April 2023

Writing a memoir required Daniel Wallace to become a different writer

Behind the Book by
The acclaimed novelist wondered how hard writing a memoir could really be. As it turned out: very, very, very hard.
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The books I’ve written so far began almost accidentally. Not the day-to-day, year-to-year accumulation of words—no accidents there. But the inciting moment or the controlling idea that ended up as the buttress for the whole contraption was unplanned, and usually came from me just playing around with words. With Big Fish, I was passing the time taking care of my baby son and writing brief modern myths while he napped, and after a couple of years, I discovered I had enough of them to make a book. The Kings and Queens of Roam, a long and complicated story about two sisters, two men, blindness and revenge, began as a couple of pages about an abandoned town in the middle of nowhere. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician was drawn from a character in a discarded screenplay.

This Isn’t Going to End Well, my first nonfiction book, followed this same script but in a different way. The accident didn’t come in the form of an unforeseen inspiration but in the accidental discovery of my brother-in-law’s journals, 10 years after he died. They were hidden in the back of a closet beneath the stairs of my sister Holly’s home, covered in dust and protected by a herd of camel crickets. My brother-in-law, the writer and artist William Nealy, died in 2001 by what the death certificate described as an “intra-oral gunshot wound.” Then in 2011, his wife, my sister Holly, died herself of what seemed like a dozen different things, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and grief. My remaining two sisters, my wife and I were cleaning out her house when I found the journals. There were about 15 of them, and they dated from 1977, when William was 25 years old. I put them all in a glass-doored bookcase in the hallway outside of my office and finished the novel I’d been working on, Extraordinary Adventures.

Read our starred review of ‘This Isn’t Going to End Well’ by Daniel Wallace.

Two years passed before I took them out of the bookcase. It took me that long to parse through all the incumbent taboos, the ethical considerations and my own desires. Were they mine to read? Did I even want to read his journals, and if I did, why? What did I think I’d get out of that? William’s suicide was, like all suicides, the kind of tragedy that changes the course of many lives; even after 13 years, it felt fresh. And though he’d left three long suicide notes, two to Holly and one to his mother, they somehow felt insufficient to explain what at the time I saw as the ultimate betrayal of my sister, of me, of everyone who loved or knew him. I was mad at him for killing himself and stayed that way for a long time. But eventually I dove in, was mesmerized from the very first page and knew almost immediately that I would be writing about this, about him—that William’s story would become a book. To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a person with a word processor, everything is a story.

But this was a bit of a leap. I’d never written a book of nonfiction before, had never wanted to, had no idea how to go about it. Even so, I thought, all writing is hard; how much harder could it be?

As I discovered over the next five years, very hard. Very. Very. Very hard.

Each book presents its own challenges, its own problems to solve. You would think that with practice a writer could skate from book to book without breaking a sweat. But nothing about writing has gotten easier for me, and each book has taken longer than the last to finish. So I was ready for a learning curve. But writing nonfiction asked me not just to write differently but to become a different kind of writer.

“To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a person with a word processor, everything is a story.”

I was drawn to becoming a fiction writer in the first place because of the freedom of that form. In a novel I’m constrained by logic and time and character, but I’m in charge of the constraints; I make up the rules I am then expected to follow. In writing a so-called true story, you enter a world that’s already been created, telling a story that has already happened and maybe already been told. A novel is a story only one person (the novelist) has access to; a story about an actual person is a story dozens, maybe hundreds of people know at least a small part of. If you knew my brother-in-law, or my sister, or me, you are in some tangential way a part of the story; you have feelings about it, about him. This meant that in order to write the book, I actually had to leave my office and talk to people. I had to interview them. I recorded conversations and quoted from them or used them as “background.” Suddenly it was as if I were collaborating with a small village.

This turned out to be more fun than I thought it would be. I was able to see old friends and meet new ones, and as a reporter, I got to ask them questions a civilian could never get away with.

On a craft level, I didn’t know how to create a scene from my own life that’s as compelling as one I could make up, with all the bells and whistles of inventive possibility. Is imagination possible in this ready-made world I was writing about?

Yes—kind of. It’s not really imagination, though. Writing nonfiction is closer to reimagination, where you’re calling forth a memory and giving it life on the page. Memories half a century old are dim, fragile and fleeting. You have to pin them down the best you can and take a long look at them, editing them for meaning and clarity and supplying supporting details (what the room looked like, what the weather was like that day, what you were wearing) that might be, at best, stabs in the dark.

“Writing nonfiction asked me not just to write differently but to become a different kind of writer.”

But the hardest part of this project was writing a book about people I knew and loved. There was so much I wanted to say about them! So many stories. The first few drafts of this book were twice as long as the final version ended up being, which is not unique for early drafts. But each time I had to cut a scene, I felt like I was cutting out a part of their lives, and I believed (and still believe) that without all these stories the reader wouldn’t get to know them for who they were. The story, for instance, of William hunting down the man who stole the motor off my mother’s pool filter, or how he tried to save a man’s life at the drugstore. And what about the time Edgar (William’s best friend who died in 1993) was robbed and tied to a chair in a hotel room, left there until he was discovered by the staff eight hours later? The time Holly wrote a song about our father and rented a recording studio to record it? And so many other cool things. I could write another book about them, I think. And maybe I will.

This Isn’t Going to End Well isn’t “drawn from life,” the way my novels are; it’s full of people who actually existed, same as you and me. In this book I’m not trying to create or imagine a life, I’m trying to reconstruct one. I think I’m also trying to resurrect my sister, my brother-in-law, their best friend—a risky enterprise (see: “The Monkey’s Paw”). In this book I share details from their lives that would embarrass them, were they here, and, in some cases, get them into a lot of trouble. But they’re not embarrassed or in trouble because that’s one of the pluses of not being alive. Which is the real difference between this book and all the others I’ve written, and the most stubborn of facts I can’t deny or get around: Their deaths are what made it possible.

Headshot of Daniel Wallace by Mallory Cash

Daniel Wallace

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This Isn’t Going to End Well

This Isn’t Going to End Well

By Daniel Wallace
ISBN 9781643752105

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