Monday, May 28, 2018

The Story Behind the Story:
“Finding Max,” by Darren M. Jorgensen

(Editor’s note: This is the 77th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s essay comes from Alberta, Canada-born Darren M. Jorgensen, whose first novel, Finding Max (Creators Publishing), is just out this month. After working in various capacities for the United Nations in New York City, and graduating from Brown University at 30 years of age, Jorgensen returned to Alberta and devoted himself to writing. This is how he explains the general plot of Finding Max: “Five-year-old Maximilian Aldertree and his 8-year-old brother, Gary, are playing in a playground one hot summer day. Gary has been tasked with watching over his little brother, but while he is preoccupied on the monkey bars, Maximilian is abducted by a stranger driving past. Seventeen years later, the two brothers meet again, quite by chance. Gary is now a social worker in a New York homeless shelter, when Max comes in seeking a comfy bed and a hot meal. The two brothers must learn to love and trust one another again, in company with Gary’s new girlfriend, Jean—all while outwitting and outrunning the evil Quinn, who seeks to re-abduct Max for his own nefarious purposes.” Finding Max is the first book in a new trilogy.)

January 20, 1983. A cold winter day in Edmonton, Alberta.

I was 15 years old when Tania Murrell was abducted. She was only 6. Her body was never found.

Tania Murrell’s kidnapping hit the community hard. Mothers organized walking groups to transport their little bundles of joy. Daddies left work early to pick up their offspring from school. Strangers were distrusted. So were family members. Fear buzzed like electrical wires through the cold winter air.

I was scared to death. Although I was a male of 15, I believed I was as likely a target as poor Tania. Everyone—school officials, parents, siblings, and even friends—assured me that was the case. At any point in time, at any hour of the day, I was vulnerable. And such terror came with that understanding! I was too anxious to sleep, too sleepless to dream, too tired to feel rested in the mornings.

Now fast-forward 40 years. I wake one morning with a troubling thought. I have just dreamed that a young boy was abducted and there were no clues as to his whereabouts; and though he had resurfaced years later, the overall feeling of the dream was one of fear. As my mind began to clear I wondered, “What if Tania Murrell had returned?”

I hadn’t thought of Tania Murrell in many years. Yet all the old anxieties surrounding her disappearance now resurfaced. I sat up in bed and glanced around the room. My wife. My dogs. No one else was in the room. Still, I had the feeling of being watched in the dark.

I realized that I had been dreaming of Tania Murrell for weeks, but had not remembered those dreams upon waking. What a strange and bitter realization. How hard it is to understand that your mind has been obsessed with something and you aren’t even aware of it. How could this have happened? How could my mind have hidden this from me? How was it that my thoughts could have been turned to Tania without my even being aware? I had no answers to these questions. It was doubly disconcerting.

(Left) Tania Murrell

After breakfast, I retired to the sofa to ruminate. I was suddenly obsessed with the past, specifically that period of time during my pubescent years when Tania Murrell vanished. For the next two weeks, I sat on the sofa every morning, consumed with these thoughts. That familiar obsessiveness helped me realize I was gearing up to write another novel, but this time I had no idea where I would go with it. Usually, when I had begun composing novels in the past, I had a conception in my mind of where the story would lead. With this new novel developing inside, I had no clear idea of where these thoughts were taking me. Without a clear understanding of what paths my new characters would walk, I did not really know where to begin. As a writer, I felt I needed to know better where my book was heading before I could begin to write.

But composing Finding Max turned out to be a different experience. When I finally decided it was time to get up off that sofa and begin writing, I still had no idea where the narrative was going to take me. Instead, I finally said to myself one morning, “Darren, the only way you are going to understand what happens in this story is if you sit and write it down.” And that was it. That was all I needed, just that one little thought. So without an evident path as to where I was heading, I sat down and began to type.

Writing Finding Max was a painful journey for me. I dug deeper inside myself for original thoughts, memories, and ideas than I had ever done before. Often, during the writing of the novel, I found I was in tears over incidents that I remembered from my own past, rising to the surface unbidden. The material was triggering me in ways I hadn’t expected it to, and it was hard to maintain my equilibrium. Rather, I felt completely unbalanced throughout the whole time I wrote.

Strangely enough, the first draft of 91,000 words of Finding Max took me only 12 days to complete. Mind you, it needed a lot of editing! Still, it was quite a feat—for me, at least—to have written such a harrowing yarn in such a short period of time. And it is a harrowing yarn. It tells the story of two brothers and the lives they lead after the younger of them is abducted and absent from his brother’s life for 17 years.

I did not want my new book to be a non-fiction exposé of the disappearance of Tania Murrell. That is not the work I wished to produce. But what I did was take that original incident from my past—from my community’s cultural past—and use it as fodder for a novel, a novel about a young boy who is snatched away and forced into sexual slavery. It is certainly not Tania’s story, but it was invigorated by her tragic story.

My primary wish with writing Finding Max was to tell a tale that would accurately depict the repercussions on Max’s life of having lived through a kidnapping. I knew I had to do research, but did I really? Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the most commonplace result of living through extreme stress, violence, and trauma—and I knew a lot about PTSD. I already lived with the condition daily, the result of my having been beaten mercilessly as a child by my mother. I knew what it was like to fear the dark. I knew what it was like to jump at every little sound. I also knew what it was like to be so alone with your fears that you feel completely isolated from your siblings, your friends, the world around you. Did I really have much research to do on the effects of human trafficking and what it did to Max? No, I suppose not. But what I did have to do was find the courage to transfer those feelings of mine to the character I was drawing on the page.

(Above) Alberta author Darren M. Jorgensen

I ultimately did find that courage. I found it because I believed so strongly that I had an important tale to tell, and I knew the only way to tell it well was to translate those emotions that come from fear and develop them further as Max’s own terrors. It is not that hard to do—except it is a very difficult thing to do. During the period of my writing, Tania’s story morphed, grew, disassembled, and then reassembled itself into Max’s story, and Finding Max grew into a fully formed novel.

I crafted Max in such a way that he appears to be a well-adjusted young man. But scratch that surface … And that is when Max winds up crouching in the closet, sobbing and stabbing with his five-inch switchblade at demons only he can see. That is when his past rushes into the present.

I have been there, too. I have found myself—mostly at times during my 20s, when I, too, was crouched in a corner—trying to protect myself from the demons that roiled in my mind. My memories of that period, when I struggled to make sense of my own violent past and carve a future out for myself, are somewhat hazy and obscure. After dealing with such traumatic events internally, I tried really hard to forget them afterward. But those memories never completely fade. They remain intact in their own dreamlike way, floating to the surface when you least expect them. Those are the memories I called upon within myself to guide me as I detailed the effects of the ardent abuse that Max suffered at the hands of his abusers, and they served me well. My recollections carried within them the seeds of any traumatic encounter. In other words, I was able to translate those memories of my own into memories of Max’s.

Writing Finding Max was an incredible encounter for me. I had to confront not only the blank page that all writers must face (and all painters, too), but I had to come face to face with myself and demons that I had carried inside for almost 40 years. And that is a long time to bear the seeds of any new novel.

Finding Max is, I believe, a great personal achievement. This is a novel that truly was written in my heart. I have no other way to describe my approach to working on this book, except to say that it almost wrote itself. Which is of course patently untrue. Without my dreams, without my experiences, without my past, and without my fingers, Finding Max would not even exist. It is a novel that gives me more than it took to write it.

No comments: