Writer's Notes - Jessica Pishko: Creating Fiction Out of Reality
Writer's Notes is a series that invites writers to detail their projects at any stage in their process. Writer Jessica Pishko parses her memories as a first year law student and of the summer she worked on a death penalty case in North Carolina for her debut novel A Trial for Grace.
When I began writing my novella A Trial for Grace, I knew that I wanted to base it on something that I had experienced myself – being a very young, very green law student working on a death penalty trial. An important part of that experience was living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is a mid-size town not too far from Charlottesville and Raleigh.
It was a strange time for me. I had just finished my first year of law school, and my uncle was nice enough to let me work at his firm. It paid, but not as much as some of my friends who were working at large corporate firms in cities like New York and D.C. My law school boyfriend – a hulking mass of a man who had rowed crew as an undergrad and told me he “didn’t think he could marry a Jew” – was working at a law firm in Atlanta, a city I hate, where trips to strip clubs were not uncommon. I remember an email they sent around his law firm’s office around about a female associate who had supposedly hooked up with a coworker. It was cruel.
In North Carolina, I was lonely. I didn’t know anyone except for my aunt, uncle, and two younger cousins. I didn’t really have a car to speak of – someone was nice enough to loan me a car most of the time. Often, I rode to work with my uncle.
The clients were the people I liked the best. A part of my job was to answer the phone and do what is called intake. Once, a man called.
“Check it out,” he said. “I just got out of prison.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. He wanted to sue. We spoke for a while and somehow we came to an inexplicable agreement that left him feeling satisfied.
My memories of that time are irrevocably warped. I remember running in the early morning, covered in that fine haze of green humidity. I remember long drives on highways that I didn’t know well. I remember the changes in scenery – the almost garish green turning to brown turning to the nothing color of a parking lot. I really like this paragraph!
When I wrote my novella, I wanted to capture those sensations, but I didn’t want it to be completely accurate. I wanted truth, but not. I wanted the feeling of being in a place, but not really the place itself.
This was, I found, a difficult line to parse. Truth be told, it had been a long time, and I couldn’t really remember a lot of the details. I thought that I should take a trip and see it for myself, again, through my newer eyes.
On the other hand, I wasn’t convinced this was the best route to take. There are many books set in North Carolina written by excellent writers from the area, books that better capture the spirit and sense of the people. But my book featured an outsider, someone who comes to North Carolina from New York, so I was less concerned with capturing local flavor. And, even though the other characters were “locals,” I wanted there to be an ethereal quality about them, almost as if they didn’t exist. While the book deals with a crime and is cast as a legal thriller, I wanted it to feel Gothic and somewhat unreal. I wanted events that could have happened – as well as a degree of legal accuracy – but I also wanted events that didn’t seem like they could have happened.
One way I did this was through the narrator. Because the narrator comes from the outside, to her everything is strange. I had to picture the landscape through her eyes. Most importantly, she had to see and understand the people as an outsider would.
My research, therefore, was not as specific as the kind I would for a nonfiction piece. I looked at old books and photographs and newspaper articles about strange deaths in the region. I looked at how people spoke when they were quoted and the stories they told. I imagined the people telling those stories – there was one newspaper clipping about someone who found some decaying bodies in a well in her backyard. Instead of researching what the earth would have looked like, I wondered about the woman who found the bodies. What was she like? What might she wear and how might she talk?
As a result, I think the novella isn’t accurate in the way that some books are accurate depictions of a specific place at a specific time. Rather, it’s true to how it feels to be in a place that people tell you exists, but you aren’t quite sure. It’s that mystery, the sense of porousness between reality and imagination, that I hoped to capture.