Leah Carroll’s true crime memoir Down City, the story of her mother’s murder, her father’s early death, and her own difficult childhood, came out this past March to much acclaim. Our contributor Matthew reached out to interview Leah in what may be the best and most personal interview we’ve ever had on the blog. Thanks to Matthew and Leah for a beautiful conversation that we have the privilege of sharing with our readers.
Interview conducted by writer and blogger Matthew Turbeville
Matthew Turbeville: First off, I want to start off by saying I am a fan. I was astounded by your book in more ways than one, and the seemingly effortless way you portray your parents’ struggles through life is not only surprising, but inspiring. Where do you get the inspiration to write such a brilliant memoir? What are your favorite memoirs, works of fiction and nonfiction, movies, television shows, etc?
Leah Carroll: Matthew! I am a fan of yours! Thank you for your kind and generous assessment of the book. My parents were, in a way, inspiration to me. They were both photographers and my father was a voracious reader and cinephile who shared those passions with me. In college I read James Ellroy’s My Dark Places and Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart back to back and they opened a completely new world for me. I had a similar experience reading Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard – I loved this book so much that at one point a mentor had to tell me, “Leah, your book is not going be Boys of My Youth, so stop trying to do that.” Beard has captured the essence of “funny/sad” (surely there is a word for that in French) and her book is…magical.
More recent memoirs that I’ve loved are Lacy Johnson’s The Other Side, Jeannie Vanasco’s forthcoming The Glass Eye, and Sarah Perry’s After the Eclipse.
The two nonfiction books I recommend the most are Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us and Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Although now that I think about it, I also recommend Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc basically once a day and in the wake of Hurricane Harvey I decided to re-read the excellent Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink.
I love every single book by Megan Abbott. I loved History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund and Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter. My favorite contemporary novel is The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
I think I have to stop with books or this list is going to get reaaaaaallly long (although I would be remiss not to mention how excited I am for the Deuce and what an absolute masterpiece OJ: Made in America was. Oh and also every Thirty for Thirty that’s ever been done. And The Knick.)
MT: This book must have been incredibly difficult to write. What was the greatest struggle you’ve had to overcome in putting your own life to words?
LC: The book took me ten years to write. I started in my early twenties and finished in my early thirties. A lot of that time was spent researching but I also produced an earlier draft that was about twice as long as the Down City that exists today. I’m so glad that early draft never saw publication. My mother was thirty when she was murdered. I needed to get to get to that age, to really understand how much of her life was stolen to be in the place where I could tell her story and where I could see her as a woman, independent of me. It was also hard to let go of much of the research. These documents – affidavits, grand jury testimony, war records – they had a real hold over me. I thought there was such poetry in the way they were written, even the way they were formatted on the page. But I realized that, in a vacuum, they wouldn’t have the same effect on a reader. I realized that I needed to tell a story that (hopefully) gave the reader a similar feeling through prose.
MT: I feel I’d be doing an injustice without relating a bit of my own story to you. One of my grandfathers was a “drug lord,” and took numerous lives. He’s someone I’ve always been ashamed of, but examined with empathy and as much understanding as possible. How were you able to write with such compassion and understanding of your characters, even those you didn’t know? Which person was hardest to write about?
LC: Writing about organized crime is so fraught. I wanted to show another side of the story that didn’t fetishize that life but in order to do that I had to show how so many of these men were broken down, uneducated, and really pitiful in so many ways. You can search for that and find hatred within yourself or you can search for that and just try to understand the overwhelming complexity of human life.
And I had anger, not just at the drug dealers and mafia associates who murdered my mother but also the police force and local politicians who saw her life as disposable and treated it accordingly. There is a point at which their ineptitude and negligence became criminal, in my opinion. And I remain angry at the corporations (and the the corporate greed) that eliminated institutions like the Providence Journal – these places were so necessary to men like my father. And so realizing that our ideas of who is “good” and who is “bad” made me rethink a lot of the ways society simplifies so much in order to avoid having difficult conversations. So I had those conversations with myself, or tried to.
It was very hard to write about my grandmother. It was hard to think about her being in any kind of pain because she is the most loving, courageous, strong and kind person I know. I try everyday to be the kind of woman she is.
MT: Mental illness has always been a cause I’ve fought for and I find it’s prevalent throughout your novel. Struggles with addiction, depression, manic depression, and so on come up time and time again. How have you managed to overcome the struggles you’ve faced with mental illness—your parents’, your husband’s, perhaps even your own—to be the extraordinary success you are today?
LC: My mother tried VERY hard to quit using. My father tried VERY hard to quit drinking. It would be unfair and uncharitable to behave as if addiction is something people choose. My husband and I are very open in our discussions about his sobriety – I can’t understate how valuable that dialogue is to our relationship. What think I find very upsetting is the utter lack of compassion around the current opioid epidemic. Shame and cruelty are not how you root out addiction.
And I have certainly had my own struggles with depression and anxiety. I feel lucky that one lesson I learned, particularly from my father, was that psychological treatment is necessary, that it is in now way indicative of weakness, and is actually a very powerful way of owning your space in the world.
MT: Your book is frankly heartbreaking but in the best way. It does what the greatest novels do: rips you apart and sews you back together again. What were your intentions when beginning this memoir?
LC: I wanted to tell people about my Mom and Dad. I know that sounds simplistic but it’s the only real honest answer. To me, they were exceptional, but to the world they were forgettable. Most of us are. It was very important to me to discuss their flaws because we ALL have flaws and the only way to do a human life justice, I think, is with absolute honesty. I wanted people to know about them, to understand the weight of their humanity. I don’t think of the book as a “tribute” to them. I think of it more as an artifact that will live on. And the book is as much about me as it is about them. It took a very long to time for me to admit that in order to tell their stories, I had to tell it through my experience. I’ve never been able to let them go. I don’t want to. They made me a writer. So the whole thing is their fault, really.
MT: What advice do you give to people who feel they have a story to tell? Their own story, or a story that relates to them? How do you begin approaching the topic of writing about your own life?
LC: Publishing a memoir is … weird. But great! But also you are exposing yourself in a very unusual way. In a memoir you actually revealing only a very small slice of yourself. There is a difference between memoir and autobiography. Nobody would ever want to read my autobiography because I’m wholly unremarkable. But I’ve had a “remarkable” experience that I wanted to tell to get at the heart of a larger truth. It’s tough sometimes to try to explain this or to just accept the idea that people believe they know everything about you. So one thing I tell people is that they must own their narratives and not let anyone tell them their stories are small. I also encourage everyone who has a story to tell interrogate what that story means. A memoir is not an anecdote.
I also feel very strongly nobody has ownership of a certain story or narrative. If there is something that has resonated with you very strongly, that you keep coming back to, that has shaped you in any way no matter how peripherally you may have been a participant, tell that story. If it matters to you, if you feel compelled to turn into art, to try to explain the hold it has over you, then do that.
MT: How has this history of violence defined you past the boundaries of the book? In what ways are you limited—or, possibly, more open—to new possibilities in life, in love, in art?
LC: I think I have seen the worst in people and I have seen the best in people.
MT: What’s your favorite memory of your father? If you had to choose just one? And do you believe the best memories are crystal clear and perfect, or tainted—imperfect, scarred, but memorable for these reasons?
LC: One of my first memories of my father is from when my mother was still alive and we were all living together so I have to be no older than 3. He had shaved his mustache (the only time I can remember it ever happening!) and when he tried to pick me up I wailed in terror. I remember him trying to comfort me and telling me he’d grow the mustache back.
I believe that I have a very good memory, particularly of my childhood and teenage years. (I think they call this the nostalgia bump). However memory is very slippery things. There are certain moments I recall with absolute clarity, like going to the Vietnam Memorial with my father when I was seventeen. I have a much more difficult time remembering the year immediately after his death.
MT: How did you decide when to begin and where to end your memoir?
LC: I knew the story would begin with the details of my parents’ deaths. I didn’t want to use those as any narrative mechanism for suspense. Figuring out the ending was far more difficult. I relied a lot on the advice of my wonderful editor, Libby Burton who helped me so much with the craft and shape of the book. I’m not sure I could have ever actually ended it without Libby’s guidance.
MT: Another experience we share is a troubled high school career, followed by an interesting path to success—and yes, I think you are an amazing success. What thoughts, images, ideas, etc drove you through these years to get where you are now?
LC: I was such a child of the nineties. I think I was really lucky to be a teenager then. I idolized Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love – these smart, aggressive women who stood out, who were smart and who were difficult. Most of my pop culture icons were strong women and that certainly helped give me the sense that I could achieve something outside of the typical paths of “success”.
I was a monstrous teenager! I’m not sure how anyone put up with me but in retrospect, even as I was failing every class, I had teachers and mentors who encouraged my writing, who gave me books, and who supported me. In the book I write about an experience I had in community college (by the way, I am a proud alum of the Community College of Rhode Island – it saved my life in many ways. The Community College system is something we really need to support – I take every opportunity to make this point) where a teacher recognized my father from an essay I’d written. I wrote about how shocking that was – that this professional man had recognized in my writing something we shared. It was a moment that drove me forward in terms of seeking an education, and doing whatever I could to keep writing.
MT: What’s next for you? Please tell me there’s a novel or memoir in the works. The world would be a waste without your genius.
LC: *whispers* I’m working on a novel. Don’t tell. It might take me another ten years.
MT: Thank you, Leah, for sharing your thoughts and insight into these questions. I look forward to your future work, and just know you’re welcome any time at MysteryPeople.
You can find copies of Leah Carroll’s Down City on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.