Writing nonfiction from the heartland. Unintentionally, my themes seem to center on early, tragic death. It’s not the easiest stuff to write; perhaps it’s time to back away from that? But I don’t envision myself as someone who’s going to write about rainbows and butterflies.
My first book, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, addresses my early years growing up in cemeteries and the fallout of my dad’s unexpected death when I was 15 years old. Now I’m working on a narrative biography of Camilla Hall, a Minnesota native who was swept up in the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. She was part of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, took part in the Hibernia bank robbery, and died in a shoot-out with police, along with five other SLA members, in May 1974.
Why nonfiction? From a young age, I was fascinated with true stories. My dad brought home a couple of newspapers most days, and with our limited TV reception in rural Minnesota in the 1980s, the news was almost always on. I learned early how true stories could captivate an audience. I always enjoyed writing but was never inclined to make up stories. I’d rather observe and report on what I saw. In third grade I remember writing a biography of my dad, honing in on the fact that he had fifteen brothers and sisters. At nine years old, it’s like I understood how the unusual is what makes the story.
I try to envision myself as the person I’m writing about. For my dad, what was it like to dig a grave? How did he do it? What did he think about as he was carving a hole in the earth that would hold mortal remains? For Camilla, what was it like to be in Berkeley in the early 1970s? How did it feel to watch three siblings die? Why might she be drawn to a revolutionary group that embraced violence? What was she thinking?
But all of that imagining comes out of research. Everything I can verify, I do. Any speculation on a person’s thoughts or actions comes from a plausible scenario, and I make it clear that I’m speculating.
For the first draft I just write. I write everything I can think of that might relate. I don’t worry about the words or what it sounds like; editing comes later. I give myself time to revise and revise and revise, consulting with trusted writer friends to give me feedback.
Rachael Hanel’s memoir was a finalist in the memoir/creative nonfiction category for the 2014 Minnesota Book Award. She teaches Mass Media at Minnesota State University, Mankato.