Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich explains where stories really come from
The Fact of a Body is haunting. A look into the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves about the past, the unique true crime-memoir combination also shows how the past can become a lens through which we view the stories of others. Throughout the book, author Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich examines her own past alongside that of the seemingly unrelated story of Ricky Langley, a Louisiana man sentenced to death for killing a boy who was his neighbor. In the process, Marzano-Lesnevich brings the reader along to discover the thin edge between story and truth.
I reached out to the author, who lives in Boston and teaches at Grub Street and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, to ask about how a book like The Fact of a Body comes to be.
What was it like for you to put to paper all the research and thinking and delving into your own past, to meld together your story and Ricky’s story?
AM-L: It was such a big experience over so many years. At times the material felt very raw to me. At times I was able to, through the process of writing it, acquire more distance from it and try to see how the structure of the book would unfold. And then other moments I would be back in the rawness of the emotion and super close to it. My emotional relationship to the material changed and deepened … and I tried to allow some of that sense of discovery into the book.
Now that The Fact of a Body is out and in the hands of readers, how do you feel about sharing your story? Did anything unexpected come out of finishing the book and seeing it go out to other people? Was the book cathartic?
I certainly didn’t start the book for that reason. The entire time I was working on the book, people would say to me, “Oh that must be so therapeutic, to write a memoir.” At the time, I was spending a lot of time writing about really difficult moments in my life, things that I certainly had thought about, but having to dig into them and dig into files that were very difficult to read certainly didn’t feel therapeutic at the time.
You’re obliged by the contract of a memoir that “Dear reader, I’m going to think about this so you don’t have to. I’m going to look at something in my life that poses a difficult question.” That contract with the reader means that you can’t shy away.
But I will say that to my surprise … what I have discovered is that … the book is therapeutic. The process of writing it was not.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you worked with the concept of time in this book? It doesn’t progress in strict chronological order and the reader goes back and forth between two different storylines. How did you make sure the story progression made sense and how did you keep the timelines organized in your own mind while you were writing?
I spent a couple years really taking very careful notes on a lot of records that exist out there, trying to piece together this story, and also being mindful of the ways in which what I was reading was calling forth questions from my own past. It was ultimately really important to me in the construction of the book that the reader have the sense of one mind trying to piece together the story.
I knew pretty early on that I was going to be braiding my own life with Ricky Langley’s life. Because there were such complex activities to keep track of, I knew that the reader needed something to follow along with chronologically in a simpler way, and that was my own life.
And I knew that I was going to ask the reader to think about some very difficult things as the book went further in because I wanted to talk about these emotional and intellectual conflicts that lie at the heart of the piece but also, I think, lie at the heart of the question of how we, in our own lives, make stories about the past.
There was an immense amount of research that went into this book, and you go out of your way to explain your sources, even including videos, slideshows, and an explanation of your research process on your website. Is it the lawyer in you that wanted to make sure you had all your bases covered, got everything right? Or was it the storyteller side of you that really wanted to know the truth, as much as you could?
It might have to be both. [It] might just have to do with the awareness that there are real people at the heart of this story. That a real little boy died. I wanted to be true to as much as I could find out about what happened.
The other thing that I’ll say is that because this is a case in which there are many things that are never resolved and there are many facts that are never known, I wanted to write about that, about the way that we make stories about the past all the time and the way that how we make stories is influenced by who we are and the lives that we’ve had. It felt important to be true to the facts that could be nailed down as I was trying to highlight the facts that couldn’t.
Did the process of writing this book change what you believe about truth?
One of the things that happens in law school, or at least happened for me and happened for a lot of people is that I very much went into law school with the idea that the law is a truth-finding enterprise, that the job of the law is to find out the truth and judge accordingly.
I left law school thinking about the truth, realizing that the law should instead be understood as a story-making enterprise. It makes a story and we call that story truth. And that’s why it was important in the book to me to note that in many instances the legal narrative that was produced about this murder, the legal narrative papered over a lot of ellipses, a lots of contractions, lots of unknowns. It papered over those things and made a much cleaner story but that erased where that story had come from. I really wanted to look at where that story had come from.
I ended up thinking that it was because different people had interpreted the case through the lens of their own past. In other words, the very same thing I was doing. So I decided that I would give the reader my memories to get at that process.
ALEXANDRIA MARZANO-LESNEVICH + KRISTEN RADTKE. THU JUNE 1. 7PM/FREE/ALL AGES. BROOKLINE BOOKSMITH, BROOKLINE. BROOKLINEBOOKSMITH.COM.