Available now: "Creating Nonfiction"
Authors including Roy Peter Clark, Bret Lott, and Hilary Masters grapple with issues such as the line between fact and fiction, how to convey voice effectively, and the challenges of writing about family members. (View the whole table of contents here.)
Edited by Lee Gutkind and Robyn Jodlowski, this collection offers both inspiration and instruction for students and writers new to the genre; those who are already familiar with creative nonfiction will enjoy learning more about its rich history.
Available for download now from Amazon.
Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream?
When I was a teenager, I had two friends—Glick and Girson—who committed murder while robbing a mom-and-pop grocery store. This took place in Squirrel Hill, the well-to-do Pittsburgh neighborhood where I grew up, near the lovely, sprawling Frick Park and a short walk from the high school from which all three of us had recently graduated. The two old people who ran the store, Mr. and Mrs. Cua, were notoriously cranky, which made kids visit their store more often than necessary just to aggravate them, asking stupid questions or haggling over the price of a package of cigarettes or a can of Coke. The store was dirty and dusty, and the shelves were rather bare. No way could the Cuas have made enough to live on from that store—and in fact, there were constant and unsubstantiated rumors that they were hoarding mounds of cash in their living quarters in back of the store. I never talked with anyone who knew where the rumors had started. It was just something we high school kids—freshmen to seniors—were always speculating about.
Probably the supposed hidden fortune was a joke. I mean, why would anyone live in such filth if they had the means to bask in luxury—or, at the very least, hire someone to dust their shelves? It seemed kind of senseless to me. I dreamed daily about owning a Harley Sportster and a Corvette Sting Ray, and if I’d had the cash I’d have gone hog wild spending it. Not that I envisioned the Cuas revving a souped-up engine or screeching around corners with abandon. But they could have had a Cadillac—and a mansion on Nob Hill, wherever that was.
Glick and Girson must have thought they would find the stash—or, frankly, in retrospect, who knows what they thought? They obviously didn’t think things out too clearly or carefully. I wouldn’t have imagined that they were, together or individually, capable enough to plan and execute a robbery—or any organized project or event. I knew Girson as kind of a bully, mean and moody, and Glick was a victim in high school. Not that he was pushed around or pummeled; let’s just say he was not highly respected. His grades were poor, his attendance record in high school worse, and he seemed to always be in dutch with his family.
Anyway, it wasn’t a very successful robbery: As I recall, their “take” was less than $20—quite disappointing. Which is maybe why Girson—he was supposedly the guy with the gun—shot Mr. Cua to death.
I haven’t seen either of those guys since they were arrested, but I think about them nearly every time I pass the site of the murder. Glick, I am told, committed suicide, and the last I heard, Girson is still in prison. I don’t know if either of those stories is true. I’ve done a bit of Googling, unsuccessfully.
Why do I remember this event—while so many of my high school memories have faded? Any murder is shocking, of course, but for me there’s a mystery to it—so many unanswered questions. These guys came from comfortable, respectable middle class families, not unlike mine. Girson’s dad was a merchant, as was my father. Our moms were typical 1950s/1960s housewives, stay at home moms. Glick’s parents were divorced, I think, though I don’t remember for sure. But they both lived in a good neighborhood, and were—I think everyone would have said—“good kids.” We all were. Maybe not so popular or perfect, by any means; we did a lot of things wrong—but we knew what was right. What on earth were they thinking? What went through their minds that prompted them to get a gun and shoot down an old man for the sake of a few dollars?
It was crazy—though also not entirely. Maybe not out of the realm of possibility, at all, especially for young and rebellious boys.
Having been, myself, a fairly rebellious boy, I frequently wonder how close I came to doing something similarly destructive—something awful that I would forever regret. In high school and the few years afterward, before I went into the military and finally to the university, I was all about taking chances with weapons and illegal substances, and setting off on illogical adventures—just because I wanted to do something different and also, I guess, because I wanted to call attention to myself.
So the story of Glick and Girson is, for me, I think, a sort of worry stone: something to turn over again and again, and examine from various angles. Am I capable of such an act? Could I be that stupid—so ruinous to my life? Or in the reverse, could I be a victim?
As I read through this collection recently, I thought about those long-ago murders, and about why true crime stories have such a strong appeal for so many of us.
There’s no doubting our fascination: Just talk with magazine or book editors, or librarians, about the popularity of true crime stories. Better yet, turn on your TV. It’s nearly impossible to escape crime programs—whether fiction or nonfiction. In prime time and rerun, there are the many popular ripped-from-the-headlines dramas like “Law & Order” (and its numerous spin-offs), “Criminal Minds,” NCIS, and CSI. The selection in true crime is equally rich. Two popular long running network shows—“Dateline NBC” and “48 Hours”—are devoted to true crime. There’s also an entire true crime cable channel, Investigation Discovery, which, according to the New York Times, grew 69 percent in total viewership from mid 2010 to mid 2011. They’ve got some rather raunchy-sounding crime series programs, like “Blood, Lies and Alibis,” “Sins and Secrets,” and my personal favorite, “Happily Never After”—and some recognizable personalities anchoring these shows, like “On the Case,” with the former popular CNN anchor Paula Zahn.
People can’t get enough of these stories—but why? I think true crime stories fascinate because they make us more aware of how vulnerable we are not only as potential victims but also, perhaps, to a certain extent, as perpetrators. I remember something a character on one of the Law & Order series programs—Detective Goren, played by Vincent Donofrio—observed in one episode: “Bad men do what good men dream.”
One day recently I sat down and read the stories in this collection one after another. It’s not that I hadn’t read them before—to the contrary, I have read and reread each repeatedly as editor, but never all in one great burst. Originally, I had intended to read the entire manuscript over the course of a couple of days, but one story seemed to flow and feed into the next … I was hooked. Even during two brief coffee breaks at Starbucks that day and evening, I couldn’t quite disconnect myself. I was caught up in the stories, imagining myself as victim, perpetrator, bystander.
But there was something else about these pieces, in particular, that kept me riveted and reading, story after story, on that day. That’s the personalities, the voices, the motivations and emotions of the writers telling the stories. These writers—among them are criminals, law enforcement officers, and victims—elevate the substance of the gritty crime, leading the reader far beyond the surface and the hype. They transform the stories they are dramatizing into rich, high powered literature in which characterization and motivation are as important, perhaps even more important, than the stories themselves. I should say that I believe that the literary quality of these nonfiction stories sets them apart from the run of the mill crime fare. They dig deeper than the average sensationalist fare on television. There’s great tone and style in each piece published here—but also substance to ponder and discuss.
And that, after all, is the challenge and the mission of the creative nonfiction writer: to take a true story, gather the details from every conceivable source and angle and employ literary techniques—dialogue, description, inner thoughts and points of view—to make the characters, the locations, and the stories themselves as vivid and cinematic as possible.
It goes without saying that such a task is difficult—but the stories in this collection demonstrate how effective such approaches are when done well. Who could resist getting caught up in the story of AC Fraser, confronted by a prison guard who seems to know more about her than she knows about herself? Or Lacy M. Johnson’s mind-boggling story of being kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend, or Steven Church’s unconventional meditation on ears and savagery, which takes on everything from Mike Tyson to Travis the Chimp, and David Lynch to Van Gogh. Included also in this book are stories about gang violence in the suburbs; women police officers in physical combat with criminals; and a fascinating deconstruction of the origin of a murder, which traces the perpetrator back in time, examining the circumstances that helped to determine his life and that may have propelled him directly into the act of killing.
Two of the stories included in this collection are especially important to mention—for both are taken from a seemingly unlikely source: your daily newspaper. Many journalists, critics, and pundits like to say, these days, that long form narrative can no longer exist in newsprint—that newspapers, not to mention the art of reporting, are dying. The stories here put the lie to that contention: For “The Lynching of Claude Neal,” Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Bay Times conducted dozens of interviews over a two-year period with historians, residents of Jackson County, Alabama, and relatives of 23-year-old Claude Neal, lynched in 1934—a crime for which no one has ever been punished. Montgomery’s story is a riveting reminder of an era that will forever haunt and taint our national legacy. The other newspaper piece, from the Arizona Republic, is equally captivating: Shaun McKinnon’s reconstruction of the days and hours leading up to the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. The detail of McKinnon’s reporting and his crisp, hard, Hemingwayesque prose, which tells the story from the points of view of the shooter and many of the victims and bystanders, create a unique and compelling profile of a crime the country will never forget.
Finally, the collection ends with an in-depth interview with a master of the true crime genre, Erik Larson, author of books including The Devil in the White City and, most recently, In the Garden of Beasts. In an interview conducted by Booklist critic and essayist Donna Seaman, Larson explained how he begins his work by reading broad histories and, as he puts it, “circling in,” looking for his main characters. Then, he heads into the depths of archives such as the Library of Congress, devoting years to capturing the minute and compelling details of the characters and events, and gradually moving out into the field to immerse himself in the locations where the events took place. He becomes fully engaged in all aspects of the story before sitting down to write, explain, and recreate it.
“If the story doesn’t come alive for you, it’s not going to come alive for your readers,” Larson says, and I think that says a lot about the appeal of true crime nonfiction. The stories here, I think you will find, gnaw away at you, piquing curiosity and feeding the hunger to understand more about human nature—why we do the things we do, how we can end up in previously unimaginable situations, and also what we are afraid of. Our lives can change in an instant: seemingly normal, nondescript teenage boys, for example, can become murderers; citizens waiting in line to meet their congresswoman can be massacred; a car accident can begin a chain of tragic events that unfolds over decades.
And the thing is, you can never know how you will react to these events should they happen to you or near you. You can’t know how you will react to someone who threatens you, hurts you, or just confuses you. Will hunger for money and adventure—or boredom, or stored-up frustration and anxiety, or something else entirely—push you over the edge into a world from which there is no return? I don’t know. We can’t know, until it happens to us. But reading this book, true story after true story … you have to wonder.