"Mental illness and addiction and writing—don't they go together? Seems like a perfect fit to me," says Charlie Price when asked how the idea for Dead Connection (Roaring Brook/Brodie) came about. His debut novel, which revolves around the disappearance of a high school cheerleader, is peopled with characters from society's fringes: a borderline psychotic 22-year-old, who may have seen the cheerleader leaving school the day of her disappearance; an alcoholic cop; a loner teen who spends his days in the local cemetery communicating with dead children.
In his years of working with kids in at-risk schools, mental institutions and psychiatric hospitals, Price has developed a great deal of compassion for such people—which comes through in the full-blooded portraits of his wildly diverse characters. Price's interest in such characters began when, shortly after his graduation from Stanford, he went to work in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1968 with at-risk kids, in a program financed by Union Carbide. "At that time, everyone was smothering from heroin," he recalls. Price says that he "met so many amazing kids and families with powerful stories, powerful issues."
Price had dabbled in writing for years, including a story set during the Dust Bowl. But three events converged for Price in the creation of the plot for Dead Connection. Price and his wife, Joanie Pechanec, have a house on a river in Dunsmuir, Calif., where he fly fishes. "One afternoon I was walking through the [nearby] cemetery, and I noticed how many children were in there. I found myself looking at the inscriptions and feeling some kind of connection to these long-dead children."
After a teenage girl the same age as his daughter, Jessica (who is now 23), was kidnapped in Price's community, the author started thinking about what it would be like to be her parent. A few years later he drafted a manuscript about an alienated boy who couldn't function socially and who took refuge in the cemetery. "The idea of the boy and the graveyard and the missing girl came together for me," he explains.
Author and friend Chris Crutcher helped to make the connection between Price and Roaring Brook editor Deborah Brodie. The two men met in the mid-1970s in Oakland, Calif., at a school for at-risk kids. According to Price, Crutcher told him, "If you'll make the effort to [write], I'll give you some names." Price, now 60, mailed out the manuscript to Brodie and, after a month had gone by, he sat at his desk thinking, "You foolish old man, how could you think you'd be a writer? Why didn't you just buy a red convertible?"
A couple of weeks later, however, he received a message from Brodie saying she'd like to publish the book. "Working with Deborah is like going to graduate school in literature," says Price. "She sees what I'd like to do even when I don't see it."
The author and editor are at work on a second novel, tentatively called The Lizard People, about a boy whose psychotic mother shows up at his school, and who meets an unusual peer at his mother's psychiatric hospital who seems to know too much about his life. "I wanted to talk about mental illness, future possibilities, and the world you enter when you're connected in any way with the psychotic process," Price says.
The author makes his living as a consultant, often teaming up with his wife, a psychotherapist. Recent assignments range from a week's reflection with an S&P 500 company, to a talk covering ways to ameliorate pain along with medication for addicts. With his sporadic schedule, he finds a daily writing routine difficult. Instead, he blocks out two or three days at a time. He describes his process as akin to a dog circling before it can lie down. "I may circle until 4:00 in the afternoon, then write for the next six hours." His "office" sounds idyllic: he took the walls off the garage, and writes from there. "I can look at the river and watch the insects hatch and the fish jump, and I can write on and off all day long with the river music in the background."
Price genuinely seems to enjoy the creative process as much as completing the book. Perhaps that's no surprise, coming from a fly fisherman. "Most of the pleasure is about wading in the water, the smell of the stream, the pressure of the water. The brook more than the fish."