Filed under: Killer Year Members
A former literary professor of mine once asked me why I switched from writing literary fiction (which had been my focus in grad school) to comedic crime fiction. I told him I blamed my breasts. I’m pretty sure he strained off about five years of his life trying to not look at my breasts when he heard that answer.
When I was a newly minted twenty-four-year-old with two sons who were four and four months, I had aspirations of writing a novel and my then-attempts were going in circles. Literary slice-of-life works for some writers (and for some, extremely well), but all I was making was mush. Meanwhile, I was finally back in the swing of writing freelance when one magazine assigned me a feature article on the local coroner. I will call him “Hypolite.” Hypolite was about three-hundred years old at the time, all tanned and loose jointed and skinny and wrinkled, with big black-framed glasses which weighed his face down so much that he hunched over most of the time. In spite of being a coroner and probably having seen the worst that mankind can do to one another, he was a very sweet, funny and gentle soul.
The point of the article was supposed to have been his unusual collection of musical instruments from around the world, but I harbored a secret desire to pump him for information about how a coroner’s office worked, what kinds of crimes he could tell me about which might turn into fodder for my fiction. At the time, my biggest daily dose of “serious” was trying to keep the four-year-old from taking the child-protection caps off of the electrical outlets to see if a fork really could fit in there. (He was a very wily kid; he disassembled his baby bed when he was two… while he was in it. I heard a “thunk” and came running and it was sitting all at a slant, having luckily wedged against itself, and he was trapped inside, laughing, because scaring mom was great fun.) I was hoping Hypolite could open up the door to a more dangerous world, giving me the type of background I needed for my attempts at serious fiction — something which would have gravitas and meaning, pathos and tragedy. Something important.
We’d been talking a while, with Hypolite delicately trying to steer the conversation back to banal subjects more appropriate (he thought) for a “sweet, young mother” and I kept forcing U-turns back to the grisly. His attempts at resisting and my absolute determination meant we’d bantered far longer than I’d realized. In his last effort at wresting back control, he said, “Didn’t you recently have another baby?”
I admitted I had, and it was at that moment I realized it was way past time to be home to nurse the little rug rat (whose baby sitter had supplies). My bigger concern was leakage. But I was safe, I thought, as long as we didn’t discuss the nursing.
“Are you nursing?”
I felt the milk come down, and I knew my time was limited. I could be professional, though. I had on a thick nursing bra (and nursing pads, just for protection), so I had time before there could be any leakage or telltale signs of danger. I had planned ahead. I was perfectly safe.
At which point I looked down and realized that there were two streams of milk hitting Hypolite on his forearm.
He was sitting at a forty-five degree angle from me at a tiny table, and my breasts were shooting milk like they were mini Howitzers. I was soaking the coroner’s sleeve with breast milk.
I slammed my arms across my chest, and it only made it worse. The spray was fitzing around my cupped hands like a barricaded water hose on full blast. The geysers wouldn’t stop. Hell, I could have fed an entire third-world country if they’d been standing at ten paces, mouths open. Milk trickled down my arms. And legs. I was pooling milk on the beautiful hardwood floors, people.
So much for being a professional, serious crime writer.
As mortified as I was in that moment, I realized later it was a gift. (Long after I had escaped his home, wearing one of his old shirts over my dress to stem the humiliation, and after he’d called to check on me the following week to make sure I hadn’t offed myself.) It was a gift because it was funny, and it was real. It’s one of those honest moments in life where there is no spin, there is no façade, baby, it’s just you dealing straight with the world and the world watching. I think really good writing gets to that level of real for the characters, and this was my doorway into understanding that it was not only okay to be honest, but it was necessary. Great writing brings the reader to the squirmy places where you want to protect the character or where you identify and empathize or where you simply want to see them get back out of the fix (humiliating or otherwise) and succeed in their goal. But it was the “funny” part which ended up being the biggest gift of all, because I realized how much I enjoyed making people laugh. (Hell, I told this story here, hoping you’d all chuckle.) Comedy is important; I think we need it for release, especially (at times) when dealing with dark, dangerous subjects.
Life is absurd. Really weird, down to body parts, even. (I mean, can anyone explain the reason why a penis looks like it does? And for anyone who thinks a woman wishes she had one, have you not been paying attention to us? How many times have you heard us ask, “Jeez, do I look fat in this?” Do you really think we want something attached to our body which can inflate all on its own? I rest my case.)
Sorry, I digressed.
Life is weird and funny. Crime is even crazier. Did you hear about the couple who allegedly faked that they had just given birth to septuplets and allegedly went to a town’s council, allegedly telling them the babies were in critical condition… (and I love this part) in a secret location because a member of the family was trying to kill them and they needed cash to help their babies? You know, that’s just damned beautiful in its stupidity. I’m wondering what they intended to do when someone wanted to actually see the kids. Run the visitor past the maternity ward, praying there were enough babies in there at the right time?
It’s bizarre, and if I’d been a member of that community, I’d be annoyed they (allegedly) fleeced a few people and got a little money, but as a writer? That stuff is golden. I love finding ways of turning those stories and finding just the right angle to show the humor, the idiocy, the chaos of it all, and how it affects the character. So thank God for leaky Howitzer breasts and funny little coroners. I probably wouldn’t be here today writing comedy / crime-caper if I hadn’t soaked him thoroughly, but it does make me wonder about the rest of you. I can’t be the only one with a leaky-breast-shooting-someone story.
Okay, well, maybe I am, but I’ll bet you all have witnessed some humiliating moments. Or some freaky crime in your community. C’mon… share.
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