To celebrate the release of my forthcoming novel, I’m posting a series of short pieces about writing the novel. This series is meant to address the questions people tend to ask me about the writing process, the inspiration behind my novels, and the other writers who’ve influenced me. Here’s the fourth one.
My wife was working in a psych hospital when I wrote the first draft of Madhouse Fog. She’d started the summer before I started writing. On Tuesdays, the hospital cafeteria had a baked chicken special that my wife loved, so I’d come onto hospital grounds and eat lunch with her. We ate together there several times before the summer ended and I started teaching on Tuesdays.
Of course, there aren’t separate cafeterias for patients and staff. When I ate lunch with my wife, I also ate with the patients. If I’m not mistaken, the patients worked in the cafeteria and prepared the food.
My wife also took me on a tour of the hospital once. She used her key fob to get me into all the different buildings housing patients who ranged from very low functioning to very high functioning. A lot of the patients came in and out of the hospital for a very short time: typically seventy-two hours. Seventy-two hours is the length of a state-sponsored involuntary hold. If you attempt suicide or otherwise demonstrate that your psychological health is a danger to yourself or others, you can get a seventy-two hour stay at this hospital. Because most of the patients were there for such a short time, the staff didn’t get to know them very well. Because most of the patients I saw were high-functioning and because they wore their regular clothes, they looked more or less like the crowd at the county fair. In fact, I’ve seen more bizarre behavior at the county fair than I saw in my trips to the psych hospital. To be honest, I couldn’t really tell who was a patient and who was staff without looking for ID badges.
The tour my wife gave me was brief. For one thing, it was unauthorized. No one really batted an eye. I guess unauthorized tours of the psych hospital aren’t that uncommon. But my wife didn’t want to get fired and I didn’t want to get her fired, so we kept things to a minimum. Plus, at the time, I was working on the novel Train Wreck Girl, which maybe has some characters who could’ve done with thirty days at this hospital, but didn’t focus on these issues.
In January of 2007, when I first started writing Madhouse Fog, I called one of my wife’s supervisors, Dr. Randy Wood. I arranged for an authorized tour of the hospital. Dr. Wood took his time. He showed me everything. We got to talking. I told him I worked at Channel Islands. He said he’d worked there when it was the Camarillo State Mental Hospital. We took a seat in a conference room and he told me stories about the old hospital for forty-five minutes. The guy is a hell of a storyteller.
Did I steal some of those stories for Madhouse Fog?
Yes I did.
My visits to the psych hospital taught me a couple of things about writing a novel set in a psych hospital. First, it taught me that patients aren’t a spectacle. Movies that are set in psych hospitals always have crazy patients running around screaming, “Feces!” or otherwise bouncing off the walls. In general, these actors act like someone you would find in the early morning hours of a bar where a coke dealer operates rather than someone with a mental illness. Most of the patients I saw at the psych hospital weren’t crazy. They were mentally ill. The more severe the mental illness, the more drugs they were on, the more sedentary they were. Most of the patients looked sad or tired or like they’d learned to mask their pain. Certainly, the occasional patient does act up and need to be restrained. This does happen regularly, but not regularly enough for me to witness it on several chance visits.
In general, though, patients at a psych hospital are nothing to gawk at. They’re about as remarkable as patrons in a restaurant or shoppers in a mall. If I really wanted to see mental illness, I wouldn’t have to drive up to the psych hospital to do it. I could walk a few blocks to the park across from the post office. There’s probably a gathering of homeless people putting their mental illness on display right now. It’s a sight that we, as a culture, have chosen to ignore. In fiction, we can’t treat it realistically or our realistic portrayals will be likewise ignored. I would have to take a different approach with the novel.
To be honest, I’d never really considered writing a novel about mental illness or patients in a psych hospital. I’d certainly never considered writing one in which those patients are a spectacle. There’s something cruel about that. Also, it’s been done before. Cervantes did it so well with Don Quixote that, try as imitators might, it’ll never be matched. No novel will ever be as popular or influential as Don Quixote has been. I can only honorably bow to Cervantes, then walk down a different path.
I was thinking about Don Quixote when I wrote Madhouse Fog. I was teaching Cervantes in one of my lit courses. And while there is a cruel kind of giggling that occurs when I read about the characters tormenting the delusional don, I recognize that that’s not where the power of the novel comes in. The real power of Don Quixote is the creeping fear we feel when we’re around a delusional disorder, the fear that the other person might not be the one with the delusions. And now that we live in such a quixotic world, now that our concept of the world is built so much on fiction, now that we live in an economic system that is propelled by fiction (the fiction that bottled water—tap water from Jersey wrapped in a petroleum by-product—is safe and clean to drink, the fiction that cars are freedom), how can we feel any sense of a non-fictional world?
Exploring those questions was so much more compelling to me than gawking at mental illness would’ve been.