Last week in Chicago, I attended the AWP Conference, which is a gathering of writers, creative writing professors, and students. While the event included some great speakers and readers such as Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, and Darin Strauss, I also found a number of panels involving.
In fact on the first day, I hit two panels that came to color the whole three-day conference for me. One was on how to write violence and the other, on the place of evildoers in stories. While evil and violence are not necessarily one-in-the-same, I have both in the novel I’m writing.
My day began with “Villains & Killers & Criminals, Oh My: Representing Evildoers in Literary Fiction,” which took place in the Palmer House Hilton, Chicago’s oldest grand hotel. In the large elegant meeting room, the five panelists discussed, among other things, how to infuse a sense of personality and depth into an evildoer. After all, most evil characters, the so-called “bad guys,” are often one-dimensional, especially on television. Great evildoers, such as Iago in Othello, Soren in Lord of the Rings, and Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, resonate in ways that, say, a drug lord in Miami Vice never did.
Panelist Matt Bell, author of the story collection How They Were Found, said his family had been religious, so good and evil “were rampant; we feared the spectacle of evil.” He felt that too much these days is made of backstory to explain narrative destinies. “It seems psychology replaces religious predestiny, but both show a loss of free will.”
He finds the “present” in the novel needs to be more important than showing the past. Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, for example, reveals a sense of his philosophy in the present, and in the book, you even get a deeper sense of his odd but simple take on how choice in life works. Chigurh thinks at one point, “The fear of the enemy can blind men to other hazards, not least the shape they themselves make in the world.”
“Not all why needs to be explained,” said Bell. “Be wary of psychology such as ‘He was abused as a child.’ Don’t aim for cause-and-effect but an exploration. Create a blankness where readers write their own answers.”
I found this to be true of Chigurh. The internet is full of threads where people discuss Chigurh and the book. For instance, in a Cormac McCarthy website, a writer named Kevin wrote about Llewelyn Moss versus Anton Chigurh: “McCarthy’s plots are built around putting people to The Test. Part of the test is a struggle to retain something that is essential to their character.”
A person named Dignan wrote in return, “My take on No County for Old Men has always been that it’s essentially a story of how ill-equipped decent men are to confront evil, and that it’s their own decency that makes it so.” (To read more reactions about McCarthy’s characters, click here.)
Reese Kwon, who organized the panel, quoted Joan Didion who said, “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.” Kwon went on to say that what motivates Iago isn’t completely explained. Evilness is often unexplainable.
My favorite literary example of the panel was the character of the Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Misfit doesn’t find any pleasure in killing the grandmother, who, he says would have been a good woman if someone shot her every minute of her life.
Perhaps the most telling example of evil was panelist Eugene Cross, author of the short story collection, Fires of Our Choosing, who told a story of his mother having to visit someone in an ER and hearing a chilling, blood-curdling scream from another room. She tried to make sense of who could possibly scream like that and why.
Later that same week, Cross said, the news was filled with a story of a baby sister whose two young charges had slipped out of the house and ended up drowning in a man-made lake nearby. The baby sitter had some sort of explanation, yet it turned out that she’d fallen asleep and lied about it. Later that week, she was seen dancing at a club, apparently unaffected by the deaths, and the papers painted her to be a villain, much in the same way Casey Anthony had been nationally. Only later did Cross connect that the blood-curdling scream his mother had heard had been that of the babysitter finding out the news of the kids. He ended up writing a short story from that point of view.
I left the panel considering how evil exists in many forms and cannot easily be explained—and so stories shouldn’t make it simple. Leave a little mystery, and people may ponder your novel the way they do Cormac McCarthy’s.
That afternoon, I attended the panel, “There Will Be Blood: Writing Violence in Fiction,” adeptly moderated by Stacie Williams, a bookseller in Milwaukee.
Early on, panelist Antonya Nelson, author of the novel Bound, brought up how Flannery O’Connor defended violence in her stories, saying, “I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” Using the example of the Misfit again, O’Connor shows after the Misfit kills the grandmother that he’s calm and can say, “It’s no real pleasure in life."
Panelist Alan Heathcock, author of Volt, explained he’d grown up on the south side of Chicago, and violence had always been around him. His stories contain violence, he said, not because it’s entertaining but because that’s the way he sees the world, even now while he and his family live in Idaho. “Chicago never leaves you. I will never be from anywhere else.”
He also said that he’s interested in how violence crawls inside people, how the acts of it define who they are. “Terrible things happen. Why does violence exist? Why do we as a culture support it? How can I put order to the disorderly? I’m looking for some sort of answer.”
Ben Percy, author of Refresh, Refresh, said that writing about violence is as difficult as writing about sex. “Sex can come off three ways: coy, clinical, or creepy. Same with violence.”
Alexi Zentner, author of the novel Touch, said to be aware of “gorenography,” the celebration of violence, which he sees most often in student work. He quoted Charles Baxter who said, “Shock defeats most of our good intentions and good sense.” Writing well about violence is hard to do, Zentner said, “but it’s your job. Everything you write should be in service to your story.”
I’d been struggling with my own novel recently, a fifth draft of my first thriller. In it, I’ve been working with violence and evil. Both seemed to be a part of the situation, but these two panels made me realize what I’d been dancing around: the meaning of my story. The meaning is the greater service. The meaning—even if I only get some good questions off—is the whole point of writing.
I’m focused again and in a way I hadn’t reached in this novel before. In each new project, we as authors can make a story good. If we’re lucky and we push ourselves, we can make it great. I have the chance to do so.
In Chicago, scenes came to me quickly, and I ended up writing notes to myself madly. I believe as author Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) believes. Some of the greatest truth is in fiction. It gives us meaning.
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