Tag Archives: Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

An Interview with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

25 May

A review in Vogue called Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir a “true crime masterpiece.”

Alexandria 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 recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, and a Rona Jaffe Award, Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Boston, where she teaches at Grub Street and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

To read an exercise on giving a character description context, inspired by Marzano-Lesnevich’s book The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoirclick here.

Michael Noll

The book took ten years to write—and over that ten years, you inevitably grew and changed as a person. I often find when I read work that I wrote years ago that I want to totally rewrite it. Did you do any of that with this book? I’m thinking of a moment like the one where you write, “When I began writing this story I thought it was because of the man on the tape” but then go on to write, “But I think now that I write because of Lorilei.” Did you have to, at times, resist the temptation to rewrite older sections so that they fit the sense of things that existed at that moment in your mind?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Oh, I rewrote this book so many times! That’s just the way I work. It’s a quirk of the book that though the idea’s been ten years in the making, and I’m been flat-out working on this conception of it for the past seven years, about half the book was written in the last year before I turned it in to my publisher. The way I thought about shaping the book was that while there’s a consistent narrator, she’s not narrating from a place where she has figured it all out already. She knows approximately where she’s going—the work I did before this draft let me know that—but there’s still a lot to figure out. So she’s telling herself a story about the past—both her past and what she understands and imagines from the records about Ricky Langley’s past—to try to understand why she’s so drawn to this story. Joseph Epstein calls personal narrative “the genre of discovery,” and that’s always felt true to me. The narrator is telling herself and the reader the stories of the past to try to discover the hold they have over her—and the structure of the book is meant to dramatize or re-enact that discovery, to induce that experience in the reader.

Michael Noll

How did you approach the sections about Ricky and his family. I can imagine how even a small detail like “Alicide driving the whole way back like a dog with his tail between his legs” could prove problematic from a journalistic perspective, prompting questions like “Did someone say this about him? How did you know?” How much license did you take in fleshing out scenes that must have occurred.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

The book is written from research conducted on some 30,000 pages of court records and other documents, and at first, when I started writing from that research, I tried to do so in a more straightforwardly journalistic way. But there were several problems with that. First, the records contradict themselves in many places. They have holes and ellipses. In many cases, the legal narratives elided the contradictions, gliding right over them into a pretense of certainty—yet in my telling, I wanted to actually highlight the ellipses, and highlight that the legal narrative was constructed. Second, when I read the records, I found them incredibly vivid. I couldn’t help but see the scenes unfold in front of me. I decided that I need a more active narrator who was explicitly telling herself this story and could highlight imagining and speculate and muse on discrepancies. For example, in the scene you’re referencing, Ricky Langley’s father, Alcide, is driving. I begin the scene this way, talking about the car: “I imagine the station wagon my parents had when I was a child, but that was the early 1980s, so subtract, now, the faux-wood paneling, the power steering.” It was very important to me that the reader understand that I was telling myself a story based on the records of the past. The book is a record of one mind—mine—trying to piece the past together into a story. So the imagining is only done in service of that aim, to try to put the pieces together. That means no invented events or dialogue, just taking what’s already in the records and trying to imagine them into color, the way we all do when we hear or read something that feels real to us. As it says in the source note that precedes the text: the book became a story not just about what happened in the past, but even more than that, about the stories we make from it. It’s a true crime book and a memoir, yes—but it’s also a story about how we tell ourselves stories.

Michael Noll

This is partly a coincidence of timing, but as I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking about the podcast S-Town, which starts with the narrow frame of a possible crime and then explodes to a much broader frame, with people and storylines that weren’t there in the beginning. Your book does something similar as it digs into the history of the people involved. How did you figure out the frame for each section of the book and what to include and what to leave out?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s “Books You Have to Read in May.”

The structure of this book was one of the things that took the longest. I thought about it in a couple of ways: first, I knew pretty early on that it would have to be a braid that alternated between my life and Ricky Langley’s life, if I were going to capture the way these stories had seemed linked in my subconscious. Two, those braids couldn’t strictly remain separate over the course of the book, or I wouldn’t capture the powerful sense of how entwined they sometimes became in my mind—I wouldn’t capture the sense of being haunted that so drove me. And finally, I knew that in a book that’s largely about the way we make stories out of the past, and which concerns two crimes—Jeremy Guillory’s murder and my grandfather’s abuse of me and y siblings—stories about which have already been told many different ways, I had to have a structure that would allow me to tell and re-tell and complicate the telling of the same events without losing forward my momentum. I thought about suspense as though it were a baton in a relay race—which strand of the book was carrying it at any given moment, and how could I hand it off between sections?

Michael Noll

You’re going on tour for this book, which makes me curious how you’ll read from it. It’s one thing, I suppose, to write about painful personal details from the safety of your home and desk, but it might be quite another to read from those sections in front of strangers. How do you handle the emotional aspect of reading from this book?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

One of the good things about how long this book took me to write is that I had many years to get used to reading from it. And to my surprise, I found that I absolutely love giving readings. After so many years of working, as you say, alone at my desk, it’s such a gift to bring these stories to people and experience the emotional connection that happens when you share your story. Yes, there are parts of the book that can feel vulnerable to share. For those, reading the audiobook of The Fact of a Body let me practice. But I’m mindful that we all have private stories hidden away inside of us, and if I can offer mine forth to help create connection between people—well, isn’t that the role of the writer?

May 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Give Depth to Character Descriptions

23 May

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir was named one of Entertainment Weekly‘s “Books You Have to Read in May.”

Beginning writers tend to approach character descriptions in a pretty straightforward way: what does he look like? Is she tall, short? What is a distinguishing characteristic? A nose? Teeth? The result often resembles a police or personal ad description—and that’s fine. It’s a place to begin. But as a writer’s craft grows, so does the ability to do more with character descriptions.

A great example of what is possible can be found at the beginning of Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Book Works

The book tells two different kinds of stories. One is about a murder. The other is about the author’s realization that she has a personal connection with the people involved in the crime. To make this double narrative work, we need to pretty quickly feel connected to the crime—to see the murderer and the victim as people who exist independently of those identities. This means, of course, making them appear complex and sympathetic. But it’s more than that. They ought to feel apart of a world. Take any person you know, and I suspect that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to think of them outside of the world they inhabit (or the world they share with you). This is why we’re so often befuddled when we encounter someone outside of their normal context. We can’t place them. In life and in our minds, people exist in relation to everything around them. So, a good description will capture those myriad complex relationships. Marzano-Lesnevich does that in the book’s first chapter:

Louisiana, 1992

The boy wears sweatpants the color of a Louisiana lake. Later, the police report will note them as blue, though in every description his mother gives thereafter she will always insist on calling them aqua or teal. On his feet are the muddy hiking boots every boy wears in this part of the state, perfect for playing in the woods. In one small fist, he grips a BB gun half as tall as he is. The BB gun is the Daisy brand, with a long, brown plastic barrel the boy keeps as shiny as if it were real metal. The only child of a single mother, Jeremy Guillory is used to moving often, sleeping in bedrooms that aren’t his. His mother’s friends all rent houses along the same deadens street the landlord calls Watson Road whenever he wants to charge higher rent, though it doesn’t really have a name and even the town police department will need directions to find it.

The paragraph continues, but you can already see so many ways that Jeremy Guillory has been placed in relation to his world:

  • The particular blue of his sweatpants draws a local comparison (Louisiana lake) and also different names from different sets of characters. Even with a minor detail, we’ve glimpsed setting and many different characters.
  • The boots place him not just in muddy woods but in a community of people who interact with those woods in a particular way.
  • We see his size in relation to his gun.
  • We see his care for the gun.
  • We see his mother and their family unit in relation to his mother’s friends and the street where they all live. We see the landlord who charges them all too much.
  • We see the street in relation to the community that doesn’t even know where it is.

When writing teachers talk about synchronicity or simultaneity, this is what they’re talking about: the ability of a single passage to show readers multiple things at once. In this case, it’s a character description that holds all of those things together—and also brings the character to three-dimensional life in our imaginations.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character in relation to his or her surroundings, using The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich as a model:

  1. Choose a detail that cannot be agreed upon. This is how Marzano-Lesnevich begins, though it’s not necessarily the way you must begin. But, we’ll go in the same order that she does. She picks a seemingly innocuous detail (the color of the boy’s sweatpants) and then gives a neutral description (her own) and then two different takes on it (the mother’s and the police’s). This gives the reader a clearer sense of the disputed issue, of course, but it also allows the writer to bring in other characters. In a purely mechanical way, it opens up the narrative to characters beyond the one being described.
  2.  Give the character a trait that many others like him/her possess. She uses his shoes. We do this constantly in narratives, and the way point of view often matters. When done from an outsider’s perspective, these kinds of details can potentially veer into stereotypes. (Think about the way that baggy pants and Carhartt jackets are used by politicians as shorthand for entire communities.) In a story, those stereotypes can reveal a lot about the character who holds them. But when done from an insider perspective, as Marzano-Lesnevich uses here, the detail can reveal a trait (societal, geographic) that is so strong that it bends the behavior of the people who encounter it.
  3. Show the character next to easily identifiable objects. We know how long a BB gun is (or at least readers with a certain background will). So, we don’t need to learn exactly how tall the boy is. Numbers are almost always less interesting and compelling than comparisons.
  4. Show the character interact with some object. Jeremy polishes the barrel of his BB gun. What does your character take great care with–or what does he neglect?
  5. Show the other people in the character’s world. Think about friends, family, coworkers—or just “their people.” What do they have in common?
  6. Investigate the power imbalances. The landlord has power over everyone who lives on the street or needs a house. The community has power over the street, or seems to based on its not caring enough to find out where it is. Or, to flip the perspective, the street has a kind of power over the community because it’s able to remain hidden—or, at least, certain individuals on the street will be able to take advantage of this hidden nature.

The goal is to explore a character in relation to everything around him. It creates a better description and the opportunity to advance the narrative beyond what the character looks like.

Good luck.

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