As longtime blog readers know, in 2011 I was invited to serve on the selection panel for that year’s NEA Fellowships. It was a great experience that introduced me to the work of Porochista Khakpour, Tayari Jones, and lots of other great writers.
In 2013 I was again invited to participate in the process, as one of a group of “expert readers” assigned to screen the manuscripts that the final selection panel would have to consider. One of the submissions that most impressed me that year was a work of creative non-fiction about a convicted pedophile and child murderer named Ricky Langley, written by a woman who had interned at the law firm that defended him. The manuscript combined a story of Langley’s crimes with a personal memoir about how the author and her sisters had been molested by their own grandfather.
It was powerful stuff. What I liked about it, beyond the strength of the writing, was the combination of psychological insight and moral clarity. Given her own history, it would have been easy for the author to paint Langley as a one-dimensional monster. She didn’t do that: She really wanted to understand him. But her attempt to humanize Langley didn’t extend to excusing or minimizing what he’d done. He was more than a monster, but he was still a monster.
The NEA uses a blind judging process, and one of the pitfalls of being a selector is that if you like a submission that doesn’t win a Fellowship, you may never learn who the author is, much less get to read their finished work; I’m still tantalized by a number of pieces whose anonymous creators didn’t make the cut. But in this case I got lucky: when the 2014 Fellows were announced, one of the names on the list was Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, a one-time intern at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center.
Marzano-Lesnevich’s book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, was published in May. After spotting this review in the New York Times, I bought a copy and burned through it in two long reading sessions. It’s fantastic—every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be, based on the excerpt I’d already read. I know some readers may be leary of the subject matter, but Marzano-Lesnevich writes with great sensitivity, so if you are at all interested, I’d highly recommend checking it out. It’s an amazing book.