January 2022

Fly on the wall

Behind the Book by
Author Hannah Morrissey explores how her work as a police transcriber gave her the perfect perspective for her debut novel.
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Must have typing speed of 55 words per minute. Must not be emotionally affected by violent or traumatic reports. All hired candidates will be required to swear an oath of confidentiality. 

When I first read the job description for a police transcriber, I could hardly believe it was legit. This suspended belief percolated within me even as I applied, tested, interviewed, got hired, and sat down to type my first report. 

Hello, Transcriber. 

Those two words welcomed me into a world I’d never been privy to before—a world rife with death and derelicts and drugs. So many drugs. In my two years of having lived in that industrial Wisconsin city, I’d been oblivious to the underground economy that flourished there, the biggest players being heroin and crack cocaine. Sometimes prescription pills made their way into the mix. Suddenly, I knew every bad thing that happened before it hit the news. If it hit the news. 

In the days and weeks that transpired as I transcribed case after case—suspects in interview rooms, search warrants, homicide investigations, cell phone logs and more—I realized something: I had become the proverbial fly on the wall. I was a nameless, bodiless thing who stole into the police department at 10 p.m. and left before most people punched in for the morning, the only trace of my having been there a stack of perfectly typed reports and completed arrest paperwork. 

I slept by day and typed by night, utilizing my in-between hours to write another novel that would ultimately go nowhere. But if nothing else, it kept me afloat during a time when I was untethered and adrift. This dream of becoming a published author was my lighthouse when I feared I might never find my way out of the dark. 

Read our review of ‘Hello, Transcriber.’

My office was a terrarium, a narrow space with an outside wall that was a sheet of glass—the only shield between me and the horrors I typed up every night. I learned more in that small space, in that small slice of time, than I learned during any other period of my life. 

First, I awakened to the fact that I now existed in two parallel realities: one in which I was oblivious to the murders that happened just a few houses down from mine, the drug deals on the sidewalk, the car chases down Main Street; and the other in which I was the conduit between an investigator’s report and a criminal going to jail. I learned that just because the police arrest a violent criminal one day, it doesn’t mean they won’t be walking the streets the next. It’s up to the district attorney’s office and the judges to make the charges stick. 

I also learned that people are people, regardless of which role they’re assigned in a report (police officer, victim, suspect, etc.). The word sonder is a neologism from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows that he defines as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” I think that’s important for writers and human beings in general, having the ability to see things through a different lens. When you do that, you realize how fragile your own circumstances are. 

I picked up a lot of spontaneous knowledge, too, such as learning people by voice instead of face and knowing their pet words; thus, however and indicative are a handful that come to mind. I memorized badge numbers for all 216 sworn personnel, and I could guess the nature of the crime based on the length of the report. Car thefts were generally only a few minutes long, and your average search warrants were in the 7- to 12-minute range, unless you got stuck typing the report for the evidence technician. That could land you upward of 40 minutes, depending on how many items of evidentiary value were found. Homicides tended to be longer, especially if there were interviews or a neighborhood canvas involved. And so on and so on. 

Finally, I recognized that I had accidentally landed in a writer’s dream position: a unique job with behind-the-scenes access to fascinating stories and all the quiet time in the world to come up with a story of my own. This was the spark for Hello, Transcriber, a book that explores this unique and crepuscular work. Contrary to popular belief, there are professions much more solitary than being a writer. Take it from a former fly on the wall.

Author photo by Alaxandra Rutella.

Hannah Morrissey

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Hello, Transcriber

Hello, Transcriber

By Hannah Morrissey
ISBN 9781250795953

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