Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Pacificist Writes About Violence

Today my guest is author Mike Nettleton, a retired survivor of 43 years in the broadcasting business. Mike's career included stints as a deejay in top-forty, adult contemporary, country and album-rock formats. He's co-written five books with his wife, Carolyn J. Rose. His hard-boiled detective novel Shotgun Start is his first solo effort.

Mike will be giving away two autographed copies of Shotgun Start. Winners will be selected randomly from the comments, and announced over the weekend. And I'm giving away a download of any one of my books to one commenter on yesterday's post as well.

How did a life-long pacifist like me end up writing books that are steeped in violence?

In the four farcical cozies I co-wrote with my wife Carolyn J. Rose, the mayhem mostly happens off-screen. We see the aftermath of the bloodshed and join a non-professional crime-solver to determine who-dunnit. Our young-adult fantasy novel The Hermit of Humbug Mountain is filled with the threat of imminent savagery, but only incidental real-time bodily injury.

But, as with most books of the hard-boiled persuasion, Shotgun Start is packed with explicit violence. Not because I revel in writing about people committing acts of brutality, but because I couldn’t tell Neal Egan’s story without it. When you throw a former cop with a manipulative ex-wife into a situation that brings him face-to-face with renegade bikers, the Mexican Mafia, internet pornographers, and various and sundry other thugs and miscreants, you can bet somebody is going to get hurt or killed.

Since I’ve never hit another human being in anger, never owned a firearm (although my law-enforcement employed father carried a sidearm), and oppose war in all of its mutations, how can I write books about people who don’t even blink at inflicting major physical and psychological damage to assert their power or take revenge on perceived enemies?

Here’s the answer, a grim truth we hate to recognize but understand at the deepest level of our being; the potential for violence lies in all of us. It’s just the trigger that sets us off that varies in different human beings.

Here’s an example from my own life. When my son, who is now a balding 40-year-old webcast specialist with Intel, was seven or so, he became the victim-of-the moment of a brawny ten-year-old bully who lived in the same apartment complex. Mostly, it was name-calling and minor shoving around, so my wife and I just counseled him to avoid the kid or walk away. One day, I came home from work to find Rob crying. He had a split lip and a black eye. At first, he wouldn’t tell me who did it, but since I suspected the little rat-bastard bully, he soon gave it up.

I left our apartment, seething, in search of the kid and/or his parents. I found the swaggering fifth-grader with a cluster of his friends, hanging around in the common area. I caught his eye and said “Come here, Terry” (not his real name). He took one look and sprinted away.

“You’d better run, you little S.O.B.,” I called out as I pursued. Finally I cornered him in a fenced-in grassy area on the other side of a busy boulevard. “You’re real brave when the person you’re hitting is smaller than you, right, Terry?” I felt an icy anger inundate me. “Wanna try me on?”

He scampered up a tree and my adrenaline rush nearly sent me clawing up after him. My brain was in single-thought mode. “Get him,” it said. “Pull him out of that tree and…”

I was clearly out-of-control. The avenging angel I’d become didn’t have the same set of limits that the rational husband, father, and citizen placed on himself. On the brink of violence—against a ten-year-old kid, for Christ’s sake—I took a number of deep breaths, got a grip and fought the urge to throttle. Instead, I stood beneath the tree, outlining for him calmly, in perfectly graphic terms, what kind of bloody consequences he faced if he ever laid another hand on my kid. “In fact,” I told him. If he even reports you talked to him, I’ll find you and we’ll continue this conversation.”

I’m not, in any sense of the word, proud of this moment in my history. Philosophically, I don’t believe the answer to violence is more violence. But, the reality of the matter was, someone had hurt my son and I wanted to hurt him back.

When I’m writing a violent scene, I try to tap into that out-of-control moment—the nanosecond where I teetered on the edge of committing a truly ugly crime and found, somewhere within me, the strength to pull back. Others don’t back away, or don’t even try. Many use hurting others as a way to assert power or exact revenge. Some are sociopathic and have no concept of anything beyond the gratification of their own immediate needs. But one thing unites them—they all experience that moment when they know they’ve reached the point of no return.

I write about violence as a way to cope with the knowledge that the potential lies within me—within all of us if we’re honest with ourselves. The power I hold, as a writer, is the ability to show how horrific violent acts are and to bring some form of justice to those who commit them. It’s also important to acknowledge the long-range consequences of violence. The children of a murdered man will suffer long after his ashes have been scattered in the wind. A cop who must kill in the line of duty will lose sleep over it, no matter what he may tell you to the contrary.

Violence is a natural by-product of stupidity, greed, jealousy, panic, mental illness and economic disparity. You’ll find accounts of men attacking other men over territory, mates, food and cultural differences in cave drawings that date back thousands of years. No matter how civilized we believe we are now, the motives for the heinous crimes we read about in the newspaper mirror those of ancient civilizations. If you subscribe to Darwin’s theories, man has evolved, but apparently not nearly enough. And, sadly, I doubt we will.

As long as this instinct remains hard-wired into our DNA we’ll be horrified and fascinated by the small sub-set of humans who express their rage, frustration, confusion and narcissism by committing unspeakable acts against others. And, as a mystery-suspense writer and committed pacifist, I’ll continue to explore characters who can’t or won’t pull themselves back from the edge of the chasm.

So, why, as a life-long peacenik, can’t I write stories totally devoid of violence? Because I can only write about the real world I live in, not the world I wished we could create. Plus, my mission is to engage people in my stories, involve them in the struggles of the characters—with the elements, with other people and with themselves. Writing stories only inhabited by nice characters doing nice things for other nice people would be devoid of conflict. And conflict is what brings a story to life and makes it real. My primary obligation, as a writer, other than to entertain, is to hold a mirror up to the disturbing events that constitute the day to day reality of our lives. So I will continue to hate violence. And I’ll continue to write about it.

For more about Shotgun Start, you can read a free first chapter here. Find out more about Mike at his blog.

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Deadly Duo, Duh Blog said...

Speaking of committing violence, I"m off to my part-time retirement job of tutoring and mentoring three groups of high school freshmen. Seriously, they're good kids, but they test your patience, for sure. I'll be around off and on later in the day for anyone who wants to talk about what you tap into to write about things that are foreign to you. And I hope you'll sign up to win a book--I'd love for you to read SHOTGUN START. Thanks to Terry for giving me some space on her blog to vent.

Maryann Miller said...

A great explanation of how we can write about violence while abhorring it. I am a pacifist, too, although I do own a gun and would not hesitate to use it if my life was in danger, or the lives of my family.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I think writing mysteries is very cathartic, too--maybe it helps to get those violent urges out of us so that we're nice and peaceful afterwards. :)

Carolyn J. Rose said...

LOL - I'm glad Mike has the writing outlet, otherwise our relationship never would have made it to the marriage stage. I have amazing powers to annoy.

Susan, who is paddling her own canoe said...

Mike, when you start writing a mystery, do you know not only the outcome, but also every step along the way to get there? Has the story ever changed direction in a surprising way once you've started writing?

Terry Odell said...

For any of you who tried to follow the link to Mike's book earlier, I apologize for the faulty URL. It should be fixed now.

Janet Kerr said...

You are candid Mike. I appreciate your story about your child.
I too have been wrestling with violence & have studied the psychopath because this is the least empathic personality.

Please enter me in your draw. I would be interested in reading your books!

Elizabeth Lyon said...

It is a fascinating combination to live with--being a true grit mystery writer and being a pacifist to the core. Even more fascinating to me is that your protagonist, Neil, easily contains those same apparent contradictions. They make him a realistic and deep character.

I loved hanging out in Neil's world. I'm extra sensitive about reading (or seeing on the screen) "explicit violence," but you wrote those actions so well, I never flinched. I was simply completely identified with Neil in the moment.

To anyone who has not read Mike's debut solo novel, his/Neil's voice, Mike's use of language, is a real lotto win.

Deadly Duo, Duh Blog said...

I love hearing from you. In response to Susan's question, I've evolved from just starting with a few characters and seeing where it led me to having a game plan fairly well mapped out, including a possible ending. But, chances are good to 100% sure that things will change along the way and that includes the ending. With Shotgun Start, the identity of the killer shifted and I actually had to create another character to make it happen.

Maryann touched on the reality of the situation. Any of us who says we wouldn't commit a violent act, no matter what, are not being completely honest with ourselves. Gandhi pulled it off, but I think it's only because someone didn't push his button. In a personal, one-on-one situation, if someone had threatened his wife or children, I think he would have reacted as most of us would have--don anything in our power to protect them.

Deadly Duo, Duh Blog said...

Back from tutoring/mentoring 3 groups of freshmen at 2 area high schools. Proud to report no life-threatening injuries once again. As always, the kids brought up stuff that made me think. One of them was dealing with the theme of "heroes" for an English class. We talked about how you defined what a hero is and whether or not celebrities (read Kim Kardashian) were heroes to some people. One interesting twist was this and I think it applies to fiction writing. Can a person do evil things and still be a hero. I immediately thought of Dexter from the TV series and books. Any thoughts?

Melanie Sherman said...

So...did the SOB, scumbag, lubberlout kid ever pick on your son again?

J.L. Murphey said...

While I am not a pacifist, (I own a gun and know how to use it) I would react the same against anyone hurting my family. Would I shoot anyone? Oh yeah I would in extreme circumstances and if it were my only protection.

Everyone has a darker side. How you choose to use it is your choice. You acknowledge it and move on. But Mike, by choosing to be a pacifist, you vent your darker side in writing. I applaud you for this. Way better than venting on another soul.

Deadly Duo, Duh Blog said...

We moved from that apartment complex shortly after that, so it didn't become an issue. So far as I know that was the last issue Rob had with being bullied, although, I'll admit, my performance that day may have prevented him from sharing with me after that. I appreciate the feedback and wish you good luck on the random drawing for free books.

Karen C said...

I appreciated your honesty regarding your son's bully. I would think that, as parents, a goodly number of us would behave in a similar fashion. Like some of those who have commented, I am not in favor of violence, but I do own a gun and would not have a problem in using it to protect myself and my family.