Fall 2007, Volume 24.1
Becky Jo Gesteland McShane
Beyond Death: A Conversation with Alice Sebold
Becky Jo Gesteland McShane is an associate professor in the English Department at Weber State University, where she teaches classes in content management and professional and technical writing. After completing a PhD in American Studies at the University of Utah, she worked for several years as a technical writer. Now Becky searches for ways to combine her interests in cultural studies and technical communication. Her latest project investigates the spiritual aspects of knitting and the conventions of knitting patterns. In her spare time, Becky hikes and skis the Wasatch Mountains with her family.
Born in 1963 in Madison, Wisconsin, Alice Sebold grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in a family that loved books. She attended Syracuse University, where she experienced a life-changing event at the end of her freshman year. Walking back to her dorm one night, Sebold was attacked and brutally raped. It would take her more than fifteen years to write about this horrific event. Sebold returned to Syracuse, identified her rapist (who was arrested), finished her baccalaureate degree, and moved to Texas to pursue an MFA at the University of Houston. However, she only stayed ten months in the program because she realized that she needed to experience more of life before she could write. She then went to Manhattan, where she lived for ten years.
After lots of "experience" in New York—including a dabbling in heroin—Sebold decided to move to southern California. There, she re-encountered nature and reconnected with her writing. She entered the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine, in 1995 and began writing a novel about a girl who is raped and murdered. As she started to tell the story of Susie Salmon, Sebold realized that she needed to get her own story out of the way first. So fifteen years after the rape, she wrote a memoir describing her experience: the violent attack, her reactions, her emotions, people’s responses to her, the trial, the prosecution, and the eventual conviction of her rapist. Published in 1999, Lucky received positive reviews but tended to reach only a small body of readers: those interested in rape recovery. The title came from something one of the police officers told Sebold. Another young woman had been raped in the same location, but that woman had been killed. Sebold, it seems, was "lucky."
After writing the memoir, Sebold returned to Susie Salmon, who tells her story from the postmortem perspective of heaven. When it was published in 2002, The Lovely Bones became an overnight success, selling two and a half million copies in hardcover—a record for a first novel. An international bestseller, the book has sold 10 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 40 languages. Peter Jackson is writing and directing the movie version this fall. Sebold currently lives in California with her husband, writer Glen David Gold.
On March 31, 2006, I met Alice Sebold in the lobby of the Hampton Inn in downtown Ogden. Alice is modest: she didn’t want to be photographed, but politely conceded. And rather than look at the photo of herself in the local newspaper I gave her, she made a point of covering it with a copy of Weber Studies: "I’ll just keep this right here," she said, carefully positioning the journal over the photo. We finally settled into a corner away from the noise of the soda machines and began.
Thanks for coming to the National Undergraduate Literature Conference. I know you choose your speaking engagements carefully. What made you choose this one?
Basically because it’s undergraduates. I think a lot of writers seem to be much more drawn to the nature of doing something for undergraduates, because you don’t get that opportunity very often; it’s usually all graduate students.
I teach interviewing strategies in my professional and technical writing classes. I’ve read and analyzed lots of interviews, and I’ve interviewed lots of job candidates, but I’ve never conducted an interview that I intended to publish. So as I was preparing for our conversation today, I thought about your own experience as you researched your book Lucky. In addition to reading your journals, reviewing police reports and court transcripts, and looking at photographs—experiences that, I understand, were mind-blowing—what strategies did you use to gather information? Did you interview anybody? What was that experience like? I know you’ve been interviewed many, many times; what makes or breaks a good interview for you?
When you use the word "strategies," that is so alien immediately to me. I never really feel like I have a strategy. I distrust any word like "strategy" or "outline" just because, you know, the memoir that I wrote is not straight journalism in the way that perhaps you need more of a strategy to do. So I just let things unfold, one thing to another to another. Something that was very helpful to me was that the assistant district attorney on the case was open to the idea of meeting, and she discovered that there was still an evidence box that was around years later and she put me in touch with the district attorney’s office currently, because she had left that office, so that I could have access to certain parts of the evidence box. There were certain things I’m not legally allowed to see. So that was helpful. And just returning to Syracuse, but I only took one trip—it’s not like I took multiple trips. But I didn’t, for instance, interview my parents or friends at that time because it was a memoir, so that really means it’s from my point of view, because I’m not trying for a completely objective idea of it.
In terms of successful interviews, I have no idea. Some of them, you walk away from them feeling like, "that was good," and then others you don’t. I think it also has a lot to do with the chemistry between the person who’s interviewing you and yourself. But there isn’t one particular thing that I’ve been able to identify as a good interview.
I use the word "strategies" because I teach interviewing strategies to my students, and they want to know how to prepare and conduct a good interview. Personally, however, I think I approach things much more on a gut-level, like you do. —So, your assistant-district attorney was open to meeting with you fifteen years later? Did a lot of information open up to you later on that way?
Yeah, it did. I had what I consider back-up information, because, really, your memory is the major source, but it’s true because I was a note-taking kid and a journal-writing kid. So, for instance, I read something last night in which I talk about buying a Teem soda and a peach yogurt right before I ran into my rapist. And it’s because I wrote down exactly all the things of that evening. Otherwise, twenty years or fifteen years later, I never would have remembered "Teem soda and peach yogurt." So it also has a lot to do with that, I think.
In his memoir A Million Little Pieces (2003), James Frey claims that he used "certain embellishments." In his note to readers, published online, he argues that "memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection." More recently we’ve learned that the writer Nasdijj (aka Tim Barrus) seems to have fabricated a Navajo identity for his memoirs, The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams (2000), The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping (2003), and Geronimo’s Bones: A Memoir of My Brother and Me (2004). Obviously the degree of deceit—if we conclude the writers have indeed been deceiving us—varies widely between the two, but what effect do you think these incidents might have on the publishing world?
I think there are con men in every profession, so to me it isn’t a new thing, nor is it really mind-blowing. That’s kind of how I feel about both of those instances. I also think that I don’t know either one of the writers, and I haven’t read either one of their works. Both of them could have written books that are enjoyable to read and good reads, so it depends on what you want to pick up a book for. If you want to pick up a book because it’s enjoyable to read, then what’s the con? I think people don’t like to be duped, but it makes me highly uncomfortable. I think writing is one of those professions where a lot of people think that we’re like members of the cloth—we should all have some kind of moral higher status, but there’s scum everywhere, in every profession. In terms of how it will change publishing. Well, publishing just does not have the money to do the fact checks that later everyone becomes horrified that they didn’t do. It’s not Hollywood. I think what it will mean is they’ll acquire fewer memoirs and not the legal vetting system but kind of the personal vetting system. If somebody is known by many people before the book is acquired, they’ll have a better chance of it getting acquired. But it also means that certain people’s voices maybe need to be heard more than somebody who went to Yale and knows everybody’s brother and sister. Such memoirs won’t be published at all. So that’s the sad part about it, I think.
That is the downside, that’s my concern. Historically, it seems, there is sort of an interest in memoir, a popularity, and then it seems we go into this cycle of liking fiction again and then we suddenly like autobiographies again.
There’s a false battle between memoir and fiction. Whatever sells really well, there will be lots of books because of that. A memoir that does really well, like Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, I think prompted a lot of publishers to begin publishing more memoirs. It’s a business; that’s the other thing people forget about publishing—it’s a business. They’re there to make money. From my own experience, never in a million years did I think that I would be seen as a moneymaker by a publisher, but I am now. But that wasn’t how they saw me when they acquired me. You can’t predict success but you can try to copy it, which is what I think publishing does.
I wasn’t thinking about this initially, but did Lucky make money before?
But now it is?
Yeah, after The Lovely Bones. I didn’t even sell paperback rights to Lucky, which is kind of a way that a book is dead, because it only sat on the shelf in hardback at Barnes & Noble for a few months and then it disappeared. Everybody always says, "Maybe in paper it will do better," or whatever, but without paper you don’t have a good chance. But Little, Brown bought Lucky paperback rights from Scribner for $1,500—they own the rights, but they’ve chosen never to publish it. They did very well. They got a deal.
In one of your interviews you mentioned that you feel that the rape victim’s anonymity furthers her sense of shame. The more I think about this argument, the more sense it makes to me. The more we hide certain behaviors, the more we condone them. I think of domestic abuse, child molestation, and certainly rape. Victims go on feeling stigmatized and victimized by a society that claims to be helping them by shielding them. I think this might be a patriarchal defense mechanism: "I am man. I will protect you from the bad guy." Is this how you view it, or am I over-reaching here?
(Laughs) It’s a long question, like: patriarchal forces of evil! My feeling is that it has to be an individual choice. Depending who you were raped by, your family or whatever, you might choose to keep that private. All I would say is that I would call on any women who feel not burdened by those things: just go out and use your names, because it does just increase the stigma or continue the stigma, if you don’t use your name.
I was trying to make this argument with my husband this morning, but it’s so personal. I mean, we publish murder victims’ names; we publish robbery victims’ names, and to some people those things are as personal. It sort of depends on the person.
It’s also this thing as to why it’s personal, because it’s connected to the sexual and the sexual is connected to shame. If you disconnect it from the sexual by using the name, then you also disconnect the shame from it.
During one of your question and answer sessions yesterday, you mentioned a book written by a rapist who describes his victims as sponges. I thought this was an amazing metaphor. Once he uses them up he throws them away. What’s the name of this book?
I don’t remember the name of the book, but the rapist’s name was Randall Carr. I found it in the special collections of a New York public library. I don’t know how widely published it ever was. It was a real book. It wasn’t really a memoir; I don’t really know what it was, actually. I was doing a lot of research for some thing else at that time, and I just happened to find that book and that line struck me. It’s something I’ve never forgotten because I do think it explains, or helps to explain, to anyone who is trying to understand the motivation of a rapist or pedophile or anything like that, a psychological way that they have of looking at their victims—to regard them as a sponge.
That object thing.
Exactly, you’re a sponge.
So this man presumably served time or was serving time?
I don’t remember. He raped several men—boys. I don’t think he ever would have had the book published unless he had been found and served time.
I think that in some ways you’ve become the voice for the dead—I was thinking about this as I read your piece for 9/11: "Living with the Dead"—the voice for the voices of those who’ve passed over to the other side. You first speak about this transformation in Lucky when you return to the dorm, forever changed. Then, in The Lovely Bones, the character of Susie inhabits the Inbetween. And then in "Living with the Dead," you speculate about the dead in a voice, which like Susie’s, seems to act as a go-between, inhabiting another world and returning to tell us about it. I feel that you’ve developed a kind of vocal authority on this topic.
I think all I can say there is "thank you" (laughs).
You have! I felt when I was reading "Living with the Dead" that you’ve reached this point. Were you asked to submit that piece to The New York Times?
Yes, I was asked to.
You have indeed become someone to be approached, to give us this sort of view from beyond—to be a voice for the dead. Do you like being seen that way?
I think what I would say is that I don’t mind it, but I’d also say that I certainly wouldn’t be the only one. I think what happens is that whenever anybody becomes sort of known for something, they immediately feel that they don’t want to wear those clothes anymore. I would like to be the voice for many things, not just the dead.
That is a little macabre. But it’s been neat to have access to that place.
I’ve been very lucky in that. I feel like that’s something that came from working on my novel, but it’s also something that I feel like I had some access to for a very long time. I’ve always been fascinated by it. You know, morbid kids grow up to be morbid adults.
Do you watch TV, at all?
Not a lot, no. I watch movies more.
If you don’t watch TV, are you aware of the phenomenon of CSI and all these new crime shows? What place in society does that serve?
I haven’t seen a lot of them; I’ve seen a couple of them. I think it’s our desire to control things. We’re fascinated by evidence and that there has to be a way to solve everything. These shows kind of create mysteries without taking mystery away. And there’s something to be said for that.
I think, control the idea that there are consequences, that there’s always justice. All of that.
I’m just amazed that every night there’s some new show.
I don’t know why. At some point a couple years ago, I stopped watching TV. When you live in southern California, you drive in LA and they’ve got billboards up advertising some TV show coming up five minutes from now and then the thing is cancelled and the billboard lasts longer than the show. There’s so much brain trash that removing yourself completely from it, I think, is probably the only alternative.
I guess this is an interesting segue. The fan list, I’m not sure how active it is. I found this when I googled. The fan list for The Lovely Bones? Did you know that there was one?
I don’t know. I’ve had the chance to stay off the Internet and not put my name in Google.
In one of the interviews I heard you do, you talked about some of the concerns you have about our society and people not connecting. And one of the things that I’ve done with some of my research is look at how people are trying to connect virtually, via the worldwide web. What do you make of these blogs and blogging and that kind of thing? Do you think they can serve for, say, creative writing? Lots of writers blog. Joy Harjo has a pretty active blog.
Right, I haven’t checked out a lot of blogs. I think they can serve the writer’s needs in whatever way. I mean the nice thing about it is that it’s total freedom and absolute immediate gratification in terms of getting a message out there, getting your work out there. And because I haven’t investigated it enough, I wouldn’t be conversant on the downside of it, so I assume the upside, but I don’t know the downside.
Yeah, and the downside might be that your work is out there for absolutely everybody and that you might get bombarded with who knows what.
I think that most people who do that know their work is out there for everyone to see, and that’s one of the reasons why they do it.
Yesterday afternoon, you read a passage about the women playing music and the dogs in heaven and everyone’s dancing around, and you said this was a shout-out. You’re not religious, yet you’ve said elsewhere that you believe in dogs—that there’s a certain spirituality there. So what is it about dogs?
Well, dogs, plants, nature. I mean, I would just say the natural world I believe in. I was in the dentist’s office the day before I came here, and I’ve never encountered this before, but he actually has movies that you can choose to watch while you’re getting your teeth worked on. He also has a lovely office with a window with this tree outside. And for me, when I’m getting my teeth drilled, I would much rather just see a branch kind of move quietly in the air as something that’s calming during a stressful experience, rather than try to follow a movie. So to me, that’s what I think I would say is the natural world. It’s something that I’ve found and I think this is something that happens to a lot of people, as you get older. It provides you more and more solace. And dogs are an incredibly animated and wonderful part of that natural world that can come right into your bed, as it were, with their victories.
And they don’t talk to you, they don’t demand any sort of response necessarily—except a physical response.
Right, they have nothing to do with words in that way. And because I am kind of known at this point for liking dogs, will talk about dogs at the drop of a hat, I get asked to contribute to anthologies about dogs or write about dog things. So far, I can’t say that I’ll always say no, but so far I have said no because the one thing that I love about Lily, my dog, is that she doesn’t care what I’ve written, she doesn’t care if it did well, she doesn’t want to read my work, she doesn’t want to talk about it—she has nothing to do with that part. So that’s kind of why I like to keep dogs separate from my writing.
I’ve always been a dog person and my husband doesn’t understand my need to have dogs. He said when he was growing up they didn’t have dogs. I’m the kind of person that when he leaves the bed, the dog gets to come in the bed. It doesn’t take away from the relationship I have with him, but it’s different. It’s different with cats. I had a cat growing up.
We have two cats and a dog. I love them all, but dogs are what I grew up with, so I think that’s where my heart went first.
You were born in Madison, Wisconsin? Do you any have memories of it?
Snow taller than me. That’s about it. I left when I was three, then we moved to Rockville, Maryland. I remember the endless snow. To a three-year-old, it seems pretty incredible.