Tuesday, June 30, 2015

League of Mortals*

Today I’m honored to have my blogger friend Duncan Cross on Getting Closer To Myself.  Duncan is the author of “League of Mortals”, a semi-autobiographical novel about a main character who is diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease.

The book showcases Duncan’s unique brand of humor, and it also is a very raw and real portrayal of a high school aged character whose life is detoured by chronic illness. 

As of late, novels with chronically ill main characters are kind of becoming a thing, but those books are not written by people with chronic illnesses, so the experience that Duncan brings to the story is so powerful and important. 

Just be warned, there’s a lot of talk about shit, as in poop, and other bodily functions.  

Without further ado…

First off, can you tell my readers a little bit about yourself and your illness story?

DC: I grew up in Florida, and was a pretty normal kid, though maybe a little too much of a smart-ass. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in my senior year of high school – it came out of nowhere, and totally wrecked my college and career plans. Still, I spent several years trying to pretend I wasn’t sick, until about 2003, when I started a flare that didn’t end until I had surgery in 2006. That forced me to really grapple with illness, to quit pretending I could pass for normal. I found a lot of help online in various communities, then started my blog in 2008. Almost everything about my illness since 2008 has been documented on the blog, but technically I’ve been in remission since the 2006 surgery.

How did “League of Mortals” come about?

DC:  My freshman year of college was terrible; it was really bad, mostly because I was put on a mega-dose of prednisone. I started writing about it as a form of self-therapy, but I wanted to leave the illness part out. I wasn’t comfortable talking about my disease, so I had this character who glides through his freshman year, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. And I realized none of it worked unless you understood that he was sick. I started writing League of Mortals as a character sketch, to explain why Wesley does what he does, and realized it was a better story than the college novel. I still plan to finish the college novel – it's titled F.U.

Interesting title.  Why did you decide to write a work of fiction rather than a more traditional memoir type book that a lot of chronic illness bloggers tend to write?

DC: A few reasons... first, bookstores are stuffed with memoirs by sick people, but there are hardly any novels about chronic illness. Memoir is a crowded market for sick authors, but fiction is wide open.

Second, I think there's a brutal honesty in fiction that just doesn’t happen in memoir. There’s stuff in LoM that I would never have been able to write as straight memoir – but it’s important stuff. Fiction gives me the cover to be incredibly raw and honest about my illness and my life. The paradox is that I think readers get a more realistic sense of illness from the book being fiction than I would be able to provide in memoir.

Third, the events in my life did not happen in a particularly meaningful order. Even though the book is semi-autobiographical, some of the stuff did not happen my senior year of high school – e.g. prednisone. By reorganizing those events, I could tell a much better, more important story. Most people’s lives do not have a narrative arc – mine doesn’t, as far as I can tell. But the need for narrative is vital to how and why we read. For some memoirists, that need pushes them to write inane things about their lives, so that it all makes sense in the end. Fiction lets me control the narrative – lets me reimagine and redefine what my disease means – without the urge for self-justification.

Wesley’s character really highlights what it’s like to be a young person with a chronic illness – and there aren’t that many of those characters out there.  We see him transform, both based on his own experiences, but also based on the experiences of those around him and their reactions to his chronic illness.  Some may say that his transformation was negative, but I think those of us with chronic illnesses understand that there are a lot of varied emotions that come with being diagnosed with an incurable disease.  How did you balance being true to the character, while simultaneously making him seem sympathetic, as well?

DC: One of my least favorite ideas is that sick people get rewarded at some point for being ill: “That which does not kill you”.... I didn’t know how the story was going to end when I sat down to write LoM, but I knew I was not going to reward Wesley for being sick. I think he just about breaks even: he’s not a better person by the end of story – not stronger, not happier, not smarter. Just a different person. And that is such an important idea for me.

As for sympathetic, that was indeed a challenge. In early drafts, I focused mostly on medical stuff, and it made for brutal reading. I realized I had to give a sense of Wesley’s personality before he got ill, so that you understand where he’s coming from when things get really bad. I found that writing about him as a whole person – talking about music and his grandparents and what he was reading – made him a lot easier to get along with. I know it seems like filler, but those bits are important to understanding Wesley.

The character of Mrs. Strunkel is just awful.  Truly.  There’s always got to be one in every bunch.  Was there someone in your life that made your own life miserable like that?  

DC: She is indeed based on a real person who made my life very difficult. But keep in mind that Mrs. Strunkel thinks she’s a good person. She believes the things she does are important and just and good. In a perverse way, illness maybe does make her a better person in the end.

I think you do a really good job of capturing how healthy people have difficulty understanding what it’s like to have a chronic illness.  The character of Wesley loses a lot of weight as a result of being sick, and every woman he encounters tells him how much they would love to be able to lose weight.  In writing this book, what did you want to get across to your readers about the experience of Crohn’s Disease, in particular, and chronic illness, in general?

DC: I wanted to be honest about illness. I wanted to create a character whose illness was not shorthand for some virtue or flaw in psyche – the way Beth in Little Women is sick because she’s a perfect little angel. I didn’t want the book to be just about Crohn’s – I wanted it to capture as broadly as I could the experience of chronic illness. I actually tried to write a version where the diagnosis was some made up disease, but then I had to make up symptoms and treatments and drug names. It got exhausting, so I went back to what I know, but the specific diagnosis – Crohn’s – is not the main thing driving the story.

I agree in that I, a person who has lupus and rheumatoid arthritis – definitely have had similar experiences when it comes to chronic illness that you talk about in the book.

Here is the million dollar question: How much of the book is fact and how much of it is fiction?

DC: For the same reasons I chose to write it as fiction, it gets really tricky for me to admit what parts are totally factual. But it’s all true to my experience of illness, if that makes sense.

Thanks for being here today Duncan!

You can purchase a copy of “League of Mortals” from Amazon and Smashwords.

Duncan has graciously afford to provide a coupon code for my readers.  You can get $2 off the book from Smashwords by using the code JD55B. The code is good through July 10, 2015.

And you can follow Duncan at http://duncancross.net/.

* In the effort of full disclosure, I received a free copy of this book courtesy of the author. I also recently got to meet up with Duncan and he treated me to dinner.  I However, my choice to have Duncan here was my choice, and had to do with my personal opinion of the book.  

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