Saturday, October 26, 2013
Ellen Kirschman writes from experience, counseling cops and fire fighters
HALLIE EPHRON: I met Ellen Kirschman a few years at Book Passage's mystery writing conference. I was impressed with her writing, and especially impressed with the experience she'd had as a psychologist and the two (now three) books she'd written about counseling cops and fire fighters. Her thoughtful insights into the challenges of serving for public safety were unique and fascinating.
She was also working on a novel, she told me. Making it up this time. That book, "Burying Ben," is just out and it's my pleasure to welcome Ellen to Jungle Red.
Ellen, why did you move from non-fiction to fiction? Did you feel you had to tell "Ben Gomez's" and "Dot Meyerhoff's story"
ELLEN KIRSCHMAN: I was delusional. I thought it would be easier to make things up. It isn't. Creating a story that engages readers from start to finish is a lot harder than writing a book readers can pick up and put down when they want to without losing the thread.
As you know, Burying Ben is about police suicide - that's not a spoiler, it's on the first page. What many people don't know is that suicide is the leading cause of death for police. Cops are two to three times as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty.
It's an important subject that's no longer being swept under the rug. I wanted to show some of the real wear and tear of policing, which is very different from what you see on TV.
Fortunately, I've never lost a client to suicide, but it's something I've always feared, so this was a chance for me to put those fears on paper. Not only does my protagonist, Dot Meyerhoff, lose her client, he leaves a suicide note blaming her.
HALLIE: Wow, that is very powerful. Tough. Serious stuff. Wondering if you had any fun writing it? Will the reader have any fun reading it?
ELLEN: Hard to believe, but this is a humorous mystery. I had a wonderful time taking pot shots at cops, my fellow psychologists, my ex-husbands, and myself. It was very satisfying.
HALLIE: So I can ask: Ellen, does your nonfiction and your novel "Burying Ben" spring from the same well?
ELLEN: I'm not nearly so gutsy, young or thin as Dot Meyerhoff, and I certainly never did the wacky things she does, like breaking and entering or assault with a deadly weapon. But we do share some of the same challenges.
For example, like me, she works like the devil to gain officers' trust. I spent 25 years consulting at one agency and the day I left, there were still some cops who believed I had a video camera in my office that went right up to the Chief's desk.
Like Dot I've felt like a fish out of water, both as a woman and as a civilian. Dot has even bigger problems. She is the daughter of a student activist at Berkeley in the 60's. The memory of her father's mistreatment by the police creates causes her a lot of grief.
If you're asking whether certain aspects of this book really happened, the answer is yes and no. Some scenes, like the old man's death in Chapter One, really happened and I never forgot it.
I also keep a record of the funny, off-the-wall things cops say. They go from my folder to Officer Eddie Rimbauer's mouth. He's a composite of many people, but he sounds so real, there's an on-line pool of cops trying to guess his identity.
HALLIE: What got you started counseling public safety officers, and briefly what are its special challenges?
ELLEN: I was working in an outpatient psychiatric clinic. Several of my clients were married to cops. Some of their home situations were very difficult. I'm a curious, hands-on person with a bit of a law enforcement background - I was once a probation officer - so I wanted to explore this world of work and how it influenced an officer's private life.
I did most of my research in the back of a patrol car. It was a lot more exciting than doing therapy. Cops are way funnier than psychologists, even when they're depressed. I learned to appreciate how complex their jobs really are, and how under-appreciated by the public they often feel.
HALLIE: You've written another book called "I Love a Cop." Are you married to one?
ELLEN: No. Never even had a date with a cop. I keep my personal and professional lives separate. My husband is a remodeling contractor and photographer. Unfortunately, no one wants to read a book about a remodeling contractor.
HALLIE Will there be another Dot Meyerhoff mystery?
ELLEN: I'm working on it as we speak. It's a bit darker and more complicated. This is what makes writing fun for me, I'm not sure I know how it's going to turn out. Dot will figure it out. I'm just trying to get out of her way.
HALLIE: Ellen will be hanging around today. I know we have lots of writers out there, so if you questions about how cops and fire fighters and their families deal with the realities of their jobs, now is your chance to ask.
Ellen is giving away a copy of Burying Ben to one lucky responder.