Last night a friend of mine and I got into a bit of co-musing about why we do the things we do (cue the Motown song). He wondered why he was drawn to stories, as he put it, "about violence, about people pushed and pushing themselves". I could have asked the same question in a different way: why am I drawn to write about Japan, etc. Here's how I talked about it.
From what I see, there are two kinds of artists (for the sake of this argument, writers). The first are people who encompass a great deal in their work — they seem to be reflecting as much as possible. Big obvious version: Shakespeare. Or Dickens — people who seem to be reflecting a whole spectrum of human experience in what they do.
The second are folks who see things through an intensely singular focus. They may not go to the material with that explicitly in mind, but that's how it comes out. Stanley Kubrick is like this: everything he does is about a few basic themes, over and over: dehumanization, mechanization. Or you have painters who transmute the whole world through their metaphors: H.R. Giger, Jackson Pollock, etc.
The thing is, neither of these things is superior to the other. They're just both ways of doing things. In the end, if you have a good story, it always lasts: it doesn't matter how broad or how tight the scope, or what the psychology is that informs it. But that still leaves the question "okay, why?" Why do we have some folks who seek out the same material over and over again and explore it obsessively?
When I first started to get into writing about art (read: being a critic), I ran into, early on, the standard potted Freudian theories about this sort of thing. The problem is that these explanations are pretty self-limiting, so I abandoned that after a while and started looking for a wiser explanation, or at least a wiser view.
For that, I had to go inside myself, and sure enough, I had people asking me: why write again and again about a culture and a world that you've never been to, did not grow up in, have no direct experience with, etc.? I had to think about it a good deal because I didn't have a ready answer. To me, this was just something that felt right — the things I wanted to say came out best when I put that stuff in front of it, like wearing a mask that somehow perfectly enhances your particular way of enunciating (as the old Greek drama masks did). Once you find such a fit and you find reasons for how well it complements what you are trying to do (in your mind, that is), you tend to stay with it. It becomes personalized to you, and you to it.
That's how it worked out for me. When I started writing about these things the way I did, I thought: this is what I've been looking to do, isn't it? It really clicked after Summerworld — that was, for me, the real turning point. I finished that book and I looked back on it and I said, "That's it, you've busted it wide open. The door has been kicked down."
My friend then mentioned that after completing the fantasy story he had been working on ("fantasy", for lack of a better term, but an accurate one here, I think), he didn't want to write fantasy anymore. He put it this way:
We are all looking for something better, something else, when everything we need is right here — and that includes every story we could ever tell and every metaphor we could ever need. Besides that, when you set something in a fantastic world, you create a distance, a division — I want my stories to have an impact, an immediacy, for the person to look down the street and think, "Jesus, this person could live on my block." I don't want my readers to be able to say, "Well, this couldn't happen in real life."
Sometimes, there are people who will be hit by something precisely because of that distance. I was skeptical of this myself, but here's how it works. You start with something that has that degree of fantastic remove, but at the same time you build empathy and passion between the reader and the character. The guy may be a stranger in strange lands, but there are things that are common to all of us: a lost love, a determination to claim what's yours, and so on. The emotion may be more difficult to summon, but if you do it right it can have just as much impact.
Obviously not everyone is going to do it that way, and in his case it sounds like it's not the method he's comfortable with. But I've seen it done before, and it's a little like that girl in the Olympics a few years back who did a perfect 10.0 vault, then went back for the hell of it and did it again, and got a perfect 10.0 again. We are surprised at ourselves for having such an emotional connection, and out of that surprise comes further emotional depths.