“We don’t have to choose who’s more to blame between writer and subject”: an Interview with Author Gil Reavill
Editor’s Note: This post is part of the writer Caleb J. Ross’s blog tour, Stranger Will Tour for Strange.
When I started writing Stranger Will an embarrassingly long time ago, the world of human remains cleanup was one relatively undocumented. There were a few occupational descriptions online, and I found the occasional survivors forum peppered with personal anecdotes about a daughter having to scrape brains of her suicidal mother from the refrigerator herself because insurance didn’t cover body cleanup. These references were helpful—and added much needed viscera to my novel—but it was Gil Reavill’s Aftermath, Inc. that allowed me to supplement the reactionary emotion with real life context.
Aftermath, Inc. beautifully lures the morbidly curious with the promise of graphically depicted crime scene aftermath, but delivers in addition the story of those charged with cleaning the messes. The subjects of Reavill’s book discuss their work with impressive detachment. While Reavill may be fighting nausea, the Aftermath, Inc. crew would methodically organize what they call a three-step biowash. “Kill it, pull it away from the wall, and deodorize it” (pg. 71). Sometimes, just to keep from getting sick while they worked, the crew might perform a trick called the “mouthwash fix”: saturate a bath towel with mint Listerine and within a day the place will smell like a “crystal clean garden” (pg. 93). Job site discussions might be about where to get lunch that day, or, just as easily, the home life of any of the Aftermath, Inc. employees. Cleaning human stains is a job to these guys. But to readers of Aftermath, Inc., it is an incredibly systematic and honorable profession, deserving of Gil Reavill’s amazing account.
Caleb J. Ross: While researching Stranger Will, Aftermath, Inc. was one of the many books I picked up to help give my story some occupational authority. I would have been happy with a few choice terms like decomp and bioremediation. I came away with not just beautiful terminology, but with a very unexpected human story to those involved in human remains removal. What was the impetus to this project and what did you expect going into it?
Gil Reavill: I got a cold call from Tim Reifsteck and Chris Wilson, founders of Aftermath, Inc. They liked the crime articles I had done for Maxim magazine and offered me full access, no strings attached. Even so, I thought of taking a pass. I don’t have a strong stomach, and this story required one. But I had been writing a lot about crime, yet had never been to a fresh crime scene. I didn’t feel I had any choice. For my own self-respect, I had to put myself — and my stomach — on the line.
CJR: And after the project, how do you look back on it? Fondly? With disgust? With admiration for those involved?
GR: Bob Dylan has a line, “I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.” The whole experience of researching and writing Aftermath was incredibly enriching for me, not necessarily in monetary terms, although the book did well, but more in discovering how to locate the pulse of a long-form writing project. I cherish the hands-on work I did with the crews. I developed a healthy respect for the natural human attraction to stories of crime and mayhem. There were other unforeseen repercussions. In the aftermath of Aftermath, I find I have much less appetite for art-directed gore in movies and on TV. I actually find myself occasionally covering my eyes, which before this project would have been unheard of. But some level of tolerance got lowered somehow, although I could have just as easily seen it go the other way, toward the Aftermath research having a desensitizing effect.
CJR: Non-fiction, specifically true crime, tends to suppress the author as a character, allowing the subject matter to take center stage. But when dealing with a subject matter like human remains cleanup, it seems almost necessary for the author to take an active role in the story. Without Gil Reavill the character there couldn’t have been Aftermath, Inc. the story. How does this transparency compare to your previous work?
GR: I quite self-consciously modeled Aftermath, Inc. on a book I had just read that impressed me quite a bit, James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street, the story of the author entering (and almost winning) the world series of poker. Reading Fifth Street freshened my commitment to what used to be called, in the Sixties and Seventies, “New Journalism,” the work of Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Gay Talese and others. I cut my teeth reading and trying to write like those writers. The latter was a failing proposition, to be sure, but the attempt shaped me. When I got into magazine journalism, particularly under editor James Kaminisky at Maxim, where I did a series of true crime stories, the New Journalism shtick was considered a little stale. Jim instantly edited out any hint of an “I.” In a more global sense, authors always take “an active role in the story,” don’t they? Inserting one-self aggressively and self-consciously into the story, as McManus did with Fifth Street and I tried to do with Aftermath, merely recognizes a home truth about writing. All pretensions of omniscience or objectivity are lies. Books which dramatize the research done by the writer delving into the subject tend to read well, in the sense that there’s natural drama in puzzle-solving. The reader is drawn along for the ride. A favorite of mine in this regard is Ian Frazier’s Great Plains. He plays the moment where Frazier-as-character meets, at the corner of Astor Place and Broadway in New York City, an urban Indian who claims to be a descendent of Crazy Horse, a prime character in Great Plains. It was a priceless example of author-as-character doing a good job of engaging the reader. But at times as a writer you are forced into the using the strategy for reasons of structure and narrative, or simply because your subject would otherwise be dry as stale dogshit.
In her book The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm talks about author Joe McGinniss being in that position with his subject Jeffrey MacDonald. The only way McGinniss could make MacDonald sing, as a character, was to position him in a certain way. In other words, McGinniss’s narrative choices were forced upon him not by the weight of “truth,” but by the exigencies of what reads well. Any author worth his or her salt knows this to be the dirty truth of non-fiction. There really is no such thing as non-fiction. It’s all fiction. Or, put another way, there is no such thing as fiction, it’s all non-fiction. The charade of “reality” television is relevant here. But if you accept it as simply one more genre of fiction, then non-fiction allows some brutalist truths that would appear out of place in a novel. I remember a line in One False Move, the Carl Franklin movie, where the clear-eyed, no-nonsense wife dismisses the romanticism of her husband: “Dale watches TV crime shows,” she says. “I read non-fiction.” In practice, the author-as-character technique works in some cases and does not in others. Writing Aftermath was such a personal, visceral experience for me that I can’t imagine not treating my own reactions in the text. But I am in the midst of research for a book on Mafia history, and I plan on a “just the facts” approach that seems suitable for that one. No “I”-voice necessary.
CJR: As they say, once you insert yourself into a book on the Mafia, you’re part of it for life (pause for laughter…that doesn’t come, and moving on). I like that you touch on the reality television genre, as one mode being used to mask the true mode. I believe that people, perhaps more so those born post 1990-ish, have been trained to embrace ego in ways no other generation has. If they don’t have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, they don’t exist. Putting oneself online and embracing the braggadocio that tends to accompany the online ego is an accepted concept. Has New Journalism (or maybe New New Journalism, if I want to be pretentious about it) fueled this shift to the ego? Or maybe, the increasing popularity of blogs, coupled with the decreasing popularity of physical newspapers, has instead fueled New New Journalism? I hesitate to associate 24-hour news networks, and the personalities necessary to keep them going, with more “I” in reporting, but I think the grouping fair. Is “I” journalism simply the “way it will be” in the future?
GR: I believe it will indeed be the way of the future, and I think on the whole it’s a good thing, enlarging upon the egalitarianism we’ve been progressing towards since the Enlightenment. Of course, no narrative strategy is fool-proof. Hell is other people’s egos. So a lot of the stuff put out nowadays verges on solipsistic blather, along the lines of what I’m writing in response to your questions, actually. The author-as-character can clutter things up quite a bit, and choke the flow rather than channel it. The great example of this is Dutch, the Ronald Reagan biography by Edmund Morris. He tripped over himself trying to make Reagan interesting, and conflated some novelistic strategies with straight reportage, creating a fictional version of himself, winding up with a mish-mash. Morris was well-spanked by critics for it. And it’s interesting because Morris did a solid bio of Theodore Roosevelt before the Reagan disaster, with the difference being that Roosevelt was an interesting man. So in the attempt to make one’s subject, one’s life, one’s self engaging to others, ludicrousness awaits. One of the tasks of the writer in the modern age is to side-step it. The view in the mirror may be enthralling to us, but others might need a little soft-shoe to lure them in.
Another issue with the “I”-voice comes in writing history, of which my wife Jean Zimmerman does a fair bit. Her problem is doubly difficult because she writes about women, whose lives have been left out of the record so much of the time. How do you write about a person who, according to the historical record, doesn’t exist? An impulse might be to write about yourself wondering about how to write about a person who, according to the historical record, doesn’t exist, History is a question of context, and if your only context is the self, then you are shit out of luck. The info-immersion we are heir to tends to obliterate context, in the sense that if songs from every decade of the last hundred years, say, are available on iTunes, then Kanye West is equal to Sophie Tucker is equal to Roky Erickson. I can pick one or another, it’s all the same, context-less. I like that George W.S. Trow essay, “In the Context of No Context.” I don’t want to keep harping on the perils of authorial navel-gazing, because I do believe it’s valuable and the going mode, but actually the problems inherent in it engage me as much as the strategy itself. BTW, I think the death of the newspaper is greatly exaggerated. I used to say that I read five newspapers and the New York Post. I’m down to three now, but I still slip into them every morning like I was slipping into a warm bath.
CJR: Did you ever consider the balance of credibility between yourself and the bio-remediation industry? Surely, you opened many eyes to the nobility of human remains removal; likewise, your readers (and true crime readers in general) certainly must look at your work with a different level of respect. How have readers of your previous works reacted to Aftermath, inc.?
GR: I’ve had a pretty checkered career, taking whatever comes my way, existing off the scraps that fall from the table of publishing, a magpie writer. One thread that has run through my stuff from the beginning is crime. I started writing crime because I enjoyed reading it so much. I am yet one more casualty of Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, James Cain, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett. So readers of my Maxim stuff, for example, were not too surprised by Aftermath. But I have another career-thread as a ghostwriter, and some of my authors were a little nonplussed by my enthusiasm for crime.
CJR: Understandable, to be sure. I haven’t had any personal experience with ghostwriting, but I can imagine the delicate balance between defending your byline (even though it’s hidden) and appeasing your employer. Not related to Aftermath, Inc. directly, but is it assumed that your subjects, with a ghostwriting job, are familiar with your other works, or are the assignments handled completely by the publisher?
GR: Assignments are handled by the publisher, or, more to the point, by the editor. Editors might know of my sketchy past (which extends beyond crime into, during my wayward years, porn), but in general, the authors don’t. That’s the lingo of the publishing business, anyway, in which the big-print byline is the author, and the “with” slave putting the author’s fabulous thoughts into words is the writer. An author wanting to know much about the writer would be a strange occurrence. It’d be like a duchess inquiring into the details of her butler’s day off. She may ask, but she won’t listen to the answer. Enough about me, how do you like my hair?
CJR: Was commenting on hair common during those wayward porn years? Shag was sexy in the 70s, afterall. Sorry, that was gross. This hierarchy is very intriguing to me. Working in the world of literary fiction as I tend toward, there is an assumption that writing is a capital “A” Art. Running with your terminology, for the author to accept the role as a writer would be absolutely damning to the poor, brittle wordsmith’s soul. Understandably, ghostwriting is probably as much about the paycheck as the desire to craft a story. Do you have the Art urge? Where do you go to express that urge? Screenplays? Fiction?
GR: That author/writer business isn’t my terminology, it’s the publishing world’s. To get a clearer grasp of the writer’s place in that Darwinian sphere, try Betsy Lerner’s great, sobering book Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. Goebbels, Goering, one of those guys said, when I hear the word culture, I reach for my pistol. I’m not quite to that point yet, but in recent years I have developed a disdain that goes beyond cynicism for capital “A” art. There is so much opportunity for self-delusion, self-importance, self-inflation. Aim of for the stars, and wind up with flatulent cant. Aim for flatulent cant, and you may wind up with flatulent cant, but at least you haven’t rendered yourself more ridiculous than you already are. That “poor brittle wordsmith’s soul”- might do well with a little damning. The claims made for “serious” literature and art – elevation, transcendence, universality, depth – just don’t pan out . My pretentious hatred of pretense has crippled me for that style of thing. I don’t consider myself capable of creating it, and I’m too impatient to knuckle down and learn. Instead, I’ve settled upon the more modest goal of producing what Graham Greene used to call “entertainments” (as opposed to his “serious” novels). If I can relieve the howling boredom of existence for a moment or two for a reader or two, that’s cool enough for me.
CJR: Have you ever considered tackling the aforementioned influences head-on and writing something directly related? Perhaps something biographical?
GR: Um, no. “Your life won’t make an interesting book. Don’t even try.” – Fran Liebowitz.
CJR: I’ve long believed that, given the right editor and/or ghostwriter, anyone’s life or occupation can become a strong story. A friend of mine often gushes over the consistently strong yet rarely changing drug addict/child abuse/domestic assault memoirs, which inevitably lead me to rant about the importance of the production staff in making those books readable. With an intrinsically interesting subject matter like bio-remediation (or perhaps intrinsic only to the morbidly fascinated) I feel the writer’s ego might be compromised. How much of a true crime story is the writer and how much is the subject?
GR: There’s a reporter on the CBS Evening News, I don’t recall his name and I am too lazy to look it up, who goes around the world stabbing his finger into phonebooks and cooking up stories about whomever his fickle finger of fate fingers. The results are uneven but on the whole demonstrate the truth of what you say. Laura Hillenbrand is a great example of a writer who can pluck a great story out of history and spin it into gold. With crime, there are a lot of minefields to maneuver through and many pitfalls threatening to swallow whatever brave soul attempts to take it on as a subject. First and foremost is the bad-faith basis of exploiting what you mean to condemn. Yes, child-killing is bad, very bad, very, very bad—for 350 pages. The violence, the sex, the sexual violence, well, those are what put the asses in the seats. Also, unless you are Jack Abbott or someone such as that, your identification with your subject is inherently limited. You can’t murder someone to understand what it feels like to be a murderer. I mean, you can, but it would be a what-do-you-do-for-an-encore kind of situation. Believe me, I have played with this. I wanted to do a non-fiction book where I-me-as-author-character plan a murder and execute it just short of carrying it out. So far, the better angels in my life have talked me out of it. Maybe a future fiction. And I wonder if in any other hands than Capote’s would the story of the Clutter family have smelled as sweet. He identified with his subject all right, right up to the point of fuck-buddyhood. Fortunately, though, we don’t have to choose who’s more to blame between writer and subject. It’s not a contest, and it’s not either-or. There are strong stories. And there are strong writers. The best stuff comes when those two are married.
–Gil Reavill is the author of Aftermath: Cleaning Up After CSI Goes Home and Raising Our Athletic Daughters: How Sports Can Build Self-Esteem And Save Girls’ Lives, and a frequent contributor to Maxim Magazine. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.
–Caleb J. Ross has been published widely, both online and in print. He is the author of Charactered Pieces: stories (OW Press), Stranger Will: a novel (Otherworld Publications, 2011) and, I Didn’t Mean to Be Kevin: a novel (Black Coffee Press, 2011).Visit his official page at www.calebjross.com, his Twitter feed at @calebjross, and his Facebook at facebook.com/rosscaleb.