Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich on Writing Her True Crime Novel
Author: Sarah Fonseca
July 26, 2017
“There is a tendency to simplify things [….] The truth is in the contradiction and juxtaposition.”
“All of these possible causes are causes in fact. The causes in fact are endless,” Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich writes of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. in her debut book, The Fact of a Body. Nearing a century old, the case illustrates the series of events which purportedly led to a train platform injury in New York. The law loves its answers and this instance was no different: accountability, even in the face of much ambiguity, is ideal. It is on this note that we are introduced to Ricky Langley, an accused sex offender and murderer whom the author was once tasked with defending as a young legal intern in New Orleans. Ricky’s unthinkable actions are depicted in unflinching prose, as are those which were inflicted upon him.
As the lesbian-identified Marzano-Lesnevich dives into Ricky’s biography, beginning with the tragedies preceding his birth and ending with a face-to-face encounter, she introduces another pressing story for which the causes in fact are endless: that of familial secrets, including that of her molestation by a grandfather. The text flawlessly associates hedges in suburban New Jersey with the razor wire of Angola State Prison, the furious hunt for a Southern home where Ricky committed the crime with a search through a parent’s private file cabinet, and strong mothers with other strong mothers. The Fact of a Body effortlessly pushes beyond the timeline of its two primary narratives, causing the most self-aware of readers to interrogate their own personal history, visceral memory, and deep-seated convictions.
On a Tuesday falling during Pride Month, Alexandria, and I spoke about the daunting nature of research, the docuseries’ media renaissance, and the queering of literary architectures.
At what point did you realize that The Fact of a Body would contain two narrative threads? Or was the story of your family always inextricable from that of the Langley case?
When I acquired the first set of Ricky Langley’s court records––he was tried three times over twenty years and that amounted to about 30,000 pages in court records––I began with 8,000 pages from the middle trial. I didn’t think I was going to write about it. I really was getting the records to try to lay to rest inside me the way I felt haunted by the case. All I’d done by that point was watch Ricky’s confession videotape and words from that kept coming back to me in this way that made me realize: it had something to do with my own past.
By the time I really began to write about it, I had acknowledged to myself that the stories were inextricable from each other. Part of my challenge in the book became trying to show the reader that they were inextricable. I had to show the reader how connected they were to me and why.
The Fact of a Body is incredibly ambitious, spanning two lifelines and five decades––or nine, if you factor in your use of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. as prologue and epilogue. How did you approach condensing insurmountable material and memory archives into an initial manuscript outline?
The funny thing is, I never did a proper outline! I did try to do a traditional outline or book proposal, but it collapsed pretty quickly. The book works on the accumulation and accretion of images and in order to understand the emphasis or to feel connected to the narrator, you have to have the images from earlier in the book.
Instead, I realized what I had to do was write in a way that would allow me to see structure and the images at the same time. I ended up writing several condensed, 100-page versions of the book to try to understand how the images should be layered and where the threads should be tying together.
At one point, I drew a map of boxes and arrows to try to put down on paper how I understood the connections. That was sort-of an outline, but I did it without looking at any materials. I wanted to capture the conscious links in the way that I understood them subconsciously. It wasn’t a workable structure because it was all over the place. Yet I could say, ‘Okay, this connection actually seems potent and this connection really doesn’t. Can I write into the one that seems potent?’ Eventually, years later, I was able to ask myself, ‘Can I build a structure that captures the potent overlaps that still has an anterior logic for the reader to follow?’
The Fact of a Body is in three parts. The first part tells the murder, the second part tells the story of a broader context and Ricky’s full life, and third part tries to make sense of it all. Which, in retrospect, I realized was the structure of a trial. However, if I had set out to structure the book like a trial, it wouldn’t have worked. It would have seemed gimmicky. Instead, it happened as a consequence of thinking about storytelling.
Your focus on images is uncanny. In the final five chapters of The Fact of a Body there are moments where you are describing the crime scene images and quite literally writing about the challenge of describing them. Because of this, I found it logical that there weren’t any pictures within the book. However, given the sheer density of the material that you started out with, were there any details that, due to lack of source information or the inherent constraints of book-writing, that you opted to omit?
I always knew that I would put more pictures up on my website because I wanted them to be available to readers, but I didn’t want to actually put the images in front of them while reading. So much of the book is about how we read our lives through the lens of other people and how we read other people’s lives through our own. I needed readers to see the characters for themselves, however they were going to imagine them. However much of that was going to be informed by their own past––I wanted that to happen. So much of the book is about that that happens. In the book, I am giving the reader my past so they can see how I did that. But certainly everyone who came to the case saw it through the lens of their own history.
There are potential jurors whose responses during voir dire (jury selection) I wish I could’ve included. Those were cut because they weren’t relevant, since the jurors didn’t end up serving—in general, I cut down jury selection from twenty pages in one draft to I think about two in the book—but to me they illustrate how idiosyncratic and personal justice can be.
What you say about images is reminding me of Scott McCloud’s nonfiction work on comic book theory and the challenge encounter where the drawings cannot be too specific because they stifle the imaginations of the readers––they must be just abstract enough. That’s effectively what the words and descriptions of photos do within The Fact of the Body.
In your opinion, whom or what was responsible for sealing Ricky Langley’s fate?
I don’t know if any one thing is responsible; many things went into it. There’s even the question of when his fate was sealed, right? What was responsible and when was there no turning back? There are so many different ways that one can tell this story and they’ll all be true and they’ll all be incomplete. The way you tell the story has a deep impact on your understanding of him, as the book explores. I could point to anything and everything.
Near the end of The Fact of a Body, you revisit your first meeting with Ricky at Angola State Prison. This moment is immaculately juxtaposed with your confronting your grandfather about your childhood abuse. You had no recollection of how that phone conversation with your grandfather ended. Do you remember how that conversation with Ricky went? (If so, why did you elect to omit it?)
I do, absolutely. I remember it deeply. That’s part of what drove me to write the book and to put that scene where it is within it––or rather, the gesture towards the conversation. When it happened, I had no way to make sense of how it impacted me emotionally, period. In many ways, the book is me trying to make sense of the impact of meeting him. So it could only go at the end. As I say in the book, that moment was, in a way, both the beginning of the story and its only possible end.
Why didn’t you divulge the content of that formative conversation in The Fact of a Body?
I can’t talk about what we spoke about because of the circumstances under which the meeting happened. But it also became a very intentional choice to not include that. In terms of what the book is getting at, it’s actually not about the words we said to one another; it is about the narrator—me—coming face to face with him. In some ways, the resolution of the book is that Ricky will always be a man––a person––and a murderer and a pedophile; the resolution with my grandfather is that he will also always be both a pedophile and my grandfather. There is a tendency to simplify things. We try to make people one or the other. The truth is in the contradiction and juxtaposition. It felt like the right thing to do, to have the book end with me sitting down with Ricky and him sitting down with me.
As a reader, I felt very satiated by that moment. I didn’t need to know what followed.
It felt very risky writing it. I remember the moment when I wrote that scene. It was the last one in the book that I wrote. I don’t usually work chronologically, but I couldn’t figure out how to induce a resolution that felt true and real to me. I struggled to integrate that moment earlier into the book but it didn’t make any emotional sense despite that being where the meeting occurred chronologically.
I was at the MacDowell Colony. I had two days left and that was it; I knew I still didn’t know how to finish the book. Completely by coincidence, they had given me the New Jersey studio. A lot of significant scenes in the book take place in New Jersey. So the idea that I was going to finish the book in a residency named after my home state was so resonant! I invited some friends to visit my studio for the last day. That became a deadline. The clock was ticking, I was sitting in New Jersey totally stuck, feeling deeply inside the emotions of the book—and all of a sudden, it occurred to me: that meeting was the end.
When writing that, it felt so right. But I also wondered, ‘Is my editor going to let me get away with this?’
In 2006, Hilton Als sat down with Joan Didion for the very first Paris Review Art of Nonfiction interview to discuss her recently published The Year of Magical Thinking. I’d like to borrow a question from it for you: The Fact of a Body moves quickly, empathetically but unflinchingly. Did you think about how your readers would read it?
I thought a lot about the need to turn the pages. I always imagine the reader reading a physical book. I’m a little old-fashioned that way. So I thought about the motion of turning the pages—about what was making the reader do that. I also thought, ‘Oh god. All these awful and emotionally complicated things are going to happen and I am going to use them to ask the reader to think deeply about them. So if I’m asking the reader to go to hard places with me, how am I going to keep them turning the pages?’ That’s the way I read. I need some suspense to make me turn the pages. I did think very mechanically about what was going to satisfy yet induce a question, and what is the question keeping a reader reading at any point. I think about the ends of chapters as places where the reader could exit the book and, if I didn’t want them to, I had to keep them moving.
I also thought a lot about the relationship that I had to the reader. If I was going to ask you to read about these intimate things, I was basically asking you to care. And if I was going to ask you to care about these things in Ricky Langley’s life, knowing that this is my interpretation of his life, I needed to be really honest. I had to disclose things that I was uncomfortable disclosing; everything had to serve what I was trying to give the reader.
A big example: The scar moment in part three. It never even occurred to me that would be in the book. I was so uncomfortable even thinking about it. That blows my mind now, because acknowledging the scar feels like one of the things that makes the book come together, and certainly fits in with the title. Before I added it, readers I’d given the book to hadn’t quite gotten why this question of irresolvability was so important to me; and why the scenes of me searching for the house where the murder took place would even be in the book. I realized I hadn’t given them what they needed to make sense of it the way I do. I hadn’t yet been intimate enough, or honest enough. So I added the scar.
The past few months have been rich with documentary serial debuts, from Netflix’s The Keepers to This American Life’s Sh*t Town, that are thematically similar to The Fact of a Body. Have you been indulging?
Oh, I have! I just watched The Keepers. I’m grateful that these stories are out there and I’m also interested in the dangers of them. I’m interested in the question of who’s doing the storytelling. That’s a question I engage with deeply in this book. I’m happy that we’re talking about this culturally.
I’ve been following a bit of the criticism over the past few months concerning Sh*t Town and journalistic responsibility to the spaces they’re inhabiting and what it means to leave, amplify the story, and be safe from the wrath that it causes within that community. Those are interesting conversations and I don’t know if there are clear answers yet.
I don’t think they do yet. For me, with Iowa, pronounced Io-way, the history and sound of that name resonated with me so deeply. If the town hadn’t been named that, would it have stuck with me so intensely? Had John McLemore not left a voicemail calling Woodstock, Alabama Sh*t Town, would Brian Reed have gone there ?
Have you started to consider your next project? Would you like to share with our readers?
I’ve been spending as much time as I can in Cambodia. I’m continually drawn to the question of how we make stories out of the past. I don’t think I’m done with that.
Your book is a fusion of two genres––memoir and true crime––which have been deemed, much to one’s chagrin––conventionally feminine and masculine, respectively. You also write of the Langley verdict’s shirking of the legal normality: “The law the jurors were presented with didn’t have room for middle ground. They created it, as though they opened up space in the law, inventing a category that doesn’t exist. Ricky.” Were you ever conscious of the The Fact of a Body’s subversive or queer elements?
I absolutely attributed it to a queer aesthetic. Anyone who has had to construct their own category because the existing categories don’t fit—a common experience of queerness, I think, and certainly my own experience—maybe finds it easier to recognize that act of construction in other forms. It shows that one can do that construction with other forms—in my case, both how I viewed these stories and how I constructed this book. I borrowed a structural element from here, I borrowed a structural element from another book. Out of that came something new—something that was and is truer to my experience of the world than any one category could be.