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:

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.


Julia Buckley said...

Hi, Bill, you eccentric writer, you. As Stephen King said, we're all crazy--it's just a question of degree.

Love all the cool photo effects, too! Whose disembodied hands are strangling you? Whoever it is, they've been married twice. :)

Jonathan E. Quist said...

So, you're telling me you did not take my cheese danish at Left Coast Crime, then? Fine. I won't mention it again.

Nice piece, Bill. It's a little different slant on "write what you know", and for me a lot more practical than most.

I hope we do cross paths at a conference some day; I'd love to trade demon-confrontation tips with you.


Rebecca Anne said...

I've been enjoying the twitter world of Bill, or well, you, for awhile now and this rounds out the picture for me.
I do find myself amazed by your diagnosis considering I've claimed the majority of those issues for myself.....small world I suppose~
I enjoyed this and thank you for sharing.

Signed, Not a thief either~

Robin Wendell said...

Really nice photos!

Reminds me of the strange things we did in the darkroom in art school in 1967. Computer graphics make things easier now -- you don't have to rub your face in the photo solution for a wild effect.

I think all thoughtful writers have kleptomaniac tendencies. We pick up a mannerism here or a turn of phase there and we don't give them back. In fact sometimes they can infect us like malaria and years later we can find ourselves talking in a southern drawl or scratching our ear lobes in times of stress.

I think it was Iris Murdock who said, "Individual identity is the artificial flower on the compost hill of civilization." It's gotta be all free if we are part of the universal mind :D

Anonymous said...

Hello, Bill:

Last August in Portland at the Columbia Bar & Grill when we sat down to record your NETDRAG podcast interview, I had my very expensive, engraved gold filled Cross ball point pen lying on the table right next to my notebook. Bill...I hate to mention this, but I just returned from the Oregon State Police Crime Lab in Central Point where I had your picture full color spectrum digitized and stereoscopically enhanced, and the top of my pen can be seen sticking out of the pocket of your fishing vest. The Lab Technician also pointed out what appear to be several flakes of crust and white frosting from a cheese Danish near the same pocket. Please listen to the following very carefully, Mr. Cameron:
You have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney, and if you cannot afford an attorney the State of Oregon will provide one for you...

Bill Cameron said...

Ken, heh heh. Um, er. *spoink* /flees

Anonymous said...

"He's fleeing the interview. He's fleeing the interview!"

Chief Margie Gunderson in "Fargo"

Bill Cameron said...

Robin, that's an excellent point, though I might suggest we do give them back -- at least we try to. I've commented often that I'm an unrepentant eavesdropper. While many overheard conversations have ended up little more than notes in a file somewhere, some of them do make it into actual stories. So maybe I appropriated it, but now I offer it back again, hopefully enlarged through the alchemical process which writing often is.

Or maybe I'm just a scoundrel! :) Love the Iris Murdoch quote.

Julia, lovely to see you, as always. Those disembodied hands are ... my OWN! I think. King is right, of course.

Rebecca Anne, glad you could make it. I can't remember how we met -- random twitter collision? -- but I've enjoyed getting to know you in 140 character snippets. Good blog too.

And, yes, Jonathan, we must meet in person some day!

Ken, still fleeing!

Chester Campbell said...

I enjoyed CHASING SMOKE, Bill, but I guess I'm one of those who felt a bit overdosed on bladder cancer and its permutations. You did a good job of making it central to the plot. Maybe I just weary too easily.

And I hadn't thought about being a thief, but it does sound like it might be a little fun.

Bill Cameron said...

Hi, Chester. I appreciate you hanging in for as long as you can with ol' Skin, but I know neither he nor his affliction works for everyone. Even the reviews have been all over the place, from a starred review in Library Journal to a Publishers Weekly review that was so hostile I'd swear it had to be written by some ex-girlfriend. Thank you for reading, wherever you fall on the spectrum!

Anonymous said...

I've got about 50 pages of Robert Fate's "Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption" to read, and then I am cracking open "Chasing Smoke." I was in your city last week on training and swung by Murder By The Book on the way home Friday. Ended up talking to "Nick" there for nearly an hour. He is a big fan of yours and all kidding aside, so am I. I LOVED "Lost Dog" and I'm hoping the city itself plays a major character part in "Chasing Smoke" just like it did in Dog because that is where you really shine, my friend. By the way, you can stop fleeing now. I just found my pen!

Janet Reid said...

wait, does this mean that lovely gold filled Cross pen you gave me for Groundhog's Day was an ill-gotten gain?

all the sweeter!

Bill Cameron said...

Janet, shhhh, Ken thinks he found the real pen, not the cheap gold-plated fake!

L.J. Sellers said...

Your choice of a kleptomaniac for a protag was unusual and well done. Being a novelist, who makes things/people up, it never occurred to me to think you might have experienced this mental health issue. But clearly, you have your share:) But it's working for you. Looking forward to reading Chasing Smoke (and I am an ex-smoker, among other things). Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Well Bill
I figured it out.
A mildly depressive personality can certainly be expected from long hours locked away, creating characters and voices that really do not exist.
And it takes a strong resistance to authority to stay at the keyboard and ignore those who want you to do something real like take out the garbage.
That overdeveloped sense of justice means you want the good guys to win.
That narcissistic certainty is what keeps you locked away, doing what you do.
However, those rejections slips can create flagellating self-doubt.
And let’s face it. That impulse control disorder is what keeps you at the keyboard when you should be taking out the garbage.
You are a writer.
Bo Parker

Helen Ginger said...

Writers do tend to put bits and pieces of themselves in their books. Sometimes they do it without even being aware of what they've done. And then sometimes we just make it up!

Earl Staggs said...

Extremely interesting as well as candid, Bill. Let me toss in that I'm not a thief either, or at least, it's never been proven. I'll admit, however, to being a liar. Of course I am. We all are if we write fiction. We have to make up stuff. Real life is too far beyond the limits of suspension of disbelief. Best wishes for continued success.

Bill Cameron said...

Earl, one of the things that has struck me, and surprised me, in my very young writing career are the number of people who haven't like my stuff on the basis of not believing that some particular event in my books could happen. In a big picture sense, I do "make it up," but like lots of folks I draw on real life. Invariably, the things people don't believe are the things I've drawn directly from real life events.

I have yet to see an objection to the stuff I actually did make up, even stuff which I'd worried might press the boundaries of plausibility. I guess the old saw, "truth is stranger than fiction" has some bearing here, though in all likelihood the real issue is how effective I am at portraying those moments which were based on real life.

And, of course, my need to make people happy means that when I hear about someone hating my stuff I feel really bad -- not for myself, but for them. How awful to spend valuable time on something you dislike, and the thought that I produced it, well, hello Mr. Self-Flagellator!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Bill, thank you for taking the time to be a part of Meanderings and Muses. As always - you've given us things to think about, not only here but in the wonderful books you've written. We're waiting for more!!!
and come back, please. Often!

Bill Cameron said...

Thank you for having me, Kaye. It was a real pleasure!