To a kid growing up in Chicago in the 1980s, the Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert was the fount of all wisdom. His weekly Siskel and Ebert: At the Movies PBS show, with its famous Thumbs Up-Thumbs Down scoring system, was in regular rotation on lazy Saturday mornings, when my sister and I would flop in front of the TV with bowls of cereal. Because it was the 80s, our mother let us add spoonsful of white sugar to our Cheerios and eat them along with big glasses of milk sweetened with Hershey’s syrup. Apparently, in the 80s, everyone had magical pancreases.
But back to Ebert. This bespectacled, almost cartoonishly jowly Midwesterner somehow embodied the personality traits of a sharp-witted pundit, a polymath genius, and a four-year-old at a birthday party. His arguments with his co-host were literate, civilized precursors to the hair-clawing, manicure-ruining brawls that populate today’s reality TV. Their arguments were every bit as viscous and sometimes even personal, but their disagreements also expanded minds and showed that it was possible for even well-intentioned experts to disagree.
I recently rediscovered that Saturday morning slice of my childhood when I saw Life Itself, a documentary that chronicles Ebert’s diagnosis with jaw cancer, and the aftermath of the disfiguring surgery that spared his life but destroyed both his face and his ability to speak. The documentary is wonderful, even for those who lack the childhood attachment I have. The film is chock-full of touching, profound, hilarious revelations, but it was one quote, as Ebert discussed his scathing review of Blue Velvet, that has stuck with me for weeks:
“Drama holds a mirror up to life, but needn’t reproduce it.”
For Ebert, Blue Velvet’s sadomasochistic depiction of Isabella Rossalini’s character, and by extension the actress herself, crossed a line between art/drama and exploitation. This brought me back to the struggles I had in choosing a comfortable genre in which to write. After my first agent unsuccessfully shopped the Mount Moriah cozy mystery series, she advised that I switch gears and write Romantic Suspense, which she assured me would sell more easily. That genre, also known as “woman in peril” usually features dangerous, even psychopathic, criminals and gritty scenes of life-threatening action. Following my agent’s advice, I started a novel about a female psychiatrist who treated patients suffering from severe phobias using 3D virtual reality immersion. Similar to the villain in the movie Se7en, my baddie was killing my heroine’s patients one-by-one by reproducing the circumstances of their virtual immersions in real life. Terrified of spiders? Well, you’d find yourself trapped in a room full of tarantulas. And so on. Pretty good plot, eh?
Here’s the thing, though. When I worked on that book, I felt gross. It was hard to edit, because I didn’t like going back reading what I’d written. Yes, those horrible things—mental illness, murder, torture, cruelty, happen. But I didn’t want to be the one to give voice to those things. So, I chucked that idea, dropped the agent, and published the Mount Moriah books myself with Nicole Loughan’s Little Spot imprint. There are murders in my books, and baddies. And things like domestic abuse and prejudice are not glossed over. But I try not to hold my reader’s gaze on them for too long, and I never want to inflict unnecessary suffering on my characters. Mostly, my books try to radiate positive energy. Sometimes, when I read a passage I haven’t read in a long time, it will still make me chuckle. That’s the vibe I’m most comfortable putting out in the world.
I’ll leave it to others to meticulously reproduce mass starvation, individual privation, war atrocities, and child abuse. Turns out when I hold up a mirror to life, I want to hold a fun house mirror.