Over the last year or so, when I’ve done events by myself, I’ve started off the same way. I make a joke about how I don’t really like reading, so I’m going to ease myself in by doing something short, and that I’m going to break with tradition by reading a piece written by someone else.
This is what I read:
“Sergei Yatzenko was 48 years old. He had recently been forced into retirement due to a cancerous tumour in his throat. The treatment left him unable to speak for some time. But Yatzenko was unhappy with being unable to work and continued to find odd jobs around the village. He took on small construction projects; he fixed cars, wove baskets, and cooked for his family. Yatzenko was married and had two sons and one grandchild. He also looked after his disabled mother. He was beginning to regain his voice.”
Having read that short piece, I generally set it aside, say: “And we’ll come back to Mr Yatzenko later”. Then I get on with the beginning of my talk.
It’s not true, as I’ve slightly edited the piece so as to remove clues as to where I’m going. Tension. Withholding information. Call it what you want.
Already, I suppose, I’m using him.
I wrote The 50/50 Killer while working as a secretary in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. People there knew I was a published writer, and were proud enough of me, I guess, but didn’t much care. One exception was an internationally renowned Professor of Disability Studies, who wanted the bad guy in the book to be named after him. So I obliged.
He liked it. Afterwards, in fact, his only complaint was that I hadn’t made him evil enough.
Would that it were always so easy.
I’ve always been interested and conflicted about the use of violence in fiction. There are numerous arguments around it, of course. Fictional violence is not real violence, but the two inevitably touch: stones skipping across mirrored seas. Does fictional violence influence the real world? Yes, surely, but not in any predictable way. Does it desensitise? Surely not, as anyone who has witnessed umpteen Hollywood fistfights and then seen a real one will attest. Fictional violence desensitises you to fictional violence; the real deal is very different indeed.
And so on.
These connections and questions are fascinating to me. I wrote about them most explicitly in Black Flowers, which is about a writer turning real-life violence into fiction, and then finding that his work of fiction influences real-life in turn.
But I wrote about it first in Still Bleeding, which is a book about online depictions of real-life violence: the forums where you can go to watch genuine atrocities that have been captured on camera, and the impulses that might lead you to do so. Most people would recoil in horror from such footage, but it’s just data: zeros and ones, translated into something your brain can make sense of. It’s not really taking place while you watch it. In no significant way that I can discern is it different from reading a description of what took place and using your imagination. So a few of the descriptions of videos in Still Bleeding are of real online footage, because I thought it would be interesting to muddy the waters.
I read this recently. It’s a good article, mostly concerned with the conflict the author feels upon interviewing an elderly man who was one of the Chukiren: the Japanese soldiers repatriated from China after WWII, some of whom were involved in infamous horrors like Unit 731. The author wonders:
“By representing atrocity, are we giving voice, and therefore respect, to the victims who have been silenced? Or are we sensationalizing the private stories of those who have already been violated? When we take evil that is beyond understanding and put it into words, are we bringing healing clarity to the raw confusion of trauma? Or are we falsely packaging and simplifying something that ought never to be reduced, translating inexpressible evil into something common just for the sake of sharing a story?”
Those are good questions, I think, and they don’t just apply to non-fiction.
While researching Still Bleeding, I browsed various forums and watched a handful of videos that showed atrocities taking place. The one that stuck with me most appeared towards the end of the editing process, and was never included in the book. It’s a seven minute clip of a helpless man being tortured and murdered in woodland. Someone is holding a camera while a second individual commits the murder. The victim is struck repeatedly in the face with a hammer, stabbed with a screwdriver in the stomach and face, then eventually killed with the hammer. Throughout, the culprits laugh at the man, standing on him at times, and when they refer to him, they use the Ukrainian pronoun usually reserved for an animal, rather than a human being.
This video set certain forums on fire when it was released. It hit the mainstream too, to an extent. Such videos often garner a “cute” nickname, and this one will forever be known as “3 Guys, 1 Hammer”. Hundreds of people recorded Youtube reaction videos of themselves watching it.
The journalist Caitlin Moran saw it. She wrote an article in which she said:
“Simultaneously, I was telling myself that it was probably a revenge attack – that this man had attacked a lover, killed a child, and although his murder was awful, in a world of almost infinite sorrow it was not the unconscionably profane insult to humanity that it first appeared to be. I was using the thought of torturous retribution as a comfort.”
This was not an uncommon initial reaction. Human beings search for patterns, and when good and bad things happen, people seek to justify them. The forums were full of attempts to make sense of this. He must have done something wrong to deserve such a horrible, awful death, it was suggested. He must have been a bad man. People were almost hugging the idea of that.
I felt it too. And immediately, I wanted to find out more about him.
It wasn’t difficult – although, ironically, much of the information came from those objectionable shock forums, researching and discussing their prized video, because the Western media didn’t really cover the case in any great detail.
This is what happened.
In June and July of 2007, two individuals committed 21 murders in the Dnepropetrovsk region of the Ukraine. Their victims were chosen opportunistically, at random, and they took several video recordings of the tortures and murders they committed. These were shown in court, and for some reason, one leaked online. In early 2009, they were sentenced to life in prison.
The two murderers were 19 years old. Nobody really knows why they did it. Unlike most serial killers, there was no sexual element, and while robbery sometimes occurred, it was clearly never the main motive. A detective on the case concluded: ”We think they were doing it as a hobby, to have a collection of memories when they get old.”
These murders were one of the inspirations for Dark Room. So, how do I justify that, and what do I think about it?
Firstly, the crimes in the book are actually very different. I used the initial case as a jumping-off point. What the murders in my book share with the real life case is an apparent sense of randomness, the method, the numbers, and the element of video recording. But the victims are different, the investigation is different, and the ultimate motivation is different. If you read the book and I pointed you towards the case, you might say “Oh yes, I see some vague connection there”. But it’s not obvious to me that, being familiar with the case in advance, you would recognise it in the book without prompting. It’s possible. But my point is, this is certainly not a fictional recreation of that investigation.
Secondly, I figured that the likelihood of anybody with a personal connection to the case ever reading my book was exceedingly slim. Their reaction if they did is something I’ll come back to very shortly, but this consideration is separate to that. It was unlikely to happen in the first place.
Thirdly, all fiction is gleaned from reality. It’s not like anybody writes a story without encountering the real world, and so even the most apparently invented fictional events will have been coloured by real life truths and experiences that the author encountered in some way. If I’d invented the murders in Dark Room from scratch, the fictional story would still – inevitably – have drawn in elements from the real world. Because otherwise, how could anyone write about anything, and what would be the point?
Taking all that into account, I don’t think the issues around using real-life crime in fiction are all that different from the issues around crime fiction that is supposedly invented.
To take an example, let’s say you’re writing about rape. More so than murder, the chances are that your work of fiction will be read by someone with real-life experience of that crime. It seems unlikely to me (with some caveats) that this person will be worried about whether your story is based on real life, so much as whether the subject matter is being used trivially for entertainment, or if the inclusion of it has a purpose. Is it purely exploitative, for example, using such an experience for titillation and excitement? Or is that inclusion necessary for a wider point the author is making, or at least trying to?
And of course, all that is subjective. Different writers will have different thresholds for what they want to do, and what – for them – constitutes fair use of this kind of material. Every single reader will be exactly the same.
And both, perhaps, will have misgivings and conflicted feelings about the same work at different times.
Both will wonder.
As I reveal at the end of my talk – and which many people, here and there, will have already guessed – the man in the murder video is Sergei Yatzenko. Sometimes I read that initial (amended) section again:
“He was 48 years old, and had recently been forced into retirement due to a cancerous tumour in his throat. The treatment left him unable to speak for some time. But Yatzenko was unhappy with being unable to work and continued to find odd jobs around the village. He took on small construction projects; he fixed cars, wove baskets, and cooked for his family.”
Then I say that, despite all the speculation, Mr Yatzenko was absolutely not a bad man. He was not remotely someone who deserved what happened to him. He was simply a person, indistinguishable from you or me, who happened to be riding down the wrong isolated road at the wrong time, when a wrong someone stepped out from the woodland, knocked him from his scooter, dragged him into the treeline, and murdered him.
And then I tell the truth: while fascinated by the case, I never wanted to write about the two killers. I wasn’t all that curious about them at all. While superficially inexplicable, there would always be reasons found eventually for the terrible things they did. Instead, I wanted to write – from a point of remove – about someone like Mr Yatzenko. He was the person that interested me. He was the person I related to. He - someone like him – would always be the heart of this kind of story. And so that, ultimately, is what I set out to do.
“Yatzenko was married and had two sons and one grandchild. He also looked after his disabled mother.”
At the end of my events, I read that out again. And my own inadequacy, the stupidity and presumption, the arrogance, the gap between what I wanted to write and what I did, the sheer ridiculousness of what I’ve done – none of it is lost on me as I finish the reading.
“He was beginning,” I say, “to regain his voice.”