“On Writing a Real Life Murder,” by David McConnell, author of American Honor Killings
Some artists feel a touch of envy for the crystalline truths of science; what they offer in the way of truth can seem as mushy and dubious as wine-speak. I happen to be an admirer of connoisseurship (though a lot of people scorn it as elitist nowadays), but when I decided to try nonfiction after cutting my teeth on fiction, I wanted to be a little more science-like. For one thing, real world murders—the subject of American Honor Killings—shook up my notions of refinement. They shook ME up, frankly.
I needed to figure out how to get the truth of horrific events on the page, a project any writer knows requires a lot of art, without ever being merely “artsy.” I had to learn the scientific rules of journalism without falling into its lifeless routines.
Murder can be unwritable as AAA journalism because there’s often just one source: the killer. That was my problem in the case of Steve Domer, murdered in Oklahoma in 2007. Domer was killed by Darrell Madden and Bradley Qualls, who posed as hustlers and hijacked Domer when he picked them up. Later, fearing Qualls was about to go to the police, Madden shot his partner to death. Madden would be the only source for Domer’s last hours, a crucial episode in my book. How I turned that lost night’s outrage into my “story,” and learned what does and doesn’t work in journalism as I went along, is a story in its own right.
In response to my first formal letter, Madden wrote me that he had a “real story” to tell. Once you’re sentenced to life without parole, as Madden was, your story may be the only currency you have left. There had been a great deal of local coverage of his arrest and trial, so he didn’t sound too surprised to be contacted by a journalist (though I’d carefully called myself a “writer”). He had dreams of money and movies.
Our initial exchange was something of a negotiation. I’d contacted a number of prisoners at this point in my research, so I understood dealing with a source was a key aspect of journalism, one as important as writing. Working journalists can sometimes get robotic or slick in their interactions, like fast food cashiers or phone bank callers—even the word “source” reduces people to their usefulness. I had a luxury of time that most journalists don’t have. I could treat people as people. My other advantage was, paradoxically, my lack of expertise. I was incredibly nervous. It’s intimidating, asking people directly about the most terrible aspects of their lives. Nervousness showed more in face-to-face interviews, of course, but with everyone I had to think carefully about what I was saying. I had to be straightforward. There were no unconscious, glib, or boilerplate moments.
Though we think crime stories focus far too much on the criminals and not enough on the victims, when it comes to speaking for themselves, I think criminals are given short shrift. This is simply because journalists, like the rest of us, tend to fear, hate, and mistrust criminals. Journalists don’t want to talk to them. We don’t want to hear from them. “I’m not interested in anything he has to say,” one fine reporter told me about a particularly duplicitous and sinister murderer.
While I shared the fear and mistrust when it came to my subjects, I didn’t feel hatred. I don’t know why. I aspired to a measured tone you might call “psychiatric.” Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. With Darrell Madden, I spent a couple of months patiently explaining that even if I were willing to pay for his story, Son of Sam–type laws in Oklahoma (and everywhere now) would make it impossible for him see any money from it or even to assign profit to his mother, as he wanted to do.
(I didn’t hesitate to send my prison informants small amounts of cash, shoes, snacks, books and stamps. I still do when I can. In dealing with prisoners, a pervasive cynicism makes it hard to be sure who’s using whom, but in my case there’s never been any question of payment or quid pro quo.)
For a while Madden wanted me to write the whole book about him. He didn’t like the idea of appearing as one of many. But I needed to give as broad a picture as I could about these murders of gay men by straight men. Madden knew of a filmmaker he was trying to reel in as well, but after his mother died, he stopped talking altogether for a month or so. In the end I’m not certain why he decided to rely on me. Perhaps because the film fell through and he had no other offers. Perhaps, also, he just couldn’t contain himself any longer. Madden was a talker—a journalist’s dream.
I wonder if our whole view of the world isn’t skewed because it’s easy to promote histrionic, public personalities like Madden’s. They make for better TV, better talking heads, better copy, and yet they represent only a tiny fraction of the mostly quiet, self-conscious and unassuming population of the world, murderers included. Personally, I’m drawn to the INarticulate. I dealt with challenging subjects elsewhere in American Honor Killings. But with Madden I never had to press or wheedle after we got started. His handwritten letters flowed, ten and twelve pages long, three or four every month.
Now I confronted other challenges. Madden was my only source for the murder itself. About what exactly and how much could I believe him? How could I rewrite his clumsy recollections so they were accurate, truthful, and “literary”? By “literary,” I simply mean readable, vivid, and coherent in a way his own raw memories weren’t. Somehow I had to situate those memories in a greater and more humane worldview than he was capable of.
Since there was no second witness to verify details of Domer’s murder, I made up for it by getting Madden to repeat the story several times. I’d even write him versions of the story myself—as I understood it—and ask him to respond. Was I getting closer? Another thing that helped me get at the truth was the sheer volume of our correspondence. I was starting to know this man, his little sensitivities and obsessions. Familiarity was particularly important when he described the actions of his accomplice, Bradley Qualls, whom he later murdered. One day, say after Qualls’s sister had written him a heartbroken letter, Madden would be discreet, compassionate, to some extent, toward the man he’d killed. Other times, he’d confide how Qualls had been out of control when beating their victim. Qualls could be “really evil.” Only gradually did it emerge how much resentment Madden still bore his partner, “this idiot I didn’t even really know.” It was harder for Madden to give away “credit” for the murder (along with a perverse sense of criminal glory) than it was for him to accept it. While Madden was certainly the mastermind, it emerged slowly, and with Madden’s noticeable reluctance, that Qualls had taken the lead during the actual murder. I believed Madden, because he wasn’t trying to AVOID responsibility—just the opposite, in fact.
The final job was to put all the information I’d gathered into a literary form. Madden had narrated different versions of the killing in a number of letters and stories that had to be reconciled and embellished with stray details he’d mentioned in other contexts. I began to work, as I did with every case in the book, with a simple timeline. Sometimes this covered many years—a childhood, for example. Other times, this process covered the moments of a single night, like the night of Domer’s murder.
I drew the line marking off hours and then plugged in events, remembered remarks and so on. In another register I added physical details, clothing, sounds, temperature, anything. Now, though nothing had yet been written, I could review the night of the murder as it happened. More importantly, I could re-experience it in my imagination. At this point I went back to Madden and asked him to explain anything that “felt” strange or inexplicable to me. I was starting to rough out the narrative in my mind, so wherever there was a blank in a place I felt a detail was needed, I’d go back to Madden and ask for it—the body had been dropped over a bridge and landed just touching the water, so my question was, did the head or feet touch the water? Obviously, this became ghoulish work and demanded bizarre self-repression.
The actual writing didn’t take long. It came out quickly in a fluent draft. Though I’ve been a laborious reviser in the past, revising nonfiction proved tricky. I learned to do it with caution. Changing the flow of a sentence inevitably changes its nuance, not something I could do without factual justification. It’s just as important to avoid an overused adjective or metaphor in nonfiction as it is in fiction. Clichés mean nothing, and nothing isn’t just inartistic, it’s untrue. You can’t get away with deliberate novelty except in an invented scene. I often used a less specific or unusual word in a sentence because the truth as I knew it couldn’t support being more specific (“red,” but not “crimson” or “scarlet”).
Writers can lose confidence when they’re faced with the infinite niceties of truth-telling. Their work may come out deformed, a nervously bland or unrecognizable hash of statements of fact. My own sensitivity about truth-telling, useful if exhausting, probably arose from doing something for which I had no training. I was going to be careful! But there may still be a difference between my work and journalism. Journalists sometimes try to write as if writing doesn’t exist. The truth is all they acknowledge. Their writing is meant to be the invisible transfer of truth from them to us. While my loyalty was always with the truth in American Honor Killings, I felt a lingering novelist’s loyalty to the work itself. My book wouldn’t be some magically invisible conveyance for the truth—I’d try to make it truth’s embodiment.
DAVID McCONNELL is the author of the acclaimed novels The Silver Hearted (a finalist for Lambda and Ferro-Grumley awards) and Firebrat. His short fiction and journalism have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including the Literary Review (UK), Granta, and Prospect magazine (UK). He is the former cochair of the Lambda Literary Foundation, and lives in New York City. His latest book is American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men.
David McConnell kicks off a national book tour this week (click here for a full list of dates) with hometown launch events in Brooklyn (7:30 p.m. on March 6 at Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton St.; in conversation with Ken Corbett) and Manhattan (7 p.m. at Bluestockings Bookstore, 172 AllenSt.; in conversation with Patrick Ryan) — FREE beer will be lovingly provided by the Brooklyn Brewery at both launch programs! These not-to-be-missed dates will be followed by programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Virginia Festival of the Book, Mississippi, and many more!
Posted: Mar 5, 2013
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