Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is the author of After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, A Daughter’s Search, a memoir about her mother Crystal’s murder when Perry was twelve and the subsequent over-a-decade-long investigation. Perry holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction from Columbia University, where she served as publisher of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and was a member of the journal’s nonfiction editorial board. She is the recipient of a Writers’ Fellowship from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and a Javits Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education, and has attended residencies at Norton Island in Maine and PLAYA in Oregon. Perry’s prose has appeared in Blood & Thunder magazine, Bluestockings Literary JournalElle.com, and The Guardian. She lives in Brooklyn and should not be confused with the British author Sarah Perry.

EB: How did you begin writing nonfiction?

SP: I was a self-identified writer as a kid, a big nerd, and as I mention in my book, I liked to write stories. But after my mom died, it became not fun anymore—the trauma of the incident had filled up my imagination. I always wanted to get back, though. I wrote bad poetry in high school, like we all did—

EB: Yup.

SP: And I was an English major in college, but I didn’t understand that being an English major didn’t really have anything to do with creative writing. Not a lot of my family had been to college, so I didn’t really know what that was about. While I was in college, I sought out little opportunities to do creative writing, but it caused me so much anxiety because I had this compulsion to tell the story of my mother’s death before I could tell any other one. I had a deep need to reclaim the narrative from all the other narratives that had been told about Mom, especially after the trial.

EB: When did you finally embrace the idea that this was the story you had to write?

SP: I was taking notes a bit at the trial in 2007, but I don’t think I realized I was doing that to write a book. I didn’t start it in earnest until 2010, when I started the Columbia MFA, which I did really to write the book. I had spent several years working boring desk jobs to have time to write when I got home and on the weekend, but it wasn’t working. I didn’t have a community of writers, I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have the support that I needed. I had already embraced the idea that this was the book I needed to write, I just didn’t know how to go about it.

EB: Well, I love how you finally did go about writing it. You do such a beautiful job of blending memoir and journalism in After The Eclipse. When you are writing, is your process different when you’re working on journalistic parts versus more personal memory parts?

SP: It’s tricky to answer, because I wrote the book really out of order. In the MFA, whenever I had a workshop deadline, I wrote whatever part of the story was really pulling at me. It was a combination of what was compelling to me at the time and what I was emotionally ready to do at the time. If I was in a good place I would think, Okay, what is an emotionally hard part I can tackle? So, at one point, the book was 187 different Word files that were not connected at all. Concurrently to that process, I was doing research. When I was doing the memoir parts, if there was a period I was fuzzy on, and I knew it needed research, I would hold off until I had the research in hand. But sometimes I would write scenes provisionally, knowing I would need to make big changes after talking to someone or getting ahold of a court record. Does that answer your question?

EB: It does! Though, to be honest, I feel like my question is kind of unfair, because I know the writing process is never neatly linear.

SP: Yeah. Exactly.

EB: Now that you’ve finished this memoir, do you think you’ll ever return to writing fiction? Or are you a nonfiction person now?

SP: Part of me wants to write a little lyrical novella that is beautiful and not about much. Have you ever read The Summer Book by Tove Jansson?

EB: No! Adding it to my Goodreads right now.

SP: It’s about a grandmother and a granddaughter, and the mother has died—so that seems appropriate for me—but it’s offstage, and the book is very much them just puttering around this little island, and what do they do? They collect shells. They cook things. The kid is kind of precocious, and they talk about life. It’s deeper than it looks on the surface, but it’s just this beautiful little jewel of a thing. I would love to make something like that. That would be so different from what I’ve already done.

On the other hand, I am also pulled towards doing some heavily researched project that has less to do with my life. Taking on a social issue, and doing straight up narrative nonfiction. I think that appeals to me, because writing this book was so emotionally exhausting. So much of the journalism was hard to deal with. So it would be great to do something more scholarly and straightforward.

EB: That’s cool. I would totally read your lyrical novella.

SP: Thanks.

EB: Going back to your memoir, though—in it you write about people you love, both living and dead. What was challenging about writing about people you are close to?

SP: I tried to keep myself in the mindset that no one would ever read this thing. Otherwise I knew my tendency would be to self-censure. I would write what I needed to write and cut back later. But there are some family revelations that were really hard things, things that I had heard whispers of, or sideways rumors of as a kid, that only later got confirmed by my one aunt who will talk about these things. There were these big traumatic silences in my family that were, unfortunately, thematically related to Mom’s death. It was really difficult to figure out where my story ended, and what I had the right to say. It’s your story, it’s your life, you have the right to tell that, but you can’t just tell your story alone because everyone’s stories are connected. At some point you have to draw a circle. And I think there are a few things I mention in the book that I arguably don’t have the right to, but I had to make the decision and stand by it.

And I don’t have a lot of data about how the family received the book yet. They haven’t finished reading it.

EB: You didn’t let anyone read anything ahead of time?

SP: I didn’t. I know some writers do that. I know Mary Karr does that. But I don’t have the strong personality of Mary Karr to refuse anyone changes that they want. So I didn’t. And for the most part they didn’t ask to read in advance—though I did have one aunt who offered her services. She said, Oh, I can read it and make sure you’re getting everything right! But that made me think, Okay, now I really don’t want to let you do that.

EB: Oh, god. That’s stressful. Well, is there anything good when it comes to writing about people you care about? You say in your memoir that writing was actually the first thing in your life that you and your mom couldn’t share, but then your entire first book is about your mom. Do you find writing about people brings you closer to them?

SP: When I sat down to do interviews with my family members, it carved out a space to talk about Mom. That was really wonderful. We are New Englanders, so we don’t usually talk about our feelings.

EB: I was born and raised in Massachusetts. I get it.

SP: But the interviews gave us that space to talk about our feelings. My family loves me and would do anything for me, but I think there was sometimes that sentiment of why are you writing about something you can’t change? Going over painful memories isn’t something they do usually. But it was a really good opportunity to do that, to reclaim those memories, to do some processing, and I think everyone was happier at the end of our conversations. I had one uncle who told me all kinds of things about his father that he said he had never told anyone, almost none of which made it into the book. I had never heard him say more than three words in a row—he is the quietest guy in the world. So I was really nervous going into the interview with him. But as soon as I turned on my recorder he spoke nonstop for an hour and half. I barely said anything.

EB: That’s amazing.

SP: My Aunt Glenice—she isn’t done reading the book yet—sent me a text when she started it the other night that said, You brought Crystal back to us. So that felt so good. And my mom’s friend Linda left me a voicemail, which I was nervous about because we had fallen out of touch again, and I felt kind of guilty about that, but she left me a teary message saying, You pulled it off, you really did it, Crystal would be so proud.

EB: Oh, wow. That’s so intense. I feel like writing a memoir is already such a loaded experience, and the stakes are just so high in this case. I really admire you tackling this story. I hope the rest of your family’s reactions are as positive.

SP: Thanks. Me too.

EB: Obviously this project had its own set of very specific challenges, which you’ve already mentioned, but, more generally, what do you find most challenging about writing nonfiction?

SP: Blending narrative and research. Figuring out the tone was hard. There were a lot of things I wanted to make overt in this book—how misogyny and male entitlement were operating as part of the story, and earlier drafts had some essayistic digressions that really broke up the narrative and took the reader out of the mood I needed them in. So it was a constant process of cutting those back and figuring out how to deliver those ideas within the narrative of the story. I still have a statistic or two in the book, but it is really hard to land a statistic in a story. There’s one particular sentence (it cites rape statistics in America) that I feel like blares out on the page in this way—it doesn’t blend with the other sentences around it—but it the information it delivers was really important to me, so I kept it in.

Also, getting steeped in primary research documents and not letting them influence or dominate your writing style is really hard.

EB: I’m sure you were reading so much legalese for this, right? That must have been really hard.

SP: Yeah, there are some really weird linguistic tics that cops have. For example, these guys would never say somebody “said” something. The cops in this case always said someone “advised.”

EB: What? That’s so weird.

SP: I saw someone walk down the road, Bob advised. Just, why?

EB: So, on the flip side, what do you find rewarding about writing nonfiction?

SP: In this book, it gave me the opportunity—I mean, obviously there is no way to ever know everything about Mom’s life and the murder case—but in writing this book I had an excuse to research. And now I know more than I ever did before. When I started working on the book, I had this feeling that there were all these police officers and reporters who knew more about the most impactful thing that happened in my life than I did. There were people out there who knew more about Mom and her life than I did. And now that I have taken in this information and processed it, I feel more like a whole person.

I was also really fortunate that all the officials I interacted with for this project were really helpful. The process of obtaining documents and other types of access was smooth; I didn’t have to file any Freedom of Information Act requests or pay exorbitant copy fees, as is often the case. The book also gave me the opportunity to connect with other people in the community who were affected by the crime—now I feel more part of a community of people who knew her, not just the isolated grieving daughter. You kind of end up on a grief pedestal. If you’re an only child, people will consider you the primary mourner, and often, they don’t think it’s appropriate to talk to you about their pain. But I was interested. I wanted to know how this affected Mom’s friends and other people who loved her.

EB: That sort of connects to the last thing I wanted to ask about—there’s a line in your memoir where you say, “Writing gave me power.” You talk about writing being an escape from reality, but also a way to have control over your own life. How has writing nonfiction affected your life as a writer and also a person?

SP: It’s so satisfying to cast this wide net and synthesize everything so it’s useful to you and, hopefully, useful to other people, too. It’s really satisfying to do that work, and I think that has applied to my life as well. For the past seven years, working on this book, I’ve had such a clear sense of purpose. Every life decision I have made has filtered into this book. Everything I have done has felt in service to this story. But this story and my life have been evolving and changing as I go along. If you grow up with that story in your brain, you’re so often living in two parallel tracks—you’re living the thing and observing the thing, recording it, trying to figure out what it means. Writing this has sharpened that feeling. This story has also motivated me not to waste time, to take joy where I can find it, and to make sure my whole life is going to count to the degree that it can.

Also, over the past two and half years, I’ve become a fact-checker for my day job, which has really shaped how I think about how I take in information, both for me as a person and as a writer. It makes me a better researcher and also someone who is much more interested in writing fiction.

EB: I know what you mean! So many times when I was writing my MFA thesis I kept thinking, Ugh, this would be so much easier if this was a novel.

SP: When I started the book, I had the idea of genre blending, kind of like John D’Agata. But I quickly realized that in order to tell this story right, everything had to be factually straight up. Bringing in imagination would have sensationalized things I didn’t want to. I needed the research. I wanted everything to be factually verifiable. I didn’t want the door to be open for people to say I massaged things for political purposes or that I tried to make Mom look better than she really was.

EB: I was so impressed by how you were able to do that––portray your mom as a complicated, flawed person, who clearly you loved a lot, but who also wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t just some saint persona you had built in your memory.

SP: That was another thing that was hard, was getting people to talk to me like I was a grown up. With some people I interviewed, the last time they saw me I was twelve years old, and they would say, Well, I wouldn’t tell a twelve-year-old this, but because you’re a grown up… They had to keep reminding themselves. And I would lead them along, showing them what I already knew through police records. That got them to open up.

EB: That’s so hard. Jeez, if you write a narrative nonfiction that has nothing to do with your life it’s going to seem so easy after this.

SP: That’s why I’m attracted to it!

EB: Well, I’m glad that you were able to write this book, even if it was hard. Thank you for writing this book and for talking to me about it.

SP: Of course.

EB: Finally, do you have a favorite passage of nonfiction by a non-man?

SP: It’s so hard to call up any particular passage; I read so much nonfiction by non-men! Here are two brief moments from a book that I consider to be perfect, or damn near: Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy. This is near the beginning, when she is working as a pony handler for children’s birthday parties.

The singularity of meaning—I was my face, I was ugliness—though sometimes unbearable, also offered a possible point of escape. It became the launching pad from which to lift off, the one immediately recognizable place to point to when asked what was wrong with my life. Everything led to it, everything receded from it—my face as personal vanishing point.

And:

“What’s wrong with her face?”

The mothers bent down to hear this question, and, still bent over, they’d look over at me, their glances refracting away as quickly and predictably as light through a prism.

The first passage here so accurately and succinctly captures the complicated nature of having a traumatic subject define your life. And “vanishing point” and “refracting away” are just two of hundreds of pitch-perfect images Grealy employs. They’re all so precise and loaded with meaning.

E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.

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