Sunday, March 8, 2009
Bill Cameron - Yes, I am; No, I'm Not
Bill Cameron is the author of the dark, Portland-based mysteries LOST DOG and CHASING SMOKE. His stories have appeared in Spinetingler, Killer Year, and the forthcoming Portland Noir. He is currently at work on his third Portland novel featuring Skin Kadash. Learn more at: http://www.billcameronmysteries.com
Yes, I am; No, I'm Not
by Bill Cameron
I'm not a thief. I just want to state that up front.
What I am is more banal. Here's my diagnosis: I have a mildly depressive personality with an accent of bipolar disorder. To these base ingredients, add both a strong resistance to authority and an overdeveloped sense of justice. Seasoning the stew are my almost narcissistic certainty and my flagellating self-doubt. Top it off with a sprinkle of impulse control disorder and a dollop of needing to make those around me happy and you have Bill Cameron goulash: father, husband, graphic designer, writer, and so forth. In short, I'm an inedible mess. But at least I'm not a thief.
So what? We're all a mess in our own ways. The healthiest among us surely struggle with inner demons. What makes mine so special? Nothing, really. Especially since I'm not that bad. At my worst, my troubles are well managed with talk therapy and the occasional prescription to manage anxiety. I know people with far greater challenges than my own.
Most of the time I get up in the morning and do my job, meet my responsibilities, satisfy some of the desires that give me pleasure in life. A little reading, chatting with friends, good coffee. It's not like I can't get things done. I just know that I have weaknesses and sometimes those weakness get the better of me. (Heaven forbid I get access to internet during a depressive swing.)
But sometimes they're my greatest strength. Lost Dog and Chasing Smoke, my two books to date, are examples of using my weaknesses to, I hope, good effect.
In Lost Dog, my main character Peter is a kleptomaniac. He's a little atypical in the way his condition presents, but Peter's kleptomania falls within the diagnosis described in the DSM-IV. He suffers a "failure to resist impulses to steal items even though the items are not needed for personal use or for their monetary value." Furthermore, this process starts with "a rising subjective sense of tension" followed by "relief when committing the theft." He doesn't steal "to express anger or vengeance," nor is the theft "done in response to a delusion or hallucination."
Skin, who appeared in Lost Dog but is the main character of Chasing Smoke, has his own troubles. He's fighting cancer, struggling with his place in the world, and trying to quit smoking after a lifetime of lighting up. His darkness sometimes consumes him, and why not? Few of us are sanguine in the face of our own mortality, especially while trying to break a powerful addiction.
As a writer, the most gratifying moments are when readers tell me they think I've captured some aspect of character well. I've heard from a number of folks who found Peter's struggle with kleptomania particularly convincing. When I've had the opportunity to speak in public, a not uncommon question has been, "How did you come to understand kleptomania so well?" This question is often accompanied by a nervous chuckle.
I've also been asked, "When did you quit smoking?" and "Have you had cancer yourself?" Aside from a few cough-inducing Marlboros while in junior high, I've never smoked. No cancer either. But I am very pleased readers found my presentation of these character problems successful. I believe it's because I've been able to build character and situation on a foundation of my own personal challenges. (To be fair, not all readers agree, and some disagree quite emphatically.)
I've never been a kleptomaniac; I'm not Peter McKrall and Peter McKrall is not me. But I have struggled with impulse control at times in my life. That sequence of "failure to resist -> rising tension -> self-destructive act -> relief" is very familiar, and the consequences are familiar as well. Nor am I Skin Kadash, though Skin and I share certain contradictions, including that whole certainty/self-doubt problem.
I'm the kind of writer who uses writing to work through many of my own issues. I don't want to suggest that my stories and books are all just some kind of self-therapy. My first commitment is to tell a good story about interesting characters. But I do try to come to understand my own problems better through the act of writing, and in the process create characters which are both powerful and believable. I want them to be real, and a big part of what makes that possible is facing my own weaknesses and learning from them. To the extent I am successful, I believe it's because I have been able to confront my own demons and, to some small extent, exert a measure of control over them.