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"Irony or Pathos or Downright Absurdity": An Interview with Marcia Aldrich

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton.  She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women published by The University of Georgia Press. 

Her essay, "Deviated Reports from the Bainbridge Island Police Blotter," appeared in Issue Eighty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer William Hoffacker about police reports, the "hermit crab" essay form, and yellow cargo pants.

Can you describe the process of writing this piece? Since it is classified as nonfiction, am I correct in assuming that these reports are real? How did you obtain and select them? Are any of the details invented or embellished?

My husband and I moved from Michigan to Bainbridge Island in June 2016. We began to receive a community publication called The Bainbridge Island Review which included a section at the end called “The Police Blotter.” As a newcomer to the island I found these entries fascinating. First an odd portrait emerges of a place through the crimes reported, something other than the Chamber of Commerce’s sanitized version. A version that the island doesn’t quite own, I’d say. Second the level of detail included was astounding. And third, the stories themselves surprised me. I’m not sure at what point it occurred to me that I might do something with them, but I began cutting out the pages and putting them in a folder. The earliest entries date from July 2016 to the last entries in November.

At some point, I had amassed quite a lot and began transcribing them into a file including the dates and times. In the process of transcription, I edited the entries because they were too long for my purposes. I was aiming to create a literary essay based on real documents. I also began to hear the literary potential in the entries—by that I mean, I began to hear the irony or pathos or downright absurdity inherent in the accounts.

Selection became crucial. I didn’t want three entries about an older woman driver who ran into a storefront. I discovered that on the island there are many incidents involving older drivers, who mistake the gas pedal for the brakes. And so, it was with all the entries—there were patterns of incidents and it was my job as a writer to find those patterns and pick the best one to represent the pattern, not to fill the essay with repetition. I was looking for what was representative, to give a portrait of the island through the incidents the police handled during this time period.

I did not make up any of the incidents—they all happened and were reported. In this sense, the material is nonfiction. However, I thought of what I was doing as composing a hermit crab essay, a literary form, using nonfiction and recognizable material. I used the police blotter entries to construct through selection and arrangement a literary portrait of a place. Something like a found poem but with liberties taken.

The hermit crab form appeals to me because it’s sneaky. Most of us recognize police reports and find them familiar but we don’t think about what they reveal about a community. As someone who had recently relocated to Bainbridge Island, I felt a bit of an outsider, able to see patterns that perhaps had become normalized or invisible to those who had lived on the island for a long time. We often expect the dominance of the I in personal essays and again the hermit crab form shifts that I more to an EYE. I am not a direct player in the narratives. My activity as a writer is more to see the potential in the material, to select, arrange and witness.

Many of the reports are somewhat humorous, mostly because the incidents described seem frivolous or downright strange. Some lines are quite funny, e.g., “He acknowledged that the need for a haircut may have clouded his judgment.” Then, among these amusing slices of life, a dead body. How did you choose the placement of this morbid tale, juxtaposed with much lighter fare? (You could have titled this section “Body,” or “Drowned,” or “Unidentified,” but I suspect you had a reason for naming it “Nothing” so that it appears smack dab in the middle of the alphabetically arranged vignettes.)

The answer to this question follows upon the heels of my answers to your first question. There’s a lot a writer can do using the tools of selection and arrangement. What I chose might not be what someone else would choose. I’m drawn to the alphabet and other organizing structures because again the structure allows me to frame the material in ways that shape the reading experience. Juxtaposition, for example as you mention, is incredibly powerful in this piece—the mixture of tones and material, seeing the humor in darkness and the darkness in humor. Juxtaposition allows the writer to create a relationship between the parts of a work that complicate the material. Mixing things up, breaking up expectation, creating a different rhythm of reading. This form requires that the reader be quite active in putting the pieces together and cover a spectrum of feeling in doing so. It doesn’t allow the reader to settle.

I did work hard on deciding what to include, where to include it, and what to title the section even though I imagine if the essay is successful, it looks effortless, even natural. But it is instructive to read the raw material I began with, in chronological order with the dates and times, and then read the order I ended up with and the titles. The changes make a world of difference. I’m not sure I could say that all my choices were calculated so much as intuitive and creative. I wanted to be as free as possible. By that I mean, I didn’t want to worry about what the portrait was that was emerging and what islanders would think about it. I sensed an effect was possible. The titles were fun but hard to come up with—sometimes they popped from the material and other times they did not. In all cases, the titles frame what comes after as titles do.

As for embellishment and invention—there is some. I did not change what happened. For example, in Yellow, one of my favorite entries, the cargo pants really were yellow and the guy really found them in his house and had no explanation of how they got there. This entry is close to a found poem. In Buttocks, the book really was a Kurt Vonnegut novel. I didn’t make up these details and part of the pleasure of the essay is in the freshness of the details, a sense that facts can be more interesting than fiction. But I did add bits. For example, in Appointment, I added the ending. The police did suggest that the woman block her phone, stay inside, and lock the door. I added her response—“Forever, she asked.” There are touches and turns, little additions that color the entry, perhaps adding a bit of commentary, a bit of humor over the obvious absurdity. But mostly I think I found the pathos in the scene and brought it out a bit more effectively or dramatically than the straight report.

Why did you choose Bainbridge Island as the location from which you would draw stories?

I’ve probably covered this. I lived in East Lansing, Michigan for a long time and it never occurred to me to make anything out of the crime reports. Why? I think because I was an insider, familiar with the place, part of it, and therefore not spurred to create a portrait of it. But when I relocated to a new, unfamiliar place I found myself trying to understand it, to make sense of it and the police blotter gave me a more intimate portrait than other forms.

What obsessions (or passions, or interests, if you prefer) appear in your writing most often? (Despite the fact that many of these reports end without criminal charges, was this piece at all inspired by an interest in true crime stories?)

You know, I’m not drawn to crime. This was a onetime thing, as far as I know. Although I like to watch TV shows like The Wire and True Detective, I don’t see myself in that genre.

As a writer of creative nonfiction, I have an abiding interest in form—from all manner of the essay to memoir, with a special interest in experimentation. I’ve written a book on a friend’s suicide, Companion to an Untold Story (AWP award winner in creative nonfiction, UGA), an experimental memoir on growing up female Girl Rearing (Norton). Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women came out at the end of 2016, which I edited and marks my deep interest in women’s writing.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

Too many and none of them are finished. I can barely make it to my desk for all the piles of unfinished work. An essay of mine, “Float,” was just selected as a Notable essay in the Best American Essay series. This piece is part of a large memoir project called Haze that is incomplete. I’ve written about 200 pages but I am not done, it frustrates me to say. Meanwhile I’m deep into an array of essays drafted over the last year about Bainbridge Island—almost none of those are finished either. And I’ve put together a collection of essays called Grub using a numbered outline system that builds them into one complete system of essay.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Of late I’ve been drawn to books composed of short forms. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness and 300 Arguments. In the category of memoir, H is for Hawk is the best I’ve read in some time. I’ve been reading Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey with great pleasure, dipping in and out.

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