The Big Idea: K.C. Alexander
Posted on November 14, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 8 Comments
Books can take a lot out of you as a writer. And sometimes, as K.C. Alexander explains for Nanoshock, you go through a lot to get to the end of them.
So here we are, you and I. Back again some year and change later. Last time, I talked about Necrotech, and how writing it inspired me to come out genderqueer—all challenge and angry and defiant.
I chose the Big Idea to do it then because the rage of being taught I was not enough had fueled 110,000 words. At that point…how could I avoid the truth when it was repeatedly jabbing me in the brain? With an ice pick. The Ice Pick of Truth, as it turned out.
So, Riko. Me. Life is art is life.
And another ice pick for the brain.
I got drunk to write this. This will inevitably be the title of my memoirs, but until then, we have the Big Idea. And Nanoshock, Riko’s next installment, and probably the hardest thing I’d ever had to (wanted to) write.
Did you know that I was a year and some change late on this book, too? Maybe a mild exaggeration… but close enough. My editors at Angry Robot Books were extremely, overwhelmingly supportive, and my agent bent over backwards to keep me reassured, but I was late, late, late. The White Rabbit fucking gave up on me, I was so damn late.
Did I mention I got drunk to write this?
You can laugh. It’s totally okay.
Nanoshock’s Riko is an asskicker, but those who live by the ass die by the… wait. Let me start over. Riko is an asskicker, but those who are violent only beget violence, and so she spends much of the previous book bloody. With her memories savaged and her reputation in tatters, Riko’s now dealing with a whole new level of BS: she must figure out WTF went down in those missing memories, WTF she’s the one hauling this shit around, and—to make matters worse—WTF sold her out.
For those of you who need the help: that’s “what”, “why” and “who”, respectively. And a lot of “the fucks” added.
“Sounds like fun,” you say. “What could go wrong?” Well. For Riko? Lots.
More than I thought would.
Let’s make an abrupt left turn and meander down a different road. Let’s talk about trauma. More specifically, let’s talk about non-combat PTSD.
You know the acronym—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you’re like most, you associate it with survivors of war, soldiers returning home, victims of incredible abuse or an accident survivor. You think blood and gore and broken bones and bullets flying and fists and whatever else comes at one from the ugly side of things.
I think… a man’s raised voice, laced with focused intention. …the pressure of somebody behind me. …sexual advances when I am struggling with my depression. …the subtle unweaving of my success, my confidence, my wants and my needs.
I remember fear in the dead of night and razor blades at dinner. Basically? I am Jessica Jones, and I don’t even have the raw strength to fight the battles I need to.
Listen. There’s a thing called “complex PTSD”, and it’s a disorder caused not by one single event but by the stacking of many. “Non-combat PTSD” is when you have all the same symptoms—flashbacks, panic attacks, disassociation, bone-deep fear, paranoia and more—but you didn’t pick it up at a battlefield or a crime scene or a car crash… You just…
You just lost. You lost everything. Your confidence, your physical safety, your emotional and mental balance. Each brick of your foundation chipped and whittled and shaped into what something else, somebody else, demanded of you. Until one day something happens, something breaks, and if you’re lucky, you surface from that sleepwalking hell into the stark, cold, terrifying reality: you are not the person you thought you were. You aren’t even in the same dimension.
And you aren’t worthy of anything better.
I wish I was Riko. (A smooth shift back onto the main road!) Riko’s coping mechanisms, while unhealthy, are so much easier for me to understand. What I’d give to be able to channel all this bottled in rage and fear and shame and explode it all over some motherfuckers what need educating. I have a list. I’d feel so much better if I could just tick off each line, one by one. “Exploded, bloodied, broken, dead.”
I announce for the cheap seats: I am a struggling buddhist.
Those who live by violence beget violence. Those who rely on the punch receive more in kind. In my first draft of this book, Riko—my violent, angry, bloodied bitch—became an extension of me. And it wasn’t great.
See, after Necrotech, Riko found herself at the bottom of the food chain. Her life, her sense of security, had been thoroughly shredded. (Spoiler alert: there is blood. So, so much blood. And fleshy, wobbly bits, mostly unattached.) Starting with nothing is daunting at the best of times, but as Nanoshock opened under my furiously typing fingers, I realized:
I, too, was starting over from nothing. Everything I’d built had been stripped away, and not least of which had been my pride as a human being, my sense of self, my confidence, and yes, my voice. Like waking up from a dream I hadn’t realized was so violent in its calm, extremely slow pace, I suddenly surfaced into the real world and saw, felt, understood that I had nothing.
Because I was only allowed to have nothing.
And here I was, trying to set Riko on the path to rebuilding her own life when I didn’t have the first idea of how to rebuild mine. I couldn’t even face my own trauma—and like Riko, I didn’t want to.
Nanoshock is late to the shelves because it took me two years—two years—to fight through the bloody wounds and ragged scars and sheer fucking shame that comes with PTSD. First, I had to acknowledge it.
And then I had to get help.
Two years. I’m still in therapy, and I will be for a long time. It’s like I had to reach this point to understand where Riko needed to go. And I understand enough about her to understand that it’ll take her a lot longer than the time she has to get to where I am working so hard to be.
Sometimes (often?), an author has to know the answers first before they can reverse engineer it back to the beginning.
The schematics of trauma are a mess. But having been there, and struggling every day to cope with the sense of violation, fear, programmed responses and cold uncertainty, I feel so much better equipped to write Riko’s struggle (and by god, it is a struggle).
You see, although it’s taken me years, I have finally been allowed—encouraged, given sanctuary for it—to own my trauma. I can work through it. I can face it head on and slowly, sometimes painfully, take the teeth out where I can.
But Riko? Riko’s journey is harder. A narcissist, proud of her place, having fought tooth and bleeding nail to earn it, and stubborn as all get out, she doesn’t have the support network I needed to resurface. Won’t take it. Won’t bend, won’t forgive. She’s got a lot to learn to deal with. That could have been me.
So here we are, you and I. Back at the Big Idea, where I share all the aspects of my world that fuel the rage and pain and violence and motherfucking demand for hope that makes up Riko’s stories. Redemption for us both on the page; pain all around for free.
Riko’s journey is only just beginning. It seems funny, when I look at it, to think it took me this long to claw my way back into my own skin just to rip Riko out of hers. And unlike me now, but very much like me then, Riko is unable to own her trauma. Until she does, she can’t mend the wounds.
Until those wounds are mended, she will bleed out—bit by bit, emotionally and mentally and yes, even physically. Wounds on the body help. They bring peace. Riko knows this, and it’s an ugly kind of truth.
Does she have the strength to overcome this as she punches, shoots, swears at and otherwise rocks every obstacle in her path?
Well. I did. Sort of.
If I can, then Riko can. And if Riko can, then you can.
See how this works?
Nanoshock, where the darkest shit is yet to come and still, even still, holding on for another day means another day of hope, redemption, and a sense of self.
I got drunk to write this.
A memoir, yes. But also, acknowledgment. Of self and of the arc of trauma. Of the grit that nobody likes to see—not really, not the gritty, filthy, infected stuff that oozes over the veneer and smells like rot. But also, acknowledgement that there is a way back to the light. Grab it where you can. Tomorrow, nursing the hangover, follow through on what it takes.
We got stuff to do, you and I. We have things to accomplish. If I can do it, Riko can.
And if Riko can?
Well, you see where this is going…
As for me? I’m going to therapy. And Riko? She’s going to kick some ass. Between the two of us, there will be a lot of drunk nights. You see, drunk, high, or otherwise jacked up makes the nightmares easier to face.
But sobriety always follows. We’ll fight and fall and claw at the ledge, and there will be some tears. But you know what? That’s okay, too. Growth fucking hurts. But hey. We survived, right? (It’ll take her a bit to realize that… She, unlike me, doesn’t have two years to do it.)
As Riko would say, zen it.
Nanoshock: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.
Wow. Thank you for sharing this. Fellow survivor of non-combat, complex ptsd. And yeah, I got drunk to write this too. It’s hardest to know that we know nothing and if we did know stuff we wouldn’t be where we are now. I carried written words with me for years just to have a multiple choice of possible answers ready for everyday things. Because I never really learned how to communicate because there was no space for it. I wish lots of things, but mostly I wish you well, I wish you to be happy, I wish you to be safe, and I wish you to be at-ease.
I first encountered the phrase ‘Complex PTSD’ some years ago and took a while to realize it is a new name for a very old problem, identified under different names by Freud and others before him. In fact, it may not be so much A problem as THE problem, underlying most emotional ‘illnesses’, affecting everybody to some extent, and a substantial minority to a great extent.
I read the ‘NANOSHOCK’ excerpt, which certainly lives up to your uncompromising description! The best of luck with it and your therapy. May you recover and get ‘well’ in ways defined by you.
Hey, thanks, y’all. My best to you both and I appreciate you!
… Erm. Ctr key is my bane. I meant to add a carriage return and:
May you be safe, Shelley, and well and strong, and even when you can’t be strong, know you aren’t alone. <3 Day by day.
K.C. Alexander, wow, this is one powerful post here. I am never ever going to read this book and I apologize for that. I am so sorry for your PTSD. And I hope you make a ton of money (because best revenge is to live well?). Thank you for writing this.
Just wanted to say that Necrotech was a fantastic book, and I can’t wait to read Nanoshock!
I too experienced shock and awe from reading this post. While i cannot support getting drunk to write, at least it works for you and you do sober up some times. Wrestling with the shadow monsters is what you have to do, and since it fits right in with the hero mythology, it’s an excellent personal struggle to turn into a book. Anger is stronger than fear, and it sounds like you’re tuned into yours. Keep on with it.
For my small bit, late next Wednesday for my weekly blog I will post an essay called Abuse Science to say I am angry at the lack of science, as this allows society to blame the victim, and for victims to blame themselves. I will footnote a link to this post. To find mine, click on my name.