Doug Crandell makes his first appearance in EQMM with the story “Shanty Falls,” in our current issue (January/February 2019). We have another of his stories coming up soon. He is the author of the 2007 Barnes & Noble Discover pick, The Flawless Skin of Ugly People, as well as three other novels and two memoirs, and he has received a number of endowments for his fiction, including one from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation. He’s also distinguished in the field of short fiction, having recently won Glimmer Train’s Family Matters short-story contest. In this post he talks about one of the roots of his writing, and what led him to crime fiction. —Janet Hutchings
When I was a child, we knew our grandmother’s brother had been killed, but the details were mostly hushed and vague. The secrecy of that awful fact set my mind aglow with possible explanations. I suppose the varied ways I heard the story told, by different narrators, stirred in me a desire to understand not only what had happened to my great uncle, but storytelling itself, the way one storyteller would choose details versus another. It was thrilling to listen, to see the images in my mind that were created with the spoken word. Later, as I began choosing my own reading materials, I found myself intrigued with family crimes, with the ways in which love gets entangled with temper, distrust and hurt. I couldn’t have used the phrase “character motivation” at the time, but I sensed grownups rarely knew why they did the things they did, and that only upon closer inspection did those reasons become clearer.
As a writer, I found a book early on called Movies in the Mind: How to Build a Short Story by Colleen Mariah Rae which resonated with me. Her advice to short-story writers to “dig the clay” and “tap the well” made sense to me. I often found myself thinking about the secrets in my own family, not just the large ones, but the smaller ones too, the kind that percolate just under the surface in our own subconscious and lead us places that in the real world may be off limits, but when filtered through fiction not only form fertile ground, but become crucial to our own understanding of personal motivation.
Of course, like many writers, I don’t pretend to know all the reasons I enjoy writing, and reading, but I knew that my stories often held mysteries, crimes, thrilling revelations. Most of those were linked back to my great uncle’s death, which, in the end, was nothing less than a murder at the hands of a sheriff’s posse. At the age of seventeen, Leonard and a few unnamed others left a note on the porch of a former county commissioner named Thomas Modesitt, stating his home would be blown up within twenty-four hours unless five hundred dollars was left in a culvert south of Cory, Indiana, at 9 PM that Tuesday night. Modesitt went to Sheriff Roy Tipton, who instructed him to wrap a stack of blank paper in a package and deposit this decoy in the culvert. Sheriff Tipton assured Modesitt a posse would be formed to catch those responsible.
As mystified as I was as a child about the circumstances, I found as an adult writer that my work was almost always influenced by what had happened, and how the story was transmitted from one generation to the next. Some relatives saw the crime as shameful, something that brought disgrace to the family, while others set Great Uncle Leonard’s young death as a tragic hero’s story, and still others simply told the story, using colorful language, specific details, and a narrative arc to keep the listener’s attention. I liked all the POVs, but that last one, where words were used to cast settings, describe sounds, faces, smells, and colors made the hairs on my arms stand up.
I found this focus on details in Rae’s Movies in the Mind book. One exercise I continue to use is the Seventh Sense. Rae asks writers to attempt to physically inhabit a character’s body, to stand, eat, drink a beer, and describe a sound from their POV. At first, it seemed silly to me, but then, more than twenty years ago, I tried it with my Great Uncle Leonard. I’d not yet researched or written about this specific family crime, but something about imagining how my seventeen-year-old distant kin from the 1930s would’ve have walked, how he might have run into an Indiana cornfield before being shot from behind, unleashed the deeply set identification I’d harbored of him after all the decades of hearing the story. It was as if I’d found a way, with Rae’s help and my great uncle’s guidance, to write “inside” a character rather than just putting on his or her mask while at the computer composing. The writing didn’t magically become easier, nor did every piece feel fully preformed, but I could move from my great uncle to others, getting inside their bodies and minds to more fully create stories.
As I wrote more and published short stories and novels, the family crime was always with me—not that it figured into every plot or character, but as some elemental trace of loss that was in the background. Curious, I started to search out other writers who’d been similarly impacted, some I knew personally, others I’d only read about. Of course, James Ellroy’s mother’s murder when he was just ten was the most prominent and there were other infamous ones as well, but what I became interested in were the lesser known writers like me who also carried around family criminal secrets. Some writers told me about their father’s severe gambling addiction, another relayed how the disappearance of an aunt on his mother’s side was taboo to talk about. There were stories of laundering money, a connection with the mafia, and two writers who both had domestic violence in their past to such a degree that relocation was necessary for safety. The topic intrigued me and shocked me as well; so many people trying to take tragedy and turn it into something useful, maybe not spiritually meaningful, but narratively so, which, in a way, can shine light on what it means to be human and not, inhumane and afraid.
One version of the story about my great uncle was my favorite. We’d been on a rare family trip back to where my parents had grown up in southwestern Indiana. It was for the funeral of a second cousin I’d never known. On a relative’s farm, after the funeral service, the adults began crowding into the kitchen, eating and talking, but then a splinter group formed in an adjacent room. The man telling stories was not my kin, and I’d never seen him before. He brought up the story and the others nodded their heads, slowly eating apple pie with cheddar cheese wedges from small saucers. I stayed back in a little alcove and listened. I knew the story, and so did the storyteller, and all the others, so delivery and detail would have to hold our attention.
The man spent time describing the specific color of green in the first few rows of the cornfield where Great Uncle Leonard rushed to avoid the shotgun blast. The man stood up and walked slowly about the room as he continued the story, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. At one point, he paused, right before announcing what was in the box. “All that was in that damn box was curlycue papers.”
That choice of word, while I’d heard it before from my mother, stayed with me, and whenever I thought about the story from then on, I pictured my great uncle, a teenager, lying beside the decoy box as he died, face to the ground, blood at the base of his neck, as the little spirals of newspaper lifted, then sailed upward, some catching on high corn tassels, others drifting on to distant fields, carried as far away as the rich river bottoms. That singular word choice, chosen by someone I didn’t know, made me understand, much later, the power of a storyteller to recall details, even the ones we think we know.