It’s Not All “A Beautiful Mind”

The Hollow City by Dan Wells

Written by Dan Wells

At the Denver WorldCon in 2008 they had a panel on mental illness in fiction, and having written a series about a boy with sociopathy I thought it would be cool to check it out. I don’t know what I was expecting; maybe some kind of retrospective of cool stories about mental disorders, but what I got was far more interesting and valuable. The audience was made up almost entirely of people who struggled with mental illness, either personally or through someone in their family, and they didn’t want to talk about A Beautiful Mind or anything like it—they wanted to vent. The entertainment industry was using their misfortune as a plot device, and they were pissed. One comment struck me as especially powerful, and I paraphrase it here: “Mental illness in fiction is either demonized or sainted—we’re all either Silence of the Lambs or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I don’t mind seeing characters with mental illness—I love it, because I love to read about characters I can identify with—but I want to see it treated like a real thing instead of a metaphor.”

I had just begun to work on the very early drafts of a book that would become The Hollow City, my new novel about a man with schizophrenia, and because of that panel I challenged myself to treat the disease, like the commenter said, as realistically as I could. The basic hook of the novel is simple: a man with schizophrenia realizes that some of the monsters he sees are real. Yes, there is some sensationalizing—this is a supernatural thriller, after all, and “sensational” is kind of what we’re aiming for. But I decided to delve much deeper into schizophrenia, to portray as closely as I could what it’s like to live with a disease that warps your reality.

I struggled for over a year, and my writing group suffered patiently through several drafts that simply didn’t work. I was trying to write a horror story and a medical documentary at the same time, and there’s no way to do that right. When I was ready to give up, my friend Janci came back to me with the latest draft. Janci has clinical depression, and she’d written a huge note in the margin of one of the pages: “There is nothing scarier in the whole world than not being able to trust your own mind.” I knew I’d found the key that would make the story work, and I picked Janci’s brain for days. Her contribution was invaluable, and the book is dedicated to her. (She’s also an excellent author in her own right, with a book coming out this summer called Chasing the Skip. Look it up!)

The Hollow City, in its final form, is not a thriller about schizophrenia; it’s a thriller with a schizophrenic hero. The difference is key. Insecure artist that I am, I sent some early copies to a few more friends and readers, hoping for some last minute feedback, and just yesterday one of them got back to me. “This book was very scary,” she said, “but it helped me to understand my mother, and to forgive her.”

That is, without question, the best review I’ve ever had.


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