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Drawn to the Dark Side

Why as a writer do I want to take my readers to a place of doom and trouble?

[Geek Pride welcome guest blogger Alden Jones]

Over the course of two decades I have written many short stories. I didn’t write with the intention of crafting a book; I just wrote about what interested me, story by story.

At a certain point, I took a hard look at all the stories I’d written and started to paste my favorites together to see if they would work as a collection. Was there some kind of unifying theme or stylistic trope?

Indeed, there was: the stories I liked best had something to do with youth. They dealt with young, mostly teenaged characters, and positioned these characters in some kind of peril, whether psychic or social. (When you’re a teenager, social peril, of course, can seem far more threatening than physical danger.) I polished the drafts I had, added a story, subtracted another, and submitted the book for publication. The collection, Unaccompanied Minors, was released in June 2014.

I was never trying to make a statement about youth being a perilous time or to depress anyone. God forbid! I was only trying to write good stories – stories that kept you reading, made you care about the characters, and had some kind of narrative payoff. Stories that entertained.

But when the reviews came out, I was surprised by the many comments that the stories were “dark.”

In a positive review in the Star-Ledger, Jacqueline Cutler wrote, “None of these are stories that the reader finishes and thinks, ‘Wow, that was a day brightener.’” When Dick Concannon interviewed me for the local Boston TV show Boston Literati, I was caught on tape looking shocked when Dick pointed out how much death there was in the book. Yes, I’d written the stories, but I hadn’t taken note of the fact that over the course of seven stories, three people died, and another came close. Had I written a book about the darkest sides of youth without intending to?

Am I drawn to the dark side? And why?

My wife and I have an ongoing struggle with television and what to watch together. She can’t handle anything violent or cruel. Somehow every show I love involves this element of intensity and often this intensity is measured by how far into some area of darkness – crime, violence, psychological terrain – the show and the characters are willing to go. She says “Modern Family!” and I say “True Detective!” And we meet in the middle with “Orange is the New Black.” So this is something I think about a lot: Why is what is so unpleasant in life so appealing in the art I consume? And as a writer, do I want to draw my readers into this place of darkness?

No one would describe me as all doom and gloom. I’m hyper-social. I laugh a lot. I practice yoga and believe in brightening a stranger’s day with a small act of kindness. But if you put me in the vicinity of someone preternaturally happy, I’m suspicious. What are they hiding? What’s really going on? What do they have to convince themselves is true in order to maintain this constant cheeriness? I believe you can be extremely self-aware and cheerful. But “happiness” as behavior in our culture is often a shield against truths we don’t want to admit.

I come from a culture – I’m half Southern, half Yankee WASP – in which you are always supposed to put on a smile and act happy no matter how you feel. I was never comfortable with this directive. I didn’t like being silenced, wasn’t good at keeping my feelings to myself, and was constantly amazed by the lengths to which people would go to convince themselves something was true when it wasn’t. I wrote each of the stories in Unaccompanied Minors to explore the psychologies of people who had “something wrong with them” and would have been told, in my world, to keep quiet about it. The girl with the physical deformity who refuses to be ashamed about it. The gay person who will not allow himself to be gay. The girl who has an abortion as a teenager and the anorexic whom people take one look at and dismiss as “crazy.” I wrote to give them each a voice.

While I was writing, I had no intention of darkening my reader’s day—or of brightening it, either. I was working from some subconscious level, and if I had any message at all, it was to show these young characters, even in their most perilous moments, as strong, confident, and emerging. Being who you are, and refusing to be ashamed about it, is a message of hope. Even in the most perilous of situations.

And perhaps, for some of us, if we have to wade through some murky territory to get there, the light is even more luminous.

Alden Jones’s most recent book, Unaccompanied Minors, won the 2013 New American Fiction Prize. Her first book, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, was called “the best travel book of 2013” by The Huffington Post and was the winner of an Independent Publisher Book Award and an IndieFab Book of the Year Award. She lives in Boston. Read more at her website

[This post is adapted from a self-interview at The Nervous Breakdown.]