Tell It Slant

03/11/2015 09:40 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015

jessica treadway

It took my husband pointing it out for me to realize that both of the novels I wrote were based on crimes in the town I grew up in. It's not that I had forgotten what inspired either book. I just didn't think of them as having in common what they do, which is an act of violence by one member of a family against another, in the small community of my original home.

I didn't think of it because almost fifteen years passed between the first book and the second, and because as soon as I started writing them, they weren't about real people anymore. When my husband said what he did, I felt surprised, but I shouldn't have: I've written four books of fiction, and "real life" lies at the heart of each of them. What motivates me to write a story may be the same thing that motivates you to read one. I want to inhabit someone enduring the things I am afraid of, or things I have experienced myself and want to think about, but need some distance from. Tell all the truth but tell it slant, Emily Dickinson wrote. My fiction is truth slant, or, to be more accurate, it is fact slant. The truth is where fact and fiction overlap.

Once, in a ladies' restroom, I overheard two women talking about the death of someone they both knew. One of them said to the other, "At least she didn't have any kids," and the other said, "That's the only good thing about it." As a non-mother myself, I used my own reaction at hearing this to imagine my way into the psyche and soul of a woman who'd died alone and without children. I made up her name, her family history, her friends, her living situation, the actions she takes and their consequences -- virtually everything about her -- but the truth of the story lies in those two sentences I heard exchanged between strangers.

My first novel, And Give You Peace, derives from a tragedy in a family of three sisters, like my own. I am the oldest, and that family's oldest was in my homeroom all through high school, though we weren't friends and I didn't know much about her other than what everyone always knows about the most popular girls. Her youngest sister, Betsy, was on my youngest sister's softball team. The summer before her junior year, her father shot Betsy and then himself to death. I was working as a reporter for a wire service, and when the stringer's tip came in that there had been a murder-suicide in my town, I called police for details. I will never forget the shock I felt upon hearing Betsy's name as the victim. Immediately I conjured an image of the teenager with a shy smile and two blond braids hanging down the front of her softball jersey. And in the next moment, I became fixated on the question that would preoccupy me for years to come: how did her two sisters bear it?

Because I wished desperately to understand what they suffered and how they managed to survive, psychically, what I was sure I could not, I wrote a novel from the point of view of the oldest of three sisters faced with the same event. I did not write the book only for myself; I hoped that others might wonder the same thing, and find value in the way I explored the question. The novel is an act of imagination and, I hope, empathy. I have no way of knowing if it mirrors, even in the smallest way, what was in my classmate's head and heart, or her father's or her sister Betsy's, the day they died. But in creating my fictional character, I came to understand some of what was in her mind and heart, in the context of the situation I borrowed from real life.

I had lived away from the town for twenty years when the second crime occurred, a college student attacking his parents as they slept in their bed. His father died, and his mother was only barely alive when police discovered her and asked her if her son was responsible. She nodded, but when she emerged from a coma weeks later, she appeared to have forgotten all memory of that night, and since then she has defended her son vigorously even after the jury deliberated less than a day to convict him.

I have never met any of the people in this family, but I know the street they lived on, because it is across from the high school we all attended - Betsy, her two sisters, the convicted murderer, and me. I wrote the second novel, Lacy Eye, because I wanted to know what it felt like for the character I imagined to suspect that her child was guilty of a crime she would never comprehend. In writing the novel, I found what I was looking for -- an intimate understanding of someone invested in believing what was prettier than the truth, because believing the truth would cost her more than she thought she could afford.

Tell it slant. One last truth about the intersection of fact and fiction. My first novel is not about Betsy, but I did write it with her in mind. The blond braids and the shy smile have never left me. It is probably fair to say that I wrote it in her memory. I remember her, and I can only imagine.

Jessica Treadway is the author of Lacy Eye.