Adam and Evil - Gillian Roberts
“Where do you get your ideas?”
Most of the time I have trouble answering that simple-sounding question. Happily, I have never been personally involved with murder, so ideas have to come from the great beyond and it’s often impossible to trace the final result back to its origins.
In truth, novels are more than “an” idea. Cooking one up is a lot like cooking a cake. Storylines blend and mix two or more unrelated ingredients that emerge as something completely new and often unexpected. And once the book is finished, it is as far from the ideas that went into it as a cake is from a sack of flour and a stick of butter. People, places, action have all affected each other and emerged as something new. It’s difficult identifying where the writer found this “idea,” because it wasn’t “this idea” when the writing began.
Adam and Evil is the exception. I clearly remember its two main ingredients. I was haunted by an article I’d read about a young man whose parents had refused to acknowledge his signs of mental illness, and who went on to commit multiple murders during a rampage. I didn’t think of it as a plot-starter, for that sort of open-and-shut horrible crime wouldn’t involve Amanda.
And then, at a book convention, I met a librarian, a fan who had an idea for me. Generally speaking, another person’s idea—if it is in fact a real potential idea—won’t work. I’ve got to be emotionally attached to an idea, it has to matter to me, so while I thought the idea was interesting and one I wouldn’t have thought of myself, that wasn’t enough to spark a book, either..
And then, in some magical “writerly” way, the completely unrelated news story about the mentally ill teen attached itself to the librarian’s idea, and I saw how Amanda Pepper fit into the new combination, and the result was Adam and Evil.
Time and technology have moved on. Amanda looks things up on the Internet, and a woman excitedly uses her “cellular phone” to summon help along the way. But her students are tuned into a Walkman, and computers use floppy disks as backup. A lot has changed since 1999 when Adam and Evil was first published. Unfortunately, not everything has. I’m writing this introduction in 2013 after a particularly horrific school shooting, so it is sad to read, in the very first chapter:
“Kids today aren’t what they used to be, which was predictably, but nonlethally, weird… [Now] Headlines erupted with stories about teens who expressed their moodiness by blowing away their classmates, teachers, and whoever else peeved them.”
I hope future readers will find that paragraph and that kind of event as dated and relegated to the past as Amanda’s floppy disks are to us today, and that future mystery writers will need to get their ideas elsewhere, because there will be no more such news items.
Odd is not a useful definition when referring to adolescents. It’s hard differentiating between a teenager with problems and one whose only problem is being a teenager. It’s nearly impossible for an English teacher to know if a sulky withdrawal is a sign of depression that requires attention, or a fit of I-want-to-die grief because the team lost a game.
I’m supposed to develop language skills, not psychoanalyze students. Besides, I play a tiny role in their life and consciousness. A pie chart of the teenage brain reveals that 54 percent of that organ is devoted to tracking the state of their hormones, 21 percent does play-by-play analyses of their mercurial moods, and 10 percent is given over to calculations: what music they desperately need, what movies they’d die if they didn’t see, and what items of clothing everybody else has but they don’t. Another 8 percent debates how to fill time when school is out; 4 percent charts who did or didn’t look at or speak to them in the manner they desired; 2 percent critiques the personal lives and wardrobes of their peers and anyone in People or Entertainment Weekly magazine. The remaining 1 percent of attention is divided among whatever academic subjects they like.
These proportions fluctuate under the pressures of momentous life events, such as attending a prom, being admitted to college, or getting a zit. But by and large, this is the adolescent brain, and there is precious little place in it for either me or my course of study. I stand outside, arms waving like semaphores, trying to wedge my message into whatever space