Patricia Highsmith (This Sweet Sickness)

Patricia Highsmith’s works are dark, edgy and occasionally disturbing. No writer I’ve ever experienced has given me the willies—the I’m really worried now vibe—quite like her.

“Strangers on a Train.” “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” “A Suspension of Mercy.” “This Sweet Sickness.” And many more.

I bring her name up in writing circles and usually get a blank stare, until I mention the titles that have made the transition to movies. Then the look is along the lines of “oh, you must like really warped stuff.”  (Why “A Suspension of Mercy” has never reached film status is beyond me—it’s a wonderfully tense story.)

Highsmith’s heroes aren’t likable, it’s true. They are obsessed with their needs and desires. Of course, Patricia was also self-absorbed. I’ve read both major biographies of Highsmith and her ability to stay self-absorbed and also tap that inner well for her fiction is, to my mind, a towering achievement.

Joan Schenkar, who wrote the more detailed of the two biographies, said Highsmith “is our most Freudian novelist.”  I have to agree.  Highsmith’s works find their way into your bones, your soul and down deep in the visceral guts of your psyche. My wife says she’s the only writer who has given her nightmares.

Highsmith also wrote a terrific book about how she did
it: “Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction.”

In it, Highsmith confesses in the preface it is not a how-to-do-it handbook.  It is, she says, “impossible to explain how a successful—that is, readable—book is written. But this is what makes writing a lively and exciting profession, the ever-present possibility of failure.”

That’s a typical Highsmith take on her craft, dwelling on the dark side.

In “Plotting and Writing…” Highsmith focuses on miscues in attempt to save writers from suffering the same errors. I highly recommend this book to all
writers of suspense, mystery and thrillers. I think her tips would apply to anyone who wants more tension for any reason in science fiction, dystopia, YA, paranormal or straight-up serious Iowa Writers Workshop level serious fiction. She might have something you can use to shade, darken and enrich your story.  All genres (and non-genres) need tension and Patricia Highsmith knew a thing or two about conflict and making a reader squirm.

A few of my favorite lines and ideas from her book:

On finding ideas: “Some young writers drive themselves too hard, and in youth this works quite well, to a point. At that point, the unconscious rebels, the words refuse to come out, the ideas refuse to be born.” So don’t surround yourself with the wrong kind of people, she advises, “or sometimes people of any sort. People can be stimulating, of course, and a chance phrase, a piece of a story, can start the writer’s imagination off. But mostly, the plane of social intercourse is not the plane of creation, not the plane on which creative ideas fly. It is difficult to be aware of, or receptive to, one’s own unconscious when one is with a group of people, or even with a single person, though that is easier.”

On growing that idea: “The developing of an idea is often not at all logical, and there is such an element of play in it. I can’t call the process a serious activity, thought it may involve spots or hard thinking. It is still part of a game. Writing fiction is a game, and one must be amused all the time to do it.”

On bad guys: “…I rather like criminals and find them extremely interesting, unless they are monotonously and stupidly brutal. Criminals are dramatically interesting, because for a time at least they are active, free in spirit, and they do not knuckle down to anyone.”

On being in tune with your work: “Good books write themselves, and this can be said from a small but successful book like Ripley to longer and greater works of literature. If the writer thinks about his material long enough, until it becomes a part of his mind and his life, and he goes to bed and wake ups thinking about it—then at last when he starts to work, it will flow out as if by itself.”

On liking your characters: “It is skill that makes the reader care about characters. It must start with the writer caring. This is much of what that rather stuffy word ‘integrity’ is about. Good hack writers may not care a damn, and yet through their skillful methods give an illusion that they do, and furthermore convince the reader that he cares, too. To care about a character, hero or villain, takes time and also a kind of affection, or better said, affection takes time and also knowledge, which takes time, and hack writers don’t have it.”

I’m writing this to jot down a few key ideas for myself and also to highlight what I think is increasingly rare: a writer tapping his or her soul and then driving those emotions into the work, the art.  I highly recommend this book, but not for the nuts-and-bolts diagram stuff of “plotting and writing,” but a peek into the messier stuff—the motivations and inspirations—and how to tap those veins in the name of suspense.

9 responses to “Patricia Highsmith (This Sweet Sickness)

  1. Mark,
    Great recommendation. Highsmith was certainly a fascinating person, though I don’t think I would want to hang out with her. I read about half of the Joan Schenkar bio and found it to be too detailed, if such a thing is possible. But Highsmith’s life and work were very interesting.

  2. She could bring a dark cloud to every party! One of a kind. I’m glad she had an outlet for her troubled and interesting soul. Thanks, Chris…

  3. I’ll check out her book. I particularly like the part you quoted about how developing an idea has an element of play in it, and “one must be amused all the time” to write fiction. So true. Thanks for this post, Mark (I came here via the DorothyL list).

  4. Thanks, Toby….I think her stories (most of them) show she was amused.

  5. Thanks for this!!! I’ll check out the book!!!

  6. You are welcome…it’s not your average book about writing…!

  7. Highsmith is one of my absolute fiction writers–and I agree her book on writing fiction was tops too. Thanks for the reminder!

  8. Thanks, Jenny. I find recommending Highsmith is a tricky thing to do but I know of few other writers with such a powerful storytelling voice.

  9. paulstoutonghi

    Great piece!

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