Q&A with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, author of ‘The Fact of a Body’

How researching a murder trial helped Marzano-Lesnevich understand her own history of sexual abuse.

By Abby Travis

Photo provided by Nina Subin; Illustration by Grace Molteni

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich—author and Harvard professor—is a firm believer in the idea that a book teaches you how to write it. By a similar principle, she also believes that a book teaches you how to read it.

In The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir—which was published this May by Flatiron Books, and which took the author more than ten years to write—Marzano-Lesnevich weaves together two threads. In one, we meet Ricky Langley, whose case Marzano-Lesnevich encounters while interning at a law firm. Years before, Langley had killed and possibly molested seven-year-old Jeremy Guillory. He had confessed and was convicted. It’s a seemingly straightforward case, but one that buries itself inside of the then law student.

In the second thread, she and her twin sister are sexually abused by their grandfather. This revelation evolves throughout the book: her parents find out, but Marzano-Lesnevich’s grandfather continues to visit for dinners, although he is never again allowed to babysit. As the two narratives progress, we learn that her sister prefers to forget and their family evades conversation relating to the abuse.

More than any writer I have ever read, Marzano-Lesnevich refuses to allow anything to be simpler than it is. As she peels back each layer of Langley’s story, we see almost a decade of research come to life. We trace back through Ricky’s life and see a man who knew he had a problem, who repeatedly asked for help and did not get it. We also see Marzano-Lesnevich, as a child and as a writer, actively working through why her parents allowed her grandfather to stay in their lives, why so much of her past was kept buried. More than anything, we see a writer deeply compelled by how stories are told and read and retold. How jurors and judges and lawyers brought their own pasts into Langley’s case and conviction; how Marzano-Lesnevich’s past led her into Langley’s story and deeper into her own. We see a master storyteller interrogating the grand project of story-making.

Chilling and exhilarating, reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Helen Fremont’s After Long Silence, Marzano-Lesnevich’s book has been called a “true crime masterpiece” by Vogue and “at once sharp with beauty and lush with horror” by the Boston Globe. Here, we talk process, the importance of a book’s structure, and discovering the messy narratives in literature and in our own lives.

Abby Travis: Are you in love with complexity?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: [Laughs.] I’m in love with complexity, but I’m also in love with suspense. As a writer, if it isn’t a high wire act, I’m not interested. How was I going to take thirty thousand pages of court records and however many years of my own family’s history and distill it down to something that would capture the complexity but also be about complexity and about the way we make stories? As a reader, I love books that are hideously complicated but also make me turn the pages. In many ways, this book is about the way we make stories out of our lives. Our lives are messy and complicated but damn do we like to tell a simple story.

AT: Why do you think we long for simplicity?

AML: Because we’re narrative-making beings. We want to make meaning, but sometimes making meaning and understanding are deeply at odds. For something to have meaning, it has to be simplified. The arrows have to point in the same direction. I think life is often more complicated than that.

AT: Why did you have to tell these two stories together?

AML: I was really troubled by my inability to see Ricky Langley’s life without experiencing it through the lens of my own past. The moment I knew I was going to write this book was when, in 2010, digging through the court records, I discovered that everyone in the trial had come to the case through the lens of their own past. I’d always believed that the courtroom was a truth-finding place, but I began to see that it was actually a story-making one.

I thought the book was about so many other things when I was first working on it. This sounds insane now, but I wrote whole hundred page versions of this book—multiple hundred page versions—trying to figure out its structure, so the reader could see me trying to understand this process of story-making, why I see these stories as connected. The book didn’t lock into place until the structure locked into place, and that’s because, for me, the highest purpose of structure is to help you say something unsayable through the text.

AT: Late in the book, you write that “every family has its defining action, its defining belief.” You say that from childhood, you knew your parents’ was to “never look back.” What is your defining belief?

AML: To always be looking. Both back, and forward. I am someone who would always rather know, and I’m someone who would always rather look. Someone who would always rather dig into secrets and ellipses, and things that are covered. I always want to be aiming for what’s just out of my reach.

AT: Just when the reader starts to feel that she understands some part of these tangled stories, you make them even more complicated. You peel back some new complication in Langley’s life—even well before he was born—or introduce a new discovery about your own family. The level of detail in your research also allows for richly imagined scenes that help reconstruct what we cannot know—all indicative of an incredible amount of rigor and intentionality in your research and writing. How do you observe with rigor?

AML: I like the feeling of being awake. I’ve noticed that I feel most alive when I don’t fully understand what’s going on. Observing with rigor became allowing myself to notice the stray details and see the story differently than I’d been told it should be, the ways in which my own past was writing over Ricky and Jeremy’s narrative.

I didn’t look at any of the files when I was writing because forgetting became useful. What I was looking for was the stuff that was going to rip open my gut because my subconscious had always let me hide from it. What I was looking for, actually, was everything I don’t know I was looking for.

AT: The title of the book, The Fact of a Body, is deceptively simple. This idea that each of us holds our own experience inside us, that that will always alter the way we see any story. Our bodies hold more than we simply see. That’s part of what it means for each of us to be in a body. The fact is, there’s an unneatness about ourselves that can’t be reduced. All that feels especially relevant to our everyday now because, in the way the structure teaches us how to approach a really complicated story, it also teaches us how to approach the really complicated shit we run up against every day. Do you think that’s playing into the book’s reception?

AML: At readings, I’ve noticed a great hunger to talk about real, emotional things. People are hungry for it, are ready to enter this complex space together. That’s a wonderful feature of books, that they can take us to the hard places in each others’ experiences. Subjectivity in story-making is certainly a much bigger topic now than it was several years ago. Maybe we’re just more primed to read stories this way now, given the political climate. Hopefully that’s making us look at the way we do that in our own lives.

Abby Travis is an editor at Milkweed Editions, an independent press located in Minneapolis. Her writing has been recognized as Notable by Best American Essays. She is obsessed with structure. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @abbyltrav.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.