Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ambulance Chaser

--- Lynn York

I live in Chapel Hill, NC, where we are all still trying to get our bearings after the murder of Eve Carson, student body president and shining light of the University of North Carolina. I did not know Eve myself. The things I know about her are the same things you know if you’ve read the newspaper or seen the news in the past week. She was not my daughter, my student, or my friend--though by all reports, my life would have been enriched if she had been. I just can’t stop reading about every detail of the case. I can’t stop thinking about her, her family, and wondering exactly how something so awful happened in our little town. I do not mean to put any claim on this terrible tragedy. In fact, I am suspicious when people try to take up for themselves some small corner of someone else’s tragedy. Of course, this is just what I am doing. As a writer, I do it every day: I trade on the sorrow in the world. And though I can’t think of how to write a book otherwise, it makes me uneasy.

When I was writing my first novel about the little town in Surry County, NC where I grew up, I got about fifty pages into the thing and realized that I had no idea for a plot. I just kept writing scenes, hoping something would develop. Finally, I had my main character, a fiftyish widow, standing in her front yard in her nightgown the middle of the night. We were both feeling a little desperate, looking up and down the street to see if something (anything) was coming toward us. It was then that I got an image of the town ambulance—one of those old modified station wagons with a red light on top. It was owned by the funeral home and doubled as a hearse. I put the vehicle in my scene, had it cruise past my character, and suddenly, I knew why it was there. In five minutes, I had co-opted the only murder that occurred in this town during my childhood. In the late sixties, two policemen had been killed out on the town bypass by a car load of young car thieves. As a child, I had heard every detail of this crime, and in the fire of writing, I took what I needed.

The only way I know how to complete the first draft of a book is to grab character traits, images, small appliances, cuss words, nasty rumors, and whatever else off the shelf of my memory—and to ask only one question about each morsel: how can it serve the story I am trying to tell? In the heat of a draft, I’ll use anything. I save the remorse for the revision. And in the case of the police murder, I did feel it. Once I’d finished the first draft of my book, I researched the actual murders. I read about the real men who had lost their lives, about the havoc their loss caused in the town. It was eerie to see their faces, to know the names of their wives, to read the details about events that I had been picturing in my mind and writing about for months. I got a sort of tug in my gut, the kind of thing I felt as a child when I got caught snooping in my mother’s private drawer. “You got no business in there,” is what she would have said to me, “no right to get into my things.”

This is something I worry about when I publish a novel—that I have snooped around and taken out someone’s unmentionables, flapped them around for everyone to see. Certainly, I disguise unflattering details, change names. I make many things up, though it’s hard to create events that haven’t happened to someone close by. I try to protect the innocent, the unknowing, the long-ago widowed, in every way I can. I worry, I worry, but in the end, I do it anyway. I have to. I can’t write about a man overcoming a nasty stroke unless I spend several tearful days giving him one. I can’t begin to understand a widow’s grief over her husband’s suicide until I visit the moment when she hears the gun go off. Since I have been very lucky in my life so far, truly blessed, I do not have a wealth of direct experience to guide my work. I have to go with those things I can witness in some way and then confer the experience on my characters. Even this, though, does not explain my near-obsession with the things I read in the news paper: strange crime stories, small items involving animals, celebrity news, and of course, the obituaries.

I know I am not alone in this prurient interest. At the Southern Voices Conference in Hoover, AL recently, Carl Hiaasen regaled the crowd for an hour with weird and hilarious news stories he’d found over the years in Florida’s newspapers. He noted that many of the stories were so strange that he couldn’t even find a way to put them into fiction. A couple of years back, I was at lunch with a bunch of writers when the talk turned to a local murder case. Everyone was well-versed in the details, and after a few minutes, we each confessed to having driven by the crime scene.

We writers are not the only ones. The highways get clogged everyday with rubberneckers. And just stand in the super market line for five minutes. You’ll see ten magazines reporting the troubles of the celebrity class. This gets back to why we do it. Maybe it’s hard wiring. Maybe it’s just human to obsess about the troubles of others. Maybe we think that rubbernecking will ward off our own trouble; maybe we’ll learn something to keep ourselves from falling off the cliff. I’m not sure that I can ward off anything, but I have to look. I have to go after all the details. Even if it makes me uneasy, this kind of obsession brings me to my best means for making sense of the world: getting it down on paper.

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Carrboro, NC. Her website is


A Good Blog Is Hard to Find said...

As always, a wonderful essay and beautiful writing! You bravely open your own drawer and flap your unmentionables and what do we see? Only that we're a lot more alike than we are different, and that we're not alone, which is something we all need to be reminded of, especially after a tragedy like the one in Chapel Hill last week.

Kerry Madden said...

This was just beautiful, Lynn, and so right to the heart of the story. Thank you. I worry over everything you just described.

All best
Kerry Madden