Monday, 24 November 2008

It’s not about the drugs

In my novel Sleep Before Evening, a brilliant teenager named Marianne finds herself slipping down the treacherous path of heroin addiction. While the novel is ultimately redemptive, with a positive outcome and a positive message, it isn’t meant to be salutary or didactic. But fiction writers don’t dabble in solely made-up worlds. If your characters don’t follow a path which is realistic and utterly believable, they won’t work for the reader. As an author, you have to go mentally and sometimes physically to the places your characters go, even when those places are black indeed. It has to be real. It has to have the kind of truth that is truer than nonfiction, because you are also taking your readers there. You’re showing rather than telling, to cite that old writer’s chestnut.

Someone I work with asked me what Sleep Before Evening was about and it was hard for me to convince him that the novel wasn’t about drugs. Of course the protagonist’s heroin addiction is a critical component of the story, as is her recovery through a 12-Step clinic, and other types of support she receives. But the novel certainly isn’t about the drugs, because even a ‘real life’ drug addiction isn’t about the drugs. It’s about the impetus for the addiction—the underlying pain and hunger that drives the addict to seek the kind of comfort he or she feels drugs (any kind of drugs) can provide. And they do provide that kind of comfort, at least initially, while simultaneously increasing the hunger and pain. Because drugs malnourish the pain and hunger, rather than feeding it. It feels good, but only so long as the buzz lasts. And it doesn’t last. It can’t last. There’s always a crash.

The story isn’t about the drugs or the pain or the crash. It’s about the need that all of us have for self-actualisation; for discovering our voice and finding a way to let that voice out. That’s what the protagonist in Sleep Before Evening finds. She was lucky. And fictional, which makes luck a lot easier. She had help from a benevolent god (that’s me in this case). It isn’t always so easy. But the answers are almost always the same. We all have the need, the hunger and pain, and we all have to find some way – hopefully a way that’s positive and that can last, to feed that need. We all have to find our voice. That’s what the book’s about.

Magdalena Ball is author of The Art of Assessment and Quark Soup. She runs the popular Compulsive Reader website. Her short stories, editorials, poetry, reviews and articles have appeared in many printed anthologies and journals and have won several awards.

Magdalena's debut novel, Sleep Before Evening, was published by BeWrite Books in 2007.

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