Rejection, Truth-Making, and a Narrative Stegosaurus: a Conversation with Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
After four years of serving as the founding instructor of GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is set to launch their memoir, The Fact of a Body, tomorrow (May 16th) at Harvard Book Store. The Fact of a Body is a visceral masterpiece, equal parts gutting and deeply empathetic, about a haunting crime the author came across as a young law student, and the man who committed it––Ricky Langley. As Alex delves into details of the case, they find unsettling parallels to their own history of abuse, leading them on a journey of discovery that causes them to question not only Ricky’s story, and the stories they've been told about their own family’s history, but also the nature of stories themselves, and how the way we tell stories affects our view of truth.
Alex sat down with Alison Murphy, Grub’s Director of Programs and Marketing, and Alison’s Basset Hound, Murray, to talk about the making of this book.
You’ve been sitting with this material for a long time. When did you first know it was a book?
Oh, super late. I don’t think I would have started writing about it if I thought it was a book, because that would have implied that I would have to go to as deep and complicated a place as I ended up going. I think with many memoirs––and I’ve seen this in the Memoir Incubator––we wouldn’t start out writing the book if we understood what it was really about. We start off writing the book thinking that it’s about something lighter, and then we realize what’s actually at stake, why we’re actually drawn to it, why we’re haunted by it, and it goes to this deeper place. I think that delusion is healthy, because it lets you write. At first, [when I was introduced to Ricky’s story] in 2003, I had no intention of writing anything about it. I was just haunted by it. When I did start writing about it, I was writing short essays about my own life, and more journalistic stuff about Ricky’s. So it’s hard to say when it became a book. Certainly I would tell people that I was working on a book, but that doesn’t mean I knew that—I was just trying to make myself feel like I had a project. When I realized it actually could be a book, it was probably around 2010. So, pretty late.
This book had an interesting path to publication. How did the process of sending out your initial book proposal [which didn’t sell] change your conception of the book?
I wrote a traditional book proposal in 2011, to get an agent. I had won a Rona Jaffe Award for this in 2010, which funded me spending a lot of time looking at the court records, and I started to realize it was going to be a book, and was fortunate that I ended up with some agents interested. I went to New York and had a glorious couple of days in meetings with agents, hearing them tell me about my book. They all described it to me in totally different ways, and I didn’t know this yet, but I didn’t know enough about my own book at the time to choose the agent who mirrored my conception. Instead, I went with the one who most sounded like they knew what they were talking about. I worked with that agent for years, and she’s a fantastic agent, but in retrospect, we just were not on the same page about what the book was. So, I was writing hundreds of pages, she was telling me that those hundreds of pages were just not good, and ultimately we sent a proposal out that was a mishmash of our ideas. It didn’t have any continuous chapters, because we couldn’t agree on which continuous chapters would be good.
At that point, my confidence was shot. I think, like a lot of writers, I have trouble trusting my own voice. I was just going off what my agent said. She sent out this proposal, and it did not sell. It resoundingly did not sell. And what I think what was really hard for me about that, wasn’t just that it didn’t sell, but that it didn’t really contain my idea. I hadn’t even written out my idea, because I didn’t have enough faith to just go for it.
Months before, I had taken twenty-five pages that [my agent] had rejected, and I sent them to the NEA, not because I had any faith or confidence, but because I had this amazing mentor in grad school who instilled in me that the second you are eligible for an NEA [award], it is your moral obligation as writer and an American to apply for it. I had just gone through the whole thing of it not selling, the book was dead, dead, dead, and then imagine my shock: I’m standing on the street in JP that fall, and I get a phone call, and I seriously thought it was a federal student loan bill collector. So I let it go to voicemail––that’s going to make it sound like I’m avoiding creditors––
Whatever, that’s super relatable.
So I’m listening to the voicemail, and the first sentence she said was hi, I’m so-and-so from the NEA, and I started sobbing and shaking on the street, because my brain was saying: wait. They can’t possibly call everyone who didn’t get it, right?
That was my exact reaction when they called to tell me I got the James Jones Award.
Right? Because it’s shocking! You get used to sending shit out and getting rejected!
That’s why I tell my students that you have to separate the sending out of the work from the outcome. It’s just your job to send shit out! Anyway, I got the NEA. I broke up with my agent the day it became public. But I’ll tell you, even having gotten the NEA, I could not find an agent. I got rejected by everybody, and all the notes said the same thing: Sorry, your book already didn’t sell, there’s nothing I can do, but I’d love to see your next book. Which was a kicker, because I didn’t, at the time, have a next book. So I just got rejected and rejected and rejected, cried a lot, thought it was all dead, but also couldn’t stop thinking about the case. And there was no question in my mind that I was going to finish the book. I knew. My thought process was, if no one’s going to publish this, then fuck it. I’m going to write it the way I want to write it.
So the book got weirder, and more experimental. I was suddenly much braver with evoking the lives of the people involved, and writing the sections from Ricky’s life in a shifting close third. I don’t think I would have taken those risks had I sold it the first time. In fact, I know I would not have. I would have written a safe, careful book. So, in answer to your question, had you asked me at the time how that whole process affected me, I would have said that it was devastating. But now I would say that it was deeply liberating, and weirdly empowering, to know that I could keep going in the face of that quantity of rejection.
I love that idea. My partner is a musician, and he’s told me often about the day he realized he was going to play music until the day he died, no matter what. It’s a really liberating thought.
It’s super liberating!
So let’s talk about structure of this book, which I thought was particularly masterful. There is so much interrelated information to convey, and yet, for the reader, it’s never overwhelming; the book provides information in a way that feels natural, and that keeps you turning pages. How did you approach structuring the book and finding its shape?
Structurally, I was writing a very straightforward memoir at first, and it was very, very boring. It was so focused on my own thinking about the abuse in my family, and my own thinking about the death penalty. This is one of the challenges in memoir: There’s a real danger that the shape of the memoir will convey to the reader that they’re supposed to care about [the subject matter] because it happened to the writer. That’s when memoir fails the outside reader test. For me, as long as the material was confined to my own life, that was all I could do––just, this happened. I realized that I had to start looking at Ricky’s life, that the stuff that haunted me wasn’t just from my own life. It was from the case.
I knew right away it would be a braided narrative. I wanted to capture the feeling of looking at Ricky’s story and seeing it through the lens of my past, and that meant that the memories had to be layered. But the question was: How do you structure the braid? I worked on it for years, and it was still narratively unsatisfying at the end. It just went back and forth, and back and forth [between my story and Ricky’s], because I thought that was what a braided narrative was supposed to do. But I kept getting the reaction that it never quite added up. It took somebody else saying to me, why don’t you just have the braids collide? Why can’t there be a section where they come together? So, that’s how we sold it––with the first 100 pages of the book, told narratively almost exactly as they are now, and a condensed retelling of the rest of the book, including an impressionistic third part with [all these stories] coming together. And my editor was like, Could I draw your attention to this paragraph, in the third part of the proposal? Do you realize that you’re in four different time periods? You spent years with this material, and maybe you know it better than the reader does, and maybe this is going to be confusing, and I need you to figure out another way to structure it. It was on the phone, and I pulled this out of my ass because I wanted him to buy the book: I suggested making a present-day me who goes back [to Louisiana, where the murder happened] and provides the backbone for the third section. And he liked the idea. I thought it was going to be so simple to write, but actually it was it super hard, because once you tell it quickly, how do you figure out what makes it feel necessary to tell it more slowly? How do you make it feel vibrant and urgent again? So actually it wasn’t a roadmap at all, it was just a roadmap for them to buy the book. The last 100 pages actually have very little to do with what we sold the book on.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about how the shape and structure were the most challenging part to figure out, because the story is also about how the truth of a story really depends on the way it’s told––so, in other words, the structure. When did that theme come out? Did you know that was there from the beginning?
No, not at all. I initially thought––and part of what haunted me about this case––was that if I was going to be a halfway decent lawyer, I needed to set aside what had happened to me. And this was just my problem; I looked at Ricky and I saw my grandfather. I couldn’t separate it from the lens of my past. When I originally got the [8,000 pages of court record], it was to put it to rest, and to stop thinking about my past. Then I got the files, and I started to realize that I wasn’t the only one. The lead defense attorney was talking about his father during the trial. The jury foreman, [when he saw Ricky], saw his brother in law.
And the judge!
Yes! All those statements from the judge. I saw those and I thought, oh my god, what if a trial doesn’t work the way I think it does? What if it actually is layering through everyone’s past? What if the law isn’t a truth finding mechanism, like I’d been taught, but rather a truth-making mechanism? And then I started to realize that maybe I had to give the readers my memories, not because I had to talk about it to work it out, but because by allowing them to see Ricky through my memories, I would be a proxy for the reader. They would be going through the same process that everyone else in the trial was going through. So the structure is also an argument for the way stories work, and the way the legal system works.
The first part of the book tells the story of the crime by focusing on the murder and its aftermath, and the second part tells the story of the crime by going back in time and looking at [Ricky’s] whole life. That structure mirrors the shape of a trial: The prosecution tells their story focusing on the crime, and the defense says, No, wait, it’s more complicated than that. But I did not realize that until embarrassingly late. It was like my subconscious was familiar with the idea that this was how the story worked, but if I had known consciously that I was going to structure this like a trial, it would have felt super gimmicky. Instead, it emerged organically. I’m not even sure people realize that’s what’s going on until the third part, when I start talking about how his trial is told.
Yeah, it’s so easy to see in hindsight, but I as a reader didn’t notice until the third part that the deck was getting stacked in that way, and then looked back and realized––
––the deck was stacked! Yes! Thank you. I tried to call myself out on the way I was stacking the deck in the third part, because I don’t think you can tell a story without stacking the deck. Every story is a shape, and has an angle. Realizing that, I knew that this book also had to be about telling stories. I would actually have to look back at my artist statements to see when I started saying that this was partially what it was about, but my guess is that it was around 2015.
Right before you sold the book?
Yeah. It took me a long time to figure out what this book was.
I do think that’s the piece that makes the book brilliant. Without that, it might still have been a great book, but that added layer makes it universal––this isn’t just about a trial, this isn’t just about family history. This is also about all of us, and the way we choose to tell and to hear stories, and how those choices can affect our perception of truth.
Thank you for getting that.
So, I have a bone to pick with you. It’s about your chapters. They are structured in such a way that it is literally impossible to put the book down. I ended up staying up until like 3 am finishing it and was then useless the next day.
Oh, Alison! Thank you!
I mean, you’re welcome, but to be fair, you’re the one who structured it that way. Every single chapter ends with a cliffhanger. How did you do that?
I really like books that make me turn pages. I have an embarrassingly low tolerance for books that don’t. I also thought about that strategically, because I knew from the get-go that this would be a book that would have difficult events in it, and if I wanted people to read it, I would have to keep them turning the pages. The way I think about it is to partially answer one question, but to always make sure that you’re inducing another, even as you answer the first. Every chapter has its mini arc, but, at the same time, propels the reader forward into another question. We talk a lot about the narrative arc, but I like to think about a narrative stegosaurus that has mini triangles. Each one ends at a higher level than the one before, so it’s always pushing you forward into a new and deepening complication or question.
“Narrative stegosaurus” is my new favorite thing. I’m stealing it for my class.
No problem. [laughs] Lee Child has a fabulous piece in the New York Times on suspense and making people wait. He says that people think that the way you induce suspense is like following the recipe for a cake, like there’s some formula. But you don’t make your family hungry by perfecting a recipe––you make your family hungry by making them wait four hours for dinner. So, you induce a question, but then you gotta tap dance, entertain them while they wait. You can’t anticipate a thing you don’t know is coming. So, in order to have suspense, you need some sense of what you’re waiting for. A surprise isn’t suspenseful.
Yes! I think you do this in a great, subtle way. Early on, in the first part, you introduce the fact that the narrator does, at some point, meet Ricky. So the reader knows that, and throughout the entire book, we’re waiting for it. But we don’t see it until the end.
Thank you! The end was the very last thing that came to me. I went to MacDowell in 2015 for the second time to finish the book. So, I’m deep in the woods; I’m writing and writing and writing; I’ve gotta finish the book because my residency is over in two days; I don’t know how to finish the book. Then, all of a sudden, I realized how to finish the book.
I do want to put a shout out to Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief too, which made me think of that question of chapter endings. I read it, while I was working on this, in two days. I could not put it down. And I don’t have a preexisting interest in the antiquarian map trade. And then I went back and looked at why, and every chapter induces a little hook. And I thought, wouldn’t that feel a little artificial? But the answer is NO. I think that book is a master class in suspense.
I’m sure, in the process of promoting this book, a lot of people have or will ask you questions about family and trauma. I’m not going to ask you about any of those things. Instead, I am going to ask you if there’s a question that you really wish someone would ask you in these interviews, and if so, what is it?
Oh, that’s a fantastic question. [thinks for a few seconds]. The main thing I want to be asked about—and they’re starting to, because I’ve just started telling them to ask me—is the question of why I layered in my own story. I want people to see that I’m after this bigger point about how we make stories in the legal system, and that the fact that my story is layered with [Ricky’s] is not just incidental, it’s actually trying to say something about how we understand each other and understand the past. Including in a trial. I think we’ve built a legal system that pretends we don’t do that in trials, that these things are somehow neater or cleaner, and they’re just not.
Structurally, I think the books that work best for me are the ones where the structure itself is capturing something about the larger meaning of the book. I’ve spent so much time with memoirs, breaking down their structures for the Incubator, and it’s really made me think about when structure gets at something larger, and how vital that is.
Alex, this has been an awesome interview. Thank you so much!
Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, named an Indie Next Pick and one of the most anticipated books of 2017 by Buzzfeed, BookRiot, and The Huffington Post as well as a must-read for May by Goodreads, Audible.com, Entertainment Weekly, and Real Simple. The book will be published May 16th in the US and May 18th in the UK, to be followed by the Netherlands, Turkey, Korea, and Taiwan. The recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, and a Rona Jaffe Award, Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Boston, where they teach at GrubStreet and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
As Director of Online and Special Programs at GrubStreet, Alison Murphy works on developing new and innovative models for our online and intensive programs, as well as overseeing our consulting program. When not at Grub, Alison can usually be found at her laptop with her faithful basset hound Murray at her feet, writing about war and pop culture, or teaching creative writing to inmates in the prison system. A 2016 James Jones First Novel Fellow and graduate of the 2014-2015 Novel Incubator, Alison is hard at work revising her first novel. Her nonfiction can be found in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, PsychologyToday.com, and elsewhere.See other articles by Alison Murphy