A big challenge I’ve faced with my book is the difficulty of grasping the rationales of truly eccentric characters. Even when I’ve been able to interview such folks, I rarely come away with a full understanding of why they made certain choices—their reasoning tends to be opaque, at least to a fairly normal bloke like me. Developing the empathy necessary to make their stories come alive thus requires a lot of focus and thought.
One way I’ve tried to overcome this obstacle is by boning up on the life stories of unusual individuals. I’ve lately been on a circus kick, which brought me in contact with the tales told by several knife thrower’s assistants. Perhaps my favorite such story is that of Ula the Painproof Rubber Girl, who tells her story here. This is the passage that really gets to the heart of why she does what she does:
I guess I’ve been aware of my own mortality from a very young age. There are so many things you can’t see coming. You can’t see death coming. You can’t see Mt. Vesuvius erupting. The probability of avoiding danger is higher with knives than against things that I can’t see or control here in New York City. The carpet could be pulled out from under you at any second and you’ll never see it coming, but I’ll see a knife coming if it’s going to hit me.
The way I read this, every knife that misses Ula by an inch represents a little triumph over her greatest fear. And the thrill of those tiny, regular conquests is what draws her to keep doing something that, by any rational standard, is completely foolish. Call it an addiction to denying death.
(Image via The Circus Blog)