Homelessness is a subject rife with strong feelings. At the library where I work, we often get visitors who theoretically understand the concept of having a place like libraries that are open and available to all people. But in actuality they do not want to walk past the groups whose large knapsacks, dirty clothes and smells identify them as street people. Fear and disgust seem to be the first feelings that come to the surface. On the other hand, there are people who just as strongly feel compassion and are moved to generosity.
The novel I’m writing right now is a murder mystery that takes place in and around the homeless community. My protagonist’s own father died an alcoholic and he had lived for a time on the streets. Having felt abandoned by him in her youth, she has complex feelings about street people, but she mostly dislikes and distrusts them. Her brother, however, had had the same experiences she did but he developed another way. As a priest, he spends most of his time working with the indigent and powerless. He ended up with enough compassion for both of them, he often jokes.
I won’t get into too many details of the plot here, but many different sides of the homeless issue are represented. The trick as the writer is to not make it seem that I’m writing some kind of dissertation on the issue of homelessness, and also that I’m not preaching to the reader when one or more of my characters feel strongly about the subject. There’s also the risk of offending someone. The controversies around homelessness are often centered around a person’s belief systems about why these people are living on the streets. “It’s their fault for the choices they’ve made,” or “society has left these people behind when they most needed a support system,” or “it’s a result of mental illness,” or “these people want to live this way.” (Incidentally, the street people I am working with in the novel are mostly men who have been living on the street for some time. They are not families forced newly into the situation due to job loss.)
Stephen King wrote in his book, On Writing, that if a person is going to be a writer, he or she has to forget about offending people – because if we’re writing the truth, someone is bound to be offended. I agree that we need to write the truth as we see it. Yes, novelists are story tellers and essentially liars – making up tales to entertain people. But behind the story, when there is truth about what it means to be human in this world, then the storytelling becomes Art.
Speaking of storytellers…if you happen to be in Denver this evening, Kim Harrison – one of my favorite fantasy writers – will be at the Tattered Cover on Colfax signing her new book A Perfect Blood. I’ll definitely be there!