Denise Baer has her first novel out in Net Switch. It is a psychological suspense narrative that explores mental illness. Told in journal form, the novel is about an online relationship that becomes predatory. Denise met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about rehabilitation and surveillance.
Tell us about Net Switch.
Net Switch is a dark, psychological novel that touches on themes of loneliness and mental illness. Set in Chicago and Seattle, Net Switch is true to the suspense genre in keeping readers on the edge of their seat with twists and turns.
A woman, Sydney Hayes, is trying to get out of a mental institution. For her to accomplish this she must hand over her prize possession—her journal. There is only one man with the means to save her, so she entrusts him with her personal thoughts and emotions.
Told in journal form, readers watch an insecure woman crumble before their eyes through first person narrative. At the beginning, Sydney finds herself in an internet chat room in hopes of expelling her loneliness. Enchanted by a stranger, she soon finds herself caught up in an affair that swiftly spills over into her real life, and before she knows it, he’s in control. After chiseling away at her independence, he takes her against her will and begins playing with her, situations becoming more sinister than the last one.
Trapped from fear, Sydney seeks solace halfway across the country, in Seattle, obtaining a new identity. She begins to rebuild her confidence, reclaims her life, and befriends a neighbor. Time and exposed secrets bring them close, but the man she is running from begins to show signs that he is near. Sydney must decide how to turn from hunted to hunter, and her journal holds the key to the switch.
Do you think the rehabilitation of mentally ill people may ultimately make them subservient to those same social or familial forces that made them ill?
I believe the human brain is complex. Fortunately, I’ve never had to witness a loved one struggle with mental illness. I think of the brain much like a map of global highways and roads. These roads carry information and messages for emotions, intelligence, personality, etc., and sometimes roads of information are or become damaged. In some cases, beyond repair.
It’s difficult to say whether the mentally ill can be rehabilitated to become submissive toward social or familial forces that made them ill. There are degrees and reasons that affect one’s psyche, and one reason is if mental illness has made an imprint in the gene. In those cases, I don’t think modern medical technologies can repair such an intricate organ, that’s assuming medication isn’t considered rehabilitation. We can mask the problems, and put them on a hiatus using medications, but to rehabilitate them would be a feat that I don’t think modern medicine can achieve.
In some cases, if the personality and individual are open to and can withstand rehabilitation methods, then yes, they can ultimately learn to overcome the reasons that made them ill. Again, this also includes medications to balance the illness with whatever caused it.
Who are your literary influences?
My very first literary influences were William S. Gray and Zerna Sharp. They taught me to read with their Dick and Jane books, so they deserve some credit. I would then have to say William Shakespeare for his timeless stories and wit. “I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed!”
Then I have to add William Faulkner. His novel, As I Lay Dying, captured my attention out of many authors of his time. Fifteen different characters tell the story, each chapter the POV of a character. Another literary influence is John Irving for his wild imagination and odd characters. One of my favorite books is A Prayer for Owen Meany. It follows themes of religion, faith, war and friendship. The way he wrote Owen Meany was brilliant in my opinion, and it did not make sense until the end. Now I will end my influences with the one who made me want to become a writer. After reading, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I realized I wanted to move people with words the way he did. “Her voice was pure crystal … so fragile I feared that her words would break if I interrupted them.”
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
It is more like eBook Ebomination. No, I’m kidding. Being a self-published author, I am grateful to have a publishing outlet. Established writers have an audience, a following, so standing out in a crowd is not an issue. EBooks help Indie and self-published authors get their works in as many hands as possible and as quickly as possible.
Like everything else, there are positives and negatives to this revolution. The eBook rave gives Indie and self-published authors the opportunity to publish at low cost. We can price our eBooks low or free. For me, I do not sell my eBook for pennies, or give it away, and I still offer paperback to those who want to hold the pages in their hands.
Unfortunately, publishing in eBook form with the many other unknown authors does not give me very good odds to acquire a following. There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not giving an eBook free will help build an audience. My belief is anyone can download a free eBook, but there is no guarantee it will even be read. At least if someone buys it, they are more likely to read it. Then again, you have the debate regarding how many people will buy an eBook from an unknown author.
The eBook revolution created two types of writers. There are those who read, learn and improve their writing, and take writing seriously. Then there are those who came up with a novel idea, wrote it, and published without a care for creating the best possible novel they could produce. The latter has harmed Indie and self-published authors. On the other hand, I see the same issue with some traditionally published books. Of course, every book has its flaws—I have never read a flawless book.
How do you explore the theme of identity in your writing?
The identity theme is often found in books. Much of my writing deals with the identity of a character through loneliness, the diminishment of hope, or the lack of truly knowing oneself. To avoid giving too much away, Net Switch explores the theme of identity by showing the readers the main character’s loneliness and low self-esteem. She isn’t sure of herself, and therefore, latches on to someone who makes her feel important. It also, as the title hints, switches the character’s identity from lonely to fear, and then fear to survival mode.
In my current novel, Fogged Up Fairy Tale, the main character struggles with identity because she has amnesia. Through discussions with her husband and friends, she learns about who she was and uses her second chance to change.
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
I think Graham Greene was a wise man, but a bit harsh when it comes to writers. Graham Greene zeroed in on writers, assuming they are the only ones with “a splinter of ice in the heart.” We all observe other people’s pain whether consciously or subconsciously. Built within us is a need to watch tragedies play out. It’s human nature. Every day of our lives, we examine scenes of struggle and deprivation, anguish and loss. We participate in these scenes by collecting information regarding setting, people’s reactions to situations and our own reactions.
Life is the ultimate gift, and writers use that gift by showing the world just how cynical, horrific, and compassionate humans are by combining life events and imagination. These moments are treasures in a writer’s life. It’s as if we put our pain and others in a vault, and when the writing opportunity comes along, we dig into our vaults. Writers must live to be able to write.
Do you think we live in an age of surveillance?
Definitely. Computers. Phones. Technology is a welcoming present and future, and a kiss good-bye to privacy. There are endless reasons why the NSA, Stasi, hackers, etc. need to tap into our private lives: terrorism, child pornography, and national security. Unfortunately, we give away enough about our lives that everyone watches us.
The generations who grew up with technology, grew up with the idea to get noticed, and in some ways, this has caught on with older generations. It doesn’t matter if you are noticed in a positive or negative way, as long as you get your 15 minutes of fame. I believe our conduct on the internet and phones has raised the stakes in surveillance. There is bullying, people videotaping their suicides, Facebook warning statuses, and everyday threats.
We no longer live in a private society where family secrets remain at home and not discussed. Now everything is discussed. Everywhere. If you don’t like what your sister said to you, you let her know—on Facebook—where everyone else can see it. Why? In my opinion, it makes people visible. We make it easy for governments to investigate whom we talk to, our friends and family, where we work, and how much we make. As long as technology is around and continues to grow, either government or society will always scrutinize us.
Do you think this is an extension of the longer history of voyeurism?
It’s a good question, Richard, and an interesting connection. I admit I hadn’t thought about voyeurism and surveillance. Then again, all of your questions have made me think, so thank you for that. Without looking too deep into the matter, I’d have to say it is not an extension. Voyeurism mainly has to do with sex, and the voyeur doesn’t necessarily relate to the person they’re watching.
Surveillance has to do more with safety, or wanting to be seen. From what I know about voyeurism, it isn’t about safety, and it mostly involves not being seen.
Aside from writing, I finished building my author website, and my press site, Baer Books Press. I created my own imprint with the hopes of publishing other authors and I’m offering creative services. There are plenty of imprints, small press, publishing companies out there, but I figure I can’t succeed or crash and burn without trying.
As for writing, I’m revising my women’s fiction / chick lit novel, Fogged Up Fairy Tale, scheduled for publication in Summer 2014. I’m also working on a book of short stories created from photographs, Snapshot Stories, scheduled for publication later this year.
What advice would you give to your younger self who just started writing?
I would tell my younger self that there’s nothing wrong with learning the rules, or dabbling in books that tell you how to write, but there comes a time to let go. You must stop obsessing over rules and editing, and just write. Read and Write. Those two things will take you far. Every writer is different, they have their own voice and style, but you must read and write to find out your own voice and style. Reading is the best teacher, and writing, the best way to find your weaknesses and strengths. Writing is a constant work in progress. Lastly, I’d tell my young self to write from the heart. Readers can always detect when a writer’s heart isn’t into it.
Denise thank you for a perceptive and informative interview.
Denise Baer’s Amazon Page
Skipping Stone Memories (personal blog)