‘Sounds Like Crazy’: Mahaffey’s Darkly Comic Novel Kicks Up Emotional Sand
You think people are driving you crazy? Trust me: your mother, boss, significant other, even a demanding mother-in-law have nothing on the people rattling around Holly Miller’s head. The troubled protagonist in Shana Mahaffey’s darkly comic debut novel, “Sounds Like Crazy,” navigates life’s fragile and often flat-out funny moments with five distinct personalities–she dubs “The Committee”–tagging along for the ride. While they occupy Holly’s valuable cranial real estate rent-free, the complications they cause– and the help they offer– are priceless.
There’s the rotund Ruffles, who munches potato chips from her over sized purple pillow perch. There’s also The Silent One who prays all day; the Faceless Boy, only identified by his red Converse sneakers and Sarge a drill sergeant whose protective heart shields Holly. And there’s Betty Jane, the demanding southern belle whose penchant for the finer things have Holly whipping out her “emergency only” credit card for all sorts of essentials like closets full of designer duds, expensive meals and fragrances and cab rides around New York City. Of course, Betty Jane’s vexing charm and confidence help catapult Holly from her dreary waitress gig to a glamorous career as an Emmy-Award winning voice-over actress on a popular animated TV show.
Along with the Committee, Holly copes with Dissociative Identity Disorder(DID) with the help of her loyal, long-distance sister, a steadfast shrink and a emotionally-detached boyfriend ( hey, with so many personalities crowding her psyche who has time for a real committed relationship?)
“Sounds Like Crazy” is not your mama’s beach read. Mahaffey pulls the reader in with humor, but it’s the emotional sand she kicks up as the complex story unfolds along with deeply textured characters and real psychological issues that will keep you turning the page, immersed in a sort of psychological mystery as the trauma that caused Holly’s perplexing illness is finally unearthed. There are heart-wrenching moments along with amusing twists and turns as we follow Holly on her arduous, but ultimately healing journey.
Mahaffey chatted with me via phone last week from her office in San Francisco. Here’s a portion of that conversation:
AB: While debut novels are frequently autobiographical, you don’t suffer from DID, right?
SM: No, although if you ask some of my ex-boyfriends, they might have a different take on that. But I did take things from my life and the lives of people I know. Battling my own demons through therapy, I learned just how life-changing, life-saving that experience can be.
AB: It’s funny, as writers we all have a little DID, walking around with different characters. How long was Holly rattling around your head?
SM: Since college. I actually hadn’t realized it had been that long until I ran into an old boyfriend who said I’m glad you finally finished that story. I really didn’t start with the character. I wanted to explore how a child would deal with a life-changing event and how would that impact the kind of adult they would become.
AB: How much of the story do you know before you start writing?
SM : The beginning and I always know the ending.
AB: That’s sort of unusual, isn’t it? I mean a lot of writers–including me–let the story evolve as the characters take on a life of their own.
SM: Well, I have a structure on which to build the story out. There’s plenty of room to grow and change in between.
AB Whatever works for you. Speaking of work, you took great pains to get the psychology right. What sort of research did you do?
SM: I read a ton of books. I really wanted to get it right. But the most valuable research really came from the on-line community. That’s where I got most of my real information, the real sense of what life is like for people coping with this. I got it from people who deal with this in their daily lives.
AB: It must be gratifying to receive accolades from the psychiatric and recovery communities.
SM: It is. I kind of knew I nailed it when a psychiatrist gave the book a glowing review. And I’ve been invited to attend a conference hosted by a DID support group.
AB: It’s such an interesting condition, but it’s not without it’s controversy. I guess people became aware of it back in the ’60′s after “The Three Faces of Eve, ” and later in the ’70′s, “Sybil” put what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder into the popular lexicon. Of course, those stories were based on real women. But there’s also another important distinction between those cases and Holly.
SM: Right. Sybil used to black-out and lose all kinds of time when her alters took over. Holly is co-conscious… in other words, she is aware when the personality shifts take place.
AB So we’re privy to the delicate and sometimes rather cantankerous negotiations and power plays, particularly between Holly and Betty Jane. Some of it is hilarious. And the humor–albeit on the dark side–is one of the things that initially pulled me in. Talk a little about undercutting–or maybe it’s underscoring–such heavy material so deftly with humor.
SM Humor in the face of really ugly, dark, painful events is something I learned as a child. My whole family–immediate and extended–has this trait, which I understand traces back to our Irish heritage ( 100% on both sides). My cousins accused me of talking my grandfather to death. We had a big laugh about this. Usually the worse it is, the more humor I can find. This is off-putting for people who don’t behave this way, but it is how I am wired, so I can’t help myself. And being one who never likes to waste anything, I put it all into “Sounds Like Crazy.”
AB: We’re on a similar wavelength so the humor totally works for me. The only thing that didn’t ring true for me was Holly’s meteoric rise as TV star. It certainly didn’t make me toss the book aside or ruin the experience, but why did you feel you needed Holly to become so successful, so fast?
SM I have heard that before. And it’s interesting because Holly didn’t become a voice-over artist until the book was well in flight. I was in a writing workshop and the woman who ran it said, ‘Holly needs a job.” And someone suggested voice-over artist and it just clicked. It was important for her to achieve fast success so I could put her in a very stressful situation. People with DID can function–and at a very high level–but the mores stress they face, the more likely they are to unravel. But it was a risk, I guess, and it didn’t work for everybody. It’s not a perfect book.
AB: Is there such a thing? You’re never going to please everybody. It’s harder for fiction writers. I mean if you wrote a memoir, we’d take it on its face value. But with a novel, it’s about the truth, not facts. But there is so much here that soars, you shouldn’t be discouraged by a few quibbles.
SM Thank you. It’s not bad for a first time out.
AB Not at all. But you’ve said you almost didn’t finish–and probably wouldn’t have–if it hadn’t been for your grandfather.
SM: That’s very true. My grandfather, Joseph McGrath, was a larger-than-life figure, a war hero, boxer, semi-pro football player who taught high school English and phys ed. He always wanted to be a published author and he decided one of the grand kids would do it. He used to correct letters we wrote him. I was the one that stuck with it. So when I was languishing with the book, he asked me if I had an outline. I made a face and he told me to bring all my pages and notes and he’d help me organize the book. Then right before I could go over, I got a call that he was very ill. The last thing I asked him was to help me from wherever he was going. Thirty seconds later he was dead. I couldn’t not finish after that.
AB Wow. He’s got to be beaming. You’re already working on your second novel?
SM: Yes. It’s about choices and consequences. A woman has to correct a mistake she made in past life to fix what’s wrong in this one. I want to explore death, past lives, you know whether we meet the same people over and over and what consequences our choices today may have on future lives.
AB:I’m in already. But don’t you find talking about it before it’s done only diffuses the energy, sort of zaps the magic out of the process?
SM:I know a lot of writers feel that way. But for me, talking about it only brings me closer to my characters. I get very involved with my characters. I carry them around for so long. For instance, I’m very involved with this one character–an overweight ghost who smokes. I used to smoke–and I know when I’m really old and it doesn’t matter anymore I’ll pick up that red Marlboro box–but for now I vicariously smoke through my characters.
AB: I guess you enjoyed Holly’s love-hate relationship with cigarettes.
SM: She loved them. Everyone else hated the habit. I could relate.
AB: It may be hard to let Holly go. Do you think we’ll see her again?
SM Maybe. I don’t think there’ll be a sequel, but she may appear again. One of my favorite writers, Robertson Davies writes in trilogies, featuring overlapping characters. So in the next book, Holly’s father appears. He gets a chance to–maybe–redeem himself a little.
AB I’m intrigued already. Speaking of voices, Shana, I think we’ll be hearing from yours for a long time to come. Thanks for doing this.
SM:Thank you. It was great.