Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Memoir: to Ted or not to Ted?

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Memoir: to Ted or not to Ted?

One of the projects I’m working on is the memoir of a homicide detective who fled his country. “Raul”, let’s call him, had been investigating the hundreds of women imprisoned, tortured, raped and murdered before being dumped in the desert around a northern Mexican city. These women, hundreds of them, have been dumped on the outskirts of major cities the way some people dump mattresses on the side of the highway. Raul fled his country. Fled.

As someone who had to get out of his own country to keep his family together, my heart went out to Raul from the time I first met him. Many of his colleagues had been murdered or bought out by the drug cartels. He’d squeaked through, staying alive by staying in the media. Then, the government put him into hiding. Under the radar, he gathered documentation and proof that he was who he said he was; that he did for a living what he said he did. That the threats against him were real and everyday he was alive was one more he snatched away from the people who wanted him dead. Being Mexican, he was jailed upon entry into Canada. His refugee claim has been denied. His appeal happens shortly.

Raul and I meet relatively frequently. I ask him questions, he talks. We’re getting together a book proposal to pitch to agents. To do that, we need an outline and sample chapters. It’s a challenge helping someone else with their story. Their life story, not mine. I couldn’t imagine writing a memoir. Other than the serial killer murders that happened in southern lower Michigan when I was a kid, murder hasn’t been a big part of my life. If I did write a memoir, I’d organize it around the places that I’ve gone running & writing. Those have been two constants throughout most of my life. You wouldn’t know that by my waistline. Raul’s story is fascinating and needs to be told.

In 1993, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) basically put Mexico to work for multi-national corporations looking for cheap labour. Slippery labour laws, environmental protections and oversight. Good for business, pretty nappy for everybody else. Thousands of young women saw fortune in those factories. Thousands. Young women, who saw no future in their home towns, villages or cities, came. Women came to the big northern industrial cities thinking this was a way out of poverty, of provincialism, of god-knows-what domestic situation. As trade loosened and flowed, the border (in spite of the rhetoric) became more porous. Drug cartels exploded and flourished; they fought turf wars killing hundreds and hundreds each year.

There has been a lot written about the situation in Northern Mexico but none from the perspective of one of the good guys; a man fighting the good fight against all odds. There have been facts, figures and photographs. It has not been so personal.
There’s a lot of things I could write here but I thought you might be provoked by the tension between revelation/disclosure and the need to not excise those intensely personal bits that, on my view, would be the whole reason to buy or read such a memoir.

I tend to be more of a throw-it-on-the-table guy. Vajdon, my husband, is the reins-pulling-in guy. I appreciate that because he helps me think about the consequences of what I write and say. I have a decent good sense of how far to go. But that’s through my lens, right? Just the other day, he read one of my posts and asked, Are you sure? Do you want to put that out there? I’m referring to a specific post that did end up going on Open Book. Hopefully, at this stage, I’m more generous than spiteful. But when people treat me badly and don’t recant — all bets are off.

Raul and I met last week on Queen West with Elvis Costello blaring. I had a tofu club, he had coffee. We got to a sticky moment when he asked me to turn off the voice memo. I did. He proceeded to tell me a story of corruption, murder, stolen drugs and framing. It flashed me back to my days working with the gangsters amidst the CRASH unit in L.A. Although the story is widely known, generally, Raul has specifics. Those specifics are very dangerous. Perhaps to him here, definitely to his family back home. He has gotten out, but others have not.

The story he told was off the record. So was the one that followed. As he spoke not only did my admiration and respect grow for him, I had a sinking feeling. The stuff he shared was the stuff that would motivate a reader to buy the book. It’s why I’d want to read it. It’s what separates it from the pack of autobiographies and memoirs lining the bookshelves. Can you imagine The Onion Field without compromising details around personal and professional growth? Around when we get it wrong, act badly, muck things up?

We turned the voice recorder back on. A reader might reasonably ask what stake he, Raul, has in the mass murder of women, I said. Would he be as passionate if it were men being killed? If it were kids?

He proceeded to tell me stories of the torture, rape and abuse of infants and toddlers. A dad’s bite marks all over a baby’s body. A 12 month-old with a leg broken in three places. A three month-old with its father’s semen inside of her. He asked me to turn the recorder back off. He shared something which was not his shining moment as a rookie detective, but took from it a lesson. I won’t say what it was. Let’s just say Raul could have jeopardized a conviction. It was a very human response. A response every single sane reader would empathize with. We buy books to see reflections of ourselves, of our aspirations, of our failures. This incident has got to be in the book.

There’s got to be a way to get the reader into the experience of his growth without endangering him or any conviction. Any ideas? Allegory and metaphor come to mind. Right now, I’m leaning towards taking a play out of Ted Bundy’s play book.

You know Ted Bundy, up here? Ted was a serial killer active in the early seventies to the early eighties in the northwestern U.S. and, finally, in Florida. While his execution was on appeal, Ted gave a number of death row interviews. In them, he would preface everything as a hypothetical. “If a person had this girl tied up in the backseat…” and so on. As a writer, I don’t want to play games with a reader who has picked up my work in order to get the meat of human experience. It’s not playing fair. On the other hand, a book is not worth someone’s safety.

As a reader, would you feel ripped off by this hypothetical, allegorical, metaphorical approach?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Thom Vernon

Thom Vernon has worked in film, television and theatre since 1989. He has been the Actors’ Gang Youth Education Program director and has worked as an arts educator at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. The Drifts (Coach House Books) is his first novel.

Go to Thom Vernon’s Author Page