|"In my case,
crime paid by bringing me closer to my mother."
parents, Eddie and Rose Muller, partying in San Francisco
mother today, at 89 years of age.
Laura Lippman asked several writers to contribute an essay to
the 2005 Mystery Writers of America Annual, published to coincide
with the groups annual Edgar Award Banquet, held in New
York each spring. The subject of all the essays was "How
Crime Pays." The following was my contribution.
DIGGING UP THE DIRT
By Eddie Muller © 2005
In my case, crime paid by bringing me closer to my mother. Such
a payoff seemed utterly inconceivable when I started working
on what would eventually be my first novel, The Distance.
Within the genre constraints of that story exists a familial
roman a clef: the characters of Billy and Ida Nichols are based
on my parents, right down to a deep, dark secret that for almost
fifty years lurked at the core of their marriage. No mention
was ever made of it, of courseit was the kind of disgrace
Catholics specialized in, but of which they never spoke. Throughout
my youth, tiny clues leaked out, only to be promptly policedleaving
this young writer-to-be shrouded in a very influential pall
of guilt, shame and mystery.
My fathers death in 1982 lit a fire under me to write
a story detailing his life and times as a sportwriter. Hed
died without ever discussing the "deep dark secret"
(hereafter referred to as the DDS), so I made the momentuous
decision to have the revelation of this enigma be an essential
part of the narrative. Through fiction, Id unravel and
expose the long-buried truth. Some of what I wrote was factual,
learned through my own detective work. Much of it was conjecture,
based on (perceived) insights into my parents psychology.
None of it, of course, was ever discussed with my mother.
(The particulars of the DDS are irrelevant. If youve read
The Distance, you know. If you havent, merely imagine
what your own parents would be ashamed of and take it from there.)
As the manuscript evolved, it felt at times like I was building
a bomb, not a novel. My mother would surely combust if she ever
read it, or, at the very least, shed disown me. Like a
true noir protagonist, I decided to play my hand and let Fate
run its course: if the novel was published, well, that would
be compensation for having my mother hate me. If, however, it
was resoundingly rejectedthat meant Fate was in on my
parents conspiracy of silence, and I should start looking
elsewhere for inspiration.
The satisfaction that comes with having ones first novel
published was, in my case, dampened by all this behind-the-scenes
drama. Was being validated as a writer worth the wrath to which
Id be subjected? My mother could wholesale wrath like
nobodys business, even at 85 years of age. On top of that,
I couldnt shake the feeling that I was a traitor, publicly
revealingeven as fictiona secret shed been
keeping for more than sixty years.
I was driving my mother to a doctors appointment a couple
of months after The Distance came out when she quietly
muttered, "I read your book." My heart stopped. Without
looking at me, she said, "You told my story." The
four words were freighted. There was, however, no explosion.
She didnt show remorse or resignation or anger or resentment.
I dont know what she felt, frankly. All I knew is that
we were both entering uncharted territory.
Like the best fiction, our lives then took a totally unexpected
turn. "Let me have some copies of that book," my mother
told me. "As many as you can spare." She proudly started
handing them out. "My sons a writer," shed
crow. "Takes after his father. And everything in this book
is true. Especially the stuff about me." Far from disowning
me, she was proudly telling people that somebody finally had
the guts to "tell it like it is."
Thats when I realized she was entering the early stages
of Alzheimers. She was still lucid, but on occasion shed
drift off into a world of her own creation. I know the feeling,
since its how I make my living.
Last year I had to place her in an assisted-living facility.
As part of the initiation process, the homes monthly newsletter
profiles every new tenant. Because I was now a "famous
writer," my mother requested that I sit in on her interview,
to make sure the woman writing her story got the facts straight.
Within minutes, my mother started pouring out the deep, dark
secret that for six decades had been coiled like a caged beast
at the core of her existence. I sat listening, slack-jawed,
as she sailed right past the facts, into a wildly embellished
version of the truth. "Clark Gable was madly in love with
me, and I had his baby," she told the interviewer, who
had no idea if she was hearing fact or fiction. My mother gave
me a sly smile and said, "Well . . . should I tell her
the whole story?"
At that moment, the last vestiges of guilt and shame and suspicion
that had always existed between us fell away. We had more in
common than Id ever realized. "Tell her whatever
you want to, Mom," I said. "Its your story."
And she told a good one, taking a nugget of truth and stretching
it, polishing it, exaggerating it for maximum effect. In other
wordswriting fiction. And she had me on the edge of my
seat. The rapt, stupified look on that interviewers face
is what we, as writers, are all after.
Why let facts get in the way of a good story, I thought to myself,
and in thinking it, I felt closer to my mother than ever before.
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