Today I have Cathryn Grant visiting Traveling With T to chat about writing, psychological suspense and why we read fiction.
Read on for Cathryn’s guest post- and to see Cathryn’s witty Star Trek reference!
The Human Psyche – The Final Frontier
Since I first started reading, I’ve loved crime fiction. I read Judy Bolton mysteries handed down from my Grandmother’s library. I read Nancy Drew and then grew into Agatha Christie and Erle Stanly Gardner’s Perry Mason series.
The mystery was obviously one part of my attraction – needing to know the answer to what happened, but more importantly, why it happened. My love of crime stories was fed by the evenings I spent watching the FBI and Hawaii Five-O with my father.
As I got older, I was drawn to darker stories – mainstream and literary fiction with themes of crime and explorations of the human mind. I loved Ian McEwan’s, Atonement and The Cement Garden, Tom Perrotta’s, Little Children, and Nabokov’s Lolita. I read nearly all of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels and stories, some that flirt with crime and others where it forms the central plot. Later, I devoured Gillian Flynn’s first two novels (and the devious Gone Girl), Megan Abbott’s Noir, and Patricia Highsmith’s dark, uneasy stories.
But more than ten years later, I still remember day that I discovered psychological suspense. I’d just come home from vacation and wanted to hang on to my relaxed, keeping-life-in-perspective mood. I decided I could reduce stress by listening to audio books during my commute instead of fuming at traffic and bad drivers. At the public library, I stumbled across The Bridesmaid by Ruth Rendell.
I couldn’t stop listening. I was fascinated as I watched the obsessions of the main character mushroom out of control. I shivered from the anxiety created by the doubtful sanity of the woman he was infatuated with. At that point, I’d been writing fiction for five or six years, but when I finished that novel, I knew the kind of stories I really wanted to tell.
Reading Ms. Rendell’s tantalizing prose as she delved into the minds of those teetering on the edge, their desires denied, swept me up into the minds of unusual, driven, quirky, and dark characters. Stephen King said, “No one surpasses Ruth Rendell when it comes to stories of obsession, instability, and malignant coincidence.”
Her characters are at odds with the world, but managing to get by until that malignant coincidence develops. It fascinates me as their obsessions slowly begin to dominate. I’m never sure where Ms. Rendell will lead me, but I always know I’m in for a deadly thrill.
Also as a child, I read about the journalist, Nellie Bly, who posed as a madwoman to gain entrance to an insane asylum in order to write an exposé. Ever since, I’ve been intrigued by the line between sanity and madness. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s a fear of the mind’s fragility, maybe it’s the seeming “glamor” of madness where sometimes, those who appear to be living in a self-created world, have a sharper grip on truth than the “sane”.
Every single time I read about a murder, there’s a quote from a friend or neighbor along the lines of – (s)he seemed so nice, so quiet, never caused any trouble. Hearing that makes me want to know what was going on in that man’s life, inside that woman’s head, that no one ever saw. I want to understand the forces that converge in a person’s life, resulting in the ultimate crime.
I want to know what happens when a seemingly normal person is pushed beyond her ability to endure. It’s not that I’m sympathetic to murderers, but I know that all those murderers started out as adorable, loveable infants, even if they never received that love – the thing we must have or we’ll die.
When I told people I was writing The Demise of the Soccer Moms, my first Psychological Suspense novel, they usually thought of fast-paced, high action, Psychological Thrillers, stories in which a hero is pursued by a monster. In Psychological Suspense, there isn’t usually a member of law enforcement or an amateur detective trying to find the bad girl, or escape from the bad guy, or bring justice to the world. Instead, the landscape is the minds of those who, through an eerie coincidence of circumstances, end up committing a crime, usually murder. In that way, it’s similar to noir, where the protagonist is often the perpetrator of the crime.
For the same reason Thriller readers don’t always enjoy Psychological Suspense – its slower pace, its ambiguity – I love it. I love the depiction of characters slowly, menacingly pushed over the edge by their own uncontrolled desires. Stories like this enthrall me because I fear the monsters inside our own skulls can be just as destructive and terrifying as the external monster most of us will, hopefully, never encounter.
Because I sort of got tired of explaining Psychological Suspense and how those stories differed from Thrillers, I took to calling my fiction Suburban Noir. It requires less explanation, and as I mentioned it more and more, the name stuck. The characters in my novels are wounded and deeply flawed. They’re yearning for something they can’t always define, and driven to crime by mental and emotional forces they can’t seem to control. The neighborhoods in my stories are populated by people who are obsessed, paranoid, and desperate to find happiness. They’re clinging to their sense of security. Sometimes, they find redemption.
Some people read fiction to escape and feel better about a more just world. Others, like me, read to make sense of the world. There’s still escape – into lives unlike my own, lives with deeper wounds and greater obstacles than my own.
Books like The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison, Envy by Kathryn Harrison, and The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell, frighten me in their believability and entice me as they show how easily obsessions can overcome clear thinking, and passion can obliterate reason.
The human mind is the one landscape technology has, so far, prevented us from bringing under our control. But we’re all insanely curious. We want to know what’s going on inside others’ heads. We ask – What was she thinking? We ask our mates – What are you thinking? We ask our children — What do you think about that? It’s one of the reasons we read fiction – to live inside another character’s world and look out at that world through their eyes.
The human mind is truly the final frontier, as they say in Star Trek. It’s a world that will never be conquered.
Psychological Suspense can be summed up in the phrase – There but for the grace of God go I – a woman who has never been pushed beyond her mind’s ability to retain its grasp on reality.
Want to learn more about Cathryn?
What do you think of Psychological Suspense? Tell me in the comments!
Happy Reading and Bookishly Yours,
T @ Traveling With T