: DAMAGED PEOPLE.