November 22, 1963 chronicles the day of John F. Kennedy's assassination and explores the intersection of stories and memories and how they represent and mythologize that defining moment in history.
Jackie's story is interwoven with the stories of real people intimately connected with that day: a man who shares cigarettes with Jackie outside the trauma room; a motorcycle policeman flanking the motorcade; Abe Zapruder, who caught the assassination on film; the White House servants waiting for Jackie to return; and the morticians overseeing President Kennedy’s autopsy.
"With a captivating mix of fact and fiction, Braver chronicles the events surrounding JFK’s assassination to moving effect. The event is no stranger to the literary world, but Braver’s recreation, owing to small and often previously off-camera details, remains hauntingly original. Some of these details, like the ones that open the book and dwell on Jackie’s fashion preferences, present a factual backdrop against which later scenes—e.g., where Jackie refuses to remove her blood-splattered pink suit—tragically play out. Others, like the way JFK’s eyes keep popping open during the autopsy, underscore the grisly reality of his death. While the accumulation of small moments gives the book its weightiness, the stories of people peripherally associated with the assassination make the book sing; through the experiences of the Texan who sold the government Kennedy’s casket, the mechanic in charge of the limousine in which Kennedy was shot and numerous others, Braver reveals the tragedy of a national story that decades later can still be acutely felt."
“Braver is a terrific writer, an observer of the most acute details; throughout the book, he traces the subtle interactions of his characters as they collide and move apart. One of the most moving interactions here takes place between Jackie and an ambulance driver named Al Rike as they share cigarettes outside the trauma room where her husband's body lies...in this tiny glimmer of connection, whole universes of emotion are uncovered.”
—David Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Braver’s use of multiple viewpoints, engaging personal insight, and short blocks of prose propel readers through this impressive example of historical fiction."
"Adam Braver's November 22, 1963 focuses on the singular event of President Kennedy's assassination, fusing fiction and fact from eyewitnesses and other sources to make for a blazingly original, brilliantly concretized historical novel from the author of Mr. Lincoln's War."
"This is fiction of course, but it has the ring of truth...And it is both painful and fascinating, like rubbernecking at an accident, to watch. With an audacity of confidence and a sure sense of fiction's ability to tell eternal truths better than history, Braver re-creates the day the world changed."
—Jay Strafford, Richmond Times-Dispatch
"This terse, tense, tough novel is absolutely riveting...Every rose petal, drop of blood and splatter of brain, every movement and comment resonates with history as if trapped within a claustrophobic nightmare. Braver keeps this solemn and somber tone throughout, his brisk, often lyrical declarative sentences as direct and translucent as the characters are unable to be."
—Sam Coale, The Providence Journal
"Adam Braver has done something that might have seemed impossible not long ago—he's created a fresh look at the events of November 22, 1963...Braver has found a way to once again dip into this event that shattered a nation, and reminds us of how devastating a day it was without simply re-hashing what others have written before. It's a bold task for a writer, to begin to write about something that every reader picking the ball up already thinks they know the ending to, but Braver was more than up to the task."
—Dan Wickett, Emerging Writers Network
“Adam Braver’s collection is a piercing portrait of those who experienced the Kennedy assassination first-hand. Blending fiction and speculative reportage, he offers us a riveting account of the events that have come to seem a kind of shared national nightmare.”
—Steve Almond, author of Not That You Asked and Candyfreak
“This extraordinary reconstruction blends fact and imagination with a subtlety that utterly dissolves the line between public and private. It's the intimacy, the closeness we come to these (mostly) well-known protagonists, that is so shocking and moving. Adam Braver has pulled off quite a feat, realigning all our notions and expectations of historical fiction.”
—Phillip Lopate, author of Waterfront and Portrait of my Body
"Adam Braver has a wonderfully rich imagination and his grasp of historical characters and settings is both deep and natural. I would gladly read anything he writes."
—Dan Chaon, author of You Remind Me of Me and the National Book Award Finalist Among the Missing
"I had thought that Don DeLillo's Libra was the last fictional word on the JFK assassination, but I was wrong. Like a sublime actor, Adam Braver inhabits these characters, especially Jacqueline Kennedy, in a way that seems brave and heartbroken and true. This is a haunting history play, of private agonies wrenched onto the public stage."
—April Bernard, author of Swan Electric
"I would never have thought there was a new way to view a moment so thoroughly dissected. Turns out there is. Quite an achievement."
—Suzanne Kleid, KQED
"November 22, 1963 is more than an intricately imagined microhistory of the primary American trauma of the late 20th century; it's also an affecting portrait of the then First Lady, simultaneously devastated and resilient as she moves from embodying her country's image of someone who controls fortune to someone who's been flattened by it."
—Jim Shepard, author of Like You'd Understand, Anyway
"Beautifully written, November 22, 1963 blurs the line between novel and journalism into something more powerful than either—a visceral story of an unthinkable event that continues to touch millions, 45 years later."
—Michael E. Young, The Dallas Morning News
“Braver has achieved more than a skillful retelling of a particularly morbid moment in American history. With its collage-like structure and postmodern blend of fact and fiction, November 22, 1963 raises fascinating questions about how we perceive history and the ways in which personal and collective experience intersect.”
—Alexis Nelson, The Oregonian
"A literary piece that blends fact and fiction, making protagonists of real people and asking very deep questions about the history, nostalgia and loss."
—Kel Munger, Sacramento News & Review
"You would think that by now every and any thing that could have been written about the murder of the president has been said a dozen times over...Yet this outstanding piece of non-fiction fiction from Adam Braver manages to do so, and thus makes the book very much worth the time and money to buy and read."
—Neil Flowers, Feminist Review
"With a captivating mix of fact and fiction, Braver chronicles the events surrounding JFK's assassination to moving effect."
—Fort Dodge Today
"One may feel drawn into the experience of various characters, while simultaneously treading above some darker, plunging depth. At other moments, there is only the residue of memory, the granite presence of fact...[Braver] writes with the seductive concision of an alternate commission, a tautness that gives authority to speculation and authenticity to the emotional valences, retrained as they are."
—Ron Slate, On the Seawall
"The successes of November 22, 1963 lie in Braver’s ability to gently and respectfully reside, like a professional surgeon might, in the stomachs and minds of the people who lived through that day...Halfway through November 22, 1963, you realize the novel is somehow not about JFK at all, but about us. A lesser writer would have failed at piecing this story together in such a way that we are okay reliving that monumentally awful day, but in Braver’s hands, we come back to the present wiser versions of ourselves, if also a bit sadder."
—PDX Writer Daily
"Braver’s novel shows what can be done when a writer delves deeply into the textures and facts of a historical event about which we thought we knew everything. Of course we did not; we never know everything. His curiosity and reconstruction brings to life the human drama in a way that Oliver Stone and a roomful of conspiracy buffs never could. Yet the conspiracy buffs get all the press. Braver’s novel deserves a bigger share."
—Don Graham, Texas Observer
"Spellbinding...a mesmerizing tidal wave of facts, portraits, episodes, and stories...It's a memorable novel about a day the nation would like to forget and needs to remember."
—Barbara Ardinger, ForeWord Magazine
"Adam Braver has crafted a fantastic novel weaving real events with careful fiction, sweeping us back to Dallas on the day of the JFK assassination."
—Elizabeth Lopeman, Eugene Magazine
"...Braver shows himself to be a writer of acute judgment and talent. The degree of attention paid by the author to the micro-level of history lends his novel a humanity and perspective that had, I feared, been drained from popular representations of the assassination."
—Karl Whitney, 3:AM Magazine
Carolyn Hawkins’s brother, Aubrey Rike, who went by the name of Al, was sitting at Parkland Memorial Hospital when the motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza. As an ambulance driver for O’Neal Funeral Home, Al and his rider, Peanuts McGuire, had been at the parade route earlier, sent down to Houston and Elm to pick up a man who had suffered a seizure across from the School Book Depository. They’d taken him over to Parkland, per O’Neal’s contract with the city for ambulance services, and were standing around chatting when news of the shooting spread through the hospital almost as quickly as the president’s car arrived.
Within moments the ER was swarmed. The stink of rushing bodies. Al found himself jammed against a wall, shoved up beside an agitated policeman who kept looking down at his feet while telling him to stay put. He might be needed.
People ran chaotically. Newspapermen scurried for tele phones. Elected officials milled. Congressmen. Senators. A general stood with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrists, as though he might blow the whole place to smithereens. Dallas PD. County PD. Secret Service. FBI. At least fifty people smashed right into the entrance, with a whole lot more spill ing into the waiting-room area. Outside, hundreds of people crowded the police line. Men with submachine guns guarded the glass entry doors. More and more kept arriving. Not enough air to feed them all.
After about a half hour, Secret Service Agent Kellerman approached. His arms folded across his chest, crumpling his customary dark suit. Falsely composed. A bubble ready to burst. He said Mr. O’Neal would be bringing a casket down shortly and needs both Al and Peanuts to be ready to assist with the necessary details. Kellerman said to wait for O’Neal right out side the trauma room. Maybe Al heard wrong? Misunderstood the part about the casket.
For Al Rike the sense of history was overwhelming. His uncles Melvin and Leonard had driven the first ambulances in Dallas, and at one point Leonard had even opened up his own funeral home. Al had a sense for these kinds of things; he’d transported bodies back and forth as long as he could remember. But right now it felt as though the world had stopped, everything frozen in place, and he was the only one moving. It was so hectic that it felt slow. Like every movement mattered, etching itself into the history books in real time.
Outside the trauma room, Al sat on top of a gurney pushed up against the wall. Legs dangling off the side. Peanuts paced the hall. Mr. O’Neal had arrived, but Kellerman advised O’Neal to keep the casket out of sight for the time being, so O’Neal hob nobbed, sticking close to the prominent types. All these people, and Al felt completely alone.
He was startled by a scraping sound. Next to him an agent wrestled with a metal folding chair. Then the first lady sat down, instinctively shrugging away the agent’s guidance. Al tried not to look. Shifting on his gurney, he wiped cold sweat off his brow. Outside the trauma room with Mrs. Kennedy. In a metal folding chair?
Mrs. Kennedy’s head turned slightly, her dark hair falling forward over her face. Al noticed her lips, taut and still, just parted enough for some air to get through. Nobody talked to her. Her husband lay behind the door while surgeons of all stature pretended to try to keep him alive. It was as if people were frightened of her. The agent had told her to sit and wait. So she sat and waited.
Al wished he were one of those people who knew the right thing to say. She deserved the respect of comfort. A kind word. But his whole brain felt tongue-twisted. Just a twenty-five-year-old Texas boy who started his day by scooping up epileptics. It was enough for him just to keep his composure. So he took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, inhaling slowly. Thinking up what he might say, and how he might say it.
Mrs. Kennedy uncrossed her legs, and then recrossed them in the other direction. She looked right at him. Al was sick with nerves, but afraid to look away. “Do you have an extra?” she said. Her voice was quiet. Low and mechanical.
Al nearly dropped the butt, catching it on his bottom lip. He’d just bought a whole pack from the vending machine, but suddenly he couldn’t remember what he did or didn’t have.
"May I have cigarette?" she said a little louder, although still just above a whisper.
He slid down from the gurney, Yes ma’am, and took out the pack, tapping it at the bottom.
As Al offered her the cigarette, a Secret Service agent appeared from nowhere and knocked the pack from his hand, breathing quickly, with wide terror eyes. He was about Al’s age. Jittery. He looked at Al like he didn’t know what was next.
The pack sat on the tile. All three stared at it.
Finally, the agent picked it up, squinted his eyes for an inspection, and then offered it to Mrs. Kennedy. After she took a single cigarette, the agent returned the pack. A pantomime act. All done without words.
Leaning into the match, her face temporarily disappeared. Just an orange light. She held the cigarette to her mouth with out inhaling, and then knocked a bit of ash to the floor.
Maybe this was the proper time to say something. But the words were still way beyond him.
She took a long drag, holding the smoke in for an extra beat, and then blowing it upward in a veil. “Where are you from?” she asked, before it cleared.
Al hoped she didn’t mean Where do you work. He could probably get away with just saying “ambulance driver,” but he didn’t want to get into anything about caskets. Especially not when the doctors were only several feet away, trying to keep the holes in her husband’s body from leaking. “I’m from Dallas, ma’am,” Al stammered. “I live here in Dallas.” Was someone else talking for him?
She asked what it was like, living in Texas, and he told her it was fine. That Texas was what he knew. Kind of hot but you get used to it. She looked right at him, her eyes sincere and soft, as though she felt responsible for making him feel comfortable.
They didn’t talk much after that. They smoked quietly together, like strangers at a bar with an unspoken understanding. And they shared coffee from a candy striper who nearly had the stripes scared off her pinafore when the Secret Service pounced from all directions at her silver serving tray. And though he and Mrs. Kennedy hardly spoke a word, there was a sense that their unlikely pairing was all they had to rely on. Together they sat in the communal silence, blocking out the chaos around them, until around one o’clock, when Dr. Clark, Agent Kellerman, and Ken O’Donnell said they needed to talk with Mrs. Kennedy. In private.
Inside the trauma room, Al tried to swallow, but he had no breath. The overhead lights burned, and the smell was anti septic. Along with Peanuts and Nurse Nelson, Al was waiting for a priest, which seemed to take forever. It wasn’t the sight of President Kennedy’s body that threw him. He’d handled many bodies in his day, and although the president’s head was wrapped with towels so thick that only a patch of brown blood had soaked through, it wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the man glings he’d had to work with. Nor was it the cocktail of chaos and quiet, the failed-savior faces of the doctors, or the nurses’ continuous swallowing to hold back tears. It was seeing Mrs. Kennedy not more than two feet away, looking at her husband. She’d come into the room several times, unsure of what to do, as though she’d been working herself up to something. Each time she stood a little closer to her husband’s body. A strange blend of lightness and weight. Frail and broken, but still larger than life. Beautifully dressed. Her hair done. Too perfect for a moment like this.
This time Mrs. Kennedy looked as though she had a sense of purpose. She stood still, only her back rising in shallow breaths.
Reaching out to the trauma table where her husband lay, Mrs. Kennedy pulled the sheet back to his waist.
She slipped off her wedding ring, tucking it into her left palm. Then she pulled his left hand, folded across his bare chest. His fingers dangled stiffly as the arm lifted. Mrs. Kennedy tried to slide her ring onto his finger. Al just watched her. The ring was half the size of the president’s finger, still, she twisted it with delicate but violent determination. Without speaking, Al grabbed a tube of KY jelly from the sink counter. He reached around her and dabbed a few drops onto the president’s fin ger. His hand touched her sleeve. Mrs. Kennedy swiveled the ring, able to work it down a little. In tandem, Al squirted on a little more jelly. Her hand grazed his as she pushed with a little more force, managing to work the ring to the midknuckle. Mrs. Kennedy didn’t look up, neither did Al. For a moment, in the silence of that room, they might have been the only two people breathing.
Al wheeled the casket out of the room along with doctors, pres idential staff, and agents—some helping, some in tow. Waiting for the priest, there had been a strange sense of hope. The plausibility of miracles. The potential for gigantic misunder standings. But once Father Huber arrived to give conditional rites, it was as though all the lights dimmed, and the forms behind the shadows were finally revealed.
Al tried to stare straight ahead, moving the president down the corridor, with one hand on the gurney and the other on top of the casket. The agents formed a V to unclog the pathway, and the procession was pure silence. Just wheels squeaking across the linoleum.
Mrs. Kennedy was opposite Al, her head bowed, gliding as if she too were rolling. When he and Peanuts had laid President Kennedy in the coffin, Mrs. Kennedy was backed up against a wall. Never taking her eyes off her husband. She had gasped when the lid snapped shut. The only sound she’d made. Now her hand was holding on to the casket.
Father Huber kept pace, saying prayers, and sprinkling holy water. Occasional drops hit Al’s hand. One hit his cheek. Most just streaked down the brass.
Near the exit, the procession stopped, as though it had run into a wall. A middle-aged man in a tweed sport coat pressed himself against the head of the casket. “I’m sorry, gentlemen,” he said. He sounded both proud and scared. “But I can’t allow the body to go any farther.”
Agent Kellerman walked up to him. Wasting no time. Al was sick with anticipation. As if today were layer upon layer of people’s bad dreams. “This is the President of the United States,” Kellerman said, drumming his index finger against his thumb. “You need to move out of the way, mister.”
“Doctor.” He emphasized his title. “Dr. Earl Rose, Chief of Forensics.” He drew in a breath, as though he were about to deliver a prepared speech. “This body cannot be removed until an autopsy and inquest are completed. There has been a mur der committed here in Dallas, and Texas law states that any victim of murder has to have a proper autopsy before the body is removed. This is a Texas criminal investigation now.”
Although their tones were hushed, Al could hear every word. Mrs. Kennedy, standing beside him, must have heard also. She kept her head bowed. Al inched his hand a little closer toward hers. Kellerman asserted that as chief of the president’s detail, he was going to politely ask the doctor to remove himself at once. Although their tones were hushed, Al could hear every word. Mrs. Kennedy, standing beside him, must have heard also. She kept her head bowed. Al inched his hand a little closer toward hers.
Kellerman asserted that as chief of the president’s detail, he was going to politely ask the doctor to remove himself at once.
This wasn’t some gangland murder. This was the President of the United States, and Mrs. Kennedy would be with the body at every moment, so, please. Kellerman barked, growled, and tried to muscle the casket forward.
Rose held his grip. “Don’t you understand?” he said, try ing to keep his voice below a holler. “You have to maintain the chain of evidence. We have laws to uphold. You just don’t understand.” His lips trembled.
Father Huber continued to pray and to sprinkle holy water.
"Damn it," Kellerman said. "Just move the hell out of our way."
Another agent knocked Rose’s hand off the casket and pushed him aside while Rose continued to insist that the autopsy had to be done in Dallas, muttering comments about notating every detail for his official report and wanting everybody’s name, grousing that this stunk of something. He stopped talking when Mrs. Kennedy passed. Al didn’t think the doctor looked ashamed. Just respectful.
Under the fluorescents, Al saw his palm prints on the bronze.
As they went through the glass doors, Al managed to pull his sleeve down around his hand. He moved up to the front, and started polishing the top of the casket. Short, circular move ments. Starting near the head, and then slowly, in concentric patterns, working his way out wider and wider.
What prompts you to begin a work of fiction—an image, a character, a line of dialogue? What prompted November 22, 1963?
Actually it can be all of the above. A story can start from some characteristic trait, an odd sentence I’ve heard somebody mutter, or sometimes the incongruence of a setting and a character. I am drawn to inherent ironies—not for comic or cynical purposes—but rather in ways that show the complexities and beauties of the world around me. The idea of black and white, good and bad, doesn’t interest me at all. As with most fiction writers, I like to come to the area in the middle, where, for example, good people find themselves faced with bad ideas or intentions—those conflicts reveal a greater meaning than just right and justice.
One thing I try to stay away from is a preconceived notion of what the work is about before I start writing. I haven’t had much success with that. It either becomes too didactic, or most commonly, I run out of steam very quickly. Instead, it really is a matter of finding that voice—whether it is through the character, a line of dialogue, etc. The rest usually—hopefully—will start to take shape through the unconscious, and then eventually seed itself into the conscious process.
November 22, 1963 took on a life of its own. As a fiction writer, I’m most interested in the quiet moments, what is going on off-stage, the private moments in the wings. With that in mind, I was tempted by wondering what Jackie Kennedy’s plane ride from Dallas must have felt like for her—not only dealing with the violence she’d just witnessed, but instinctively knowing that her perception of self must have been altered in a matter of moments. We always understand the assassination in terms of what it meant to the country and its sense of identity, but I really wondered about it at the most personal level (which perhaps in fact was a mirror for the country). In short, the book started off with a single story.
From there, I decided to keep going, thinking about others who had this connection to that day in Dallas, and how their perceptions of self also would have been altered in those few moments. About halfway through it occurred to me I wasn’t writing a book about the personal side of the tragedy (what brought me there in the first place), but rather a book about mythology, myth making, and memory. That discovery or recognition really gave me a much sharper focus.
Let’s talk about fact vs. fiction. Two of your past books have also drawn on the imagined inner lives of historical figures. Can you talk a bit about what draws you to these subjects?
The idea of a mythology, especially an American mythology, is so fascinating to me. It seems as though it is this constant work-in-progress, yet paradoxically one that sees itself as a finished product. And perhaps most intriguing is that our mythology seems to be created from facts and records, which, although they may be accurate to a degree, often discount the humanity. I’m much more interested in the human side. The giant steps are not interesting to me. It is the moment of putting on the shoes.
The historical figures I’ve written about have all been very enigmatic people. Grand lives. Grand perceptions. Almost mythic creatures. But all were deeply private people. They were haunted, scarred by tragedies, yet spoke or wrote very little about that side of their lives. That of course is where the fiction writer can take over, being able to get into those private moments where historians can’t go. And lastly, it is the ironies that result from the bump and grind of the imagined interior world against the factual world that interests me, especially for November 22, 1963. My hope is that out of all that mangling comes some sort of truth that is larger than the figure or his/her moment in time.
In terms of just the idea of going back into historic eras (whatever that means), I’ve been having the feeling that the contemporary novel has started a move beyond the world of the self, where it has resided for so long, and redirected its concern to the larger world—where the understanding of self is completely reliant upon the understanding of the world. In literary circles, some might label it as so-called historical fiction, but perhaps a more apt term is “research-based fiction.” Simply put, it is the inquiry into a richly detailed existing (or preexisting) world from which the fictional navigation brings a deeper sense of meaning to the characters, and tacitly to the reader. I sort of like that idea.
What kinds of research did you do for this book?
The research became incredibly important to this book. Unlike my other books, where research was for either verisimilitude or inspiration’s sake, the physical act of pushing the historical record against memory and imagination pretty much is the book. I was able to interview some of the people who come up in the book, which was a real treat. I also relied quite a bit on archives from the Kennedy Library, especially their Oral Histories (I can guarantee that I was the only person during my times in the research room requesting the records of the White House barber). The transcripts of the Warren Commission and the Assassination Review Board were extremely helpful. And lastly, the Internet was such a great resource, with so much information stored there, from governmental agencies to amateur historians. Just through digging and digging I’d find items such as a PDF of the manual for Zapruder’s camera, the obituary for Vaughn Ferguson (whom I hadn’t heard of before), and countless other factoids and oddities that all shaped the book in their own ways. I did use a few secondary sources, but I really tried my best to stay only with primary sources. I wanted the interpretation to be between the lines of the facts and the fiction, as opposed to that of another researcher.
On a more persona level, I was born in 1963, so while I grew up in the shadow of the assassination, I don’t have the personal connection to it that the generation of the people in the book do. However, one of my strongest early memories was seeing Bobby Kennedy at a campaign rally in San Francisco right before he was killed. And I can still remember the intense shock and grief of the next day, following a hope and promise that I’d experienced (although as a five year-old I wouldn’t have understood intellectually, but surely intuited). I think I drew a lot on that memory that is so engrained into me.
Did that research lead you to any surprises, any changes in your plans for the novel, or changes in your own view of the Kennedy assassination?
As mentioned above, it was not unusual for some factoid or piece of research to shape parts of the novel. For example, Vaughn Ferguson’s obituary took me into another aspect of the aftermath that I hadn’t considered, as he was charged with cleaning out the limousine once it came back to Washington. When I interviewed Bobby Hargis, and he told me he was born in Cleburne, Texas, he explained as an aside that the town was named for a Civil War general. Out of curiosity, I decided to research General Cleburne, and his story became such an interesting parallel to the bigger story, as well as something that, for me, slowly erased the fragile line between our history and present. And the testimony of the photographers at the autopsy opened up ideas, reading about the Civil War bubblegum cards—all of these bits of research seemed to form lines to the fiction, and to the overarching intent of the book.
In terms of the assassination, I really tried to stay away from the who-done-it aspect, as that was never meant to be a factor in the book. Still, coming across theories couldn’t be avoided during the research process. I’m certainly not in a position to speak authoritatively on this, but I will say we have lived through the past eight years with perhaps the most secretive, authoritarian administration in history, yet they still can’t keep their secrets for that long. It’s hard to imagine that any organization could keep such a massive conspiracy secret for 45 years.
When you began to write, did you find it more difficult to invent, or harder to hew to the facts? How much did you worry about accuracy?
For better or worse, with November 22, 1963 I did not feel at odds with the fact and fiction. Perhaps, at the risk of sounding redundant, the factual and the imagination were not in competition with each other. It was very much a symbiotic (and even at times parasitic) relationship between the two, in order to bring the meaning and so-called truth to this particular work. I was much more concerned about accuracy than I have been with the past books, but still, no matter what, my allegiance as a fiction writer is always to the story. It’s shaky ground, though. Especially as the whole story of the assassination and its aftermath is one where fact, memories, and accuracies continually are questioned, and where ideas and personas are still reinvented. My biggest concern was that the book be honest.
Could you have written this while Jacqueline Onassis was still alive, do you think? Would that have changed anything?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I could have written the book, at least the parts that suppose and imagine her thoughts and intentions. In part, I suppose it is because the mythology of the story was still actively being made when she was living. So, from that perspective there would be little room for reflection. Besides that, I’m not sure that I would have out of respect. With this book, perhaps because the line of history is so short, I was hyperaware that I was not writing or imagining characters—these were real people, many of whom have children and grandchildren still living. This was not a book that was ever intended to harm, reveal, or expose. Just one that was hoping for a cultural truth. All in a respectful manner.
The book moves through the consciousness of many people. Were any of them especially vivid or memorable to you?
Almost all of them were memorable in their own ways. However, some that stick out to me are the pieces about Zapruder, the White House servants, and Vaughn Ferguson—all for very different reasons. Zapruder’s story was so complex and haunting (at least as I imagined it), because he was witness to something he wished he’d never seen (and captured permanently), yet he also was in a position to profit from it, all the while trying to erase the moment from memory. The piece, “Mrs. Kennedy is Coming Home,” was one I enjoyed writing, mixing some fictional characters with some of the transcripts of interviews with the real servants. The idea of how the servants reacted, particularly during the in-between time when there was so much mystery, was very moving to me. The grief I imagined they felt, coupled with the reality of their being concerned about their jobs, along with a larger sociological issue about whether they were or weren’t really “members” of the Kennedy family was quite intriguing, on both an intellectual and emotional level. “Cleaning Up,” the story about Vaughn Ferguson, also resonates with me quite a bit—although perhaps for more “writerly” reasons. The story, in a sense, was a kind of ekphrasitic, although instead of basing it on an artwork, I created the story from Ferguson’s obituary. I wasn’t able to find very much else about him, other than citations in memos and such. So he really was built from the ground up, and something about that character, in this book, really stuck with me. That said, there are characters and moments in every story that stick with me for myriad reasons.
Is there anything, a scene or an idea, that didn't make it into the final book?
There were a few stories that didn’t make it into the book. It wasn’t really a quality control issue, but rather how they fit. The stories that didn’t make it tended to be pieces of pure fiction about ordinary people, and what they were doing on the day of the assassination, and how it later affected the outcomes of their lives. I’m still fond of a couple of the stories, but they just didn’t fit side-by-side with the stories of people who had such an intimate connection to Dallas.
Talk about how you came to writing. Do you work in other forms besides fiction?
I’ve written in some form most of my life, but didn’t really come to fiction writing (at least in a serious way) until my mid-twenties. As a child, I wrote a lot of kid poems, stories, and plays that I suppose I was serious about at the time, despite their lack of discipline or structure. I grew up an only child, much of that time with a single mother. I always read like crazy, made up longstanding fictional scenarios in my head, and was always able to feel pretty content creating all these worlds alone in my room, or out on walks, etc. I’ve been very much into music my whole life (in fact, my first real ambition was to be a Beatle), and spent most of teen years through my twenties writing and playing music. It was in those mid-twenties years that I started reading like mad again, and rather hubristically decided that I wanted to write the types of stories that were inspiring me so much as a reader. I went back to school—studied, wrote, and read while working plenty of different jobs—and really just kept at it. At that early stage, I wrote constantly. Nonstop. None of it good. Not even memorable. Mostly just shaping and shaping my sensibilities. It’s all been a slow evolution; one that I hope is still evolving.
What writers inspire you the most?
In the years that I began writing seriously, I’d have to say that I initially identified with that line from Chekhov through Hemingway and into Raymond Carver and his literary descendents. I also was quite taken with Milan Kundera—his combination of form and idea. But I’m not so sure about any of this anymore. It seems that nearly everything I read (old and new) seems to have some influence on me. Sometimes it’s related to structure or character, sometimes just the way a particular word is used, or especially how a sentence is constructed. I feel as though I’m not a disciple of one style or writer any more, just of interesting, smart writing that I admire. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve always been very much into music, and in many ways that still has a great influence over me, in terms of musicality and rhythm, and also the ability to have a complete conciseness of character and narrative in such a short timeframe.
What are your greatest challenges as a writer? Have they changed over the years you have been writing, or have new challenges arisen in place of others?
My biggest challenge is having to start over every time. Amy Hempel and I were talking about this last year, how after publishing a respectable body of work, it stills feels just as difficult and confusing with each new piece—as though I were just starting out for the first time again. At least there should be some secret I know by now! Along with that, I suppose, is my own internal need to keep things interesting for myself. I’ve always been very intrigued by form and style (in all art forms), and I’m always trying to find a way to feel as though I’m keeping the form fresh, finding ways to tell the story in a way that may not be so predictable, in terms of form. But perhaps the biggest challenge—and this really has changed over the years—is convincing myself that there is still another story to tell.