What Writing and Pain Have in Common

Gladiator model using sword on figurine of father with toddler in backpack

Inflicting pain on the innocent is an important aspect of novel writing. Though I possess these two figurines, and clearly one is inflicting pain on the other, it may well be I do not possess that particular ability.

Today I’m going to revisit something I’ve written about here in the past, because it is a question that comes up often, and that is: Would I ever consider writing fiction?

Well, yes, if some irresistible inner force moved me to do so. In fact, as the earliest visitors to this blog know, I have tried my hand at fiction a number of times. If you wanted to hurt my feelings, you might say that I am a failed novelist. I’ve written three complete novels–four if you include the 75-page mystery (double-spaced) I wrote when I was 13. None got published, thank gawd, though two were acquired by publishers and placed under contract. I’ll explain that later. One of these novels actually had flashes of brilliance, including a lovely opening scene on a remote California highway, but otherwise, they all had one thing in common: Utter mediocrity.

Here’s the problem, I think. I lack the ability that true novelists have of being able to cold-bloodedly subject their characters to endless torment and travail, even to the point of killing them off or paralyzing them or killing their families or having them stick their heads up at exactly the wrong time at Verdun. It is hard for me to imagine doing these things to my own invented characters. Could I have written “The Lovely Bones?” Sure, but here’s what would have happened: The dead girl would not in fact be dead, but would simply have run away to San Francisco and joined a girl band, made a fortune, and then come back to hunt down her would-be killer and shove him in the landing-gear bay of a Cathay Pacific 747 bound for Hong Kong, after which she would have boarded the very same plane, settled into her flat-bed alcove in business class, and had a martini. A slow-clap moment.

That’s not to say I’m a total namby pamby. I’m not. Anyone scrounging through my personal notebooks will come across a multitude of ways to bump people off. For example, I hit on the idea of dispatching a villain by handcuffing him, filling his mouth full of Metamucil, and then adding a cup of water. Who says you can’t have too much fiber!

The beauty of nonfiction is that history yields a bumper crop of powerful stories, filled with all the love, death, and mayhem a writer needs. I don’t have to inflict things on my characters. History has already obliged me. And as I’ve found time and time again, often the past yields characters no fiction writer could have invented, because, paradoxically, these characters would seem too unbelievable in the context of a novel.

Now, as to those two novels that I had under contract…here’s what happened. As my nonfiction career surged ahead, the prospect of having first one mediocre novel published, and then another, just did not appeal to me. So, I asked my agents–a different agent handled each book–to cancel the contracts and get the books back. I must say, the publishers were only too happy to do so.

Having said that, I do have yet another fiction project quietly underway, and I suspect it too will never see the light of day, though it has some very scary moments and at least one rather torrid encounter. Whether I’ve inflicted enough pain on my characters or not, is open to question. Most likely this novel too will join the pet rodents in my yard, buried in the flowerbed, under heavy rocks, so no dog can ever dig them up.




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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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