Author-to-author Interview: Fiction vs. True Crime
Writers Celeste Ng (author of Everything I Never Told You) and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich first met through their Boston-area writing group, nicknamed the Chunky Monkeys. At first it seemed as though their work had nothing in common. Ng had just published her debut novel, and Marzano-Lesnevich was at work on a non-fiction book that combined memoir with a true crime story. But soon they discovered they were both trying to do the same thing: keep readers glued to a book with taut, suspenseful mysteries.
Marzano-Lesnevich discovered the true crime story that would come to haunt her during an internship in New Orleans the summer after her first year of law school. It was there that she heard the confession of a man who had murdered a young boy in 1992. Even though it was clear who had committed the crime, his confession only opened up more mysteries: What had led Ricky Langley to murder young Jeremy? And why did his confession, eerily, remind Marzano-Lesnevich of her own past? In her own fictional mystery, Little Fires Everywhere, Ng explores how life in a small Ohio town of Shaker Heights is upended when a secretive family moves in.
Recently, Marzano-Lesnevich and Ng met up at a Cambridge, Massachusetts coffee shop to talk about the mysteries they love, how much they knew about the mysteries at the hearts of their books before they began writing, and what great writing has in common with dessert.
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir with a death. Why did you decide to share this information right up front?
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: It would have seemed dishonest with the reader, somehow, not to put Jeremy Guillory's death up front. That Ricky Langley had killed him was never in question—and wasn't the source of real mystery. The real mystery, and the deeper suspense, started with what could be discovered only after the murder: Why had it happened?
Celeste Ng: Did you look at other books as models for putting the big reveal up front, so to speak?
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: Oh, tons. My favorite model for this is Tobias Wolff's short story Bullet in the Brain. Guess what it's about? But Wolff clearly doesn't want us focusing on the shooting. He's got a deeper mystery to explore. And so he prepares us for the shooting first, ruining the surprise a little, and then the real deepening happens only after the shooting. The same principle's at work in In Cold Blood, which starts with the murder of the Clutter family, and only then goes back in time.
You did this extraordinarily well in Everything I Never Told You. When did you know you'd start the book with the information that Lydia was dead?
Celeste Ng: The very first draft of Everything I Never Told You started, "At first they don't know where Lydia has gone." And neither did the reader, until 40 pages in. It wasn't at the beginning until the last draft, when a friend (the writer Elizabeth Ames Staudt) suggested I reveal the death in the first chapter. I ended up putting it in the first line. Withholding that information pointed the reader in the wrong direction: it prompted the reader to ask "Is she dead?" whereas the real question is "How did she die?" You and I talked about this—putting that info up front is a little like telling someone you'll drive them on a trip, and then putting the car into a controlled spin as soon as you get out of the driveway. Once they see you're more than in control of the car, so to speak, they'll sit back and trust your driving.
Years ago—and I wish I could remember where I first read about this, but the Internet is pointing me only toward pages about accounting, where apparently "suspense accounts" are a thing—I read about the distinction between positive suspense and negative suspense. Positive suspense is what we usually think of as suspense: reading to find out what's going to happen next. And okay, by putting the death up front I did reduce that. But negative suspense is when you know what's going to happen, but you don't know when or how, and you're hooked to find out. It's dread, basically, or anticipation. As soon as the reader sees the car spin out at the start, they know it'll spin out again, and they're waiting.
Celeste Ng: Why did you choose to write about this mystery? What was it about this case that grabbed you?
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: I didn't have a choice, really. This case dredged up deeper, unresolved things in my own life. So I suppose the book works the way the case worked on me: There are these surface mysteries, sure, but then beneath them there's the deeper mystery, which has to do with how we understand the past, what story we tell. I was influenced by Mikal Gilmore's extraordinary memoir of his brother Gary Gilmore's execution, Shot in the Heart. He's looking at some questions in his brother's death—but when he looks closely at them, they bring up deeper questions of violence in the history of Utah, about his family's mythology, and even about ghosts. That's how I think of life, I realized: that all the big mysteries are connected. And I wanted to write a book that would capture that feeling.
Celeste Ng: The Fact of a Body is a mystery story, but it's also a memoir, and a significant part of the book deals with events from your own life. So in some ways, you knew "what happened" before you sat down to write. In fiction, I often have no idea what's going to happen—the best analogy is a paleontological excavation: I stumble across something interesting, and I keep digging around until I figure out what the story is. While you were writing, how much was the project driven by experience you wanted to set down in words, and how much was it driven by a need to explore or discover?
Celeste Ng: Let's talk about endings—both of our books end (spoiler!) without everything being tied up neatly. Why did you decide to end the book that way, and how did you do still bring the book to a resolution?
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: I think what we mean when we say we want resolution is that we want deeper knowledge. We want a realization that doesn't feel cheap or false or temporary, but that genuinely takes us to a deeper place of understanding about ourselves and the world around us. Because life doesn't really resolve, does it? In some ways, The Fact of a Body is about two stories that everyone wants to be simple—but they're not, they're really not, and I tried to peel back the covering on the simple story and point out that it was constructed, that it was made. We often think of the law, for example, and specifically the criminal justice system, as a truth-finding mechanism, but it only is to some degree. Really, it's a truth-making one. It makes a story that we call the truth. If I did my job right, readers leave the book with a deeper understanding of the way we make stories in the law—and in families.
Celeste Ng: While we were discussing this Q&A, we learned that we both use the same analogy of using suspense and mystery to coax the reader into reading "hard stuff"—sort of like parents might hide spinach in brownies to get their kids to eat it! Mystery and suspense and humor can pull people into difficult material they might otherwise avoid. For example, The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, which delves into Chinese American history and identity through four separate, equally gripping stories or The Sellout by Paul Beatty, a biting satire that forces you to examine your own views on race. What "spinach/brownie" books would you recommend?
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: Ah, I loved realizing that. Yes. It's my favorite analogy. I'm such a brownie reader—I turn the pages for the good story that sucks me in, and if I learn something along the way, well, great, but mostly, give me a good story. Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City is such a brilliant, instructive example of this. Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. David Grann's new one, Killers of the Flower Moon. Chris Feliciano Arnold has a debut coming out in 2018 called The Third Bank of the River. Even Michael Blanding's The Map Thief, which, had you asked me whether I had any desire to learn a great deal about the antiquarian map trade, to be honest I would have said no. But I read that book in one night! I could not put it down. Because positive and negative suspense were mixed up into one delicious, mystery-filled brownie.
What are some of your favorite works of true crime? Tell us in the comments. And be sure to check out more of our Mystery & Thriller Week coverage here.
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