Colum McCann is the internationally bestselling author of the novels Zoli, Dancer, This Side of Brightness, Songdogs, Let the Great World Spin (for which he won the National Book Award) as well as two critically acclaimed story collections. His fiction has been published in thirty languages.
Darin Strauss is the bestselling author of three previous books. The recipient of a Guggenheim in fiction writing and numerous other awards, Strauss has seen his work translated into fourteen languages and published in more than twenty countries.
Colum McCann: They say all stories are the same. Of course this can’t be true. The poem doesn’t swerve and suddenly become a thriller. The playright doesn’t necessarily know how to begin a rhyme. Can you discuss the challenges that face as a novelist who switches to memoir?
Darin Strauss: My training and my inclination is to invent. Memoir was in some ways an easier form (you skip the hard, dreaming-stuff-up work) and in some ways more difficult (Wait, you can’t just dream stuff up?). The novelist has permission to do whatever she chooses to supercharge whatever’s interesting in her story. This is also known as freedom. So, had this been a novel, I would’ve made the court case more steeply dramatic, for example. I couldn’t, of course.
But something about the exercise feels, for lack of a better word, pure. Trying only to remember what had happened—but exactly as it happened—and being reverent to the facts: trying to make something artful of that.
The challenge is being true and respectful and stylish, at once.
CM: This book is full of thunderbolts—wonderful subtle strikes of weather. Everybody is going to want to know if you had ever considered fictionalizing it.
DS: Thanks. But I’d never considered writing it at all. I thought the accident was going to be my lifelong secret, the past I wouldn’t let poke into the now. I told almost nobody. Writing began only when we had our twins, when I realized the accident happened half my life ago: impending fatherhood tends to focus the mind. I felt with new force that I’d never be able to feel it all — never truly comprehend just how awful the Zilkes’ loss must have been. I wrote merely as a way to take hold of my thoughts about this. (I write to figure out how I feel and what I know about something; I imagine you’re the same way.) So the book started as a little therapy project, and has ended up with me talking to you here. Which still feels strange to me—the big secret as participatory event.
CM: How did your having written about it—this therapy project of yours—change the way you thought about the accident?
DS: You know, Mailer wrote Armies of the Night as a response to an article in Time. He thought the reporter had misrepresented his (Mailer’s) behavior during an anti-Vietnam march. So Mailer begins his Armies by reprinting the entire Time article, and then there’s this: “Now we may leave the pages of Time to find out what really happened.” The resultant book is a 400-page letter to the editor.
I found myself with the same frustration, the same impulse, raised to a higher power. How crassly my local newspaper had portrayed the accident! As if the sadness-quotient depended on Celine’s having been the most popular kid, the class pretty girl, some kind of prom superstar. I felt protective of the real her, who had been made 2-D by the reporter, simplified into something she wasn’t. In fact, maybe that’s where my fiction training came into play—knowing how to return nuance to the story, and chiaroscuro. At least, I hope it did. I left the pages to Newsday to write what really happened.
CM: So, how do you feel now? I know how I felt when I first read the piece in GQ. It took my breath away. Quite literally. I remember gasping a moment. There is so much volume in a life.
DS: There is volume in each life, and a writer tries (at least sometimes) to turn it up, the better to transcribe the noise. Most people–healthy people–work to turn it down: to find a little quiet in which to live. Maybe that’s why it’s such a weird job.
I’m of a much stronger mind than ever about it now. At least I hope I am. This profession didn’t stifle my grief; it allowed me to feel it, and then at least to begin gesturing past it.
In my friend David Lipsky’s excellent book with/about David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Youself, Wallace says that a small part of who he is craves fame, but that this part “doesn’t get to drive.” The fact that Celine died is present still in who I am—it would be inhuman if it weren’t at least in some way present forever—but it doesn’t get to drive my life. I used to wonder what would’ve happened if Celine had cut in front of a perfect driver, a Mario Andretti. Would that have been enough to save her life? I think not; I think physics dictate that nobody could have avoided her. But I now understand this Andretti vs. Strauss question is useless. She cut in front of me. And I did my best to avoid her. That’s all I can control.
I recently heard from a friend of the girl’s—someone I never knew. She read Half a Life and told me: “Stop beating yourself up. She committed suicide. She talked and even wrote about death constantly in the week before she died.” I didn’t want to hear that—I don’t know if it’s true, and it’s also not my business. Celine around school seemed happy to me. (Though admittedly I didn’t know her well.) I did what I could to avoid hitting her, and that’s the only part that concerns me.
All the same, when the book was about to come out, I wanted to write Celine’s parents a letter, a warning. Of course, they’d sued me after having said they knew I was blameless — and promising they would always support me. But I never blamed them for anything. (How could I? They’d lost a daughter, and I was walking around.) So I wanted to spare them the pain of being surprised by the book. But the simple act of Googling them and writing the letter was hard—harder than writing the book. It never goes fully away.