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Julia Dahl On Turning to Fiction To Fill in the Emotional Gaps Left By Reportage


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When I was 17, my mom suggested I join the high school newspaper.

“You’re a good writer,” she said. She was right—I’d always gotten A’s in English—but as important as my affinity for the written word was a trait I’d often been chided for: I’m nosy. And being nosy is basically a reporter’s job. By the middle of senior year, I was hooked—but after a few years working magazines and newspapers I realized that I was even nosier than journalism allowed me to be.

Let me explain. As a reporter, you can only publish what you get on the record: you have to either witness something, or write what someone else tells you and gives you permission to write. None of that bothered me until I started writing about crime for Seventeen in 2004. For about three years, the magazine sent me around the country to write features about teenagers who had either committed or were the victims of some pretty heinous crimes. I loved the work—reading trial transcripts, traveling to places I never would have had the chance to go otherwise, and, mostly talking to the people whose lives had been impacted by the crimes I was covering. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to know more.

I have a vivid memory of sitting inside the home of an elderly woman in Virginia, listening to her tell me about her 14-year-old granddaughter who had stabbed her mother to death and attempted to burn her body in their backyard. The woman smoked as she showed me photograph and photograph. I could tell she was destroyed by what had happened, but the words that came out of her mouth—the words I could use in my story—were mostly platitudes. Of course they were. How many of us could be articulate about a nightmare like she’d experienced? How many of us would even want to share our real feelings with a stranger with a pen?

When I left her home that day, I didn’t know it, but I’d begun my life as a crime novelist. It would take a few more years, but over the next decade and a half, I would use the questions I had about the people in the articles I wrote in my day job as a reporter to explore—in fiction—the issues of trauma and regret and love and justice. To explore, in a word, humanity.

My first novel, Invisible City, tells the story of a tabloid reporter investigating the murder of an Hasidic Jewish woman found dead in a scrap pile in Brooklyn on a frigid winter day. I’m Jewish, but where I grew up there were no “black hat” Jews, and when I moved to New York in 1999 I was intrigued by this insular community of people who shared the same ancestors as I did, but clearly not the same ideas about life or even Judaism.

I noodled around with the first 100 pages of the book for almost four years, and then, in 2010, I was working as reporter at the New York Post when a young Hasidic groom leapt to his death from the suite where he was staying on his honeymoon. My editor sent me to the Brooklyn neighborhood where his bride lived to knock on doors and try to get information about the couple.

What my editor failed to realize was that he was sending me out on Saturday—Shabbat—when observant Jews don’t work or cook or drive or turn on lights; and they definitely don’t talk to reporters. But it was my job to try. I parked across the street from the apartment building and rang the bell for the apartment the people at the Post library had told me was the family’s. No answer. I rang again; no answer. Finally, I heard a voice above me. I stepped back and looked up. A woman in a head wrap (a shpitzel, I later learned it was called), had slid open a second-floor window and was calling down to me.

“Hello?” she said.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m sorry to bother you. I’m a reporter for the Post and I was hoping I could ask you a little about Mali.”

The woman considered my request. Many of the people I tried to talk to as a reporter at the Post—especially people who had just lost family or friends tragically—slammed windows and doors in my face, screamed obscenities, or spit insults at me for being a “vulture” (who could blame them?), but this woman did not.

“Come back after Shabbat,” she said, and closed the window.

I called my editor and told him the news: I’ll come back after sundown, I said. But my editor wasn’t interested. He needed me to go to Queens to cover a pedestrian fatality—so I went.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about that woman. What might she have told me? I decided to make it up: the next week I wrote a scene in the book that became INVISIBLE CITY where the protagonist knocks on the door of a murder victim’s family home on Shabbat, is asked to come back—and does. What she learns, and who she meets, propels the story forward.

The next year, I covered another tragedy in the Hasidic community: on July 11, 2011, a 5-year-old Hasidic boy named Leiby Kletzky was kidnapped from his neighborhood in Brooklyn and soon thereafter found dead, his body dismembered. The case was horrific—every parent’s worst nightmare—but what piqued my interest was a small detail: when Leiby’s parents realized he was missing, their first call was not to the police, but to a private Hasidic security force called the Shomrim. I was curious, so I wrote an article about the group—which had been accused of covering up allegations of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

But still, I didn’t feel satisfied. As a reporter, you can only write what you can get on the record. As a novelist, however, you can go deeper. You can explore the emotional and psychological and generational impact of crimes left uninvestigated, accusations swept under the rug. And that is what I did. I finished this book I’d been struggling with since 2007 in 2012, in 2014 it was published by Minotaur, and in 2015 it was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

*

I was working in the CBS News national newsroom on December 12, 2012, when news came over the wire that there had been a shooting at a school in Sandy Hook, Conn. I’d been covering crime for a few years at that point and, sadly, school shootings were extremely common—like, almost weekly, and often, for whatever reason, on Fridays. Typically, there were one or two victims, and often no fatalities. So, when we got the first reports that a teacher had come out of the building with a leg injury, we all assumed it would be over soon.

And then the news came in: An entire classroom of first graders was missing.

For the first and only time in my career as a reporter, the newsroom went silent as we all began to wrap our brains around what that meant. An entire classroom of 6-year-olds.

For the rest of that day and into the night, we worked, making calls, checking facts, updating numbers. A former student of mine posted on Facebook that her son had been in the school and gotten out, so, because it was my job, I messaged her and asked if she’d be willing to talk on the phone. She was. Through tears, she told me how she’d heard there had been a shooting at her son’s school; about reuniting with him, and then she told me something that truly chilled me: when the police walked her son and his classmates out of the building to safety, they told the children to cover their eyes…so they wouldn’t see the bullet-ridden bodies of their friends in the classroom next door.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Congress made an attempt to pass gun laws limiting the sale of AR-15s and similar style rifles, but the attempt failed. I remember hearing President Obama talk about the crime this way: “Every time I think about those kids I get mad.” I was mad, too. How could the massacre of 20 first-graders not move people to make a change? Op-eds and columns and cable news anchors decried the situation and I knew I had to write about it. So (spoiler!), Run You Down ends with a mass shooting of children. I wanted to shock my reader with descriptions of what high-powered bullets do to small bodies. I wanted them disgusted and angry. And I wanted to explore what might make a person commit such a crime; the hate, the fear, and the casual disregard for human life.

*

In 2002, five young men from New York City who’d spent 11 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit were exonerated. The men, who had come to be known as the Central Park Five, were just teenagers when they were accused and convicted of the brutal rape and beating of a woman jogging in Central Park in 1989.

In 2011, Sarah Burns, daughter of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, published a book on the case, and I was assigned, by Poynter, to write an article about how the media played a role in the frenzy that helped railroad the teens. What I found was that the boys—and so many black and brown men in that era—never really stood a chance once police, and the press, set their sights on them. The CP5 boys were called “animals” and a “wolf pack” by New York media. That their confessions had been coerced, that DNA found on the victim didn’t match the boys—none of that came out until more than a decade later.

After I wrote that article, my antenna was up, and it seemed as though every week I read about another black or brown man being let out of prison after being exonerated for a crime he was convicted of in the 1980s or early 1990s. I learned about the high rates of crime all across the country in that era (according to the NYPD there were 2262 homicides in New York City in 1990; in 2019, there were 318)—a “tidal wave,” as one former cop put it, that meant police were working far more cases than they could possibly handle well. I learned about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony; about the pervasive idea that there were teenage “super predators” roaming the streets; about the tendency for people under 21 to falsely confess to crimes.

I wanted to write about what it might have been like to be a black teenager accused of a crime in that era. What might the confusion and fear of being interrogated, alone, have felt like? Would the anger ever go away? And what might it have been like to be a cop when every day you were asked to investigate a new murder (or two, or three)? Would you cut corners? Would you make assumptions? I interviewed cops from that time and a man who’d spent decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and I wove what they told me into my third novel, Conviction.

*

I got the idea for my latest novel, The Missing Hours, in 2012 when I was a national crime and justice reporter for CBS News. A story had just broken out of Steubenville, Ohio, about a group of teenagers sharing photos of a classmate who had been sexually assaulted while drunk at a house party.

Maybe the most chilling part of the story was the 13-minute video of one of the boys laughing hysterically about the girl, joking that she was so drunk she seemed “dead”: “She is deader than Trayvon Martin,” he says, cackling. He was having a ball, performing for his friends, joking that the boys at the party “raped her harder than that cop raped Marcellus Wallace in ‘Pulp Fiction’.”

I’d been writing about crime for almost a decade by this point, but the video shocked me. Not only was it callous, but chillingly arrogant: he assumed they’d all get away with it.

I spent months writing about the case as it wound its way through court, looking at all kind of angles: How drunk is “too drunk” to consent to sex? Could the law punish people who engage in sexual cyber-bullying? Did the teens involved even really understand that what they’d done was illegal?

In the end, two young men were convicted for their roles in the assault, and each served some time behind bars.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl. What had this done to her? What had it done to the people who loved her? I was never able to interview her, but I did interview several sexual assault survivors for other stories—including two women who sued the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for how their assault allegations were handled by the college; and two women who said their experience reporting their rapes to police in Washington D.C. were as traumatic as the assaults themselves.

From these women, and reading books like Is Rape a Crime by Michelle Bowdler and Know My Name by Chanel Miller, I began to understand the ugly truth: most rapes are never reported, and of those that are, convictions are vanishingly rare.

So, I wondered, what might a young woman who knows this truth do if she were the survivor of a rape? What lengths might she go to for her own measure of justice? That, in a nutshell, is the Missing Hours.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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