What Were They Thinking? How could the people of Jonestown drink the cyanide laced Kool-Aid? How could Jim Jones ask them to do it?
How did Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. decide to fall on a grenade during fighting in Bougainville in WWII? Surely, he didn’t do it for the posthumously awarded Medal of Honor. No doubt he did it to save his fellow soldiers, but that’s a pat answer that leaves out all but the barest glimpse of the emotions involved. When it’s difficult to put myself into the shoes of the people making these sorts of mind-blowing decisions, their choices can become a fascination for me.
This post was originally developed as a presentation about writing historical fiction for the WordCrafters in Eugene writers’ conference under the title “What were They Thinking: The Drama Available in History.” The driving force of human emotion can be quite mysterious when we’re not present to see it in action. If the emotional context is missing, I am frequently befuddled by the decisions of my fellow human beings. History is filled with dramatic events that involve momentous and pivotal choices, some heroic, some dastardly, taken by human beings under great emotional strain. Those situations that ended in tragedy were often a result of decisions made, often hastily, based on a poor selection of choices, none of them good, or in the pursuit of a desperate agenda. Those that ended well often resulted from a persistent hope, faith, love, or just dumb luck.
Here are some of the types of choices human beings make that are difficult for me to understand on the surface.
1) Suicide (sometimes there’s no explanation left behind).
2) Maintaining relationships with those who are emotionally difficult, abusive, or dangerous.
3) Engaging in activities that are known to easily lead to addictions.
4) Unusual risk-taking or other self-destructive tendencies (sometimes referred to as a death wish).
5) Self-sacrifice (a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others).
6) Courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
7) Striking out for the unknown with little but hope to sustain the effort (Christopher Columbus comes to mind).
8) Acting on intuition alone (trusting oneself to anticipate something of great import).
9) Willingness to pursue a course despite the obvious pain endured or caused to others.
10) Unwillingness to consider anything but one’s own agenda or beliefs in the face of obvious reality (Hitler comes to mind).
11) Collective belief systems that seem obviously harmful to others (South African Apartheid comes to mind).
12) Falling in love with highly flawed, even destructive individuals.
13) Hating individuals for reasons that seem to have little depth.
For this paper, I’ll refer to these quirks of human decision-making as “fascinating choices.” Most of the choices seem unreasonable on the surface, so why should I trouble myself to understand? I’ve certainly made some weird, even bone-headed decisions in my life, but then, I know why, at least most of the time. If hindsight is 20/20, I should be able to evaluate others’ fascinating choices objectively, right? Of course not. If there’s no record left behind of what the actors involved were thinking and feeling, a lot information is missing. Should I dismiss my astonishment with the notions that those who made the fascinating choices were insane, ill-informed, or merely bad at decision-making, some lucky and some unlucky? I think the fact that I’m left scratching my head in wonder is an indication that something particularly human and emotionally complex has occurred in these situations, something that holds great drama. Sometimes, we have the pat answer—he gave his life to save his fellow soldiers—but that doesn’t satisfy my curiosity. Was he motivated by patriotic fervor or was it a special relationship with those particular men that motivated him. If the latter, what events led to such strong feeling?
Okay, this is exciting, people! I am privileged to have as my guest this week, Alan M. Clark, author of the new historical thriller, The Door That Faced West. In this extensive interview, Alan discusses his work as both an artist and author, and provides some interesting background on his new novel. As a bonus, Alan shares some of his illustrations with us—two of which have never been seen publicly!
Hi, Alan. Welcome to the show. It’s great having you here.
A pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.
You are blessed to be both an amazing writer and artist. How long have you been writing and drawing, and which came first?
Thank you for the praise! The answer depends on what you mean, I suppose. For the art, painting and drawing—I’ve been aware of a desire to produce art since about age five, so over fifty years now, but I didn’t think about doing it professionally until my teens. I was lucky to have parents who never discouraged me from considering a career in art. Even so, I went to art college largely to put off for another four years what I thought would be a life in some sort of work I’d do to make money but for which I’d have no real feeling or pride.
I didn’t expect to have a reasonably good business sense that would see me into a life of creative pursuits, but that’s what I had and what happened. Again, I’m lucky. Here’s a link to one of several galleries of my artwork on my website: http://bit.ly/1rj7Hiu
Concerning writing, I started creating fiction in high school, mostly for fun, doing it with friends. Sounds like a gateway to some sort of addiction, doesn’t it? Well, perhaps it was. The collaborations were a lot of fun. We laughed a lot, reveled in weird imaginings, but, like the artwork, I didn’t really believe I had a future in it. Still, I kept at it because I loved it. As an adult, I’ve had several groups that met to share creative process. The members of the groups have been a variety of people with different creative pursuits; writers, graphics artists, painters, photographers, song writers, poets, comic book artists, etc. We shared unfinished work primarily, talking about the processes of our individual creative endeavors. We collaborated some. I was getting good responses for the writing I presented to the groups and started submitting short fiction.
In 1995, I made my first professional sale to a paperback anthology, More Phobias, edited by Martin Greenberg, Wendy Webb, Richard Gilliam, and Edward E. Kramer. Since then, I’ve been more deliberate about getting my writing to an audience and it’s grown. Now, I’ve had four collections and seven novels published. Here’s a link to information about most of my fiction: http://bit.ly/1rj8ksa
Being creative, I imagine ideas come to you in all sorts of ways. When something strikes you, do you typically see it first as an image, then a story? Or does it happen the other away around?
As you suggest, ideas come to me several ways, usually not a clear picture as an image or story. In two-dimensional visual art, I get a rough image that isn’t a composition. If the idea is good, if I like what I see in my mind’s eye, I still have to work at presenting it as part of a composition that includes the rectangle of a picture plane.
In storytelling, it’s the emotional environment that comes first. I develop characters that struggle against the circumstances of their lives, the people in their lives, even those they love, and the conflicting emotions that the characters, themselves, experience. I like working with characters that are emotionally conflicted because they are more like real human beings. They make mistakes they have to live with or struggle to amend. The decisions they make often cause them pain, create conflict with others, alter their core values and motivations, take them in surprising new directions, ultimately change who they are emotionally. The rest: the setting, the time period, the genre, is all just window dressing.
It constantly surprises me when people ask where my ideas come from. Over the years I’ve learned there’s no answer to that. So where do your ideas come from?
Experience, life, free association, the subconscious soup, from practicing the use of imagination, exercising that “muscle” by using it frequently. My blog is called the “Imagination Fully Dilated” Blog. The title comes from a series of anthologies I helped edit. The anthologies are of stories based on my artwork by writers from all over: Ramsey Campbell, Poppy Z, Brite, Jack Ketchum, F. Paul Wilson, and many others.
When I had to come up with a title for the series, I tried to give a sense of how I felt about the process of developing ideas. I thought of an eye, the mind’s eye, that can grab what we know, what we have in the way of experience, and recombine it in new ways to project possible futures, scenarios involving action and conversations, great vistas, curious mechanisms, alien worlds—but not just for fantasy, for practical function of necessity as well—hell, the whole of human invention.
So what prevents us from inventing what we want at a moment’s notice, at least within the imagination? Complacency, lack of urgency, laziness, fear of failure, fear of success and having to maintain that success? Okay, so those are some of the things that have gotten in my way. But imagine a mind’s eye that isn’t lazy, afraid, self-conscious and self-absorbed, one that dilates freely to allow in more experience, more ideas, more color, more light! The title appealed to me also because there’s something of birth in the idea of an organ dilating, opening, not just to let in, but to give forth, to allow to come into existence the products of our creativity.
So, I sound a little crazy, but all of this just to say that I think that if you exercise your imagination, just as with the muscles of your frame, it will be there for you when you need it. Perhaps your mind’s eye opens more freely with use. It seems that way to me.
Your new book, The Door That Faced West, is a work of historical fiction and a thriller, with a healthy dose of violence. What drew you to the Harpe Brothers?
I grew up in Tennessee and learned over time about the history of the State. It has a wild and wooly past. Interesting stuff. I’d read about the Harpes long ago and was fascinated by their story. They are some of the earliest American mass murderers. Perhaps they were serial killers. They were at least spree killers. Over the years their story has stuck with me, but particularly one aspect that most seem to overlook. With the three wives they shared between them, these men lived on the trail in the wilderness of very early Tennessee and Kentucky for months at a time.
It’s difficult to imagine today how foreboding that wilderness must have been and the myriad dangers that existed there. The Harpe brothers killed primarily to gain supplies since most of their victims did not have much money. For extended periods of time, that’s how the group of five survived. It must have been extremely rough living. Yet when the wives got separated from the men at one point, they traveled over one hundred miles to the agreed upon rendezvous. That seems extraordinary to me. What must these brutes have been providing the women that they’d be willing to do that, I wondered. One was the teenage daughter of a minister. How had a young woman, who presumably had some sort of spiritual upbringing, ended up with such dangerous men, been party to forty or more murders from which she benefitted materially, and decided they were worth sticking with despite great hardship?
What history tells us is that when finally the wives were separated from the men for good, they were tried and acquitted. One never remarried and lived out her life working on a plantation. The other two remarried, had children, and lived the rest of their lives in ways that were unremarkable. One of the latter two was the minister’s daughter. I wondered how she’d handled all that emotionally. That became the emotional arc of the novel. The story is told from her POV. The Harpes were extremely violent and while that’s fascinating, it’s not something we aren’t familiar with in serial killer drama. But her story set within the context of their deeds and the early American frontier—as I said, that seemed extraordinary to me.
Did you find it difficult to capture the mood and character of the period? I’m thinking specifically of the way people spoke, the idioms they used.
I like history and have a pretty good sense of when things came into existence in human experience, society and technology. I worked in a living history museum after college, a replica of the first settlement of Nashville called Fort Nashboro. I told of the history of Tennessee to tourist for several years and read a lot about the time period in the state. Tennessee had its first permanent settlements of those of European descent in the 1700s.
I have a sense of how people spoke in that time. In creating dialogue for the characters, I’ve made a compromise between giving a feel for the period and making the language accessible to the audience of today. If I’d really stuck with the sorts of language construction the Harpes and their wives might have used, I’d have tried the patience of many readers. My goal was to tell a good tale, not adhere so strictly to history that my readers might not relate to the characters. I think the flavor of the period I’ve provided helps put the audience there.
You grew up in Tennessee, a state with its own rich history. Do you feel a real connection to it’s past? If so, how does that affect your writing?
I do like Tennessee history, but perhaps no more so than that of other parts of the world. I’ve been writing about Victorian London quite a bit for my Jack the Ripper Victim series. My historical fiction novel about the life of Catherine Eddowes, Of Thimble and Threat: The Life of a Ripper Victim is the first novel in the series. The second novel about the life of Elizabeth Stride should come out later this year. Victorian London is endlessly fascinating.
Can you tell me who some of your favorite writers and artists are?
Writers: Kurt Vonnegut, Joe Lansdale, William Faulkner, Simon Clark, Phillip Jose Farmer, Patrick Suskind, Bruno Schultz, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon).
Visual artists: Max Ernst, Leonardo da Vinci, Rick Berry, Richard Powers, Johannes Vermeer, Roberto Matta, Robert Williams, Phil Hale, Gerald Brom.
Thank you, Alan. I wish you the greatest success with your book, and I look forward to chatting with you again.
Thanks. I enjoyed it.
About The Door That Faced West In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the two murderous Harpe brothers, loyal to one another but violently at odds, go on a year-long killing spree in the American frontier, dragging with them the three wives they share between them; women who form a triangle of dependency, loyalty, jealousy, hatred, betrayal, and love.
“It is not hyperbole to say that Alan M. Clark’s The Door That Faced West left me absolutely stunned. A thoughtfully haunting blend of historical fiction and thriller, this is one of Clark’s best works to date, across any medium. Simply amazing, and undoubtedly one of the best books you’ll read this year.”
—Brian Keene, bestselling author of The Rising and Ghoul
About the Author
Alan M. Clark obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the San Francisco Art Institute. He is an artist, author, publisher and founder of The Bovine Smoke Society, Bovine Smoke West and The Creative Process Committee. He currently resides in Eugene, Oregon with wife, Melody.