My husband and daughter have been out of town for the past week, and it’s offered me opportunities that aren’t available when they’re around. One is filling the refrigerator with items they’re horribly allergic to — apples, pears, cherries, and anything with cilantro. In a sense, these don’t constitute a guilty pleasure because I went for my annual checkup for the first time in five years, and the doctor both told me in person and sent me scolding emails of my need to lose weight and eat a healthier diet. Apparently, while I’m not allergic to chocolate peanut butter ice cream, I might as well be.
My second guilty pleasure consists of commandeering the Netflix account. After we ended our cable subscription in October 2016, my husband took to binge watching TV shows on Netflix. And I mean all the shows! Not doing the same means I get a lot of writing done. I keep up with this blog. Now you know the secret of my regular and frequent posting. I’ve also written and translated a lot of books.
This week, I’ve learned that I need more of balance between productivity and leisure, especially when leisure activities contribute to my writing. Decades ago when I first started writing fiction, I watched a lot of TV. I never missed an episode of Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere (a show that gets a mention in my novel Surviving Santiago), and The Simpsons. Watching The Simpsons every Sunday night was our family bonding ritual, and we and our now-grown children quote lines to each other to the bewilderment of our daughter-in-law.
I fear that not watching the popular TV shows has exiled me to the writing margins. Contemporary fiction is out because I don’t know the current trends, don’t hear the teenage slang, and can’t talk about the celebrities and bands that mark this era. Fantasy is also a problem because so many of the TV shows and books are built on certain tropes with which I’m unfamiliar. That leaves historical fiction, which works for me because I’m a total history nerd and unlike contemporary fiction, historical doesn’t become dated because in a way it already is. When I do watch films, I gravitate to the historical ones, which give me a fuller understanding of what it was like to live during an era. Many of them were made at the time, like the ones I recently saw at a festival of Eastern European films from the 1950s and 1960s. Others, like the Academy Award-nominees Cold War and Never Look Away, recreate that time period and provide models for me to do the same.
With the family away this week, however, I binge-watched the first two seasons of 13 Reasons Why, the contemporary thriller based on Jay Asher’s best-selling novel from 2007 about the fallout from a teenage girl’s suicide. The book and TV series have garnered widespread criticism for both romanticizing and sensationalizing suicide, but they’re highly popular as train-wreck stories usually are. I justify my spending time with these fictional characters, who for the most part engage in acts that are both self-destructive and despicable in their treatment of others, as “research.” I appreciate seeing how the filmmakers build tension, use cliffhangers to keep the audience watching, and reverse our expectations. I also see the problems in the treatment of suicide, bullying, and sexual violence and how we as authors can add sensitivity and nuance while still hooking readers and moving the story forward.
If you’re looking for a book that gets it right, I recommend Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After. It’s published as young adult, but like a lot of YA novels has the depth and craft of the best novels for adult readers — just with teenage protagonists.
Once my husband returns and reclaims the account, I don’t expect to watch three hours of TV series a day. But I do plan to keep up with whatever current TV programming appeals to me. I’ll call it research.