I really wanted to write my mother's story, but I also wanted to write a book about violence towards women and gun violence in America

Justin St. Germain was born in Philadelphia in 1981. He attended the University of Arizona and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.

You wrote in the acknowledgments that you did a lot of research before writing this book, which may seem odd since it is a memoir. What kind of material did you draw from your research?

I used a lot of memoirs to give me a sense of the possibilities, I think. I’ve been writing fiction before I started the memoir, so I did a brush up on all the recent memoirs. I obviously read James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, it was a really big inspiration. I really admire his writing but also how he did it. He goes back after all these years to investigate his mother’s murder, and I think I took a lot of inspiration from that. First I read a lot of memoirs to figure out how people had done it. For any actual writing I wind up having to go back to a lot of source material, a lot of journals and things like that, to remember the series of events, to remember how it felt, right after my mother’s death. But in the later parts of the book, it was literally research. I thought of it a lot as a true crime kind of book. so There were the police reports, interviewing people who had known her, things like that. That was a different kind of research.

The book covers indeed several genres, it is a memoir but also a true crime book. We also learn about Wyatt Earp, the cult historical figure involved in the gunfight at OK Corral which is set in Tombstone, your hometown. How meaningful was it for you to link the story of Wyatt Earp to your own?

I didn’t really think of it as a memoir until it was about to be published and Random House needed to call it something. I think a memoir is kind of a marketing term, especially in the US, so I thought of it as part biography of my mother, and part true crime or investigative reporting where I was trying to write about an event or death. I always thought that my story was secondary, but I guess they needed something to call it, so they called it a memoir. I don’t know that I’ve entirely been comfortable with that word, but I understand why, for lack of a better term, it was called that. But I always thought of it as partly history, about the O.K. Corral and Wyatt Earp, I thought it was important just because of how much it informed the place that I’m writing about. Tombstone and that part of Arizona are all built up on this myth of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at OK Corral. I couldn’t write about it without writing about that too.

In doing so, you link your own story—the small story which is important for you, to the bigger story of the gunfight, which was actually nothing more than a 30-second gunfight where three people were killed. Was it a way for you to turn your personal story into a bigger story?

I definitely think that writing about Wyatt Earp was an attempt to take a part of the myth. I really wanted to write my mother’s story, but I also wanted to write a book about violence towards women and gun violence in America. I wanted to bring in some larger themes. That’s kind of why, for some sections of the book, it actually leaves my mother’s story and talks about the gun show or the meeting with other survivors. I think those were all attempts to implicate bigger themes.

Violence is indeed one of the main themes of the book, and one of the panels you attended at the festival America in Paris dealt with the question of violence in America. Had you not written this memoir, do you think you would have written a book about violence anyway?

I had a mentor tell me that you don’t really set out to write about things, you realize what your preoccupations are after you’ve been writing for a while. I think that’s true. I think it took me a long time to realize that violence and class and masculinity were sort of my real preoccupations as a writer. I don’t want to keep writing the same book over and over, that’s for sure, but I feel that everything I write will be centered around those themes.

Do you think you would be more inclined to write fiction again?

I think and I hope that I was a fiction writer who took a detour for a while to write non-fiction. I’ve been writing on a project which I think will turn into a novel, and it’s not based on my life, so I hope I’ll go back to writing fiction, and I hope I’ll be successful.

You relied on a lot of material and documents to write the book, and you talked to a lot of people. What kind of feedback did you get from them?

I didn’t get as much as I was expecting. I have heard from a couple of people, but they tended to be not as upset as I thought they might be. My family was pretty supportive. Nobody has sued me or any of those things I was afraid was going to happen. I haven’t heard from a ton of people, but I’ve heard from some, and by and large they seemed pretty supportive, so that was a pleasant surprise.

Did you get any emails or letters from people who had had the same kind of experience with violence?

I would get a lot of emails from people who lost someone to a murder, or from people who had experienced domestic violence, either directly or through the parents of families. I didn’t know what to do with that at first, it was hard to deal with. I didn’t know what to say to people, and I still don’t, but I think I’ve gotten a little more used to it. A lot of times, in the US, I’d do a presentation or a reading, and sometimes there’s one person who’s staying after, and when everybody’s gone they come up and tell me some horrible story about what happened to them. At some point, I realized that they were not looking for answers, they just want to tell someone, they don’t think I have any smart thing to say to make it better, and I don’t, but they just want to be able to tell somebody.

It was really saddening to hear all those stories, and also, in an odd way, it was kind of reassuring to know that they felt okay telling me, that maybe they identified with something or felt it was authentic.

The chronology of the book is not linear, it is presented like the scraps the survivors assemble for their scrapbooking project during their meeting. How did you decide on the structure you wanted for the book?

I started writing it from journal entries, because I had compulsively kept this journal in the few months after my mom died. For the first part, I had those and I didn’t know what it was going to look like. What I essentially did was to get as much material as I could. I had the police reports, I would try to talk to people, and that kind of dictated what it looked like structurally. Once I figured out what those scraps would be—and then putting them together was a lot of trial and error, I tried to sequence it in different ways. There were a lot of different drafts, and in the end, over the course of two years with my editor’s help, we settled on a structure.

Every section has a very short title, it’s usually a word, such as “Luck”, or “The Beast”. Did your draw from these words to write your book or was it the other way around?

It was about half-and-half. For some of the chapters, when I sat down to write, I would know what the chapter’s title was going to be. For others, I wrote them and I didn’t have a subtitle. For some of them, my editor suggested something. It was a mix up of a lot of different factors. For some, I might just find something eventually, so it kind of depended on the chapter.

The investigation of your mother’s death was not very conclusive. When did you decide to stop looking for new material and just start to write?

That was a hard thing to know, because I kept feeling like no matter how much I had, there would be one more person who would return my phone call, or there would be one more document I would be able to find if I just kept looking. It’s actually worked out pretty well. The two timelines are parallel. The first timeline takes about three months, from my mother’s death until Ray’s body is found. Then in the second part, I went back to Arizona, for about three months, for the summer, so when that trip was over, I had all this material and I went back to California. I wasn’t sure I had enough, but then I wrote it out and I realized I did. In fact I had too much and a lot of stuff got cut out. But it wasn’t until I actually sat down to write it that, despite the feeling that there might be one more thing, some key out there that would unlock the whole story, I realized I had as much of the story as I was ever going to have.

Do you still go back to Arizona?

I do go back to Arizona a lot, because my brother lives twenty miles from where we grew up. I go back to see him a lot, he’s family, but I try to avoid Tombstone specifically because the town has a strange feeling. I have been there a few times, but it’s too full of memories and associations and I don’t feel comfortable now, going back there, I try not to.

At the end of the book, you go back to Tombstone and there’s already this kind of eerie feeling that it’s not the same place anymore.

It’s a small town. It’s been long enough now since I left that most of the people I know are not there anymore. Things change pretty quickly there.

How did this kind of writing, which took you a lot of time and personal investment, impact your writing now that you’re a professor? Do you feel it had any influence?

I think it did. On one level, I never really believed I’d be able to write an entire book until the moment that I felt it in my hands. I don’t know if it’s the same with everyone, but it’s hard to believe you could do something that difficult until it’s done.

I haven’t finished another book, so I don’t know how much it will inform the next book, but I can feel it informing my life since then, in certain ways. I also feel I have to fight that somehow, so I don’t keep writing the same book. I’m not sure how that works out. I think maybe once I’ve completed another book I’ll understand all that better.

You said that you do not relate a lot to the term “memoir”. Do you think that in the end, since it’s the first and foremost the story of your mother, it does not tell much about yourself?

It’s hard for me to say, because it’s hard for me to see it objectively. My hope for the book was that it started off being about me, and then the longer it goes on the less it’s about me. I think that’s because I discovered in the process of writing it that my interest wasn’t really my own story, it was about asking both who was my mother and how did this happen. I was trying to ask a bigger question.

Did you feel that this book offered you some kind of closure?

I think I really resisted that idea, it’s not why I wrote it. I wrote it because I wanted to offer something to the reader. The problem about writing for closure is that you can write for therapy, but in that case you don’t need to show it to anybody. There’s nothing wrong with that. I wanted to be able to get the reader something, to tell him a story. The flip side of that—that I’ve noticed now that the book has been released, and also because it’s been thirteen years since my mom died, is that it feels like I put this part of my life in the past. It used to be constantly a part of my everyday life, it affected everything, and now I feel like it’s something that happened to me a long time ago, and that’s a very welcome feeling.