Pope Brock   Writing Indiana Gothic  
photo of Pope Brock


Ham's mother, Mama Dillon

Ham and Maggie Dillon on their wedding day

Three generations: Emma Thompson, Maggie, and Maggie's daughter Ruth
  The first I ever heard that I had a great-grandfather who had been murdered was when I was maybe 20, and it was no more than a whiff of a rumor then. My grandfather (Ham's son) never mentioned it once to his own wife, and he was married to her for fifty years. Many years later, my great-aunt Ruth--another of Ham's children--was deep in her eighties and starting to get frail. Because I was a journalist, she suggested I tape some of her recollections of her girlhood in Indiana, something to pass along through the family. So we met a couple of times. In the course of this she made the first reference I ever heard to the killing of her father. It was still difficult for her to talk about eighty years later. But she got out a little bit, that Ham had been killed by his jealous brother-in-law. About Ham and Allie she said, "I think there was an affair." That was about it. She did add that Link Hale, the shooter, had been found insane and died soon after in an asylum. Not true either, as I learned later, but I think her memory was being kind to her. It was eerie to see the little girl in her still racked by the loss of her father.

My aunt died soon after that. I never considered pursuing the story because I never thought there was enough of an independent trail. My cousin did though. In 1994 she wrote to the library in Indiana in the town where the murder happened asking if there were newspaper clippings. When she got them she passed it on to me. That's when I realized the story could make a book. What had just been rumors or clues before were suddenly incidents and scenes. I discovered how dramatic the murder had been and how raucous the trial. And I learned for the first time that the affair had produced a child, who was essentially the catalyst for the killing. They were just fragments of a storyline still, but I could smell a complete tale for the first time.

Starting Indiana Gothic, I knew I was going to have to stretch beyond the kind of writing I'd done before, but I thought about that as little as possible so I wouldn't get scared. I had no idea what a voyage the writing would turn out to be. I feel like it's cracked me open as a writer more than anything else could have.

My writing career before the book was basically feature journalism for a bunch of magazines. I was originally inspired to go into that line of work by the pantheon of great New Journalists from the 60s--Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese. I was very excited by the idea of bringing colorful scenes and characters into journalism, telling a story with it, etc. I didn't realize that even when I was starting out, the golden age was passing.

When I started my research, I wasn't exactly on expert on Indiana. When I was in college, I remember driving through it with friends headed toward the West Coast. "Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair" was playing on the radio. I knew little about the midwest and less about farming. Now I actually think that was good because the research really was like discovering another planet. Farming. Who knew? Once I got out to Indiana, I found other news clips and court documents about the story itself, but I also had to do a ton of research beforehand on the minutiae of Indiana farm life back then, using oral histories, mostly, and whatever else I could get my hands on.

Once I began to write it, I realized--gradually; it was like edging out onto the ice--that I was going to have to invent or elaborate scenes and take command of the characters the way a novelist would to give them the third dimension. The first scene I "elaborated" was the incident where the boy Denton tries to commit suicide. I think I picked it because it only involved one character and no dialogue. It was a way to get my feet wet. The kernel I was working from was one sentence in a newspaper account of the trial, where one of the psychiatrists for the defense made reference to Denton trying to shoot himself in an outhouse. I fell on that like a hungry dog. If that's not a scene, what is?

I'd never written fiction before. But what gave me the courage to fictionalize a number of the scenes, and invent all that dialogue, was my background as an actor. (I worked professionally for a few years, onstage in NYC and a few regional theaters. My old shrink must have a couple of boxes of notes in storage about the years of conflict I went through about whether to stay with acting or go into journalism. I finally went with writing because it offered more variety and independence, though I still try to keep a couple of toes in acting: still have my SAG and Equity cards, still belong to the Players Club.) Rule number one of acting training is that characters don't show up to be clever, or behave "characteristically." The question you as an actor always have to ask yourself is, What have I come onstage to do? In other words, playing a character is utterly task and goal-oriented. That's how I approached the writing of scenes. Virtually no small-talk. Keeping the drives of the characters, and the conflicts resulting, always in mind. I've come to think anybody interested in writing fiction ought to take a few acting classes.

There was something about writing of my ancestors, too, that gave me the feeling I had the right to make sort of blood guesses at psychology and motivation with (probably spurious) confidence. It was as if I knew these people in my forearms and my bones. Imagination meets archaeology. I realized that some family traits in my generation seem to have been common to my ancestors as well: for example, strong will--or selfishness, depending on your point of view. One example of a blood guess: portraying my grandfather, whom I knew pretty well in his 50s and 60s, as a little boy. That character was very clear to me. There was something cathartic not just about blowing the lid on the whole story, but in wrestling with relatives, in my imagination, from angles you wouldn't usually approach them from.

I think there were two main things driving me through the writing. One was simply to explode the family secret. There was something cathartic about that. The other was finding my way through the hybrid of fiction and nonfiction that the book gradually became. I had never tried to do anything like that before, and to me it was fascinating. I'd never written that way before, and had never really thought there could be such a process. Books were fiction or nonfiction, period. With this, I'd take an incident, or a scrap of information, or an enigmatic reference in a newspaper clip ("the incident in the swing," unexplained), and begin to imagine it, bore into it, till it began to find color and shape. Gradually the facts flowered into something more. The test was always that I had to believe in what I was picturing as surely as I believed in the facts I was starting from. It's hard to explain it without sounding pretentious. But there were times I felt like Rod Taylor in The Time Machine, as if I'd found a new way to teleport. Other times I felt like a dullard, snapping pencils in two, etc.

Part of the charge of writing it was the kick of feeling it was a very unusual kind of book, sort of a memoir without the memories. So while I didn't have a precise model in mind as I was writing, there are a lot of writers who have soaked into me over the years whose work I revere and who have given me goals in terms of style. I love Dickens for the hallucinatory intensity of his writing. It's extremely visual, and I believe absolutely in trying to do the same in my own work. I think if you can make the physical reality surrounding the characters vivid and palpable to the reader, it lends credence and depth to the characters themselves. I love Keats for the same reason--the only poet I know who uses all five senses. I'm a big fan of dark humorists and have certainly been influenced by them--for example, Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, playwrights like Pinter and Orton. Throughout the book I tried to knit gleams of humor into what was obviously a pretty dark tale.

By the time I'd finished it, it seemed like a novel to me, though one so closely based on a true story that I wouldn't call it fiction. Ultimately I just wanted to make the joints between fiction and nonfiction seamless so that it stops being a concern in the reader's mind and you're just powered along by the story.
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Copyright © 1999 Pope Brock.

Photo credit © Jerry Bauer