Recently I had a discussion with some writer friends about genre.
“I write about the things that scare me,” horror-writer Nicholas said. “Creepy things, psychological things. I’m not scared of aliens and ax murderers.”
I write romantic thrillers, mysterious women’s fiction, adventurous stories with female protagonists. Because life is complex, my characters face the fear of loss. They face actual loss. And they face themselves.
“I guess I write horror too then,” I said.
Everyone at the Cafe Express table looked at me like I’d sprouted a foot from my forehead.
“Seriously,” I said. “I write about the things that scare me. I’m not scared of creepy psycho things. Or aliens. Or ax murderers. Or even zombies. I’m scared of losing my husband or kids, and I’m scared of losing control of myself.”
I won’t digress into how irritated it makes me that any book with a female protagonist must be called women’s fiction and if she has a romantic interest it becomes romance — no matter how thrilling, mysterious, or adventurous — when a book with a male lead is not men’s fiction and his romantic interest doesn’t render it romance.
Instead, I’ll talk about something that really matters: those horrors, those fears. The things that freeze my heart and rob my sleep. I’ve actually written a book where the female lead loses her husband. It’s my favorite book I’ve written so far, and I’m saving it for after the Katie & Annalise series. It’s called Going for Kona. One day I was angry at my husband Eric and immediately seized on how stupid that anger was, and I thought, “What if I lost him before I could make our silly fight right?” I went straight home and started writing, to capture that horror and grief.
Isn’t fear of losing our most loved ones the greatest common horror we have? I haven’t had to face that kind of loss personally, yet. I’ve lost great grandparents and grandparents, I’ve lost friends I loved, and I’ve wept over each, but they were one-step removed from my ultimate horror zone: parents, children, and spouse. And Petey the one-eyed Boston Terrier, of course.
In the last year, we have faced down death with our youngest daughter twice. I can’t describe to you the crippling fear it brings on me, but you know it if you’ve been there too. Or worse, if you’re on the other side, missing one of your most-loveds.
Susanne has recurrent and escalating anaphylaxis related to food consumption. We originally thought it might be a food allergy. We had her tested and she is sensitive to varying degrees to about 30 foods, which explode into 100’s if not 1,000’s of common items. But if only it were that simple. Because she doesn’t seem to have a food allergy anaphylaxis. Instead, she has a stomach condition that, when aggravated, makes her react with anaphylaxis to almost anything she consumes. The funny name for this not-so-funny condition is “leaky gut.” Her extreme reaction to leaky gut is rare.
The trick is to keep her stomach healthy. The questions start from the answer: how healthy does it have to be to stay in the safe zone? What makes it unhealthy? How much of “that” does it take? How long does it take to go from healthy to unsafe? Are there “never” foods? Will any medicines or supplements help? How can we get a red-blooded teenager to grasp the severity of the situation and voluntarily limit what she eats, sometimes to what feels to her like cardboard and water, a more tangible death sentence than death itself? We have great doctors, we have working theories, we have — finally – Susanne’s grudging cooperation in maintaining her health.
And it is horrifying. Not knowing the answers, living life with her as a human chemistry experiment, is horrifying. Remembering her blue, inert body as Eric ran with her in his arms to the car is horrifying. Counting the seconds between recognition of the reaction to collapse or death is horrifying.
At the same time, it is life and affirmation and gratitude and absolute 100% pure love. It is a gift to live fully in the moment with your heart wide open. I’m there, oh am I ever there. Every time my eyes touch her face they ache to behold the perfection of her, the beauty of this child God has entrusted to me. The very cells of my body strain to protect her. I yearn to fold her in my arms, tuck her silky blond head under my chin, and rock her as I sing “You are my sunshine” like I did only fourteen short years ago.
And THAT is what I write, in a fictional form. I write about the mystery and thrill and adventure and beauty and joy and, yes, the horror of everyday, ordinary life. And I don’t care what label you put upon it, what shelf it’s on in a bookstore, what genre it’s forced into by convention.
That’s horror to me. What’s horror to you?