Kathryn Harrison (BSS #227)

Kathryn Harrison is most recently the author of While They Slept.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo:: Grappling with death and emergencies.

Author: Kathryn Harrison

Subjects Discussed: Opening the novel with a stark transcript of a 9/11 call, exchange incongruities, differences between text and spoken word, lack of annotation, true crime as a writing choice, the Keddie murders, not being a journalist, Binky Urban, impetus for writing about the Gilleys, Random House contractual obligations, voice of reason versus “gut-level” response, Jody Gilley’s memoir attempts, compartmentalization, investigating other people’s lives, a “blow-by-blow” account of murder, depending on and reconstructing other people’s memories, boundary issues, having “the same painful interview over and over again”, similarities to police officers and lawyers, Jody’s severing of her previous life, constructing a linear timeline, index cards versus notebooks, repeated viewing of traumatic events like 9/11, collating differing accounts to create a “master version”, letting the reader decide the final word, credibility with regards to interpretation, Billy Gilley’s continued appeal of the murder conviction, prison interviews, underwire bras, advice about what to wear to prison, weird overtones, Thad Guyer, fear that Billy wouldn’t see Harrison after she drove to prison, writing about things “not discussed in polite company”; sitting in a prison visiting area, Billy’s loneliness and lack of contact with the outside world, not letting him get off-topic, her husband not relishing continued correspondence with Billy, dishonesty about feelings with regards to his little sister Becky, evading direct questioning, Becky as a “wet bar of soap” in conversation, depersonalizing murder victims, Harrison’s theory of the murders, Billy’s volcanic rage against his father, Harrison mixing in her own story, The Kiss, misconception about revisiting hot-button subjects, the unnatural prospect of Harrison “getting over” her incestuous relationship, breaking lives into two pieces, seeing aspects of herself in the Gilley children, fantasies about killing her father, memoir/true crime hybrids, the conceit of the first draft, Harrison’s personal experience as a “hook” to tell a story of 20-year old murders, the process of narrative and what it can do, truth and subjectivity in memoir, the mutual exclusiveness of facts and story, James Frey and Augusten Burroughs memoir fiascos, self-mythology in A Million Little Pieces, memoir as a narcissistic process or digging around in the muck, emotional truth, Peter DeVries’ The Blood of the Lamb, ethical issues of Harrison giving money and magazine subscriptions to Billy, potential for compromised content, Jody’s bookishness and craving Harlequin romances, Flowers in the Attic, reading voraciously and defensively as a way to escape reality, The Brothers Karamazov, using romance novels as a means of finding out how normal people treated each other, reverse escapism, the disconnect between Jody’s current accomplishments and what is inside her head, balancing the Gilley murders with Harrison’s family life, unwitting parallels, family as salvation from becoming a monster, obsessive work habits, burdens sliding off her shoulders.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Harrison: I worked from a number of documents and sources. And I didn’t feel that I could do better than to begin with that exchange between Jody and the 911 operator. Because it really showed so much about who she was. The level of her diction. Her way of saying what had happened. “I think my father’s killed my parents and my sister.” And the 911 operator’s conversely saying, “What? Did he not like them or something?” And she’s saying, “Well, I guess.” It was an economical way of introducing a number of things that would come up later in the book. And it’s pretty compelling, I think.

Correspondent: Yeah. I was actually going to ask you about that exchange, where he brings up, “I guess he didn’t like your parents.” It just struck me as so — where did this come from? It’s as if he couldn’t process what had happened.

Harrison: Yeah. That, and just the incongruity of it. It had that sort of immediacy and authenticity that spoke for itself. Not the kind of thing that you could — I couldn’t have synthesized or summarized anything as eloquent as that tape from the 911 operator. And it really just introduced what the book was about. This is also a story about a family being murdered.

Correspondent: Was it also a case too — I mean, text can only go so far. Is there something that may be missing because we aren’t hearing the actual audio transcript? Like even without that exchange that we just talked about, are there inflections within Jody’s voice of just being in shock or being in catatonia?

Harrison: Oh, I’m sure. That would be true of the written word as opposed to the spoken word. It does have annotations about points in which she starts to cry and she hesitates. I think that some level of panic and disorientation comes through. But it’s never going to replace the sound of the voice.

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