Today I am pleased to welcome for a guest post James Thompson, author of the Kari Vaara series. Lucifer’s Tears, the second book in the series, following Snow Angels, will be released on March 17th, and Jim has been kind enough to share an amazingly frank and powerful story about what was going on in his life during the creation of the book.
The other day, someone asked me how much like Kari Vaara I really am. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was much like Vaara at all, so I asked what prompted him to ask the question. He said, “You look like Vaara, you speak like Vaara, you act like Vaara, and I have a pretty good idea that you think like him, too.”
I guess because Vaara is a Finn, and I’m not, after thirteen years here, I’ve come to think of myself as neither American nor Finnish, but something in-between. But he had a point. There are other similarities. My wife is twelve years younger than me, as with Kari and Kate, except our nationalities are reversed. I have a disease in my knees, the name of which I can never remember, and a busted hip from an accident in the army, so I have a limp. Sometimes, it’s barely noticeable, my left foot just turns in more than in should. Sometimes, it’s quite pronounced. In fact, I’m on partial disability as a disabled veteran. There are major differences as well. Kari’s father beat him mercilessly. My father, God bless him, is a kind man and has never laid a hand on me.
But mostly, Kari and I both value silence. My life just isn’t anybody else’s business. It occurred to me recently that not a single person in this world knows my entire life story, and for some reason, I took a perverse pleasure in it. A friend recently expressed surprise that I have a family, because in the six years he’s known me, I’ve never mentioned them. He assumed they were dead and so, afraid it was a sensitive issue, never raised the subject. I tried sharing more personal things when I first started blogging, but somehow, it made me feel icky. Another person told me that sometimes, even by Finnish standards, my silence is sometimes disconcerting.
It’s not that I have anything against chatting. I think that when I moved to Finland and was unable to speak the language, I was couldn’t participate in conversations and just got out of the habit. It’s probably also why I became such a compulsive writer. Because I needed an outlet for my thoughts.
Today though, I’m going to tell you a story about myself known to very few. It seems timely because it relates directly to how Lucifer’s Tears, which will be released next week [March 17th], came into being.
I started getting severe headaches somewhere around 2004. I’m a notorious workaholic. I was studying at the university, working as a bartender, and treated writing like a job, although no one gave a damn about it. I went to a public doctor. Her diagnosis was bed rest and a change in lifestyle. Since I needed to study, pay rent and eat, and refused to give up writing, this was impossible. I slept for a couple days and then went back to the usual. The headaches persisted, I went back to the doctor and the diagnosis was the same.
Over time, I developed a permanent migraine, went back to the doctor, and this time she thought maybe I had a serious problem, maybe a brain tumor or disease of the central nervous system. I went through the miraculous Finnish public health care system, took all manner of tests including an MRI, which I had to wait in line nine months for. If I indeed did have a brain tumor, odds are good I would have died while waiting. After that long wait, I was misdiagnosed.
I graduated from the University of Helsinki in 2007. I told few people about my condition, because employers are reticent to take on the chronically ill. Then finally, I got a book deal in Finland, and soon after, a top agent in the U.S. Again, I kept mum, because I feared they wouldn’t take me on as an author if they suspected I might fall too ill to write. So I chomped painkillers like tic-tacs and kept going.
One doctor was of the opinion that my now permanent migraine might be the result of kaamos, the dark time of the year, because it causes chemical changes in the brain that affect many people, and causes depression in a large part of the population. She suggested I go south for the winter. So last December, my wife and I left in December and went to Torrevieja, a small city in the south of Spain. It wasn’t such a luxury it might seem. The Spanish economy is in ruins. Rent, food, and just about everything else is dirt cheap there.
We stayed until March. Before we left, I had written about half of Lucifer’s Tears, decided it was complete shit, and threw it in the trash. I started again in Spain.
Unfortunately, the doctor was wrong. The sunlight had no effect on me at all, and my condition grew worse at a rapid rate. Around the beginning of the year, I started vomiting daily. My record is puking off nine pounds in five hours. And then I started having seizures. And that’s when I gave Kari Vaara a migraine. If I was going to suffer, he was going to have to suffer with me.
Between my wife and myself, we’ve studied ten languages. I took Spanish in high school, but couldn’t remember even the most basic phrases. I tried to get medical help, but couldn’t find a neurologist who could speak English or any of the Nordic languages. Thank God they sell Tylenol with codeine in it over the counter in Spain. I took the max possible every day without destroying my liver. And someone gave me a chunk of hashish. A found that just a small amount would stop the seizures. They struck me suddenly, I wasn’t able to walk or talk. I was semi-aware, but could only lay there and shake. The hashish relieved the worst of the symptoms and was a godsend.
My wife thought I was dying and wanted to come home. Unfortunately, it was the worst winter in Europe for the past forty years and getting flights was next to impossible. Our apartment was freezing cold and miserable. Also, we had brought our cat with us. Most flights accept only two animals at a time. I couldn’t find a flight that would let us take our pet, and I refused to leave Sulo behind. I also refused to leave until the novel was finished.
The number of hours I was well enough to sit at the keyboard and write was limited, so I would lie down and imagine the next scenes, and write them out when I was able. The worse I got, the worse Kari got. I wrote in long bursts. The last fifteen pages were typed in one day. I remember typing THE END, and feeling both relieved that it was over, but it’s a harsh novel. I was afraid I had gone too far. I had, however, for good or ill, written the book that I wanted to write.
I sent it to my agent. He told me it was a huge step forward in my growth as a writer. There’s a lesson in there, but I don’t know what it is.
The aftermath. We returned to Helsinki. I’m by no means rich, but could finally afford to see a private neurologist. He correctly diagnosed me in half an hour. After a spring and summer spent trying various drugs that made me physically and/or mentally ill, we finally hit on a drug combination that hasn’t cured me, but has improved my quality of life considerably. I’m functional, able to work. The vomiting and seizures have stopped, and I’m in a great deal less pain than I was a year ago.
I’m telling this story for a reason. I learned that a lot of people suffer the kind of migraines that I have. They’re often called suicide headaches because people eventually give up, can’t stand it anymore, and take their own lives.
Don’t do that. There’s help out there for you. If one doctor doesn’t help you, see another, and another, and another, until you find the right one. Be strong, persevere, and live.
©Elizabeth A. White/James Thompson – Please do not reprint/reproduce without express written permission.