I’m delighted to be hosting my friend Ellen Kirschman, a real life police and public safety psychologist and the author several nonfiction titles, who has just published her first mystery. Camille Minichino calls Dot Meyerhoff of Burying Ben ”the most interesting heroine to come along in a long time.” If the humor that Ellen brings to her post here is any indication, she is clearly right. Enjoy! – Meg
I know I’m wrong about this, and I mean no disrespect to my fellow non-fiction writers, but, to me, writing fiction seems like real writing, which is why my fourth book and first novel, feels like a debut. My non-fiction books were an eminently more readable version of my doctoral dissertation. The literary equivalent of twenty five term papers strung together by colorful case histories. Readers can put a non-fiction book down and pick it up without losing the thread. But the fictional dream is a fragile thing, easily interrupted by a jarring word, an implausible action, or an unbelievable character.
A lot of people ask why I switched from writing non-fiction to writing fiction. I could answer this question in many ways, but the truest response is that I was delusional. I actually thought it would be easier to make stuff up than to do all the research that’s involved in writing books for the families of cops and firefighters, and for the clinicians who treat them. I would sit at my computer, surrounded by books and piles of notes, staring out the window, thinking how liberating it would be to rely solely on my imagination. I read a lot of mysteries and I knew I could do better. After all, hadn’t I spent decades in the trenches watching first responders at work and sharing their secrets? I know self-diagnosis can be tricky, but I stick by my original assessment – I was delusional, perhaps with a touch of grandiosity.
Not that I’m complaining, a little grandiosity and a lot of persistence keeps a writer on her chair, day after day, revision after revision. Burying Ben went through some eighteen revisions. I was teaching myself a new craft, after all. Writing a mystery was a puzzle to be solved, one that challenged all my weak points – an abhorrence for details and a non-linear mind. My big “aha” moment came when I changed from third person point of view to first person. Once I put my psychologist hat back on, I was in familiar territory. My next challenge was to stop telling myself that whatever was happening in the book wouldn’t really happen this way in the real world. Faithfully adhering to reality is what drives non-fiction. But reality is often boring and not the stuff that keeps a reader reading.
Then I encouraged myself to have fun. No longer the subject matter expert, I had the freedom to say things that would have gotten me fired. Off I went, taking pot shots at cops, psychologists, my ex-husbands, and myself. This was my opportunity to even the score with all those people who thought I couldn’t be trusted not to leak everything they said to the chief or who kept me at arm’s length because they thought I could read their minds. I have to tell you, payback is very gratifying.
Few of my friends had read my other books, which were aimed at specific readers. But they’re all reading Burying Ben. That would include my hair stylist, my dentist, my dentist’s receptionist, my doctor, my neighbors, and some strangers I met in the airport. (Other people carry photos of their kids and grandkids. I carry postcards of my mystery and I’m not shy about handing them out. Not something I did, or needed to do, with my non-fiction work.) So now I have all these people asking me if I really did the things that my protagonist, Dr. Dot Meyerhoff, does, such as breaking and entering and assault with a deadly weapon. I did not. They want to know if Frank is really modeled after my husband – he is – and my husband wants to know if Frank will get lucky in the sequel. These are not questions I am accustomed to answering.
I’ve had a number of careers in my life; dancer, probation officer, social worker, police psychologist, and psychologist who writes books. Now, with the publication of Burying Ben, I consider myself a writer first and a psychologist second. See what I mean? Writing fiction feels different. I’m no longer reporting on something external to myself. I’m reporting on what goes on in my head, rolling it out in a forward moving stream rather than organizing it logically according to topic. I’m trying to turn delusion into imagination while tackling a real-world concern, police suicide. I’ve always felt that novelists come closer to the truth of human experience than do psychologists. I’d like to think that Burying Ben, with all its twists and turns, reveals a greater truth about cops and about the therapists who serve them. – Ellen