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Why You Should be Telling Stories in Non-Fiction (The Self Publishing Show, episode 219)
Is there a sociopathic killer on the loose and murdering prostitutes in New York City? NYPD’s top cop, Homicide Commander Lieutenant John Driscoll, believes there is. Someone who calls himself “Tilden” and claims to have been sexually abused as a child by his mother’s john. But what could have triggered Tilden’s rage that has him on a mission to eradicate all the women of the night in The Big Apple?
How did your early reading habits lead you to become a writer?
After graduating with a liberal arts degree from Richmond College I landed a job with Allstate Insurance Company as a sales agent. When the company opted to take their sales force in another direction I decided it was time to retire and find something else to do with my time. I spent much of that time reading. On the beach in summer and on the couch in winter. One day I picked up a copy of HELTER SKELTER, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. This is an often used adage, but I couldn’t put it down. The author’s attention to detail fascinated me. After that, I was hooked on novels depicting murder, mayhem and suspense. I soon discovered such notables as Thomas Harris, John Sandford, Lawrence Block and Ed McBain, just to name a few. Unlike, HELTER SKELTER, where the storyline was based on an actual murder, Harris, Sandford, Block, McBain and company, created murder and the intrigue that surrounded it. I was enthralled all the more. Read on, I said, and so I did. After I finished reading my twelfth 87th Precinct novel, I thought: I could do that! And so, on a gloomy, rain-soaked Friday afternoon, that happened to follow Thanksgiving, I began writing NIGHTKILLS, which would later become BONE THIEF. Looking back, I’m happy with the course my life had taken me, bringing me to what has become my life’s passion: Writing!
Was it a journey developing the confidence to write, or did it come naturally?
It was a journey that had begun at a slow pace. Aside from essays in college I’d never written in a narrative fashion. When I took an early retirement from Allstate I was 49. With a great deal of free time on my hands a very good friend suggested to either take on a new job or devote time to a hobby I’d enjoy. My first venture toward that end had me wandering through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY armed with a 35mm camera taking photographs of nature-in-the-raw. That interest waned after four or five weeks. I then enrolled at HB Studios in NYC to study the art of ‘acting’. It was fun, but after two months I began to lose interest. Since I enjoyed reading mysteries and thrillers, my trusted friend suggested I write one. Me? Write a book? I haven’t a clue as to where to start, I argued. She suggested I write
an opening chapter similar in style to what I liked to read. And so I did. After she read it she asked me what I had in mind for the next chapter. This went on for several weeks at the end of which I had written the opening of a story that only she and I had read. I didn’t think it was very good but she encouraged me to call a friend of hers, a “writing coach” of sorts, which I did. His name was Stephen Ohayon. He had once taught the art of writing on a college level and offered to work with me to turn my feeble attempt into a saleable novel. We met weekly in his office in Manhattan where his day job was as a psychotherapist. He scheduled time for me between patients. I brought him a typed chapter and during a one hour session he helped me push that chapter from first draft to second, third, fourth and fifth. When we reached Chapter Last I set out to market the book. It sold close to 100,000 copies and was translated and published in Germany, Slovakia, Indonesia, the Czech Republic, China, and Italy.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I enjoy writing for a number of reasons. One that comes to mind immediately is that writing allows me to escape the hum drum of everyday life. Another reason is that creating characters for the sole purpose of performing in a story that I’ve set in motion is exciting. I’m fueled by that. And, because it’s fiction, I’m motivated to weave memories of times in my life, some good, some regrettable, into the back story of my characters. We all have chapters we wish never to see published, but, with the right finesse, the theme of those blunders can and do add human authenticity to fictional entities.
What are the most challenging aspects?
One of the most challenging aspects of being a writer is constantly competing with an inner voice that tells me what I’ve written isn’t very good. That, of and in itself, drives me to be a better writer. Writers write. Rewriters get published.
How has your writing process developed over the twelve years it took to become published?
The writing process as outlined above continued in the same fashion, day after day, week after week. Those weeks became years as I needed to convince a publisher my work was ready for print. That involved submission after submission of query letters and partial manuscripts to every single literary agent that specialized in my genre. When I reached the end of the line, so to speak, and any further submission would be repetitive I took the advice of a few well intentioned literary agents along the way to have a professional editor have a look at my manuscript. After working for two years with the late Dick Marek, who’d edited The Silence of the Lambs for Thomas Harris along with nine of Robert Ludlam’s books, Kensington Books agreed to publish my debut novel.
What are some ways working with an editor has helped you?
Aside from learning that a tightly written novel reads very quickly, thereby keeping the reader engaged, working with a professional editor taught me a wonderful lesson: a writer, especially someone starting out, often feels his or her work is sacrosanct, but the editor is keenly aware of what a publisher is looking for and what sells. It’s best to accept that reality and be open to change. It will increase the chance of having your work published.
How important is rewriting when working on a manuscript?
Extremely important. I begin by writing a first draft of a chapter which entails typing without concern for spelling, punctuation, or cohesion. The point is to get the thought on paper as quickly as possible without listening to that inner voice telling you “Oh, that’s not good,” Once that’s done, I’ll go in and rewrite the chapter over and over again, until I have what I consider perfection. In essence, one must write drunk and edit sober.
If we were to meet NYPD homicide cop John Driscoll, what kind of person would we meet?
In short, he’d be a taller version of me. He’s an Irishman with a sense of morality who tries to do the right thing. A compassionate soul who tries to be kind to friends and foes alike. Yes, Lieutenant Driscoll is flawed. But, then, who isn’t?
Do the John Driscoll mysteries employ a certain theme?
Yes, the theme is that good prevails over evil. They are psychological thrillers which detail the fictionalized onslaught of heinous murders perpetrated by a madman, or in the case of THE SCREAMING ROOM, a set of demonic twins, using New York City as a killing field. Lieutenant Driscoll is brought into the equation intent on putting a stop to the madness.
If you were John Driscoll in, No One Will Hear Your Screams, could you solve the case?
Absolutely! The Lieutenant is a resourceful investigator who, with the able-bodied assistance of two professional and ingenious associates in Margaret Aligante and Cedric Thomlinson, evil can’t triumph.
What are you currently working on?
My current work in progress introduces Richard Singleton, a bestselling author suffering from writer’s block. When he becomes the owner of a beach house where a heinous murder had taken place, he finds stimulation and is able to put the pen to paper again. His manuscript is progressing well and his faltered career is looking bright again, that is until he gets an anonymous call from the former owner of the house who had perpetrated the aforementioned murder who has plans of his own regarding what this bestselling author should write.
Have you noticed that no matter how much time you spend in talk therapy, you still feel anxious and triggered? That is because talk therapy can keep you stuck in a pattern of reliving your stories, rather than moving beyond them. But, most of all, it’s because trauma doesn’t just reside inside your mind–much more importantly, it locks itself in other parts of your body. When left unresolved, that trauma continues to live there, impacting your life, your relationships, your sense of safety, and your ability to experience joy in very real ways.
In Moving Beyond Trauma, Ilene Smith will introduce you to Somatic Experiencing, a body-based therapy capable of healing the damage done to your nervous system by trauma. She breaks down the ways in which trauma impacts your nervous system and walks you through a program designed to process trauma in a non-threatening way. You will discover a healing lifestyle marked by a deeper connection with yourself, those around you, and with everything you do.
What is somatic experiencing?
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a body therapy modality used to heal trauma. When an event happens too fast and we do not have the time or ability for self-protection or defense, this survival energy gets stuck in our body as an incomplete biological reaction. This stuck energy is what causes trauma symptoms and the nervous system loses its ability to maintain a state of balance. The trapped energy from the traumatic experience causes the nervous system to rush to a state of fight, flight, or freeze. SE works to help bring the nervous system back on-line by helping the individual restore their sense of safety. This can only happen when the body has a “biological completion” and the trauma energy has the opportunity to reintegrate back into the body.
While SE uses talking in the process, the talking is used to track body sensation and meaning attached to experiences, rather than bring the individual back into the event of the trauma. When we bring the body into the therapy process and facilitate a way for the individual to physically move through the experience with a sense of safety, the relationship to the experience changes and the stuck energy will discharge.
Why did you want to become a somatic experiencing practitioner?
When I went back to school in my early 40’s for a degree in mental health counseling, I knew I wanted to work with trauma. I was introduced to SE during my internship at an eating disorder clinic and felt as though SE was complimentary to talk therapy. I also felt as though it was the missing link for trauma healing. I became a student of the work as well as a patient because I believe you can only take a client as far as you are willing to go yourself. I was experiencing great results personally and began applying the principles of SE with my clients. The results were phenomenal. Clients with eating disorders and addiction were moving away from their maladaptive behaviors and finding deeper and more meaningful connections with themselves and others. I feel strongly and passionately that the body and the nervous system need to be part of the healing process for real and everlasting change.
What type of rewards do you get by helping others heal?
There is nothing more rewarding than watching a person go from surviving to thriving in their life. I have and continue to walk people through incredible healing journeys. I love being part of transformation and nothing feels better than being able to add value to other’s lives.
What is the focus on the nervous system related to this type of therapy?
While the nervous system is designed to be self-regulating, it has its limitations around trauma. Unresolved trauma, especially when trauma is chronic and accumulated, can lead to more extensive mental and physical health symptoms. The long-term effect of SE treatment is a restored sense of healthy nervous system functioning, which includes reduction in maladaptive coping skills, resolved sleep issues, and mood stabilization — to name a few. When the body gains the capacity to self-regulate, it restores its sense of safety and balance. In turn, stress hormones are lower and the body can produce more “feel good” hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin.
Unlike most therapy modalities which are considered “top down,” meaning they use our highest form of cognition, SE begins with a “bottom up” approach of sensorimotor processing aimed at guiding the client through the most primitive to the most complex brain systems. The therapist begins by guiding the client to track sensation and movements, helping a patient develop a felt sense of his internal states of tension, relaxation and respiration cycles. This is a powerful mechanism to regulate the autonomic nervous system.
What does unresolved trauma mean and how does it affect our bodies?
When trauma is unresolved our survival mechanisms of fight flight and freeze get stuck in the on position and our autonomic nervous system (ANS) kicks into high gear. These states are only meant for acute situations for defense and protection. Our ANS contributes to how we regulate every state in our body including heart rate, breath, digestion and bladder. When our bodies are in stress physiology, hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol start pumping through the body causing all sorts of imbalances both emotionally and physically. There have been many studies showing the impact of trauma and stress on the emotional and physical body. The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study showed that the more emotional and physical abuse a person had during childhood the more likely they are to experience mental and physical health issues as adults. This body and mind are intrinsically connected and this is why bringing the body into the healing process is so important.
What happens in the brain when trauma is processed, or resolved?
When trauma is resolved a person will begin to see and move through the world with more vitality and ease. They will begin to have a more accurate ability to sense safety and danger and experience a deeper connection to themselves and the world around them. When trauma is resolved a person will feel more present, helping them better express themselves and understand their needs and desires. These changes in the nervous system and brain, reduce anxiety, depression and maladaptive behaviors used to cope with pain and discomfort. Ultimately the individual will feel more curious and resilient to face the ups and down of life.
How does this type of therapy build resilience?
SE works with the bodies most primitive instincts to help integrate trauma memories into the body. When this occurs, a person will experience a greater sense of safety within themselves. In other words, a person gains a sense of mastery over themselves and their feelings. It is a knowing that you can handle and tolerate what you are experiencing. Resilience is a byproduct of knowing you have the internal resources to survive and this is what we teach the body through the process of SE.
I love the title of your book, Moving Beyond Trauma. What can a life beyond trauma look like, and what kind of hope does it bring?
Thank you! When trauma is resolved we gain capacity to live our lives with more presence and intention. We can connect to ourselves and others and feel more curious to explore the things that we like. Ultimately moving beyond trauma allows the space to find passion and vibrance. I like to think of life after trauma as a healing lifestyle. A healing lifestyle is different for each person, but it is a life of self-care with body/mind alignment. It is a life beyond survival where an individual can and has the desire to grow and thrive.
Where can people learn more about somatic experiencing?
My book Moving Beyond Trauma is available on Amazon.
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It’s 1905, and the Japanese victory over the Russians has shocked the British and their imperial subjects. Sixteen-year-old Leela and her younger sister, Maya, are spurred on to wear homespun to show the British that the Indians won’t be oppressed for much longer, either, but when Leela’s betrothed, Nash, asks her to circulate a petition amongst her classmates to desegregate the girls’ school in Chadrapur, she’s wary. She needs to remind Maya that the old ways are not all bad, for soon Maya will have to join her own betrothed and his family in their quiet village. When she discovers that Maya has embarked on a forbidden romance, Leela’s response shocks her family, her town, and her country firmly into the new century.
The next day my cheeks, my eyes, and my hair are as good as they’re going to be when Nash arrives just after breakfast. Instead of inviting us to his family’s for lunch, he is taking Maya and me to Gol Ghar. Everybody, from children to grandparents, loves Gol Ghar, but I wonder if he’s chosen the grain silo so that we will have an excuse to walk hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder up the narrow staircase. As Maya tells him about the good luck we’ve had with the training college’s opening, I study him.
Nash has always been beautiful: his dark skin smooth, his broad lips projecting softness, his lashes longer than mine with three coats of petroleum jelly. Beautiful, and somehow therefore gentle: the Chowdhurys have always been successful, and lucky, and generous. They have nothing to prove, and Nash, a diamond in this fine setting, even less so. And so though he’s always been tall, and always looked at each person as though they were the only one left in the city, he’s always struck me as laughing, comforting, with kindness to spare. In childhood, we hardly saw anything of him, but once we were formally engaged, he withstood the taunts of his classmates and often swung by with ices or samosas or the choruses of songs from the latest films. It was easy for him to love, and as all I’d ever dreamed of was loving someone back, he was perfect.
He’s changed: his lanky frame has tightened, straightened, and as he listens to Maya, I can see in the stiffness of his hands in his lap and of his toes, curled around the edge of his sandals, that he’s kept the tiniest portion of his attention for himself. He is still beautiful, but also…threatening? Is that the right word for the way he makes my body, still seated and composed, feel called to attention against any inclination of its own? His hair is longer, I see—his barber must only have shaved him this morning, rather than give him the accompanying trim—and this imperfection lets me catch my breath.
The carriage is pulling up to the Gol Ghar— our very own Round House, our silly English silo that once held grain and now serves as a pleasure ground for those of us too brown to make use of the club—as Nash responds to Maya’s exclamation that she’s more than ready for us to go back to school next week. “But surely…” he says.
When Nargis and Mawiyya do that to me in school—trail off in the middle of a thought there’s no chance I could finish on my own—it’s to mock me, but Nash doesn’t mock. I realize that while Maya and I have had numerous conversations about my post-marriage life and how to keep it as seamless a transition as possible, Nash and I haven’t had any. “Why don’t you run slightly ahead and check on the crowd?” I ask Maya with our shared look. We trail her, slowly, and I want to throw my arms around him again, but instead I say, “You know I won’t attend the training college from August if you or your parents don’t approve.” I start with what Maya would call a barefaced lie because I suppose that, all said and done, it’s the truth. November, really, is wedding season, but ours is to be held as soon as the weather settles. Some families need time to negotiate; ours will be efficiently put together as Papa has ceded complete control to the Chowdhurys since, as even Koyal Chachi would agree, there’s no chance of their taste being anything less than impeccable.
“Oh, no, of course I wouldn’t dream of stopping you!” he says. He actually stops, and turns to me, and reaches for my hands before he realizes, and stops himself. “Leela, I didn’t realize you wanted to become a teacher, but I should have guessed. You’ve read all of the great histories of Chandrapur, and your Sanskrit is far better than mine. I’ve no right or desire to stop you making the most of yourself.” “Well, that’s good, then,” I say. “Though if I’m being honest, I mostly just want to attend the school to make sure I’m able to see Maya every day. I’m not used to a joint household and I’m not sure I’ll be able to play a dutiful daughter-in-law without her as a sounding board.” I pause, but Nash smiles, and laughs. “And after suffering through a mixed education, I think it will be nice to have the chance to teach in the Hindu school whenever it opens.”
We have only taken a few steps, but already Nash stops, causing the mother and daughter behind us to bump into our calves and mumble apologies. “Leela,” he murmurs, so softly I have to lean in to hear, and the proximity is causing my heart to do a furious dance. But then he keeps walking.
“Leela,” he says again after a few steps. “When I was in Japan, at first it was terribly lonely. We tried to integrate, but without eating fish, we Hindu students found ourselves isolated in the canteen; without much money, additionally, I found myself unwilling to hole up and play cards with boys from Lucknow or Kanpur. I know you didn’t have it easy at Bankipore, either, with your father in trade.”
“But after the triumph against the West, it was as though divisions had melted away. Even when we were sent home, I knew I was coming back to something important, and the sight of you in that swadeshi sari running towards me solidified every commitment I’d hardly understood, before Tokyo, that I’d had. I’ve dreamt about you in red for years,” he says, and though I want to faint I press my hands to the wall and keep myself barely upright, “but for the past year, I’ve dreamt about you in white. I’m so lucky that my life partner shares my dreams, not only for us, but for the country.” Nash sees me faltering, and risks censure from the auntie behind us by steadying me, a hand to the small of my back. I am dizzy for so many reasons.
“I just cannot understand why there is no hesitation towards a communal training college that will only lead towards a communalization of the school system itself, when we’re fighting, desperately, against communalism!”
We have almost climbed to the top; I see Maya awaiting us, and when she catches my eye, she winks, but I can’t reciprocate. “It wasn’t a British initiative,” I tell him. “The Director of Schools wanted to keep us girls together, in fact, and then both the Nawab and the Maharani joined together to oppose him. There are surely more than twelve Hindu girls in Chandrapur who may have wanted to get educated alongside us, and soon there will be places, and teachers for them. Education can only help us.”
I am out of breath, but we’ve climbed Gol Ghar, and the view is rewarding enough to let me tear my eyes away from Nash for a minute. And thank heavens, because looking at this new Nash while he is deliberating is… no, not threatening. Unsettling, I decide on. I wink at Maya, and we play our usual game of identifying all of the best places: the fields, in the distance, past the river, where on the way to Gaya we always stop, much too soon, for the best roasted corn; the Rama temple with the most rambunctious monkeys; the Sikh gurudwara that is unquestionably our most beautiful building; the Khudabaksh library where the real scholars spend their days with microscopes, studying the beautifully illuminated manuscripts; the market, where one day soon we must go and see what Indian-made lingerie I will wear to start my married life.
Nash speaks up again, finally. “I’ve missed this place so much.”
There are the beginnings of tears at the corners of his eyes, and I don’t know what to say.
Maya never has this problem. “And didn’t you miss us, then? I didn’t get even one letter from you, Mister.”
She has cracked the gloomy spell, and Nash rifles through his bag until he hits upon a small wrapped package. “I thought you’d prefer the paper,” he says, handing it to her.
“You didn’t have to get her a gift,” I say, knowing what it has cost his family to send him away, and all for a trip with no degree certificate.
“But he did,” Maya says, as though he’d take it back, ripping it open willy-nilly instead of
properly, neatly. I lean over to get a better look, and am glad I did: he’s brought her stationary more beautiful than I have ever seen. The British have their formal, heavy paper to announce their galas, and I’ve coveted that often enough, but this is its opposite: thin, almost translucent, and sparkling, oyster pink with sea-green filigree adorning its edges. Maya is staring at it, and I squeeze her shoulders. “Oh, yes,” she says. “Thank you.”
She walks ahead of us on the way down, staring at it; it is a good thing, after all, that we’ve been here countless times before. Nash and I pretend to watch her, to stop her from falling off the edge, but really we are stealing glances at one another. “Thank you,” I tell him, and just for a moment, before our feet reach the solid ground, he takes my hand.
Reprinted from Where the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow with the permission of Galaxy Galloper Press. Copyright © 2020 by Rashi Rohatgi.
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