On "The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial": An Interview with Maggie Nelson

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In 2004, Maggie Nelson was preparing to publish Jane: A Murder, a collection of poetry, prose, newspaper clippings and other fragments related to the 1969 murder of her aunt, Jane Mixer, when her mother got a call: Her sister’s murder, unsolved for thirty-five years but believed to be the work of a serial killer of young women, had been reopened. In 1969, Jane, a 23-year-old law student at the University of Michigan, had been en route from Ann Arbor to Muskegon to announce to her parents that she had gotten engaged. Soon after signing up on a campus ride-board, however, her body was found in a cemetery, two bullets in her brain and a stocking wound around her neck, her corpse carefully decorated with her own belongings. Thanks to a 2005 DNA match discovery, a retired nurse was finally charged with Jane’s murder. That summer, Nelson and her mother returned to Ann Arbor to bear witness to Jane’s trial—an extended, media-saturated affair whose twisted details thwart any clear explanation for what happened that night.

Red PartsIn Jane: A Murder, Nelson poetically teased out the ways Jane’s violent death indelibly marked her family. In The Red Parts, originally published in 2007 but re-released from Graywolf Press earlier this month, Nelson—a first-class literary shape-shifter—blends true-crime pulp, memoir, and cultural theory to provide a vivid account of Jane’s trial. It’s an examination of Nelson’s own lifelong obsession with the murder, as well as of our larger cultural fascination with the deaths of pretty, young, white women.

The book’s title refers to the “red parts” of our bodies—our blood, genitals, entrails, and mouths. Throughout the many threads comprising this trial narrative—vivid, collage-like explorations of the implications of Nelson’s own father’s sudden death at forty, her mother’s remarriage, and her own disastrous love affairs—Nelson probes this red nexus of sex, violence, and glamour, autopsying the question of why something so gruesome as a murder like Jane’s provides such a source of endless fascination.

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial (the subtitle is new) happened to be re-released into a world particularly obsessed with murder, with binge-devouring the grisly details of CSI, Serial, and Making a Murderer. Rather than feeding the “whodunit” frenzy, however, The Red Parts doesn’t look for answers—it simply bears witness to the wreckage of Jane’s loss. And in doing so, it dissects the stereotypes and clichés surrounding murder. It also masterfully highlights the limitations of trying to package such complicated real-life events into something so neat and tidy as a “story.”

In fact, Joan Didion—who asserted in 1979’s The White Album that “we tell ourselves stories to help ourselves live, by cultivating the hope that our lives might actually make a difference”—serves as a sort of omniscient force throughout the story of Jane’s trial. Nelson ultimately takes Didion’s famous adage a step further, writing, “Stories may enable us to live, but they also trap us, bring us spectacular pain. In their scramble to make sense of nonsensical things, they distort, codify, blame, aggrandize, restrict, omit, betray, mythologize, you name it.”

In the sparse and complex story in The Red Parts, however, Nelson manages to circumvent such trappings—she admits that she never figured out what it was that compelled her to sit at Jane’s murder trial, “jotting down all the gory details, no different or better than anyone else.” Was it that she wanted Jane’s life to matter, she wonders, or her own?

While she may never be able to answer that particularl question, Nelson—a tremendously busy teacher and the author of several books of prose and poetry, including 2015’s critically acclaimed The Argonauts and 2009’s cult classic Bluets—graciously submitted to a few of my somewhat more straightforward questions.

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Tell me about the process of seeing this book you published almost ten years ago reissued in paperback. As the author, how much did you have to reinvest yourself into the experience of writing it?

The great thing is that I didn’t have to do anything! It’s strange and wonderful to have a book come out “again”—I already used up the anxiety around reception the first time, a decade ago, so now I can just sit back and feel an uncommon sense of bemusement and detachment.

Why did you change the subtitle of The Red Parts from “A Memoir” to “Autobiography of a Trial”?

I never liked “memoir”—it was just part of the price to be paid for publishing with a big house. Since Graywolf told me I could change the subtitle, I did. I’m not always a fan of subtitles—i.e., barely ever—but this one seemed right to me, odd as it is.

This book is being categorized as a hybrid of a memoir and first-hand trial reportage, as well as a double elegy (to both Jane and your father), and a cultural critique of the nature of grief, justice, violence, and vulnerability. Were you working with anything approximating a structural model?

No, not really. The story itself gave me a lot of models, though—the concentric circles made by homicide detectives at a crime scene, the nature of associative logic across time, and so on.

Speaking of structure, this book effectively functions as an autopsy of our culture’s fascination with death. To what extent, if at all, was this intentional?

Well, you do an autopsy on something that’s dead, and I’m not sure our fascination with death is dead. Nor could it ever be, I don’t think. Why wouldn’t we be fascinated with death? That said, the book isn’t about “death” in the abstract as much as about one particular species, i.e. spectacularized violence against women, which presents its own issues.

How familiar were you with trial proceedings and the nature of true crime prior to this experience? Did you have to “study up” on trial writing? If so, how did you go about it?

No, I didn’t study. I did read the classics of what was once called the new nonfiction—In Cold Blood, The Executioner’s Song, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and so on. And since it was 2005, I read a lot of writing about the Iraq War and Abu Ghraib and the nature of violence, spectacle, and justice—Judith Butler’s Precarious Life was totally instrumental to me during this time, and its prints are all over The Red Parts.

Could anyone ever find you watching Making a Murderer or listening to Serial?

Nah. Those are current, right? I kind of maxed out on this genre back when I had “murder mind,” and my tentacles were tentative even then.

What’s on your reading nightstand right now?

A quick glance reveals Michael Clune’s Gamelife, the collected essays of James Baldwin, Lydia Davis’s The Cows, and Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals.

The thread involving your father and his death was the most charged and engrossing element of the book for me. Was this part of your life always linked with Jane’s death for you? Or did that emerge during the writing process?

That was kind of the revelation of this project. I had touched my father’s death only slightly in Jane: A Murder. Suddenly here it came, veering into center stage. I just had to get out of the way and bear the revival.

The story of your father, as well as Jane’s story and the many other threads, is revealed in a piecemeal, non-chronological fashion. To get back to structure for a moment, can you tell me about how you map this all out? Do you follow your associative instinct or write each thread out individually? Cut up fragments of your prose and arrange it all over your walls and floors? I’m sure I’m not alone among your many scribe fans dying for a glimpse into your masterly scaffolding methods!

Hmm . . . once it was clear to me that the book would be organized by chapter, I thought of each chapter as a kind of prose poem with a title that would hold it together, and which would point toward that chapter’s main raison d’etre. The chapters made it easy for me to shovel my information into holding containers. Then I had to order the chapters, which involved making a looping narrative timeline, which was inspired by a rumor I once heard of some screenwriters putting scenes on index cards and shuffling them to find the right order.

Were you candid with your family when working on this project? How did they respond to the initial release of the book? How about its recent re-release?

My family has only ever been supportive. My mother even threw me a big book release at her home for The Red Parts, which tells you a lot. But I don’t think we’ve talked much about its re-release. It was such an ordeal at the time, we don’t need to re-live it now.

What fuels your writing process?

I haven’t had any coffee since 1996, I mostly type (as opposed to longhand), and as I get older, I prefer to work in silence.

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The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial is available through Graywolf Press and Amazon.

Image via the Los Angeles Times.

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