Sometimes you read a book that captivates you from the first page until the last. For us, The Fact of a Body was one of those books. You guys heard on the podcast why we love this book, but let us just say, in short, we love Alexandria's blend of memoir and true crime to create something beautifully unique. Her use of time and structure also illustrate her masterful approach to storytelling. So without further ado, here is our conversation with our Reading Women Award shortlisted author, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich.
As you tell your story, you talk about the research you conducted into your own family and into Ricky’s family history. What was your writing process like? Did you research as you went along or did you do the bulk of your research before you started writing?
The book really began with me reading 8,000 pages of Ricky’s court record, and feeling the resonances and the shock that I felt then. I knew I had to write this story. But all told, I wrote the book from 30,000 pages of documents I found. I found them in dribs and drabs over the years, tucked into dusty file boxes I had to track down. As I went along, my interpretation was constantly changing, constantly being refined, and I tried to infuse that feeling of discovery into the writing. I was on an urgent quest—not only into Ricky’s past, or my own, but into what meaning our pasts held for me, and for the reader.
You first discovered Ricky’s story when you were in law school. What part(s) of your law degree have made the biggest impact on your writing?
What a great question. I usually joke that after law school, I had to spend the next few years unlearning everything I’d learned about writing—because in law, you say the same thing several times in different ways in a brief, and of course in creative writing, that would be not trusting your reader. You have to take more risks. But at the same time, I think it’s undoubtedly true that law school taught me a level of meticulous construction that served me well here. I saw a certain connection between these seemingly unrelated stories, and I had to put the book together piece by piece until the reader saw it, too.
Early on in the book, we start to see that Ricky’s story and yours are tied together in some way. Did you know from the beginning that you were going to write a book about Ricky and include your own experiences? What was your approach to intertwining the stories together?
Trial and error! And yes. I knew pretty quickly that they had to be woven together—that to tell the separately would never capture the connection I felt that was the whole reason I was telling this story.
The way you weave your personal story and Ricky’s story together in a nonlinear structure is masterful. How did you decide what part of the narrative went where?
Apologies to the writers reading this who may be horrified by the answer—but I wrote many, many condensed, hundred-page versions to figure out what went where. And then threw them away. And started again. Write, toss away. Write, toss away. One year I threw away my entire full draft except 25 pages. I had to figure out not just what went where, but why the narrator was putting things in certain places. In retrospect, what I was really figuring out was the narrator’s angle of vision, what she saw in all this material. Vivian Gornick writes that in personal narrative, the way the narrator sees things is really the thing being seen, really the reason we’re reading the book. I thought about that a lot.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that it’s fairly common for families not to talk about traumatic events. Why do you think so many families prefer to live in silence rather than address difficult topics or voice their feelings?
Oh, because it’s difficult. And because we live in a culture that constantly emphasizes moving on and doesn’t have as clear language to talk about the ways in which the past inevitably stays with us. We can’t even talk well about our past as a country.
Our culture continues to be fascinated with crime stories. How do you think listeners and readers can find the balance between learning about crime and glamorizing it?
I thought about this a lot while writing The Fact of a Body, because, of course, these tragic events concern real people. I knew I had to write directly about Jeremy Guillory’s death, yet I desperately didn’t want to sensationalize it. That’s why I put the murder up front—I didn’t want to use it as a source of suspense. It was important to me to keep the suspense on everything the narrator was doing afterward with these events, on why she was telling the story.
You have a beautiful writing style and narrative voice. What authors have been some of your literary influences? Do you have any new favorite authors that you’ve just discovered this year?
Thank you! I read widely in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, mostly as a way of feeding my soul, but also with the hope of expanding what my subconscious sees as possible in writing. A few perennial favorites that I see the influence of: everything by Michael Ondaatje, the novel Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the novel The Archivists by Martha Cooley (which contains this line that, in retrospect, I think influenced me profoundly: “With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced.”), the memoir Shot in the Heart by Mikhal Gilmore, Jo Ann Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter,” Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (of course), the poetry of Adam Zagajewski. But for books encountered in the past year, nothing beats Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give.
Now that The Fact of a Body is out in the world, do you have any other projects lined up?
I’m working on a project in Cambodia! That’s all I’m ready to say about it now. But I’m not done with the theme of how we make stories out of the past.
A 2014 National Endowment for the Arts fellow, Alexandria has received a Rona Jaffe Award and has twice been a fellow at both MacDowell and Yaddo. Her essays appear in the New York Times, Oxford American, and the anthologies TRUE CRIME and WAVEFORM: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, as well as many other publications. Her first book,The Fact of a Body, was met with wide acclaim upon its publication, from Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and Buzzfeed among others. She received her JD from Harvard, her MFA at Emerson College, and her BA from Columbia University. She now lives in Boston, where she teaches at Grub Street and in the graduate public policy program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.