(Editor’s note: For this 27th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series, we welcome to The Rap Sheet Doug Magee, an author, filmmaker, and former freelance photojournalist living in New York’s Spanish Harlem. His second novel, Darkness All Around, was published recently by Touchstone. In the essay below, Magee looks back at his own history and experiences to find some of the sources for the story he tells in that book.)
My new novel, Darkness All Around, is about Sean Collins, who, after 11 years existing as a drunk on the streets of New York City, suffers a traumatic brain injury, survives it, and then begins to have horrible memories of a murder he committed before he left his Pennsylvania hometown. Sean tries to turn himself in for the murder, but since another man already confessed to the crime and is serving a life sentence, the district attorney and the town in general turn him away. His ex-wife, Risa, finds herself caught between Sean’s wild claim and her new husband Alan’s desire to run Sean out of town. Dark corners of the town become exposed and Sean and Risa find themselves in very hot water.
So, what’s behind this story? I don’t outline my fiction before I begin to write. I have an idea, perhaps a couple of plot points, and one or two characters, but for the most part I just take myself on a journey of exploration for the time I’m writing the book. Revising that first draft is usually more technical than it is introspective. And so when the finished book arrives in the mail I’m presented with a little mystery. How the hell did this thing come about?
In the case of my first novel, Never Wave Goodbye (2010), the mystery wasn’t so deep. The story--about a woman who puts her daughter on a bus to summer camp, goes back in her house, and then the real bus arrives--came from an ah-ha moment and was intended to be a screenplay first. The rest of the novel unspooled organically from that first “what if.” I suppose that if I looked deeply there would be some autobiographical elements to Never Wave Goodbye, but in general the book is, well, an open book.
Darkness All Around is a little more obscure in its origins. The seed idea, that a man recovers memory of a murder, was also intended as a screenplay at first. I revived it years later when I saw its potential as a novel. Before I sat down to write, I remembered a chapter in Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in which Sacks recounts the story of a young man who had killed his girlfriend and had no memory of it until he had a traumatic brain injury years later. I didn’t want details from Sacks’ account to color my story, so I didn’t go back to that book until after I’d finished writing.
As the story in Darkness All Around developed, Sean’s horror at his own deed grew and his torture was such that he felt suicide was the only way for him to rid himself of the deep guilt he was suffering. Looking at the book whole after its completion I saw the centrality of this guilt to the narrative, based a trailer
My first answer was that a recurring dream I have was responsible for the emphasis on guilt in the book. Every now and then, for years, maybe decades, I will have a nightmare in which I realize I have committed murder and there is nothing I can do to reverse that fact. In the dream I don’t actually see myself carry out the murder, but it’s as if I wake from some sleep or blacked-out condition and have this horrible, sinking feeling of having committed the worst crime one can commit.
OK, so perhaps the dream was behind the writing, behind my subconscious coughing up that particular part of the story. But what was behind the dream? It didn’t take too much sleuthing for me to figure that one out. I do have a hair-trigger guilt response, but it was something more specific than that.
In 1980 I wrote and had published my first book, Slow Coming Dark, a non-fiction collection of interviews with death-row inmates. I was actively opposed to the death penalty (and still am) and my attempt in the book was to put a human face on those men and women we had demonized by sentencing them to death. I went to a number of death rows around the country, mainly in the South, and tape-recorded and photographed inmates, usually in a special visiting room or in their cells.
As I went about this project, a curious thing developed. Although I was often alone in a small, enclosed space with men who had committed atrocious acts of violence, sometimes locked inside with them and no guards, I was never afraid of them, never feared for my own safety. But when I began editing the interviews and writing about the inmates, I began to fear myself and my own capacity for violence. Part of the work of the book was to give the men a more universal cast than daily journalism offered, a there-but-for-fortune slant that I felt accurately described their lives and dilemmas. In doing this I found myself identifying with the men and had many cold-sweat moments imagining being in their shoes, waking to the reality that I had killed and the killing could not be reversed or absolved.
That may sound extreme, but if you eschew, as I did, the black hat/white hat, good guys/bad guys, us-versus-pure evil understanding of murderers, you leave yourself open to the possibility that with only small tweaks or twists of fate it could be you sitting in the cell and your interviewee in your shoes. These very visceral feelings left me after a while but, as I’ve said, they seem to have popped up in dreams, and now in Darkness All Around.
In this new book, Sean Collins’ response to the awful knowledge that he has killed someone is to want to kill himself in return. He comes very close to doing so a couple of times, but stops himself when he realizes that this solution would be a dreadful legacy for his son. In my dreams, in the feelings I had 30 years ago, I can’t say that I thought suicide would be an answer to anything, but the worst part of the dream for me was the certain knowledge that I would never in my life be able to overcome the horrible guilt.
I suppose it’s up to the reader of Darkness All Around to see if this strain in the novel is something he/she can identify with, if I’ve managed to convey Sean’s--and my--horror, but at least I’ve unraveled one small mystery about the book’s origins for myself.
Perhaps as an antidote of sorts to what Sean went through, I’ve been working on a true-crime story recently, involving two men who have spent 35 years in prison for a murder they did not commit. Their nightmare is one I think we all can understand and fear.
READ MORE: “Doug Magee’s Darkness All Around”
(My Book, the Movie).