About a year and a half ago, I was living in my little ranch house in the tiny (like no-stoplights sort of tiny) town of Shandon, California.
I’d moved there with my husband and child for my husband’s tenure-track job as a biochemistry professor. He and I had been together for eight years, very happily, but once we moved to California our marriage started to fall apart.
I didn’t work outside the home, and so had time for writing when we moved. A year and a half ago when this story starts, I had just finished a series of seven YA fantasy books. Book one of that series was the first novel I’d ever completed. I’d been completely engrossed in the story, and I’d written all seven books in slightly less than a year. It had been part of the way I’d dealt with the myriad of stresses of moving to California.
That writing took up a lot of my time. I cooked and cleaned, sure, but everything else was writing. I only left the house to go to critique groups, and about 99% of the conversations I had with anybody, including my husband and kid, revolved around writing and the querying process.
My husband was really frustrated with me. He wanted me to quit writing and get a job—not because we needed the money (we didn’t) but because he told me I was miserable.
I wasn’t miserable at all. I was the happiest I’d ever been, because I’d finally found what I was put on this earth to do, if you believe in that sort of thing. Writing fit completely with my personality. It helped me organize my sometimes racing and random thoughts, and I could do it in the middle of the night (I have a habit of waking up at 2 a.m.) I didn’t have to try to act professional or worry about the wrath of my boss. And it was the most fun I’d ever had. Sure, it was shitty sometimes, but isn’t anything?
My husband is a differently-minded person, though. He doesn’t understand feelings the way most people do, so he tends to construct an emotional model for people. If your description of your own feelings doesn’t fit in with the model, he dismisses it as an outlier.
I could find no way of communicating with him about our relationship problems, and we ended up in a lot of brutal fights. He called me immature, selfish, and lazy; told me he’d lost all respect for me, and he was done with me.
We were like two mentally-odd ships passing in the night, firing randomly at each other in the darkness.
Anyway, when I finished my YA series, I was plunged back into the real world without my characters for companionship. A new character had arrived shortly before I’d finished the series, but she wasn’t very good company. Her name was Liria, and she was a somewhat languid and depressed junkie. I’d quit heroin almost twenty years ago and I didn’t feel much inclination to be pulled back into that world, so I kept telling her to slouch back off from whence she came.
She wouldn’t leave, though, in that way characters do. I started writing her book.
It was a bit horrifying. I hadn’t worked through a lot of the issues from that period in my life, and Liria brought them back pretty vividly. I’d been diagnosed with PTSD—I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, but I guess a symptom can be that you run away and/or have an overblown emotional reaction when confronted with reminders of your trauma. That was me in spades. Writing the book made me even freakier, and my husband didn’t have the resources to deal with that. When I tried to talk to him about the stuff from my past that was bugging me, he’d tell me to get over myself. He said, “Having a baby is worse than getting raped, but you’re not complaining about that.”
When my husband and I fought, I started closing down completely. I’d turn into a screeching banshee when anything even resembling a slight left my husband’s lips. Sometimes I’d get in my car and end up hours away without a very good notion of why I was there.
Add that to the fact that, when I brought chapters of the book to critique group, some people said, “There’s nothing likable about this character. Why would anyone want to read about someone like this?” To them, Liria was nothing but an object of contempt, fear, and pity. They’d never thought of someone like her as a real human being, with a rich and complex inner life. Liria had a lot of me in her, and so those critiques felt like rejections of me as a person. I was already getting enough rejection from my husband and agents. I didn’t need more.
I tried to quit writing, but I couldn’t. It was an addiction as much as the heroin had been, and I got anxious and morose if I didn’t do it.
I was sitting in the local park one day during this time—I’d taken a temp job running the food bank’s summer lunch program—when this guy walked up to me.
“I like your shoes,” he said. “They’re red, white and blue, like Captain America, or like my house, which is red, white and blue, also. It’s the Captain America house.”
We talked about his workout routine and his muffin pancake recipe. He was the coolest guy in the world. I couldn’t get him out of my head after that conversation, and he ended up in Liria’s book. I named him Justin.
Unlike Liria, my critique partners LOVED Justin. So did I, but I was pretty sure he would be one of the darlings I’d have to kill. I didn’t see how he played into the story.
Except he did end up playing into the story. Justin wove himself in and out of Liria’s dreams the way the kid from the park wove through mine. I created a well-rounded character based on that half-hour conversation about my shoes and the coat rack exercise.
When I finished Liria’s book, Justin’s character kept talking to me, so I started another book.
Justin’s book was even more brutal than Liria’s. The kid from the park had obviously been schizophrenic, and so was Justin. I was terrified of schizophrenia. I’d spent a lot of my youth worried I had it. I didn’t talk to people about it much, but I’d had some pretty severe episodes of psychosis in my life, and putting myself in that mindset was even harder than being in Liria’s shoes.
As I wrote the book, though, I realized I wasn’t scared anymore. Justin was a wonderful person. His episodes of psychosis didn’t mean he was bad—that was just the way his mind worked.
Justin’s book had a sequel, and I was almost done writing it when I decided I had to talk to the kid in the park again. I knew he wasn’t Justin, but I felt like getting to know him better would help me get Justin’s character right.
I hadn’t talked to him in more than five months, and wasn’t sure where he lived—the “Captain America” house not being what you’d call a precise address—so I went down the park for lack of other options.
He walked in just as I did. “Hey, it’s you,” he said. “I was looking for you.”
The kid in the park’s name is Phoenix. He isn’t much like Justin, but he still helped me to round out Justin’s character in a very big way.
Phoenix became my new obsession, my new best friend, and my new way of avoiding the increasingly horrible fights with my husband. When things progressed to my husband telling me to get the fuck out of the house, Phoenix was the shoulder I cried on. That summer, when my kid was visiting her dad, Phoenix lived with me in campgrounds and my car for quite a while as I looked for jobs and tried to put my life together. When my husband finally asked me to come back home, though, I went. All I wanted to do was write, and the only way I could see to do that was to try to repair my marriage; being a single mom working two jobs wasn’t a recipe for success as an author. Besides, I still thought my husband would eventually realize he still loved me. I thought he’d change. I’d been in abusive relationships before and knew I was being naïve, but things always look different when you’re in the midst of them.
Meanwhile, I eventually got tired of trying to break into the publishing world with one of my bizarre novels populated with unlikeable characters. I wrote a romance with the idea of pitching it to small publishers so that I could establish myself, and maybe have an easier time getting my other stuff published. That romance was Love or Money—it was still bizarre and populated with unlikable characters, but it got published pretty easily. Soon after, I signed a contract on Liria and Justin’s series—the Other Place series.
A few months after that, my husband gave me divorce papers.
I tried to stay in the house so my daughter could finish the school year. It was a complete emotional shit-show. It wasn’t long before—you all saw this coming—Phoenix and I were in a relationship.
I ended up moving out before the end of the school year, because it was just too hard. I renovated and built onto a cabin on my parents’ farm, and I’m living here rent-free, trying to get my writing and editing career off the ground.
I had to leave Phoenix behind, but I think about him every day. I’m headed down to visit him today, too.
Phoenix and I have a sort of shared psychosis. It’s not an easy relationship, but the strength of the connection is more epic and magical than anything I’ve ever known. It’s the connection of two people living in a world very different from the world of those around them. After all, the definition of psychosis is a belief in things that aren’t real, and that aren’t consistent with their society and culture. Everyone is psychotic, but Phoenix and I are just psychotic in a slightly different way.
Yes, perhaps I destroyed my life by writing the Other Place series, but I think it might have been a good trade-off. Even if the series completely flops,my divorce was probably for the best. Writing this series taught me who I am, and that it’s okay to be that person. It’s not much use for me to try to change to make someone happy.
I hope the series doesn’t flop, though. I hope all of you read it and learn to love the unlikable characters in my books. I hope you’ll also take a second look at the unlikeable characters in your real life.