Penny Armstrong, also known as pennypaperbrain, is the author of Four Corners of the Western World, London Leather, and Points of Light.
Jude Ellison: Your prose is just gorgeous. Could you talk a bit about, from a craft perspective, how you brought the points of view (POVs) of Sherlock and John to life in Four Corners of the Western World (4C)? I could easily tell Sherlock’s POV sections from John’s, yet the series as a whole has such a clear, strong voice.
Penny Armstrong: John and Sherlock are very different characters, but they’re kinds of people I’ve had experience with – brainy toffs and bright ordinary blokes. Being British helps. Vocabulary is a large part of differentiating them. ‘Iffy,’ says John. ‘Asinine,’ says Sherlock. That and Sherlock’s obsession with precision vs John’s preference for pragmatic overview.
JE: Let’s talk about Sherlock. What prompted you to write him as bipolar?
PA: In a way I wanted to make a bipolar Sherlock as a companion for myself. He regards brainfail with absolute disdain, but also without self-pity. Which is something to aspire to. He was my way of raging against disease – how dare you take my reason? And of course with mental illness it’s sometimes very hard to believe that you’re not making up your problems, and medical professionals don’t always help with that. I wanted to create this version of Sherlock and point to him and say look, this is what happens, it’s real. For me and a lot of others.
While BBC Sherlock isn’t being played specifically as bipolar, eh, I’m claiming him. The kind of driven intensity he gets looks so like mania. And eccentric behaviour can be a distraction tactic to draw attention away from the fact that, oops, you can’t actually quite control yourself so let’s make it look intentional.
One of the joys of Sherlock is that he’s both [interpretable as] spectacularly fucked-up and rigidly analytical. So if you’re writing fic about him you can both explore madness and analyse it, through the same lens, his POV. Same with BDSM, he tries to analytically observe himself through the process of losing intellectual coherence. He’s perfect for writing the process of a mind watching itself disintegrating. Because he will not give up thinking. He tries to report scientifically on his own insanity – and relay it to John, because quite apart from being bonkers he doesn’t have the sense to realise that this is not always appropriate. Sometimes it is, so John can keep an eye on him – as when he reports that the sight of borscht is giving him fantasies of slitting his veins in “Piter Raw” – and other times it so isn’t, as when he asks if John would be willing to shoot him just because Sherlock thinks it will be useful to have that information. All the time though, he’s analysing himself in an attempt at control.
A high proportion of bipolar people are substance abusers, of course, but I think that goes with a lot of brainfail.And the poor bastard seems to be borderline suicidal half the time, in canon. The plane OD. Hope’s pills. Before we even talk about jumping off Barts.
JE: Definitely. That’s something I really relate to in BBC Sherlock, that sort of constant background radiation of “OR you could kill yourself!”
PA: That’s relatable for a lot of people with off brain chemistry I think. Of course it’s hugely triggery too… but the relatability and the sense of having a fictional character in the same place as you outweighs the triggeryness. And a character like Sherlock seems a likely magnet for oddballs, though I know it’s not him who’s the main attraction for everyone – John is fucked up enough to attract some too.
JE: And Mary! But I’d like to bring us back to writing-as-craft… if I remember right, from a craft perspective, there was one scene that particularly challenged you: the graffiti room in “Piter Raw”. Could you talk a bit about how you went from zero draft to finished product on that one?
PA: That scene is probably the most extreme point in the story cycle; Sherlock has lost almost every part of himself except the craving for relief. So his POV is let’s say a bit wobbly, but it needs to bear the weight of conveying the terrible logic, as well as the pain, of being acutely suicidal. My usual way of writing is that, as I go along, good lines occur to me for, for example, depressed Sherlock. So I stick notes at the bottom of the file with the heading ‘depressed Sherlock.’ Then when a relevant scene comes along, I string together a very rough sequence of content from that section and from what it sparks in me when I stick it together. I made that work for this scene by using it as a basis of the real-time bargaining process that Sherlock is using to stay alive: he’s losing ground inch by inch, bargaining with himself for survival – ‘I’ll just let myself make this bizarre movement or think this unacceptable thought, and then maybe I’ll have bought myself enough energy to stabilise.’ I think that’s a very extreme version of something that’s recognisable from normal, healthy life – giving in to junk food craving to motivate yourself to keep working on something important but dull, or whatever.
Then, he’s surrounded by information and can’t read a damn thing. When I hit on the idea of putting him in a room full of words and yet having him unable to read them it felt like the ideal expression of the lethal isolation of extreme depression. I don’t write as catharsis, but at that point I felt I’d achieved something almost strong enough to make sense of my own experiences, some of them in St Petersburg.
JE: So there are sort of two strands you’re thinking about weaving together for any given scene: what you want to make happen, plot-wise, and what you want to make happen, emotion-wise, and you keep notes on that second part to weave in where they’re relevant?
PA: I have a good idea of what the emotional progression has to be and shape the plot to fit that, which is pretty necessary in a story where a manic-depressive cycle is the basic drive, obviously. My entire story is one document, with completed text at the top, ongoing mess in the middle and notes at the bottom. Everything gets pulled apart and stuck together again multiple times.
JE: It sounds sort of like painting to me, or coloring, coming up with a palette and then deciding where and how to use the shades you’ve mixed/selected.
PA: Most sentences have probably been through half a dozen iterations; some many more. Quite often they get promoted from the muck at the bottom, then shoved back down again, then re-promoted. The whole thing is stuck together sentence on sentence on sentence – though of course I then have to go back and change stuff quite a lot: insanely labour intensive. Hence my periodic strops/doubts about whether it’s worth it.
JE: It is! It works!
PA: If so, a big part of that is the sheer volume of editing the story gets as it’s being written. The rewriting process gets rid of more and more text and refines the emotional progression to something that seems more and more natural and contains less and less exposition. Or, that’s the aim.
JE: What is it like being a professional writer and editor in fandom, where popularity and craft, um, don’t necessarily go together?
PA: Fic writing, novel writing, commercial writing, literary writing, betaing and paid editing are skills that overlap but aren’t identical. Fuck knows popularity and skill at craft don’t always go together in the paid world – 50 Shades of Grey shows that in both fic terms and industry terms. Sometimes you see someone who obviously knows a lot about one of those things holding forth in a way that shows they don’t have a complete handle on the others. In real life that can be clueless magazine articles about how fic = ‘mommy porn’, and in fandom it can be people speculating about the requirements and business of publication and not knowing what they don’t know. If there’s one big thing I know from professional work but that fandom doesn’t always give enough weight to it’s that you EDIT. And EDIT. And EDIT some more. Until you want to throw the computer out of the window. That’s less important in fic because as fans we love long splurgy stories about familiar characters that we can wallow in for 100,000 words. If you’re creating your own characters and setting from scratch though, and the audience isn’t cheering from the get-go for a classic fic ending such as ‘A and B get together,’ you have to make the reader love your people and places, and care where you are taking the story. And that means every word has to work very hard, and that means you have to edit every sentence.
There is, of course, a limit to editing. Sometimes you realise you’ve done the best you can and leave it be. I’m not happy with the climactic bloodplay scene in “Always London”, for example, but I was just so tapped out from the whole story that I didn’t have any more in me. Also, sanity meds save your life but it’s also true they can make you feel like your brain is a wet sponge.
JE: Yeah. The meds take away the fraught-ness (good for not being dead)… and they take away the fraught-ness (not so good for writing). You’ve been candid on your blog about your own struggle with bipolar – how does being bipolar affect your creative process?
PA: Writing on lithium in particular was difficult. It was like there was a squishy cloud over my thoughts; a benign squishy cloud, but it was not going to let me shoot up into creative space. I didn’t realise until about a year ago just how tied up my creative process was with mood cycles. But I also disciplined myself to write every day when I was working on 4C. Suicidally depressed? Tough shit; if I’m writing a manic scene, I’m working on that today. And vice versa. So I’ve got that ethic too… I’m quite sure that being ill has given me a level of determination I might not otherwise have. Like, I’m going to fucking show you, random bit of life injustice!
And people often say my fic is intense, and there is some kind of fire there that I wasn’t able to put into my writing before I got really ill. If I’m lucky, hypomania really does bring glorious and revelatory creativity 0.5% of the time. Pity about the other 99.5%.
JE: Is taking advantage of that 0.5% of Creative Communion From Mental Illness, in part, a way of surviving the other 99.5%?
PA: Yes! Mania is corruptive though, in that it’s so astonishing that it sinks into your bones and you hanker after it. I wonder if this happens to other creative people with neuroatypicalities, in different ways.
JE: Tell me a little bit about where this specific story came from.
PA: In April 2012 I got signed off work for a bit and was wandering around the flat manic, feeling like my brain was bathing in flowery acid, and the outline of 4C came to me in half an hour. It did feel like something taking shape inside me without any volition on my part.
JE: That’s fascinating, that the series just sort of… made itself.
PA: I guess the stereotype there is that, oh, it’s the mystical disease doing all the work, but I think it’s a combination of having learnt craft over many years, and then having your trained brain drenched in the intensity. It wouldn’t work without the work, so to speak.
Something similar happened with a few specific bits of the story too, though not many. The most notable was the intro to “Piter Raw”, which is one of the bits I’m proudest of. But you have to bake that stuff inside you for a long time, I think, before it pops up and pretends to be a revelation.
JE: And there’s the long process that happens after it bakes, where you have to put in the work of Doing Craft around the concept and structure that just showed up.
PA: That’s the one they don’t tell you about when you apply for your crazy artist licence.
JE: I’ve seen quite a few posts to the effect of, “praising the creative side effects of mental illness is romanticising that illness and we should all stop….“
PA: That’s one of the difficult things. Because running around laughing with euphoria is fun. That’s one of the many points I wanted to make in Four Corners. A lot of hypomania is fucked up and scary, but when you hit that perfect high like Sherlock does when they go out dancing in “Malta Bright”… I described it in “Croatia Between” as ‘mind stripped to the bone and drenched in sunlight’.
JE: That *does* sound perfect.
PA: Yep. On the other hand it does feel like you’d dissolve if you stayed in that state for more than a little while. Then it intensifies. Then you’re in the hospital punching things because there’s fire in your bones. Oops.
JE: #well that escalated quickly
PA: Ha! I particularly wanted to write about mixed state bipolarity, because I’ve seen that hardly anywhere. It’s really tricky to write about, because it’s so utterly alien. A single fixed, if unnatural, mood makes *some* kinds of sense, but with mixed state you have symptoms of both depression and mania at the same time, and/or violent mood swings several times a week or even day. That undermines your sense of self in a way nothing else I’ve experienced does, because you know that the self you were 10 seconds ago was utterly irrational. But you know that the self you are now will seem utterly irrational the next time your mood swings. Ergo there is no you. Just the moods. You can know that kind of thing in theory when you’re in a full-fledged episode of hypomania or depression, but it’s not presented as starkly as when you switch state in a matter of seconds.
I spent a lot of time before and during writing the fic feeling suicidal (but not acting on it). I wanted to deal in detail with the experience of suicidality, and how exhaustingly intense and yet deeply dull the battle to not go off the deep end is. And meanwhile you’re going out to work every day and trying to act sane. I wanted to write the sheer graphic fear and slog and boredom of mental illness, and at the same time say, hey look, we get through! and people – John – love us!
JE: And do kink with us! Which brings me to what about BDSM and subbing appeals to 4C Sherlock? Or rather, to you, what is it about canon Sherlock that makes him a viable sub/BDSM candidate?
PA: His love for intensity! It’s hard to imagine a not-intense version of Sherlock. I think in terms of what would attract Sherlock to subbing, it’s 1) intensity, 2) intellectual curiosity – power play is a way of exploring psychology, 3) being wired for masochism – some people just are, 4) the need to take an occasional rest in spite of himself, 5) wanting to be loved and kept safe, not that he would admit to that one until you shake him to his core, which happens in “Malta Bright”. (‘He’s asking for… well, he’s asking John for love and care, isn’t he. Not even pretending that he just wants to be knocked around for the thrill.’) And both subbing and bipolar involve altered states, which opens the whole BDSM = mental illness! can of worms.
JE: And the whole “what does consent look like during altered states” thing.
PA: Consent in altered states I think may be something with no clear answer. It depends on the person, which isn’t very helpful if you are for example trying to legislate on the subject. Fortunately writers aren’t.
In hypomania you often have a raised pain threshold or pain feels different. But if you’re hypomanic rather than manic you still have your judgement, so it’s basically safe to play providing you are willing to use that judgement. Obviously playing while psychotic, be that manic or depressive, is never going to be a good idea. Informed consent isn’t possible.
In 4C, John has to make the call about whether Sherlock is safe to play with. Because he doesn’t know what the hell is going on with Sherlock at first; he thinks it’s combat stress. And then when he knows what it is, he sees Sherlock briefly become psychotic. Psychosis is outside my personal experience, but I gave Sherlock two periods of brief reactive psychosis at the end of “Vegas High” and in the barn on “Malta.” That was basically for plot reasons, but it also seemed apt. So I suppose there’s the question of whether John should have played with Sherlock at all, ever. What do you think?
JE: I’m with you, I think it’s hard to answer. On the one hand, I think it’d be ableist to say that brainfail-y people can’t decide for themselves what they want. On the other, sometimes they (we) really can’t.
PA: Sherlock would be really hostile to that idea!
JE: No, Sherlock, hear me out!
PA: I imagine him giving you his most withering stare and announcing pointedly that you must decide for yourself… OK, I’m forcing him to listen and hear you out….
JE: Thank you, Penny! Even nonbrainfail-y people who are subbing get overruled by their less high-out-of-their-fucking-mind-on-endorphins partners. It’s a thing. Because when you’re like WHEE EVERYTHING IS JOY AND NOTHING HURTS, you’re not so much noticing that your arse is a war zone. I think it’s responsible play, not ableism, for the person with their wits about them to go “annnnnnd you’re done” even if the sub is like WHAT NO I’M NOT.
PA: Yeah, actually, subspace has probably been more of a menace to my judgement about play than brainfail has. If you’re Bipolar II then you get way more mental with depression than with mania, and when you’re lying on your bed sobbing you tend not to want to make with the kink anyway.
Basically all this stuff requires acknowledgement that there’s no clean line between sane and insane. And that’s not simple and tidy the way some people might want. Hypomania, subspace, drugs, religious ecstasy… they’re all highs. But many of the people who experience one are really hostile to the others and don’t want to be associated with them.
A lot of John’s POV in “Malta Bright” is devoted to working out what the fuck is going on with Sherlock, and how/whether to play. The beating in Chapter 2 of “Malta Bright” was the first time I’d ever written a BDSM scene where there were ambiguous consent dynamics. Sherlock is arguably too high to play, and John too angry.
JE: And in the time of 50 Shades, that worried you?
PA: Not really. I wrote London Leather about real-world BDSM and self-published it in order to put a counter voice to 50 Shades out there, but Four Corners wasn’t written with an agenda against anything, so to speak. It has a positive agenda of showing how loving and positive, as well as compellingly hot, BDSM can be.
As for the beating scene, I see John being too angry as more of an issue than Sherlock being too high, actually, because John is the dom, and in control. I think if their roles were swapped, then sex in Four Corners would just be a no-go, actually. Sub with iffy judgement – just needs to be careful. Manic dom, NOOOOO.
Anyway… writing that scene felt risky and exposing for me. I thought I was going to end up implying that BDSM is irresponsible/sick. Or even finding that I’d been in denial and that it *is* irresponsible/sick. Nothing like that happened. I found it was the best and most honest BDSM scene I’d written up to that point, because these two were very much real, imperfect people trying to overcome their flaws in order to meet. Sherlock had horribly, cruelly hurt John with his ‘death.’ Nothing was going to change that. Yet somehow the whipping scene feels like it does. I don’t even know how that happens, to be honest, but other people have said it’s there in the story, and I feel it is… I think actually it’s the shared transgression that does it. What John’s doing there is in conventional terms unforgivable – tying someone up and torturing them. It’s supposed to be unthinkable for Sherlock to want that, or for John to want it for any reason other than that he’s Bad. They step outside the paradigm (victim/inflicter of hurt), which gives them a different view of the paradigm. In a way they switch roles – John becomes the one inflicting hurt, and Sherlock the victim – which does in a way right the wrong of the fall, and allows John to express the anger that would otherwise just fester. But at the same time they’re loving and pleasuring both each other and themselves.
JE: It’s a very tender catharsis, yes.
PA: Yes. The tenderness of BDSM is an important part of the story. The BDSM is supposed to feel real and difficult and flawed, but sound and healthy at its core, because it’s wanted and responsibly handled (after that first catharsis when they’re both adjusting themselves to their new relationship with a jolt.)
JE: At the risk of my making your magnum opus sound like a demented after school special, it sounds like a major part of 4C is showing that BDSM relationships are, like you said, real and difficult and flawed, and none of those things preclude soundness or health… just like with relationships without an intentional exploration of power differentials.
PA: Yes. They’re a part of life rather than a scary thing outside it. Both these characters are confident adults, whatever scars they have. A fouled up BDSM scene would not, in fact, destroy either of them. It’s not like they’re risking their lives – lethal illness and assassins do that! A lot of BDSM writing, including fic, is about people just trying it, and worrying that it’s sick. In real life, most people get past that stage and explore and enjoy themselves and their partners. Sherlock’s opener on the subject is texting John ‘Tie me up. Force me. Fuck me (up).’ He just takes it as given that this is an acceptable register to be speaking in, and that John will understand him. Shame would be boring.
JE: That’s a good point, that the prospect of a failed scene (and they happen!) can feel so so scary to people just getting into BDSM… but they’re sort of a value neutral part of life, like construction delays, or losing one sock when you know for a FACT that two went into the dryer.
PA: It would be a serious problem for their relationship if that whipping scene in “Malta Bright” went sour, and that would probably have meant no more BDSM for them, but they’d still have stuck their relationship back together, because they love each other, in whatever way. Thankfully, the scene worked, and I was able to explore consensual sadism in 4C. That seems to be the bit that people are most afraid of/puzzled by. But it seems to me such a natural facet to add to the character of John, who is so fiercely protective.
JE: Okay, help me out with that.
PA: Well, there is a strong cultural prohibition about inflicting pain, that’s what it comes down to. Subbing can release a lot of anger. Some fucker is hurting you! How dare they!!! So all this anger comes up, and you can’t do anything about it because you’re tied to the bed… and it washes through you… and out. Catharsis. Then someone loves you and looks after you. A sadist gets the pleasure of witnessing someone go through that catharsis. Accepting consensual sadism involves, again, accepting the inherent imperfection of relationships.
[related meta from penny: http://pennypaperbrain.tumblr.com/post/56823107490/john-watson-dom-and-sadist] John is a doctor and a soldier, so making him a consensual sadist seemed a perfect melding of the two. There’s a fair bit of safewording and awkwardness and watchfulness and messing up in the scenes. John safewords out of the Deep Heat scene when he thinks (correctly) that Sherlock needs to and can’t. John gets repeatedly rejected towards the end of “Piter Raw” and goes off for a wank on his own thinking Sherlock won’t want to sub ever again. So awkwardness and mismatched needs and failed scenes are an important part of the story. But what happens physically with the BDSM doesn’t control or define the love, it’s the other way around.
JE: Those repeated rejections you mention in “Piter Raw” – is Sherlock largely too ill for kink because of depression?
PA: Yes. I mean, in that fic mostly he’s to depressed to *want* kink, so the question of whether he’s too ill or not is academic. I’d like to say that was the fruit of masterly planning, but it just sort of occurred to me when I got to that point. And then it worked. And I went ‘Whut? Cool!’ Another one of those things that my subconscious was probably toiling away at for months before gifting it to me.
In “Malta Bright”, my beta was pretty much ‘WHAT? NO!’ when I said John was going to drag Sherlock off and chain him up after the chapter of calm discussion about meds. She said that surely John would just lie Sherlock on the sofa with a blanket over him. That’s probably what would happen in real life to be honest. But in story logic the hawt scene seemed to be the thing. My beta agreed when it was done.
JE: That’s an interesting binary that you bring up, story logic vs real life. What are some things in 4C that would look different if you’d been writing to real life specs, not story logic?
PA: Yeah. I’ve tried to bring as much realism to this story as possible, but in the end BBC Sherlock is larger than life, and most of us don’t chase assassins around the world. So there’s sleight of hand. Well, real life specs would mean toning down Sherlock lower than he’s portrayed on TV, for a start. I’ve tried to make the mental illness and the BDSM absolutely as realistic as possible, but the surrounding circumstances are from heightened TV land. But there’s the love story and the shooting people too. Makes the story rounded, if in unconventional ways.
JE: Nothing says “I love you” like a trail of dead snipers.
PA: It’s romantic in Sherlock-world.
JE: Okay, I could talk about the romance in 4C all day, but let’s move on to something else I’m curious about: Zoya (in “Piter Raw”!) Tell me ALL the things.
PA: Zoya! Zoya! Someone’s interested in Zoya! She had, like, one mention in one comment. Readers aren’t much into original characters, for obvious reasons.
JE: They aren’t obvious to me. Help?
PA: Well, because people like to read about the canon characters. That’s what they come to fic for. I’m the same, mostly. Depends on the OC, of course. What are you interested in about her?
JE: What do Sherlock and John not observe about her? How did she end up being in a halfway house for perverted British murderers? Tell me everything!
PA: Oh, OK. Well… the answer to a lot of that is ‘plot expediency.’ I didn’t want to make her that deeply involved in organised crime but that’s how the story developed. There is more to say though….
JE: Ha, okay. Let me try again: when you were creating this OC, what did you take into consideration?
PA: With Zoya, I wanted to force Sherlock to relate sensibly to a woman – this was pre-Mary. He might not like her, but he can’t just dismiss her. She’s pretty repulsed by homosexuality though, especially in view of her vague ideas about SM and how the two interrelate. I think I actually had her calm down too easily on that score.
JE: What do you think her response should have looked like?
PA: Not so much a case of it looking different as the process taking longer. She would probably have been freaked out for longer and had to have more experience with Sherlock and John to come to terms with it. But hey, story expedience. I really wanted to write a regular person having a realistically negative attitude to homosexuality without just being a stock bigotted figure. And sort-of but not entirely coming around, because that’s how it often is with real people. Do you disagree? I’m interested in the view of an Actual Queer Person.
JE: Oh, no, I agree. People kind of get it and kind of don’t, most of the time actually. The people I end up being the most put off by are the ones who think they Get It… and don’t. Those’re the ones who’ll keep telling you who you are. The ones who are like, “I don’t like it, but *shrug*,” they’re easier.
PA: Yeah. You don’t see much of that half-way, messy compromise stuff in fic. Not surprisingly, as it’s hardly the stuff of fantasy.
JE: No, not really. Speaking of hardly the stuff of fantasy: I got the impression that Zoya’s fictional organized crime connections sprung from real life?
PA: Yes. I should say here that I’m not Russian but I have a degree in Russian Studies so I was able to give a bit of background to “Piter Raw”. Organised crime in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s in Russia was often hard to distinguish from ‘legitimate’ business. Hence Kolyvanov actually having offices on a main street in St Petersberg. In the 1990s, post-Communism, protection rackets started. Gradually the rackets grew, and became respectable security agencies, for a given value of “respectable.”
JE: So like Chicago, but post-Communist.
PA: I don’t know much about Chicago, but probably. Sherlock is culturally blind to that of course, so it doesn’t occur to him to essentially look Kolyvanov up in the business phone directory. In Communist times there was a saying, ‘Better to have a thousand friends than a thousand roubles’. Everyone tried to know as many people as they could, to get by. So everyone would have some kind of shady connection or other. Sherlock would probably be able to pick up on some of that if he wasn’t completely fucked in the head at that point.
JE: That was something I wondered. The poor bastard is a massively unreliable narrator by that point in the story.
PA: Yeah, in Chapter One he declares that he can’t read, so he is seriously not firing on all cylinders. But still, being culturally blindsided is something that would happen to Sherlock anyway I think. He’d make wrong deductions. I wanted to do that to him.
JE: Torture the pretty pretty Sherlock?
PA: Absolutely. So there’s stuff that Zoya says that they just can’t interpret. For example, she says she wants to live ‘normally.’ Russian has the word ‘normalno’ (presumably from English) but it doesn’t mean quite the same thing. It’s more like ‘good’. So Zoya means she wants to live a good life, and Sherlock and John hear that she wants to live a normal one. And ‘businessman’ is another word pinched by Russian. They pronounce it ‘biznizmen’ and it means a dodgy dealer rather than having the neutral overtones of the English word. So I tried to put in quite a lot of stuff that puts our heroes slightly at sea without knowing exactly how.
JE: Whoa, so John and Sherlock are really missing quite a few boats without realizing it.
PA: Yes. Some bigger than others. It’s like how the world stops making sense when you’re seriously depressed.