The Hippo


Oct 20, 2019








Upcoming events

Toadstool Bookshop: 12 Depot Square, Peterborough, Thursday, June 8, at noon
Water Street Bookstore: 125 Water St., Exeter, Thursday, June 8, at 7 p.m.

From lawyer to writer
Author explores storytelling in The Fact of a Body

By Kelly Sennott

 In 2003, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich was well on her way to becoming a successful lawyer. She was a student at Harvard Law School, determined to study the death penalty, which she’d been passionately opposed to since childhood.

“When I learned about the death penalty as a child, it had a dramatic impact on me. That the law could choose to take somebody’s life stayed with me,” Marzano-Lesnevich, who lives in Boston, said via phone last week. “I knew that, going to law school, I wanted to understand it.”
But her certainty in this stance came crashing down during her first internship at a New Orleans law firm that summer while listening to confession tapes of Ricky Langley. The child molester and murderer of  6-year-old Jeremy Guillory in 1992 was on retrial to reverse his death sentence. His descriptions dug up her own memories of sexual abuse.
“When I was watching the tapes, I was feeling my grandfather’s hands on me, and despite what I wanted to work for, what I believed in, I wanted him to die,” said Marzano-Lesnevich, who felt so shocked by her response, she took up academic research instead of practicing law after graduation. “If my feelings about a case changed as soon as it became personal, how could I become a lawyer?”
Marzano-Lesnevich thought about it for years after the internship, and in 2008, she returned to Louisiana hoping to learn the facts. At that point, her intention wasn’t to write a book — just to stop feeling haunted. Upon reading the records, it was clear she wasn’t the only person who had reacted to the boy’s death personally.
“When I got to the records … I was surprised to discover that, rather than being alone in seeing my past in the case, all these other people had, too,” she said. “When one of the jury foremen talks about the case, he talks about his brother-in-law. The defense attorney, in his last statement, talks about his father.”
It shouldn’t be too surprising Marzano-Lesnevich chose creative nonfiction as the avenue to explore the case. While in law school, she took fiction writing classes at night with the school’s continuing education program, where one of her teachers was Paul Harding, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Tinkers. In 2006, one year after graduating from law school, she enrolled in Emerson College to obtain a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing.
Marzano-Lesnevich began researching in earnest in 2010. The result is The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, released May 16 by Flatiron Books, which she talks about Thursday, June 8, at the Peterborough Toadstool Bookshop at noon, then again at 7 p.m. at Water Street Bookstore.
Marzano-Lesnevich tried to make the memoir as factual as possible. If a character feels or says something, it’s because she has documentation suggesting that. Dialogue was only edited for purposes of clarity and pacing. Sources at the back of the book span pages and include public court documents, transcripts, newspaper articles, television coverage, even a play. 
“[The murder] is actually known, somewhat, in other countries, and yet it happened here, and we don’t know much about it. I wanted to bring the story here,” she said.
In its essence, The Fact of a Body is about how we tell and understand stories. It weaves together Marzano-Lesnevich’s, Langley’s and Guillory’s tales and is written with a structure that mirrors a court trial — which, in a way, is kind of like the ultimate storytelling battle, Marzano-Lesnevich said. 
“The book spans about 50 years and three families, and I knew there would be a lot of complex things to keep track of. There are big issues in the heart of this book, and so I wanted to tell [readers] a page-turning story to get there,” said Marzano-Lesnevich, who wrote a large portion of the book at the MacDowell Colony, in 2011 and 2015, including the ending.
Putting together the book was a long, arduous process — physically, mentally, emotionally. Reading certain documents and remembering certain things was especially painful.
“Writing the memoir was not therapeutic. The years I was working on it, people said to me, ‘Oh, you’re writing a memoir? That must be so therapeutic!’” she said. “I wanted to say, ‘Not if you’re doing it right!’ But to my shock, I can happily report that having written the memoir is deeply therapeutic.”

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