March 29, 2011

The haunting situation my character and I share

Behind the Book by
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As an author, you’re often asked where you came up with the characters in your stories. This is, I suppose, a polite way of saying, “Did you just go ahead and write about yourself then?” My answer to this question is that while Evie, the main character in my novel The Space Between Trees, is not me, we have some things in common—lonely teen years, insatiable curiosity and the kind of mouth that tends to get a girl into trouble. But the thing Evie and I have most in common is a situation.

Now, our situations aren’t strictly identical. Unlike Evie, I didn’t witness a childhood friend’s body being pulled out of the woods, and I didn’t lie to that dead girl’s father, didn’t become friends with her best friend, didn’t start a chain of events that led to trouble . . . big trouble. But I did know a girl who was murdered by a serial killer, and my curiosity about her death led me to obsess about her well into adulthood.

Holly was murdered when she was 18 years old, stabbed by a serial killer who broke into her brother’s apartment. I was 11 at the time of Holly’s death, and with seven years between us, we weren’t friends, though our parents were. When Holly and I were thrown together at a spaghetti dinner or choir concert, she was kind to me in the way that older girls can be kind to younger ones—smiling but not beaming, asking questions but not misguided adult ones like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It doesn’t seem quite right to say that I knew Holly, more that I knew of her.


My father cast Holly as the lead in the school musicals he directed, so most of the times I saw her, Holly was onstage—feathers tucked into her braids as Tiger Lily in Peter Pan; with dangling, black legs as the eponymous spider in Charlotte’s Web; wearing a swirling skirt as Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel; and in a shiny Pink Ladies jacket as Sandy in Grease. Our town was a small one, and most families there attended the school plays. I felt lucky to have a connection to Holly. It was a brag, a shiny badge I could keep hidden under my jacket. In elementary school, I’d flash it to whichever kids I wanted to impress: “Holly Tarr, who stars in all the musicals, I know her.”

The first time I saw Holly, I was five and waiting for her big entrance. She was 12 and playing Tiger Lily in Peter Pan. Holly had been named often and admiringly in my father’s dinner table stories—“the girl with talent” and “the girl who refused to wear the Indian headdress.” It was opening night, and the middle-school auditorium was full. My mother, seated next to me, had gotten us a bag of Peanut M&M’s. I discovered that if I closed my eyes and placed a candy on my tongue, I could correctly guess its color. When I made my mother try this trick, she couldn’t do it. They probably used slightly different ingredients for the different colored dyes, she explained, and since I was young, my tongue was still good enough to tell the dyes apart, while hers wasn’t anymore. I remember thinking: This is what it is like to be young. Holly came onstage just then, braids swinging, hand batting in front of her mouth to make a war cry. I gotta crow.

When I try to evoke Holly now, the image that comes first is her yearbook photo—the one all the newspapers ran after her murder. In it, she wears a turtleneck sweater and has a little tidal wave of bangs, as was the style in Michigan 1989. She smiles a smile that is, now that I think about it, not unlike my own, a big grin with the cheeks trumping the eyes. If I concentrate on the memory: a quickening. There is a live girl behind the still girl in the photo; she has lined eyes, a sweep of dark hair and is dressed all in black. The last time I saw Holly was in the same auditorium where I first saw her. This time, she sat in the audience, and I was the one onstage. She and her father had come to see the middle-school play Happy Haunting, in which I played a mummy. It was six months before her death.

“You did a good job,” she told me after the show.

The auditorium had emptied but for our fathers, who were talking to each other, and the two of us. I was skeptical of Holly’s praise. The mummy was a lowly role; I had only sung in a group with the rest of the chorus; I didn’t see how anyone could tell what type of job I’d done.

She added, “You have a very expressive face.”

It was the perfect compliment because, as a self-conscious preteen, it was one of the few things I could have believed in, the expressiveness of my face.

That is the only memory I have of Holly offstage and out of costume. That compliment, the only specific sentences I can recall her speaking that weren’t lines from a show. If I had known her better, I might be able to mourn her better. She wouldn’t flicker in my mind, protean, from role to role to role—Indian princess to literate spider to murder victim. My memory would hold her fast in her true form, that of a teenage girl, a real person. But instead, I imagine, I write.

And so I have The Space Between Trees and Evie to tell you a version of Holly’s story, and mine.


Katie Williams

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