I was busy preparing for my June MFA residency when Kori, Lunch Ticket’s Editor-in-Chief, reached out and asked me if I wanted to interview Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich for the upcoming Lunch Ticket Issue 14. Groggy from a marathon reading session that lasted until 3 a.m. that morning, I rubbed my eyes with my fists and squinted at Kori’s email. The book I’d stayed up all night and early morning reading was, in fact, Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir. “Yes!” I scream-typed back. “I would love to interview Alexandria! The book is SOOOOO good!” It was truly kismet, since I planned on attending Marzano-Lesnevich’s Antioch seminar anyway at residency.
Marzano-Lesnevich’s writing grapples with questions of ethical ambiguity and moral judgment. Their cross-genre nonfiction book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, intertwines childhood memories of sexual abuse at the hands of their grandfather and the death of a sibling they never met with their exploration of a Louisiana murder committed by a known pedophile. The Fact of a Body, winner of both the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and the 2018 Chautauqua Prize, is a page-turner, and Marzano-Lesnevich’s elegant but simple diction makes for compelling reading. Each chapter ends with an impetus to read more, but never in a hokey way. This naturally phrased whodunit momentum is no small feat, considering they confirm the identities of both the murderer and their sexual abuser early in the book. What keeps us reading is their commitment to nosing out why they feel so conflicted about the murderer and how his case and background parallel events in their own life.
As they stated in a seminar at Antioch University Los Angeles in June 2018, the book teaches the reader how to read it. It allows the reader into the risk at the heart of the story. Citing Joanne Beard, Jesmyn Ward’s writing, and Vivian Gormick’s The Situation and The Story as influences on their writing and editing processes, Marzano-Lesnevich committed to an information-packed, whirlwind two-hour seminar on structure, risk, and meaning, emphasizing the need for writers to recognize twin obligations of structure. First, they noted, the writer must acknowledge the interior logic of a book—the chapter and scene organization. Second, the writer must consider the layer of meaning that must run throughout the story, an interior emotional logic that might make the entire story collapse if the author said it outright. Mostly, they emphasized, the structure a writer starts with is probably not the same structure the finished work will inhabit. I came away from this seminar feeling armed with lifelong advice on how to structure any writing work I complete, fiction included.
The recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, as well as a Rona Jaffe Award, Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Portland, Maine, where they are an assistant professor at Bowdoin College. They most recently taught at Harvard.
After their astoundingly organized, insightful seminar, and learning about all their other accolades, I grew nervous that my interview questions would be lacking. Marzano-Lesnevich had a busy schedule during their time at Antioch, and I didn’t want to pressure them into an in-person interview without adequate time to unwind and prepare. Foreseeing a more relaxed interview at another time, I delayed calling them until July, when the chaos of the summer calmed. Their warm, generous, precise, and intensely intelligent responses to my questions, which I necessarily agonized over, are what follow below. I interviewed Marzano-Lesnevich on July 10, 2018, via telephone, after they gave the aforementioned seminar at Antioch University Los Angeles’s June 2018 MFA residency.
E.P. Floyd: First, a big thank you for speaking with me and for supporting Lunch Ticket. In The Fact of a Body, you cover intensely emotional issues and trauma, as well as social justice topics—sexual abuse of children, your own sexual orientation, poverty, substance abuse, and lots more. As a widely published creative nonfiction writer, how much distance did you feel you needed from your own life events before you wrote about them?
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: Moving a bit beyond just that book, I find that that notion of “distance needed” from certain topics is constantly fluctuating for me. I have written and published some essays I was writing very much in the thick of things, particularly in an essay I had published in Hotel Amerika—“The Taste of Sardines.” I wrote it right after my dog died. That was because that was all I could bear to write about. What I had to do in that case, was build what the essayist Brenda Miller calls a hermit crab shell around it—I used certain narrative structures to provide almost a hard shell for the material, to protect the emotional core within it. Structure in that way was something that could give me distance. So, in The Fact of A Body, even though there was a lot of temporal distance, I discovered when I was writing it that I didn’t have a lot of emotional distance. Some of the first draft pages were really raw, and they really needed to be. I had to figure out when the narrator would include some of those snippets of raw emotion, and when the narrator would need more distance. As writers, as we work, we become more aware that we are telling a story, that we’re not just recounting what happened to us.
I used certain narrative structures to provide almost a hard shell for the material, to protect the emotional core within it. Structure in that way was something that could give me distance.
EPF: It’s so interesting that you refer to the “narrator” as being distinctly separate from the “author”—you. How and why do you distinguish between the two as a writing
AML: I think, like a lot of people, I was influenced by Vivian Gormick’s The Situation and the Story. I like to think of the narrator as being a construct of raw material—it’s both me and not wholly representative. We can see that approach (a narrator as a distinct speaker separate from the author) by looking at multiple books by the same writer. They all have different narrators. As a person who lived through these events, there were so many things that I wanted to put on the page. We, as people, serve our lives and our loved ones, but the narrator of the book only serves the story, so they have to leave some things out and put things in. Of course, when it comes to publishing, we then have to think of how our friends and families and loved ones will feel about the things we’ve written. But I use that linguistic construct to enforce that the person and the narrator have different roles. I also say it a lot because I teach a lot, so I’m used to reinforcing the concepts.
EPF: You mentioned publishing and how we as writers need to consider how our friends and families will feel about the published autobiographical details. You went through a lot at a young age. How did you decide which details to include, both pertaining to yourself and your family members?
AML: I tried to include only what served the story. For example, you never see my sister being abused, even though the narrative acknowledges that she was. The fact of how widespread the abuse was in our family felt crucial, but actually depicting it would have felt like a violation. And my narrator thinks about that decision on the page. I decided that my narrator would tell a story and at the same time sort of wrestle with the story. It was important to me to not pretend that my story was not the only story, not the only way it could be seen or told—but also for human reasons. If I was capturing a multiplicity of perspectives in Ricky Langley’s story, I couldn’t pretend that there wasn’t a multiplicity in my own story.
EPF: Speaking of multiple perspectives, The Fact of a Body is a cross-genre hybrid that seamlessly weaves your own life with the homicide case of a six-year-old boy who was killed by an adult man—Ricky Langley, a known pedophile and sex offender. Why did you choose that parallel structure?
AML: I would start writing about one side of the story and the other side would creep in; my subconscious appeared to be linking the stories. I think a lot of writing is getting out of your own way. For me, there was no way to write this where the two stories weren’t linked. Once I accepted that, the parallel structure was obvious. I will say that the realization that the strands had to collide in the third (and final) section of the book took longer. Life influences us in ways that we don’t realize until much later. When I was in law school, I read a novel called The Archivist by Martha Cooley. She wrote, “With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced.” I felt a jolt of recognition when I read that in law school: this spark that resonated with how I saw the world. I hadn’t thought about that novel for years, and then when I was writing a talk [on why they chose the parallel structure for The Fact of a Body], I sort of meditated on where inspiration came from for me, and that line came back to me. Only then did I realize how much it influenced me, as a person and as a writer constantly seeking out connections between disparate things.
We, as people, serve our lives and our loved ones, but the narrator of the book only serves the story, so she has to leave some things out and put things in.
EPF: There is a lot of moral ambiguity in The Fact of a Body. You grapple on the page with your staunchly anti-death penalty stance in a number of ways. At the end, the ethical uncertainty is just that—decisively uncertain. Was this a conscious choice you made when you set out to write the book, or did you come to this ambiguous ending in the writing process?
AML: It was a conscious choice. It was really important to me to write something that was honest about complexity. The ending wasn’t uncertainty so much as the ending was duality—duality is not uncertainty, it is an acceptance of complexity. Ricky Langley will always be both a man and a murderer. My grandfather will always be both a man and a pedophile. The journey was in accepting that that was the ending, and that that was okay. There was a reason my subconscious wasn’t leading me to a neater, clearer place. What I had to think about as a writer, was, “How do you induce satisfaction in the reader when you decide to acknowledge both the murderer’s guilt and the abuse fairly early in the book—and when the end will be complicated?”
EPF: Ah, yes. Let’s talk about chapter endings and suspense. Even though I already knew who the murderer was and who your abuser was, I kept on reading. How did you keep the emotional stakes high at the end of each chapter?
AML: Yay! Thank you. I thought a lot about that, because I knew I was going to ask the reader to process some difficult weaving of the two stories, and I felt like I really needed to earn some buy-in and create their hunger. I thought about it with this idea of negative suspense versus positive suspense. Negative suspense is when you know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading with that dread. Positive suspense is when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading to discover what will happen next. I didn’t have any positive suspense in the big things, because the reader knew about them from the start. For example, I didn’t want to use Jeremy’s death as a source of positive suspense. I didn’t want to pretend that we didn’t already know that was going to happen, so I used negative suspense instead. But I built in mini questions of positive suspense on other events in the book. The other very concrete thing I thought about was, “How does a chapter ending induce a question?” Michael Blanding’s book The Map Thief gave me this same experience of suspense, and the map trade is not something I have a preexisting interest in. What happened is that I read it pretty much in one sitting, and there was no reason for this except that I could not stop reading. I looked at the end of each chapter and realized that he was very good at completing a mini-arc at the end of each chapter, and at the same time, flinging us forward with a question. I also looked at other works, like the short story, “The Ceiling,” by Kevin Brockmeier. It was a braided narrative, like my story was, and in his short story, the avoidance of discussing the “big bad thing” creates emotional tension. As a writer, I’m constantly trying to figure out what it is I need to do, and how can I look at what other people have done, to address the story before me. For me, it’s all about reading widely.
I thought about it with this idea of negative suspense versus positive suspense. Negative suspense is when you know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading with that dread. Positive suspense is when you already know what’s happened, and you’re reading with the expectation of things working out well for the protagonist—for the emotional arc.
EPF: Speaking of reading widely, the research that went into The Fact of a Body was extensive, as you note both in the book and on your website—roughly 30,000 pages of records. Can you talk a little about the research process? How did you sit and process that amount of documentation?
AML: I didn’t organize it into some sort of neat, didactic thing. I did sort of belly flop myself into it like somebody into a pool. I got the first few thousand pages, spent a couple years avoiding them, and then spent about six months, where I wasn’t really writing, but went from coffee shop to coffee shop—and then to bars when the records got too intense—and I would just spend the day describing in these notebooks what was on every single page and my emotional response. I wasn’t at that point ready to index them, because I had such a strong emotional response to them. I thought I was putting down my strong emotional response to the records because of my own life, and that it was separate from the writing. I tried indexing for a little bit. What I realized pretty quickly is that it felt horrible—the indexing. It felt like it was collapsing the story in exactly the wrong way, creating what Sven Birkerts calls, ‘the coma-inducing effect of “and then.”’ At first, I was really ashamed that I didn’t have a very specific index—having each character on each page for each record used. I thought, “This must just be laziness.” Now, looking back, I wish that I had had the self-kindness to say, “Hey, Self, this isn’t laziness, you’ve just put in an untold number of hours reading these documents. Pay attention to this resistance.” As they say in software development, what I thought had been a bug turned out to be a feature. The resistance was telling me something. I couldn’t put it in an index, because that organized, methodical approach wasn’t the kind of story it was. What I needed instead was to be surprised by the emotional resonances that I never saw coming. It was vital to find the detail I was looking for, and then be punched in the stomach by the stuff around it that I hadn’t been thinking about.
That was not an efficient process. And it was only possible because I didn’t have an index and couldn’t just look up what I needed. It was very much not an efficient process, but it produced a kind of all-over-the-place draft that slowly, slowly, slowly let me get to know the material. Some things became big in my mind and some became small. During that note-taking time, the events of the case felt as vivid to me as my own memories. And that response, I feel, was crucial. It just took time—hours and hours and hours and days and months and years. Just kind of living with those records inside me. What’s funny is, I now cannot remember anything in the records. My subconscious is like, “Cool, we’re done, let’s make space for something else now.” I think that’s the difference between how research usually is conducted for academic nonfiction, and how it needs to be conducted for creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction research requires a lot of trust, a lot of believing, “This is all going somewhere.”
EPF: Based on your experience writing and publishing The Fact of a Body, what do you think emerging writers working in multiple genres should know or try in their drafting process?
AML: Just revise, revise, revise, revise, revise. Also, it’s important to know that doubt is not fatal. This is advice for those of us who have a tendency to really doubt or critique the work before it’s even found its fledgling voice on the page. You can do the work even through doubt. Even while feeling the doubt. It’s important to acknowledge that the doubt might be a reflection of your own fear and not a reflection of the quality of the work. Some days are awesome, and you feel all the strength and power, and think, “I can totally write this story!” And other days are not like that at all. But that’s what I would recommend: Don’t allow the doubt to prevent you from writing.