Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Right Way to Tell a Story

On Tuesday, I picked up a copy of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song. It has been on my reading list for a while. For those that don't know, TES, which won Mailer the 1980 Pulitzer Prize, tells the story of Gary Gilmore, who was convicted of two homicides in Utah and executed in 1977.

Mailer's approach to the material is truly exhaustive. On the cover of my copy, there is a blurb from Joan Didion: "The big book that no one but Mailer could have dared." It is, indeed, a big book; massive, even. The version I bought is just over 1000 pages - large pages, small font. Mailer wrote the book based entirely from interviews he had done with those involved in Gilmore's life. The level of detail is astounding; I had to wait 200 pages before Gilmore commits his first murder. At this point, I'm about 350 pages in and I have yet to arrive at Gilmore's trial.

Which leads one to think: TES must be the single, definitive account of the Gilmore case. What writer would dare to write another book about Gary Gilmore after Mailer, one of the greatest American writers, has covered every corner, scouted every tiny crevice, squeezed every last drop of literary worth out of this juicy grapefruit of a story?

But another writer has dared. In 1995, Mikal Gilmore, writer and senior contributing editor for Rolling Stone, and perhaps more notably, the younger brother of Gary Gilmore, published Shot in the Heart, his memoir of his life with his dysfunctional Mormon family and his brother's execution. The memoir may not have earned Mikal Gilmore a Pulitzer, but it was widely critically acclaimed, and won the LA Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

I bought TES on the same day that I delivered my Creative Non-Fiction senior thesis to the people that I wrote about, Al and Mary Ann, whose 18-year-old son Jeff was murdered in a random act of violence over six years ago (still unsolved). I was pretty (read: extremely) nervous about handing it over to them. I felt I had done well on my thesis, but I had always doubted my ability to really get to the heart of their story. I didn't know Al and Mary Ann before I met them for our first interview, and since then I've only spent a total of 15-20 hours with them. We've said a lot in that time, and in certain ways I'd say I'm closer to them now than some people I've known for years. But how well can I really know them? I'm a 25-year-old, single dude. What in the hell do I know about being a parent, let alone being the parent of a murdered child?

My own insecurities aside, we had a pretty open talk about their story, and about storytelling in general. It's always hard to explain to someone just what "Creative Non-Fiction" is, so I told them that my thesis was meant to be more than a retelling of facts (which I told them from the outset) that it might not be what they expected when we first started, and that it wasn't necessarily what I had in mind when I began to write about them (which was true).

One of the reasons that it has felt so important to me to get their story "right" is because Al and Mary Ann have had to deal with a number of cases where people have gotten their stories wrong - namely, reporters confusing facts, mistakenly reporting Jeff as a gang member, etc., etc. In fairness, Jeff's case and Al and Mary Ann's subsequent experience is incredibly complicated, including a not-so-happy relationship with local police and politicians. Al himself has told me that he himself once wanted to write a book about their experience (if for no other reason, I think, than to set the record straight on a few things).

At one point during our talk, Mary Ann confided that she has always thought that if anyone was going to tell their story the "right" way, it would be herself and Al (adding, at the same time, that it would be interesting to see an outsider's take on the matter). At that point, I assured them that no matter how I wrote about their story, it in no way meant they couldn't also write it.

From there, our conversation went in a number of different directions regarding other ways that their story had been told, or almost been told, I should say. They told me about an old friend of theirs, a filmmaker who lived in California, who wanted to make a documentary about them. It fell apart, unfortunately, after he asked Al and Mary Ann to storyboard the picture, a rather insensitive request it seems, and something that neither one of them will likely ever be able to do. Some of Mary Ann's friends had also encouraged her to keep a journal in the days after Jeff's death, but she couldn't think of anything she wanted to do less. And Al found that he had a almost limitless number of ideas that he wanted to write about, but couldn't go about figuring how to make them into a book.

But given time, it is likely that one or both of them will find a number of different avenues in which to tell their story, in addition to my own telling. I think that this is one of the most exciting qualities of Creative Non-Fiction that is exclusive to the genre - the ability to tell a story multiple times from a seemingly infinite supply of viewpoints. I can write about Al and Mary Ann, and so can they. So can one of Jeff's friends. Maybe someone with the police or FBI that is involved with the investigation. Or another random writer like myself with a different angle. Maybe someday there will be a documentary. Norman Mailer can write TES and Mikal Gilmore can write Shot in the Heart and they can both have merit.

The same thing isn't as possible with fiction. There are many novels that are written about a single event from various viewpoints (Douglas Coupland's Hey Nostradamus! comes to mind), but not really separate books. I don't have the desire to rewrite Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird or Harry Potter or whatever with a new spin.

Yet, with Creative Non-Fiction, the impulse seems to be to get as much out of a topic as we can, only to find that it's impossible to truly exhaust everything there is to know. Mailer himself couldn't even do it with over 1000 pages. Not only do I find that exciting, but also liberating, because it helps me to realize that there is no "right" way to tell a story.