It was all over the news and my Facebook yesterday. Mom even sent me a personal email. Mark David Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon, was denied parole for the eighth time by New York authorities. Why this news is relevant to me is probably not a surprise, but the effect of seeing his recent mugshot on the BBC website had on me certainly was. The now-59-year-old man is looking at me. Directly at me. Challenging me. Or, perhaps, charming me.
Mark David Chapman is called “MD” in Catcher’s Keeper. I chose to call him by his initials because, honestly, I didn’t want to humanize him. I didn’t think he deserved it. My biggest challenge in writing this book was, without a doubt, portraying a believable Chapman. Initially, I had been swayed by my own bias and created an already-guilty Chapman. But he wasn’t guilty of anything before pulling that trigger, except attempting his own suicide. In my book, he doesn’t pull the trigger until nearly the last chapter. When he comes on the scene, he had to appear somewhat ordinary, with the potential to do something awful. A mentally unstable individual who seemed pretty normal.
How was I going to do that?
I took the advice of character-building expert, David Corbett (The Art of Character), which forced me to do what I had been avoiding and, frankly, dreading: Get into Mark David Chapman’s head. Understand him. Know him. Get under his skin.
I read Jack Jones’s Let Me Take You Down: Inside the Mind of Mark David Chapman, the Man Who Killed John Lennon in just 2 days. It was disturbing, to say the least. Haunting. I learned that Chapman was indeed charming, and was able to charm his way from mental patient to an employee at that same mental clinic—-where he was known to play therapist to other patients while mopping floors. His ability to manipulate was astounding. With almost a serial-killer quality, he could lure people into trusting him, such as the doorman at the Dakota the night of December 8, 1980. That night, he mingled with other fans—-people who also were charmed by him. People who were later completely shocked and taken aback that someone so nice and unassuming could do something so awful.
How does a writer believably convey a living person with such a complex outer persona? Not to mention his impossibly convoluted inner persona…
After painstakingly doing my research, I completely revamped the MD that appears in Catcher’s Keeper.
I wonder what Mark David Chapman would think of him.
This excerpt from Catcher’s Keeper introduces Mark David Chapman from the point of view of my Holden Caulfield (renamed Alden). They meet during the book tour for “Jerry’s book” (aka The Catcher in the Rye).
So I’m outside having a smoke when this dude comes up to me. I’d say he’s, like, mid-thirties, kind of on the heavy side, with mousy-brown hair and big brown-rimmed glasses. He’s wearing a black trench coat and this fur hat like they wear in Russia.
“Did it start yet? Did I miss it?” he asks me, clutching a book—Jerry’s book—in his hands.
“Miss what? The reading?”
He nods like mad. Even though it’s cold, guy’s sweating. His glasses slide down his nose and he shoves them back. Maybe give the furry hat a break, I would say. But it suits his babyish moon-face.
“No,” I say. “I mean, it did start. But it just started.”
Here’s the funny thing: He touches me on the shoulder, like I just saved his goddam life, and thanks me up and down. I kinda laugh, and he laughs too. It’s the kind of moment that used to link us hippies back in the day—stronger than clothes or drugs or anything else. It was that kind of synchronized laugh.
He tips his furry Russian hat and says in a really bad British accent, “Thank ye! G’daye sir!”
What a goofball! At the same time, I’m grateful, since he totally cheered me up. Dude boogies inside. He has the book in his hand, waving it around like a cautionary flag. Cracks me up. The book just came out and he’s, like, all over it. It’s a miracle anyone’s even read the thing, much less liked it…
I’m on my way back from the pharmacy, weaving through throngs of shoppers, when some dude thumps his hand on my chest. Stops me dead in my tracks. I look up, kinda ticked. It’s the furry-hat dude! My laugh is automatic—offering that thing that connected us.
“You!” he says, like he just won the lottery. “You’re the brother!”
That stops me cold. “What?”
“The author said, during the reading, he owed it all to his brother, who was out having a smoke.” He points with his hand, which is wrapped in a wrist brace. He’s got a Southern drawl, which I hadn’t noticed before. And his smile—although as broad as the Sargasso Sea—ends with his mouth, like his eyes aren’t invited to the party.
He goes on: “He said it was your story he documented for you. It says in the acknowledgments that you were the inspiration for it all. But it’s more than that. It’s you! It’s you, isn’t it? It’s got to be. Wow. I can’t believe it. I met you before I even met him.”
I cringe inside, wishing a wall of steel between me and that goddam book. I feel my face fall, so I turn away. But he keeps right up with me. I mean, he seems cool. You’d think he would run the other way knowing I was the true narrator of that book. But it’s like it’s a good thing, in his mind. Never thought that would happen.
“And I thought I was late!” he says. “Thank goodness I was late. I may never have met you!”
“Yo, we actually haven’t met,” I say, pausing on the sidewalk to extend my hand.
Furry-hat dude slaps his own forehead. “I’m so sorry!” But he doesn’t look sorry. “I’m MD.” He takes my hand, the Velcro on his wrist-brace scratching my fingertips.
“MD?” I ask.
“No, I’m not a doctor.” He laughs, sounding like a little girl this time, making me giggle too. As if we’re both high as a kite.
“I didn’t think you were a doctor,” I say, still laughing.
“I’m an acronym! Just like your brother. He uses his initials for the book, so I’m using mine. But my wife calls me Mark.”
“Hi, Acronym. Or should I call you Mark?”
We both have a giggle fit again.
“Call me MD. But what’s your name? Do you go by Holden?”
My laughter drops fast as a hiccup. “No, no. It’s Alden.”