SLO Nightwriters: A Writer’s Process

by: Elizabeth Roderick

The story:
Mental health professionals are required by law to keep patient disclosures confidential, yet the law also
requires them to “warn and protect” anyone their patient is likely to harm. A Duty to Betray plunges Dr. Ricardo Ruiz, a young psychologist just beginning his career, squarely into the middle of these two seemingly irreconcilable legal obligations. Set inside the famed Camarillo State Hospital on California’s Central Coast, A Duty to Betray draws the reader into this legal, ethical, and ultimately moral dilemma when Mr. Tran, one of Dr. Ruiz’ patients, reveals a potentially lethal secret during therapy. Cat and mouse confrontations between the two thrust the “tell — don’t tell” conflict into sharp definition since Dr. Ruiz knows that, either way, his decision will have deadly

Q: Did you construct an outline for the story of Duty to Betray at any point in your process?

A: Yes, and it changed about 10 times. John Irving says that writing is architecture; Margaret Atwood says it’s organic. For me it’s both (but the true joy of it is in the latter).

Q: Is there anything that happened in the story that surprised you? Something you hadn’t planned?

A: Yes—that it happened.

Q: What is your editing process?

A: I usually warm-up by reviewing the previous days work; however, if I find I’m spending a lot of time on editing, then I’m procrastinating. Editing is easy; writing is hard.

Q: What is your favorite scene from the book? Which was your favorite character, and why?

A: Mr. Tran is my favorite character—I enjoyed writing every single scene that’s told from his POV, largely because I did it in second person, something I’d never done before and found terribly satisfying.

Q: What is your least favorite part?

A: My favorite part is getting lost in the character and/or scene—ideas and words fly off my fingertips and I have that “oceanic” feeling psychoanalysts describe when we blissfully lose ourselves in someone or something else. My least favorite is marketing/promotion. I know that probably doesn’t count as “writing,” but it should because it’s part of the process. Once you’ve got a product, you’ve got to sell it, and all that time traveling, talking, signing, blogging, etcetera, could be spent penning your next piece (the publication of which, of course, is now contingent upon the sales success of your earlier work!).

Q: Do you think your training as a psychologist allows you to see things from others’ points of view more easily? If so, do you think that helped you get into your characters’ heads, and helped you write the story?

A: Yes, maybe a bit—it’s easier to climb into the head of someone who is psychotic, psychopathic, or malingering if it’s familiar territory, and my day job makes it so; hence, the admonition, “Write what you know,” is worthwhile, but certainly not absolute.

Q: What was it like, to tell a story from the points of view of characters like Jesus and Chaz?

A: Frighteningly easy.

Q: Have you ever actually known/treated someone with a “multiple personality”- type disorder, like Jesus?

A: Yes. In the late ‘80s I worked on the Eating Disorders Unit at Cottage Hospital and we had a patient with 25 of them. I have been and remain suspicious, however, about the validity of her diagnosis, largely because I had some reservations about her psychiatrist. But I worked intensely for one year in the early ‘90s with a very severe anorectic who suffered from DID (MPD is now called “Dissociative Identity Disorder”) and it was legitimate. Despite her condition, she graduated with honors from Cal Poly.

Q: How do you feel that writing has informed or enriched your life as a psychologist/academic, if at all?

A: Studying creative writing has improved my writing in general, including my technical, research reporting. It’s also made me a better storyteller (and, therefore, college professor) since, like it or not, there is definitely an order to effective storytelling as psychologist Joseph Campbell and writing instructor Christopher Vogler have noted.

Q: Did you ever at any point consider or actually have a different ending for the book (without giving it away)? (The ending is wonderful, but it could have gone so many different ways, and I wasn’t sure until I got there what was going to happen).

A: Yes, earlier drafts had different endings. But the earlier drafts had different everything! The book took 19 years to get picked up by a respectable publisher. In the process it went through 12 rewrites, several different titles, many different writer’s groups and workshops, and nearly a hundred literary agencies. But I’m really glad earlier drafts
weren’t published—the final draft is much more satisfying to me than anything I peddled before.