To The Memory of Sister Petrina: Now I Understand

Aside from a brief flirtation with the public education system in kindergarten, all of my pre-college years were spent in Catholic schools. My three years of high school were memorable most for being branded a troublemaker at the same time that more than one nun actively recruited me to “follow Jesus and accept my vocation.”

Uhm, no.

Aside: I would have made a terrible nun. Oh my gods, I would have been, like, the worst nun ever. I would have been the first nun to go on a homicidal rampage, of this I am certain. Living with a bunch of women, never able to hang out with guys (whose company I generally prefer to chicks)?! No angry, loud music? No moshing? Bad hair cuts and sensible shoes?! My life centered around a belief system for which I had more questions than faith, when even at the age of eight I was repeatedly told to stop being such a doubting Thomas?! Sensible shoes?!?

Anyway…the fact that they tried to recruit me more than most of their students actually reinforced my skepticism about the whole deal, but that’s a topic for another post.

Right now I want to talk about one nun in particular.

No, not Sister Mary Geis, the closest thing I had to a mentor and the only Sister of Mercy who did not object to me listening to Sisters of Mercy; who admitted, quietly, that she thought my fantastic fuchsia mullet in junior year, the one that almost got me expelled, was actually quite becoming; whose gentle but relentless prodding led me to consider a career in journalism, where asking questions was kind of, you know, a good thing. She was a smart woman in more ways than one, and I hope the afterlife is everything she wanted it to be.

And this post is not about Schwester Anna Fritzman, who cultivated in me an almost fetishist love of hearing the German language. Doch!

Nor is it about the much-feared Hermana Veronica, dominatrix of the Spanish classroom, with black eyes and a severe black brow. She could actually control the weather. No, really. More than once, she’d catch someone cheating, or some brave soul would suggest we move class outside to celebrate the bright, sunny spring day, and her dead shark eyes would turn on that unlucky girl and, seriously the sky would blacken. Cue thunderclap and bolt of lightning.

I am not making this up.

No, it’s my freshman year English teacher I’ve been thinking of quite a bit recently.

Sister Petrina was well into her 80s when she opened her lair to the 14 of us smug, self-assured First Year English Honors students. My high school’s main building was kind of a ridiculously cool (in retrospect) neo-gothic sprawl of gray stone, built into a steep, forested hillside. It loomed over the highway and strip mall far below it like a castle, and in winter its ice-licked exterior stone stairs were a nightmare.

Sister Petrina’s class was at the back corner, on the bottom floor, built almost into the hill itself, with only one narrow view out the north side to trees and sunlight. The desks and chairs were wooden hulks blackened with age, and I remember the lighting was always gloomy. It was, I would argue, the most medieval corner of campus.

And some people wonder where I get my writing inspirations from.

Looking back, I feel I can safely diagnose Sister Petrina as more than a few steps down the flight of stairs that is Alzheimer’s. I’m not being flip. She was absent-minded and erratic, and often seemed to forget we were there, losing her train of thought and staring out the window for long, silent minutes. Sometimes, out of nowhere, she would break into a broad smile and titter like a schoolgirl who had just heard a naughty joke. Other times she would screech at us, without provocation, slamming her ruler down on her desk with alarming force.

As an educator, she was wanting. I remember almost none of our reading list or assignments, aside from the time she told us to write a critique of a literary criticism of our choice, and, completely uninterested, I made up a book critiquing The Scarlet Letter  (“authored” by John Mellor, Joe Strummer’s real name! Ha! I thought myself such a clever little monster!) and spouted two pages of big word gibberish on it. I got an A+.

But there are two moments I remember about Sister Petrina, one more relevant to my writing than the other.

The irrelevant moment came when we learned she had failed her driver’s test. Her driver’s license was apparently something she wanted very badly, and had never had, but when she took the road test she not only didn’t pass, she failed every element of the test. According to the driver’s ed students who witnessed the debacle, after learning the news, she sat in the car and cried for a long time.

We laughed. Callous little shits we were, we had a good long cackle over that, and the crueler among us made sure to gloat over our own middling driving skills in front of her. I was not one of the gloaters, and, quite frankly, even as I laughed I felt kind of bad for her without understanding why. Only later, away from the vicious meangirls, did I consider for the first time that she was human, deserving of empathy, not some ridiculous caricature to be loathed and mocked.

I still think about laughing, how wrong it felt at the time. I suppose it was one of the first moments I had when my nascent adult self, feeling the first tingle of grown-up empathy, looked at my teenage self and shook her head in disappointment.

And I think about the other Sister Petrina moment I’ve carried with me, especially when discussing books or movies or shows with people.

I do not like leading men. I much prefer character actors to the pretty ones, and villains, at least the interesting ones, to heroes.

I felt bad for all the orcs who got killed in Lord of the Rings. And don’t even get me started about how heartbroken I was over the Ringwraiths and their fellbeasts at the Black Gates. Favorite member of the Fellowship? Oh, the flawed and doomed Boromir, for certain. Like there’s even a choice.

I believe my love for the shark in Jaws and also Darth Vader is already well-established on this blog. My second favorite Star Wars character was Boba Fett and in Jaws it was undoubtedly the intimidating and somewhat insane–with good reason– salty fisherman Quint.

Watching the HBO series Game of Thrones and having read the first four of the books, my favorite character hands-down is The Hound. (For those of you unfamiliar with either the show or novels, he is a big, brutal warrior with a bad attitude–well, you’d be a bit irritable too if your sociopath brother stuck your face in a fire as a child, leaving you horribly scarred.)

When it comes to my own writing, well, I write what I want to read, so it’s no surprise my leading men are often the characters who, in another novel, would be the conventional bad guys.

Several people have remarked, during or after reading Plaguewalker, that they felt they should dislike, even hate, Marcus, but that they ended up either loving him or, at the very least, feeling sympathy for him. One friend emailed me to say “stop making me like him so much!” Er, too late, the book being done and all.

Marcus is indeed not a nice guy, even for his time. You could argue his horrible upbringing and the isolation and ugliness of the occupation he was raised into made him largely what he is, but he’s not exactly driven to improve his character, either. When the reader meets him, he is completely indifferent to the feelings of others, including those–especially those–who suffer at his hands.

Leading a prisoner to the Rabenstein, Marcus is more worried about repairs than the cries of the condemned whose head he’s about to lop off with his sword:

Behind me, the woman begins to sob again.

The Rabenstein is but fifty paces from us now. It is nothing but a platform of wood raised on mortared stones. Off the near side is a beam projecting from a post only inches taller than I, its wood splattered with old, burned pitch. As I mount the platform I notice that age has cracked the post near its base.

Jorg and I should fix that before spring.

That’s actually one of my favorite moments in the book, because I think it says everything you need to know about Marcus, an extremely practical man, inured to others’ suffering but more than a little, shall we say, detail-oriented about his work, not out of sadism but rather a kind of pride.

Marcus is also no friend of women. Charged with running the local brothel–his right as the town’s Scharfrichter–he treats the women like property and still considers himself an improvement for them over his drunken predecessor:

I pull her outside, down the stairs on her knees, and throw her headfirst into a snowbank. She is lucky I am not given to anger, for I could do far worse.

Have I mentioned Marcus is a master of understatement?

Yet, despite his often violent actions, Marcus is a vulnerable man–as all truly interesting villains must be.

In another of my favorite Plaguewalker moments, Marcus gets jumped by four men and, despite his size and skill in the torture chamber, he gets clobbered. He never learned to fight because as a child he never rough-housed with other boys–no one wanted to play with the executioner’s son. Later in the book, realizing he’s about to get into another fight, he tucks tail and runs:

I do not want to brawl. I don’t know how. And though I carry a sword, I know how to use it for only one thing.

When I talk about my favorite bits of Plaguewalker, by the way, I mean as a reader, not some self-congratulatory egomaniac of a writer. I write what I want to read. I wrote Plaguewalker so I could read it.

One of the main characters in my fantasy novel The War’s End, currently in the final edit, is Sventevit of Aleman (yes, “Aleman” is a shout-out both to Hermana Veronica and Schwester Anna.  It’s the Spanish word for “German.”). He’s a mercenary in every sense of the word, and was one of the greatest fighting men of his generation. Advancing age and years spent as a prisoner of war have not been kind to him, however, and both his body and mind fail him at times, leaving him painfully aware of his vulnerability.

The other main character in The War’s End, a vicious warrior, is even more messed up in the head, though also with good reason. Her intelligence and skill in fighting are matched by a case of PTSD no less severe than Sventevit’s. Both of them would be considered villains in most other books, but, like Marcus, they are not simply bad guys.

My inspiration for The War’s End, by the way, stems from an encounter with an elderly man on a bus in Germany back in the early ’90s. I’ll share the details someday, but let’s just say my interaction with the man, who would have been in his prime back in, oh, the late 1930s to early ’40s, led me to ask myself the question “when the war is over, where do all the bad guys go?”

Because the villains, after all, are just as human as a nun failing a driving test.

Darth Vader was half-robot, okay, but only because he was horribly scarred and, well, crisped after making, er, a series of poor decisions, some of them out of love for his woman.

The shark in Jaws* was probably just hungry at first, and then pissed that people kept shooting it with harpoons tied to floating barrels. Wouldn’t that vex you?

The Hound might be driven by hate, but I doubt any reader was untouched by his almost shy inability to articulate his feelings for someone he cared about.

The orcs and fell beasts* were just doing their job, after all, and likely would have been killed by their own if they hesitated.

Marcus is an unfeeling brute on the surface, but has his own worries and doubts.

(*Yes, I know sharks, orcs and fellbeasts are not human. I’m referencing them now as characters portrayed as villains.)

When a hero falters, the reader generally thinks “oh, he’s only human.” When a villain shows vulnerability, though, who says “oh, he’s only human?” Not many of us.

I think that’s why I like the villains, at least the ones who are, on some level, highly flawed characters who might otherwise be heroic. The truly evil, psycho villains I find tediously dull, but that is another topic for another post.

And I’m not the only one who prefers the vulnerable villains. I remember one spring day, some weeks after her failed driving test, when Sister Petrina trailed off as she stared out the narrow little window of her classroom. I can’t recall what book she’d been lecturing on, but I do remember what she said then, her eyes bright, her voice soft and dreamy.

“I remember, when I was your age, reading the most wonderful books about men returning from the war. I never liked the hero. He was too perfect. I liked the one who was brooding. He always had a scar. Or a limp,” she murmured, then cooed, yes, cooed. “Oh, he was so romantic. It was wonderful.”

Sister Petrina, I get that.

Who’s Afraid of the Dark?

So, Plaguewalker has been available in three formats–paperback, Nook and Kindle–for several days now. The comments I’ve been getting (yes, from friends and family, but also total strangers) are that the book is “addictive,” “dark,” “mesmerizing,” “dark,” “amazing,” “dark,” “extremely well-written” and, you guessed it, “dark.”

First, for those who have read it or are reading it now, thanks. I worked hard on it and am happy with the way it turned out, darkness and all.

Actually, especially the darkness.

Looking at pop culture obsessions at the moment, I don’t think Plaguewalker is particularly dark. Seriously, between the sadistic, titillating violence of The Millennium Trilogy (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books and movies), all the incest and beheadings in Game of Thrones, zombies and vampires running amok, and kids killing each other for sport in The Hunger Games, my little book about death isn’t exactly ground-breakingly gruesome.

I do think, however, that people may perceive Plaguewalker to be darker because it is a first person narrative. There is no buffer between the reader and Marcus. And Marcus is not a man to mince words. He is not a sadist or even a bully, but I think his straightforward view of the world may disturb readers more because he is so matter-of-fact about it.

I can’t help it. That’s the story Marcus told me in my head, and the way it had to be told.

From the moment I started to write Plaguewalker, it was a first person narrative. I can take you back to that moment, in fact.

But first, a little backstory. I had been wanting for a few years to write something about medieval German executioners. It’s a fascinating slice of cultural history that I had first learned about while visiting an exhibit in the museum at Burghausen, my favorite castle in Bavaria. The exhibit was all about crime and punishment in medieval times. Nasty stuff. But I was drawn to the recurring images of the executioner and his place in society. He was considered necessary, but reviled. He inspired fear and even terror, but could expect an ugly death at the hands of a mob if he failed to perform his duties to their satisfaction. He was shunned by the rest of society–unless someone needed a cure for dandruff or a lock of hair from a hanged man to ward off evil, in which case he was sought out, quietly. Torturer, healer, killer, herbalist, dispenser of justice…heady stuff.

But for nearly a decade, I couldn’t figure out how to approach the story.

One night, shortly after moving back to the States from Russia, still unpacking in my new apartment in a new town in a new state, just starting grad school and adjusting to a new career path, I happened to have the tv on when a pro-wrestling show came on.

As a child, I’d stayed up late to watch a wrestling show aired from Madison Square Garden, mostly because my older brother thought it was cool and therefore it was cool and I wanted to be cool by watching it. I remember watching The Iron Sheik and the Crazy Samoans and Sgt. Slaughter, enthralled by their feats of strength as much as the histrionic storylines.

So, sitting there in Madison, Wisconsin, not knowing a soul for a thousand miles in any direction, with only my two dogs for company, surrounded by boxes and still experiencing some degree of culture shock after leaving Russia and my job there, I found myself watching the action in the squared circle again.

It was even more ridiculous than I’d remembered, the posturing, the pulled punches, the lycra and the hyperbole.

Then the arena darkened and the announcer warned everyone The Undertaker was in the house. Cue lights, smoke machine, sinister organ music.

And there he came, striding toward the squared circle. A big man, but not fat or ridiculously bulky like some of them. No threats, no macho tagline. Just a grimace and dead stare.

The crowd went wild as The Undertaker prepared to dispatch his trembling victim.

And I thought, wow. That’s what it must have been like when der Scharfrichter approached the Rabenstein for an execution. People cheering Death on, as long as he wasn’t looking in their direction.

And, while I know The Undertaker was a character, I wondered what he was thinking–what a Scharfrichter might have been thinking–as the crowd around him hooted and hollered and applauded his taking of a life, even though they were, at the same moment, terrified of him.

That’s when I heard the voice in my head.

I was born of the Devil. That is what they said.

Yes, the opening lines of Plaguewalker. There it was. I heard them in a low, flat voice with a growl to it. Not a growl of menace so much as the roughness of a voice not often used. The voice of a man who was not particularly talkative.

That was how writing Plaguewalker began for me. My executioner had no name back then; he was just a voice in my head that grew out of those first words. And I knew from the moment I heard him that the story had to be told in his voice.

I wasn’t interested in what the crowd thought of him, in recasting the third-person accounts I’d read in the book I’d bought at Burghausen about German executioners. Plaguewalker was going to be his story, and he was going to be the one to tell it.

I had my character–now I needed the setting, the plot. That was easy, once Marcus started talking. Immediately I saw landscapes in my head–cold snow, dead winter light, black executioner’s cloak. A stark world almost devoid of color or nuance. Beside the exhibit on crime and punishment at Burghausen, there was a second exhibit on the Black Death, including folktales about Pest Jungfrau, the Plague Maiden, and the Plaguewalker himself, a giant in black that carried the crippled plague on his back from town to town. Perhaps that was why, in my head, executioners and the Black Death were forever linked.

Okay, I’ve got my main character. Check. Setting. Check. Catalyst. Check. And…

There’s one more piece of backstory you need to know. Perhaps the most important piece in terms of Plaguewalker‘s plot.

When I was little, even before I would stay up with my brother to watch rasslin’ shows, my mom took us to see Star Wars. That was a big deal for me, as it would be for any seven year old, but it made a particular impact. My parents were in the final stages of an acrimonious divorce, and all I knew was that, like Luke Skywalker on Tattooine, my world of suburban New Jersey was way too small for my dreams and plans. I wanted to explore, to do exciting things. There were adventures to be had!

So I immediately identified with Luke Skywalker, whiny moments and all. At the same time, from the moment he strode onscreen, I was a little obsessed with Darth Vader. It’s the cloak, I think. And the boots. And maybe it’s my German blood, but I respected that Lord Vader Got. Shit. Done. and didn’t put up with any nonsense.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out, are you kidding me? Vader is Luke’s father? How awesome is that! I want a Dad like that! Why wasn’t my dad like that?

I know, I know, you’re probably thinking “but Darth Vader is the villain, what kind of twisted child wishes her father was the embodiment of Lawful Evil alignment?” But you have to understand that, in my early years, I craved order and adventure in the same breath. I think all kids do, in a way. I dunno. I do know, however, that even before I saw Star Wars, my grandfather took me to see Jaws and I was rooting for the shark. I was pretty upset when they killed it.

Maybe I just was a twisted little kid.

So, anyway, fast forward 20 years or so. I’m not one of those disciplined writers who views the act as a craft that must be rigidly practiced. I don’t write every day. I never do outlines. I rarely have any idea where a story is going, or even what I’m trying to say, at least on a conscious level.

I’m the kind of writer scientists point to when their research suggests links between creativity and mental illness. I hear voices. Yeah, that’s right. I’ll admit it. I hear voices. I can tell you how this started, too–right about the time my parents were breaking up, and would often fight in the kitchen late into the night, I developed terrible insomnia. The only way I got to sleep every night would be to tell myself stories in my head. They were often rather dark stories, but they were mine. The characters in them were my imaginary friends, even the bad guys. Come to think of it, especially the bad guys. They always seemed more interesting than the good guys.

Over time, the stories I told myself became so real that I wasn’t aware of telling them to myself. They just unfolded, and I had no idea what would happen next.

Yes, in case you’re wondering, I passed the psych eval to spend winter in Antarctica, my current home. Twice, even.

Anyway, that’s the way I write. Sometimes I won’t hear the voices for weeks, months, even years. Then they come, and I basically take dictation. When they do show up, I’ve been known to sit at my computer for ten, twelve, eighteen hours or more, forgetting to eat or drink.

I remember in late 2010, when I was working on my fantasy novel The Guardian (coming out early 2013), sitting in a dark corner of the galley here at McMurdo Station so as not to disturb my roommates. People came and ate dinner, the night shift had its mid-shift meal, then people came for breakfast and there I was, still hunched over my netbook typing furiously. When a friend stopped by to say hello and broke the spell, I had no idea where I was or who was talking to me.

Wow. I sound like a total nutjob.

But seriously, I follow the lead of the voices in my head, wherever they come from, when I write. It was only much later, long after Plaguewalker was finished and edited, that I realized the story had as much to do with a chance visit to the castle at Burghausen as a willful little girl who craved adventure and really, really wanted, ever so badly, for Darth Vader to be her dad.

So when people tell me Plaguewalker is dark, I nod. It’s true. But I’m not afraid of the dark. Are you?

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