When an Aging, Gray-Haired Mystery Writer Becomes a 25 year-old Female Schizophrenic
by James Hayman
Did you hear the one about the bearded, gray-haired male geezer who somehow managed to turn himself into a twenty-five female schizophrenic? No? Believe me it happened. It happened to me. And it wasn’t the first time I became somebody else.
Living inside the heads of different kinds of characters is something good writers have to do all the time. Writers of mysteries and thrillers as well as writers of so-called literary fiction.
But creating the character of Abby Quinn, the young schizophrenic woman who is a central character in my newest Mike McCabe thriller, The Chill of Night, was one of the most challenging and most fascinating experiences of my writing life.
Abby, for those of you who haven’t read the book yet, is a young woman with a history of mental illness. She hears Voices that aren’t there. She sees visions that aren’t there. When she’s good about taking her anti-psychotic medication, these things are pretty much under control. But when she goes off her meds or runs into something majorly traumatic, all bets are off.
And one freezing night on an island in Maine that’s exactly what happens. Abby sees a murder. She’s sure she’s seen it. Or is she? She runs to the local police station and tells the cop on duty what she has seen. Or thinks she has seen.
The cop knows Abby’s history and assumes she’s hallucinating. He doesn’t even bother reporting what she has told him. But then a body turns up and McCabe realizes the actual details of the crime match Abby’s story so precisely that what she must really have seen what she says she saw. But by then she’s gone. And a murderer is trying to find her.
I wrote a good portion of The Chill of Night in Abby’s voice, from Abby’s point of view. To be able to do that, to get the voice right, I had to really get into Abby’s head. To see what she sees, and to hear the Voices she hears. To become in a very real sense, Abby Quinn.
To help me get it right, I read personal memoirs written by a number young schizophrenic women. Two in particular helped me. The Quiet Room:A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness by Lori Schiller and Amanda Bennett and The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn Saks.
These allowed me to get into the head of Abby Quinn. To experience, as I wrote, exactly what a young woman in her condition might experience under similar circumstances. It was sometimes frightening. But it was also very revealing and very rewarding. In the end, I think Abby became my favorite character of all those I’ve ever created. In a very real sense, she and I have become one.