Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Method Writing by Hilary Davidson

Hilary Davidson
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.
She won the 2010 Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story for “Insatiable.” Hilary’s stories appear in anthologies including A Prisoner of Memory and 24 of the Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories (Pegasus, 2008), Thuglit Presents: Blood, Guts, & Whiskey (Kensington, 2010), and Crime Factory: The First Shift (New Pulp Press, 2011). She’s also published work in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Beat to a Pulp, and Crimespree Magazine.

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 and on Twitter (@hilarydavidson).

Method Writing
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.


Julia Buckley said...

What an interesting post! Hilary, you seem like a fun person, both as an author and an adventurer, and I'll be looking up your book! Is it on Kindle?

Jenny Milchman said...

I have the exact same experience, that when I'm writing a first draft, the whole world is in service of the novel. Everything that happens is filtered through it and becomes fodder for it. I think that the more intense the emotion we feel, the more exciting it is for the reader--so your novel is clearly a must read! Will look for it at the bookstore this Friday night. Great post--Kaye always finds the best!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hilary - Welcome! And congratulations on all the much deserved success on your debut novel (which is WONDERFUL!!!!).

Julia - Hey there!! Yes, it is available on Kindle - that's what I just read it on (Couldn't wait to order a hard copy!!).

Jenny, Hey you! Thank you for the sweet words (again!).

You guys will love Hilary's book. Promise!

Hilary Davidson said...

Kaye, I can't thank you enough for having me on Meanderings and Muses, and for saying such wonderful things about my book! I'm honored and grateful — and it makes my day to hear that you enjoyed it so much.

Julia and Jenny, many thanks for stopping by and for your very kind comments. When I was writing this piece, I wondered if people might think my "method writing" approach completely crazy. It's a HUGE relief to hear that Jenny goes through the same thing!

Peg Brantley said...

I love the idea of belief. Isn't that what we're all searching for, whether we're writing or reading?

Excellent post, Hilary. You have an amazing career ahead of you.

And Ms. Barley, you are surely the Queen Hostess for Writers. You have an amazing blog, and never, ever fail to give me something to chew on.

bo parker said...

I have a feeling that at some future date, the experts who figure such things out will declare some of us to suffer from some type of syndrome.
My luncheon friend, Heide, only smiles when I call her "Marsha." She knows that mornings are spent at the keyboard with fictional characters, including a lady with that name. And she knows that on some days, refocusing the brain on the real world is difficult.

Wendy said...

Hilary, I enjoyed your post and your experiences. Writing seems to have a different effect on me. When I have a cold my hero is struck down with pneumonia. When it's bleak outside he is pursued on a snow covered mountain in a blizzard and when I'm feeling down my hero is tortured, big time. If I'm feeling cheeky, he gives a lot of lip :)
I only noticed this when reading the finished novel and kept thinking that was when I...
Having read your article I now wonder which came first, the reality or the fiction.