Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, MFA ’09, took an internship at a Louisiana capital defense firm years ago to fight the death penalty.
She came away with questions about her own past; the role of personal experience in forming judgments and stories; and the seeds of her first published book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, due out from Flatiron Books on May 16.
“You can’t fully get away from the past,” Marzano-Lesnevich said of what she learned from the experience. “In some ways, what writing the book allowed me to do is live with the past.”
Marzano-Lesnevich, who had gone to Harvard Law School for the purpose of opposing capital punishment, was shown the confession tape of Ricky Langley, a mentally ill man who murdered a 6-year-old boy in 1992.
“I had a very emotional response,” Marzano-Lesnevich recalled. “In that moment, I wanted him to die, which was a problem, because I had devoted my life to fighting the death penalty.”
Over the years, including while she was getting an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson, she would think about that period in her life and the reaction it sparked in her. After she left the program, she got the complete court records of Langley’s trial and began researching the case in depth, to learn about a man who had committed heinous acts, but whose victim’s own mother would eventually testify against executing him.
But Marzano-Lesnevich also knew that her own family history was part of the story, because it was part of what was behind her strong, uncharacteristic response to the case.
And the deeper she went into the story, the more she realized that the people directly involved in the Langley case were seeing aspects of their own lives in Ricky’s too, complicating her idea of a “pure” legal system.
The result is a hybrid of memoir and literary journalism that “braids” the two strands together in a book that bestselling novelist Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You) called “equal parts gripping and haunting [that] will leave you questioning whether any one story can hold the full truth.”
That braided structure proved a challenge for Marzano-Lesnevich, whose first draft was “ruled by research.” She had to find a voice that worked as well for memories from her own childhood as it did for depictions of jury selection.
However, it was a challenge she said she was both inspired and empowered to take thanks to the Emerson program.
“One of the things the professors taught us very well was that we should be working beyond the limits of what you knew how to do, because that was how you grew,” Marzano-Lesnevich said.
Marzano-Lesnevich, a Rona Jaffe Award-winner who is an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and teaches memoir writing at GrubStreet, credited Senior Writer-in-Residence Richard Hoffman with teaching her how to be “brave in memoir.” Professor Megan Marshall taught her a lot about research, and Professor Pamela Painter taught her how to “trust imagination.”
But she said that her sense of structure, research methods, and literary journalism came from Professor Doug Whynott, her thesis advisor.
Whynott, who’s read the galleys, called The Fact of a Body “really wonderful” and likened it to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a nonfiction classic whose narrative alternates between points of view: the murderers and the detectives.
“It’s a really effective structure that develops a lot of suspense and mystery and meaning,” Whynott said.
Marzano-Lesnevich’s path in life—activist law student, literary MFA candidate, university faculty, now published author—is “unusual and remarkable,” and mirrors somewhat her path as a writer, Whynott said.
“She’s taken some risks, and that’s something writers have to do,” he said.
Marzano-Lesnevich and Whynott will give a joint reading of their work at an event being held Wednesday, March 22, in Emerson's Charles Beard Room. Whynott's latest book, The Sugar Season (2014), was selected as one of the best books of 2014 by the Boston Globe, and won the GreenBook Festival Award for writing about the environment.