I had this dream once where my characters were partaking in cannibalism. So instead of deciding what sort of sexual act would be appropriate, it was more like, “Well, if I just slice off some of your leg, it won’t kill you, so let’s do that.” When I woke up, I was horrified and confused, and slightly nauseated. I mean, I love dreaming about my characters, but then it finally happens and this is what I get?
It took me a few months to realize that my subconscious was, as usual, way ahead of me. And if I’m going to be honest, I’ve had a mild fascination with cannibalism since I was little. There’s something sexual about it, even though the realistic thought of it nauseates me. So what if I think of it symbolically? If I boiled it down, my book is about food and hunger and sex and consumption. Suddenly I realized that my dream wasn’t really that off track.
I’m crazy about symbolism. But I love it even more when it’s so ridiculously subtle that most of my readers won’t even get it. I know, it’s weird, but I like that sort of ambiguity. That’s exactly what I wanted to do when I decided to use cannibalism as symbolism in my novel. Ok, bear with me. One of my characters is a cook and a repressed ephebophile (like a pedophile, but attracted to post-pubescent teenagers). And the other is basically offering himself up in exchange for getting the things that he wants. He exchanges sexual favors for food, so he puts himself on the same level as food, as something being consumed. Genius, right?! You can say crazy; it’s ok.
The hard part is figuring out how to work in this sort of symbolism. One of my favorite lines that I’ve written is, “Of course, if I got a taste, then he got one, too.” But I have to go beyond just some random little quips. Since I’m constantly writing about food, I figured I could parallel these ideas of hunger and consuming—not just how they relate to food, but to sexuality.
And so…food equals murder.
Before my characters have their first kiss, one of them is making pasta from scratch—the idea being that he is as careful and delicate with his ingredients as he eventually is with my narrator once they become intimate. But once dinner is ready, the narrator sees the vibrant red tomato sauce and thinks of blood spattered against a wall. Then as he eats, he uses words like “severed” and “stabbing” and “attacked.” To most readers, this might go unnoticed—he’s just really hungry. But to some it might seem like a violent, animalistic moment. And honestly, either way is fine with me.
I can’t help myself when I get an idea I love. I just run with it. Even if it only makes sense to me.