The Damage Done (Forge, 2010) + The Next One to Fall (Forge, February 14, 2012)
Hilary Davidson’s debut novel, The Damage Done— won the 2011 Anthony Award for Best First Novel and the Crimespree Award for Best First Novel. It was also a finalist for an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada, and a Macavity Award. The sequel, The Next One to Fall—a mystery set in Peru, starting with a suspicious death at Machu Picchu—will be published by Forge on February 14, 2012.
Like her main character in The Damage Done and The Next One to Fall, Hilary’s day job for more than a decade was travel journalist. She is also the author of 18 nonfiction books, including Frommer’s New York City Day by Day. Originally from Toronto, she has lived in New York since October 2001.
You can find Hilary online at www.hilarydavidson.com and on Twitter (@hilarydavidson).
By Hilary Davidson
I have a group of journalist friends I’ve been meeting with for years in New York, and they love to tease me about what I was like while writing my first novel. In particular, there was one evening we were meeting for our usual dinner and gabfest. We take turns hosting these nights out, and I was heading to my friend Ellen’s apartment on Mercer Street, a place I’d been to dozens of times. I remember coming out of the subway on Bleecker Street, and wandering around the neighborhood, looking for my friend’s building and not being able to find it. I found Mercer Street eventually, but not her building; I had to call and ask for directions. When I got there, I told them what had happened, and I blamed the book. But I didn’t tell them the entire truth, which was that I’d been writing that day about a character who was lost in a familiar neighborhood.
When I started writing fiction, I found that characters and stories took up more space in my brain than I ever imagined they would. I was used to writing articles and books of the nonfiction variety, so I thought I understood what it took to be a writer. But fiction made demands I hadn’t expected. Stories lurked in my brain no matter what I was doing or where I was. They weren’t even stories, in a real sense; I would be trying to work out why a character behaved a certain way, prodding at bits of scar tissue in his or her heart until I felt that I understood them. Then, when I wrote about them, they came to life in my mind so vividly that they were more like people I knew instead of people I’d invented.
At the same time, I started to realize that what went down on the page left emotional aftershocks. I can’t claim to have figured this out for myself; it was my husband who picked up on it.
“Did something bad happen in your book today?” he asked me one day.
“Yes! How did you know?”
“Because you’re acting like it happened to you,” he said.
It was an embarrassing thing to admit to, but he was right. There was very little emotional space between my main character and me. Years ago, when I was interning at a magazine in New York, I lived in a Salvation Army residence in Gramercy Park. It was an old-fashioned hotel for ladies, much like the residence in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The residence was filled with actresses who were studying at the Lee Strasberg School, which was nearby. I often came back in the evening to find them trying to stimulate memories and re-create emotions so they could bring these feelings to a part they were playing. I found the practice baffling but intriguing, and I borrowed books from them to try to understand the theory. This was how Strasberg described the Method approach to acting:
“The human being who acts is the human being who lives. That is a terrifying circumstance. Essentially the actor acts a fiction, a dream; in life the stimuli to which we respond are always real. The actor must constantly respond to stimuli that are imaginary. And yet this must happen not only just as it happens in life, but actually more fully and more expressively. Although the actor can do things in life quite easily, when he has to do the same thing on the stage under fictitious conditions he has difficulty because he is not equipped as a human being merely to playact at imitating life. He must somehow believe. He must somehow be able to convince himself of the rightness of what he is doing in order to do things fully on the stage.”
It made a lot of sense, intuitively, but it felt like an impossible task. Being a writer seemed simple by comparison: you just made things up. Only it didn’t quite turn out that way for me.
I wasn’t conscious of deliberately calling up memories to create realistic reactions until I’d written most of The Damage Done. I knew that Lily, the main character, was claustrophobic, but I hadn’t confronted that head-on. When I tried to write about her reaction to being locked in a room, none of it felt very convincing to me. I couldn’t relate to her until I was able to call up a memory of feeling powerless and trapped. For me, that happened while I was scuba diving in the St. Lawrence River, and I lost my dive buddy underwater. The visibility was low, and I had no idea whether she’d been swept away by a current, or if she’d sunk further down. I searched for her, getting more panicked as each minute passed. Rapid breathing uses up oxygen fast, and even though I could move in the water, I couldn’t see more than ten feet around me. I felt the weight of the water pressing on me, and I felt horribly, hopelessly trapped.
That was how I finally figured out how to write about claustrophobia.
I’m writing my third novel now, and I’d love to say that I’ve found a better way to work emotions into the book. But just the other day, I went outside and put up an umbrella, only realizing after that it was bright and sunny out. Of course, I’d just been writing about a place where it was raining.