The New York Times recommended my book last week. Furthermore, they compared it favorably to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a book that holds the record for being on the New York Times bestseller list at 216 straight weeks. It was flattering to say the very least to be compared to such a book in the pages of the Times. But it also felt ironic, given how much I obsessed about that book during the writing of The Vapors.
My first draft and my final draft of The Vapors don’t have a whole lot in common. This is my first book, and I think I was really trying to swing for the fences when I first wrote it. I tried a lot of weird shit. I wrote a lot of it in southern vernacular. I had sections that were word-for-word reprints of FBI transcripts that served as interludes. I used composite characters so I could condense long stretches of time. I tried to write the book like a novel, heavy on dialogue, and as a result each section was more like a standalone scene, a vignette. I even outlined the book before writing the way I would outline a screenplay, with A,B and C plots planned out on my wall in different color notecards. Needless to say, none of my stylistic flourishes impressed my editor. It was “a good start” - the three words no writer ever wants to hear from an editor. I started over from scratch. I’m glad I did.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is at least part of the reason I did all this. I wanted to write a book like that - one that was true but read like a novel. One that rested on rich, vivid characters rather than the rote retelling of history. One that transported the reader to another time and place rather than fed them names and dates. And I believed I’d have plenty of runway to do all this so long as I copped to whatever it took to pull it off in the author’s note. I became obsessed with author’s notes. I would walk the aisles of bookstores reading the author’s notes in books that felt similar to mine - if not in subject at least in the mode of telling the story (part family memoir, part history). I read all sorts of author’s notes explaining all sorts of corners being cut or fictions being made fact. I read them to give myself comfort that I had license to do whatever I needed to do to tell the best story so long as I confessed on the last page. And of all the author’s notes I read, none of them held a candle to John Berendt’s author’s note at the end of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil:
The characters in this book are real, but it bears mentioning that I have used pseudonymns for a number of them in order to protect their privacy, and in a few cases I have gone a step further by altering their descriptions. Though this is a work of nonfiction, I have taken certain storytelling liberties, particularly having to do with the timing of events. Where the narrative strays from strict nonfiction, my intention has been to remain faithful to the characters and to the essential drift of events as they really happened.
That’s it. And the “storytelling liberties” that he had taken involved things like placing himself in scenes that he wasn’t actually present for, in conversations he didn’t really have, moving around key events in the story to more convenient sections of the book despite having happened years apart, and combining real people into a single composite character, an entirely invented person to stand in for multiple people in the story.
None of these things are unique to Berendt. They’ve been utilized by nonfiction and memoir writers for many years to varying degrees. Perhaps the great pioneer of this kind of “storytelling liberty” in nonfiction is Truman Capote, who insisted his In Cold Blood was completely true despite overwhelming doubt about a lot of the scenes he recounted in incredible detail (without the aid of any audio recordings of interviews, in fact). He called his book a “nonfiction novel,” a term that has been recycled by other journalists-turned-authors through the years. One such nonfiction novelist was Norman Mailer, whose The Executioner’s Song was originally published as nonfiction but later, at Mailer’s insistence, was reclassified and then won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The Executioner’s Song is a detailed account of the life and death of Gary Gilmore, who was the first person to be executed in the United States after a Supreme Court decision that overturned the decade-long de-facto moratorium on the death penalty. The book is over a thousand pages long and is the product of many hours of recorded interviews Mailer did with family and friends of Gilmore and his victims. In the afterword Mailer claims that the book “does its best to be a factual account of the activities of Gary Gilmore and the men and women associated with him,” and details the amount of research that went into the book: three hundred sessions with ten subjects who are on tape for more than ten hours each, adding up to fifteen thousand pages of transcripts. He says that “the story is as accurate as one can make it.”
It’s a strange twist that Mailer strove to keep The Executioner’s Song as close to the actual record as he could, yet insisted the book should be called fiction. When asked why, he said “I think a writer has the right to call his work whatever he wants to call it,” and “nonfiction suggests hard, concrete knowledge, matters digested by writers and usually presented with conclusions… A novel, on the other hand, tries to deal with resonance and magnetism, the unearthliness of commonplace events.” In another instance he said simply “I called it a novel because it reads like one.” When his book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, more traditional novelists groused that the book should have been judged against other true stories.
Berendt, by contrast, insisted that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil should be classified as nonfiction, and, furthermore, journalism, despite his admitted inventions. After the book was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, a minor controversy bubbled up among the literati who took issue with Berendt’s book being treated as fact. ''I call it rounding the corners to make a better narrative,” he explained. Those rounded corners, however, played a role in the Pulitzer board’s decision to not give his record-smashing book the award. In later editions of the book, he moved his author’s note to the front of the book and expanded on it, so as to avoid any hint of misleading the reader, but he didn’t back down from his insistence that the book should be considered true.
I read The Executioner’s Song for the first time while I was living in Hot Springs writing The Vapors. I was bowled over by it. I felt like it was possibly the greatest book I had ever read. Given the timing and context in which I read it, I’m positive it played an outsized role in that first draft I wrote of my book. I so desperately wanted The Vapors to deal with the resonance and magnetism or whatever the fuck. But rather than do what Mailer did and work from 1,500 pages of transcripts of interviews, I did what Berendt did and rounded some corners.
My editor told me I should stay within the lines. I should be as creative as I wanted with my prose and I should write the book how I saw fit, but I shouldn’t use composite characters and I should have a source cited in the endnotes for every fact, figure, and quotation I used. That meant I needed to do a LOT more research and I’d need to reconsider the stitched-together-vignette style that I had used in that first attempt. It meant the book couldn’t be a fanciful nonfiction novel. It meant the book would take a lot longer than I had planned. But in the end what I wrote was unquestionably better.
I’ve obsessed about the question of truth and how to know it in these letters over the past few years. I think it’s because my topic, Hot Springs, is so steeped in mythology and lore. As I was doing research, I often found myself talking to people who told me completely different versions of the same story. I more than once found myself doing interviews with people who I was certain were feeding me absolute bullshit. Part of my job was to sort out what was true and what wasn’t, and it was no easy task. Sometimes I had to make choices without hard evidence, simply a hunch based on what all I had learned. I copped to all of this in my own author’s note. I cite my sources at the end. I anticipate that locals will hold my book to a high standard when it comes to judging its accuracy, and I hope that what I’ve provided them will be sufficient evidence. All in all, The Vapors is not scholarship, but it is in no way fiction. I sure hope the Pulitzer Prize people will appreciate how easy I’ve made it for them.
The more important legacy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is, to my mind, its contribution to the cultural history of the city of Savannah, Georgia. The book’s success led to a tourism boom in that city in the 1990s. John Berendt may not have won the Pulitzer Prize, but Savannah gave him the key to the city. Twice. While I’d love for The Vapors to be a bestseller and win awards and all that other ego stroking horseshit, I’d settle for the book pleasing the good people of Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. That may sound like no big deal, but I’m certain they will be my harshest critics, my closest readers, my toughest audience. And for good reason. The town and its history belong to them, not to me or my book. And I still have to go back there for Thanksgiving and show my face around town. So stakes is high.
Beyond their genre-bending, what Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The Executioner’s Song have in common is that they are both books about a place and its unsung, everyday people. For The Executioner’s Song, that place was Utah, and by extension the West. In her review of the book (which is as good as the book itself), Joan Didion said that “the authentic Western voice, the voice heard in "The Executioner's Song," is one heard often in life but only rarely in literature, the reason being that to truly know the West is to lack all will to write it down.” I think I wanted The Vapors to be that kind of book more than anything else. One that captures an authentic voice, one that tells the reader something true about a particular place, in this case the place of my birth and those who came before me. Similar to Didion’s West, Hot Springs was a place where people lacked all will to write everything down. That made my job a lot harder, but also made the fact that I finished at all feel all the more satisfying. I may not know the whole story. I may not, even after all is said and done, truly know Hot Springs. But maybe that’s the only reason I was ever able to muster the will to write it down.
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