The Top Shelf – Guest Post – D.A. Serra
Misty asked me to chat about two different topics — the first: “In Primal, Alison’s motherly instinct becomes something raw and intense and ultimately changes her completely. That’s something I as a reader have never seen before in books or movies. Generally the female character goes right back to life as usual maybe a little shaken.”
Interestingly, Misty, you have hit upon a major conflict in the creative development and marketing of Primal. Primal began as a feature film screenplay. I was working in Hollywood at that time. Being a successful TV & film writer, I lived in an environment where the good guys always won, and the people went casually back to their lives before the credits rolled. I always believed this to be a preposterous fallacy. In Primal, I wanted Alison’s emotional journey to be genuine – there had to be serious psychological consequences.
After I completed writing Primal, I started taking meetings with studios that showed an interest in buying it. I found myself defending my choice to take the story in that direction over and over. I did not believe an average person could go through a violent terrifying experience, come out the other side, take an aspirin, and go back to work. I do believe that violence “is sticky” as I said in the novel. Violence wounds your spirit and marks your unconscious. One simply does not turn around and go home feeling heroic. I fought this “happy ending” mentality at every single meeting within the film studios. They wanted to end the story on the island and I simply refused to make that change. I wanted to show the aftermath: what really happens: the news cameras, the terror that sticks to you, the destruction of your self-concept, of the way people treat you, of the influence on your family relationships, how your view of simple things changes. This was what interested me in this story in the first place. One of the reasons I decided to sell to James Cameron was because when we sat in a meeting together he got it immediately. He understood that this was what the movie was about – that second half – the mental journey, and it was what raised the story above the everyday thriller plotline. Whether the character Ben Burne is alive or dead is irrelevant because that second section would play out exactly the same for Alison either way – and who knows who might end up on the floor of that garage. Alison’s descent is what is real. The Alison we meet on page one is not, and will never be again, the Alison on page one hundred. We leave the book knowing this. Yes, we are relieved that she has a chance at recovery, but she is not the same woman.
Misty’s second question: What tips could you give writers who may not have children of their own who are looking for insight for how to portray this?
Putting yourself in another person’s place is fundamental for characterization, but not every writer can or should write every thing. The more you allow your imagination to wander, and the deeper you look into the psyche of those around you, the more tools you will have. Sometimes it’s useful to think about the underlying emotion in an allegorical way. For instance, I’ve never been a serial killer, (big surprise there) but I can write them. I can write them because I do know what being truly scared feels like, and I can imagine scenarios where I would get that feeling in myself. Then, as a writer, I use that insight to guide me through the development of someone truly scary.
Thank you for having me on The Top Shelf. Best to all your readers.
Deborah Serra was a screenwriter for twenty years and recognized by the Writer’s Guild for her long term continuous employment. She has written ten TV movies, four feature films, and numerous TV episodes including two years as a staff writer for NBC. She worked for top producers, directors, and actors. She has taught writing at the University of California, San Diego, Wofford College and at writers’ conferences nationwide. Serra has now turned her attention to novels, and she was honored as a recent recipient of the prestigious Hawthornden Literary Fellowship, and as a semi-finalist for the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Award given by the Faulkner Society in New Orleans, LA.
Synopsis: The writer who made you laugh with Punky Brewster, who made you cry with Just Ask My Children, will now make you cringe with PRIMAL. This story was originally purchased by one of America’s most prestigious storytellers James Cameron.
What if the worst happens and you are not a cop, or a spy with weapons training and an iron heart? What if you’re a schoolteacher – a mother? In this gritty crime thriller a family vacation takes a vicious turn when a fishing camp is invaded by four armed men. With nothing except her brains, her will, and the element of surprise on her side, Alison must kill or watch her family die. And then – things get worse.