On LitHub’s Authors in the Tent, Ona Russell recently interviewed true crime writer, Caitlin Rother. Rother’s written 14 books. As a Pulitzer-nominated investigative journalist, she worked nearly 20 years for daily newspapers. She draws from decades of watchdog reporting on topics from addiction to suicide, mental illness, murder, government, political corruption and the criminal justice system. All of this contributes to her her latest work, DEATH ON OCEAN BOULEVARD: Inside the Coronado Mansion Case (Kensington/Citadel Press), a terrifically addictive true crime book about the death case of Rebecca Zahau, “the Coronado mansion murder.”
Russell’s interview with Rother deals with this case. But the bit of the interview that really sticks with me, weeks after watching, is the connection between the Zahau case she writes about, and Rother’s own history. The authorities called Zahau’s death a suicide by hanging. (And boy does that call get complicated.) But in her interview, Rother also talks briefly about her first husband’s own suicide by hanging, a revelation that stopped me. Was this why she was drawn to the case?
Maybe you know the phrase, origin story, from comic books and the movies that spin out from them. It refers to the backstory that reveals how a character becomes a protagonist or antagonist, how she gains her superpower. The bite of a radioactive spider that explains why Spiderman lives as he does.
In Maggie O’Farrell’s novel, Hamnet, she writes, “Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.” Her premise is that the questions surrounding the death of his own son, Hamnet, is what leads Shakespeare to write his masterpiece, Hamlet.
It isn’t just characters who have origin stories. Authors have them, too.
I once saw author Amy Tan deliver a lecture in which she described her mother pushing her against the wall, with a knife to her throat, when Tan was only twelve years old. Tan said that moment is in every book she’s ever written. Not that exact scene, but the emotions within it, the construct, the more-powerful person threatening a less-powerful one. The wrongness and terror of it. For Tan, in a way, it is the origin story of much of her fiction, the kernel of her fiction.
I’m not saying you can read fiction and rightly assume the characters and story are autobiographical. No. Just that most authors are drawn to write about their own life’s questions they still seek to answer, the life wounds they still seek to heal. It’s the why of what they do.
What do you think?
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