Sunday, April 6, 2014

Finding Beauty in Tragedy

I like to believe that I write crime fiction for the same reasons I’m a newspaper crime reporter — no other stories have the depth and breadth of life, the joys, the sorrows, or the bittersweet poignancy that crime stories do.

Sometimes, if we do our jobs right, we are able to unearth the beautiful in the tragic.

For instance, last weekend at the newspaper was a rough one. I pissed someone off — someone who was grieving the death of a friend. When I came in to work the night shift I was handed a story about some college-age kids whose home had burned down. One kid was in critical condition at the hospital.

Shortly after I got to work, we got the news — he didn’t make it.

All his friends were talking about it on Facebook. I left a message on one page saying I was sorry for their loss and that if anyone wanted to talk to me about their friend, here was my number. I thought it was unobtrusive, but it made one girl very angry.

She asked why I didn’t wait longer before I left my message.

I couldn’t tell her the truth, which was that if we waited a day or two, at that point, a new tragedy would have captured reader’s interest. It’s awful, but true. I couldn’t tell her I had a limited amount of time and a limited amount of space to let people know a few details about this young man, to tell them something that would make him seem real to readers, so he was more than just a faceless victim. That is my job.

It isn’t always easy, but I feel a great responsibility to do this, so that when someone dies they are more than just a name in the paper.

So I just told this girl that I was very sorry for her loss and wished her well.

I also couldn’t tell her the story that makes me reach out to grieving friends and family, even when I don’t want to do so:

Years ago, I was at the Monterey (Calif.) Herald newspaper when I noticed a husband and wife had died within 24 hours of one another and decided to write a story about it.

I reached the couple’s daughter-in-law who told me what had happened: the wife had a stroke and died instantly. When the husband saw her body being taken away, he had a heart attack and died a few hours later.

This woman, Diane, told me about the love her in-laws had shared for the past 50 years. How they came over from Mexico and had worked in the fields picking lettuce since they were 18. How they raised six children and sent four of them to medical school this way.  I was immediately captured by this love story — this couple’s life story, really.

Diane invited me to come to the wake the next day so I could talk to the couple’s other children.
When I arrived, I was told Diane was on her way and to wait inside. The house was packed with mourners. I stood in the corner feeling about as awkward and out of place as I ever have in my life.

Finally Diane arrived and herded all the siblings and me into a bedroom to talk. I explained that I wanted to write about their parent’s great love story.

One of the couple’s daughters glared at me and said, “I’m not talking to you. I got nothing to say to you!”

Saying she was hostile is an understatement.

However, before long everyone was sharing stories with me and laughing and crying — everyone except the one daughter who continued glaring at me.

I went back to the office and wrote my story, adding in some quotes from doctors who said they truly believed someone could die of a broken heart.

About a month later, I got a little envelope in the mail. Inside was a thank you card:

“Thank you so much for writing about my parents. I was the one who didn’t want to talk to you. But I’m so glad you were there. Your article is now a treasured keepsake in our family. Thank you so much.”

And so that, that right there, is why I make those painful calls and visits to grieving family and friends. It’s about finding the beauty, the hope, the love, and the basic goodness of people in a tragedy. And if I don’t care enough to make that call, then who will?

My question for you writer and reader friends:

What speaks to you about crime fiction? Why do you pick up these types of books over and over or — if you are a writer — continue to pen these types of novels?


Thomas Pluck said...

What a great post, Kristi. That is a letter to keep framed on your wall. And yes, the crime stories I write are usually elegies, to people I know, knew, or empathized with. Their stories live on in those who knew them.

Kristi said...

I love that -- elegies -- perfect. What a beautiful way to put it!
And thanks for your kind words!

Aimee Hix said...

I read, and write, crime for a very selfish reason. Feeling out of control and small and insubstantial and unable to affect any real change in the world, crime fiction makes me feel differently. For those moments I get to feel justice has been done and that I am in control and powerful and unstoppable; that the world is balanced again.

Kristi said...

Oh Aimee, honey, I get that, too!
I wrote my first book to purge real-life monsters out of my head!