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Fiction is Full of Blameless Victims, But What About Those Who Deserve Both Empathy and Reprimand?

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The First Day of Spring tells the story of eight-year-old Chrissie. Chrissie’s life is a patchwork of handstands against walls, sweets stolen from the corner shop, and murder: she has just strangled a younger child. The community panics, its residents gossip, and Chrissie is alight with a fizzy, electric buzz. The crime grants her a feeling of strength and power that is hard to come by at home, where food is scarce and attention scarcer. We next meet Chrissie fifteen years later, as Julia. She has been given a new identity, but struggles to keep the tendrils of her past from coiling into her present—and is horrified when they start to threaten her own young daughter.

I came to The First Day of Spring frustrated with the books I was reading. I felt I was being told the same story over and over again: of blameless people encountering adversity, navigating it, and dealing with the aftermath. It was an interesting story—admirable and uplifting—but it felt like low-hanging fruit: it posed no emotional challenge to the reader, as it was always clear who deserved empathy and who deserved reprimand. I encountered far fewer stories of people exposed to adversity who were also the cause of adversity for others. It is so common for the hurt to hurt others, and yet we spend very few reading experiences within the minds of ‘villains’. This is why I chose to tell Chrissie’s story, in Chrissie’s words.

Writing The First Day of Spring was exciting and illuminating, but also scary. At times, I felt sure it would attract only criticism—and vehement criticism at that. Books that centre on the psychology of killers are reproached on a number of counts: for eclipsing the stories of victims, for glorifying violence and depravity, for exalting monsters. Far better, the argument goes, to focus on those who lost their lives, and those they left behind.

I encountered far fewer stories of people exposed to adversity who were also the cause of adversity for others.

It is my hope that spending time with Chrissie pushes readers to question previously held ideas about a binary between innocence and guilt, victim and attacker—because Chrissie is all four. She is an innocent child whose basic needs are not fulfilled, and she is guilty of an abhorrent crime. She is the victim of parents who do not care and a community that does not see, and she is a murderer. When faced with conflicts like these, it is tempting to take in some things and ignore others, so that dissonant facts sit more easily alongside each other. In doing this, we gain comfort, but lose nuance. We put wrongdoers in a category of ‘bad people’, different to ourselves, because this protects us from the notion that, given the right circumstances, we could all commit terrible acts.

Those who have read The First Day of Spring thus far have commented on the bind in which it has placed them: they feel for the family of the child Chrissie kills, but also for Chrissie herself, and this seems wrong. But empathy is not a zero-sum game: we do not have to come down on the ‘side’ of one character, vaporizing any sympathy for others. When I was writing The First Day of Spring, grief was at the forefront of my mind—the novel felt powered by the pain endured by the victim’s mother, the loss and confusion seeping from his sister. Chrissie—and later Julia—is also grieving: for the childhood she did not have, the friends from whom she was separated by her crime. There is space to acknowledge these different losses, and space for sympathy for all enduring them. As always, there is little to be gained from trying to rank forms of pain.

The atrocity of Chrissie’s actions is at odds with her young age, and I had to think hard about how to depict her. For guidance, I looked to my work in children’s psychiatric services. My job confirmed to me that people—including children—do bad things, but for good reasons. It also created a template for Chrissie as someone troubled and aggressive, but also bright, funny and lovable. Perhaps because Chrissie is underpinned by real-life experiences, she was not as difficult to write as I had anticipated: for much of the time, I felt her presence keenly, as though she was dictating to me.

The first thing we learn about Chrissie is that she has just committed a horrific crime. At this point, it may be hard for readers to imagine ever empathizing with her. Over the course of the book, details of Chrissie’s circumstances are revealed slowly, such that she changes from ‘a killer’ to ‘a child who killed’. The picture is filled in bit by bit, through Chrissie’s distinctive narrative style: blunt, matter-of-fact, and never sentimental. She presents her story plainly, and it is up to readers to interpret and respond. This slow, piecemeal form of empathy-building was challenging, but I hope it allows readers to make up their own minds about Chrissie, rather than feeling they have had my agenda forced upon them.

Another challenge was to transition from Chrissie’s child self to an adult. When it came to writing Julia’s story, again I drew on personal experience: I spent much of my adolescence in residential eating disorder treatment, and when I was ‘released’ I felt tasked with having to build a new life. I hope I have captured that feeling of hopeless bewilderment in Julia. I hope Julia also helps show that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are not opposite sides of one coin, or immersive states embodied by different people: they are two ends of a spectrum, which we all move up and down each day, with each decision we make and each action we choose.

Writing Julia was harder work than writing Chrissie—but I came to think this was a fair reflection of the relationship between them. Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that Chrissie’s actions are tied up in her perceptions of the world, and her perceptions were the perceptions of a child. To a certain extent, her naivety shields her from guilt and regret. It is only as she ages that she comes to understand the crime she committed—and through Julia we see her come to terms with that crime. Chrissie is the one to make a mess, and Julia is the one to clear it up—and clearing up is rarely fun or easy.

I am far from the first author to tackle writing from the perspective of the ‘baddy’: many others have executed it masterfully. In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Claire Mackintosh’s I Let You Go, readers’ impressions of the narrator are turned on their head part-way through, with thrilling effect. An alternative approach is adopted by Nabokov in Lolita and A.M. Homes in The End of Alice: the aberrant leanings of the protagonists hide in plain sight. Things are less clear-cut in The Secret History (Donna Tartt), where culpability does not lie with the individual, but with the group. In each instance, our feelings about the narrator are split between loyalty—they are the eyes and ears through which we experience the story—and revulsion. We are forced to think not only about their actions, but about the circumstances surrounding them, and—crucially—to question whether we would have behaved differently.

When I speak to people about The First Day of Spring, some say they won’t read it. They don’t want to be confronted with peril involving children: it is too disturbing. We all have to practice discretion with the media we consume, and it is perfectly reasonable to shield oneself from material by which one will feel haunted. However, atrocities like this do occur in the real world, and affect hundreds of lives: being able to choose to keep them at arms’ length is a privilege. I could have written The First Day of Spring from the perspective of Chrissie’s best friend, or her mother, or the mother of the child she kills. It would have been, in equal measure, easier and less interesting. I would argue that it is not the job of fiction to be easy, or moral, or ‘right’: it is the job of fiction to be interesting, and illuminating, and challenging. It is the job of fiction to tell stories, and I think Chrissie’s story is one worth telling.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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