When she was 12, Sarah Perry was convinced that the solar eclipse she saw with her mother was a sign of good luck. Two days later, her mother was brutally murdered, while Sarah hid in her room. In her memoir After the Eclipse, Perry explores her mother’s life while also recounting the years leading up to the killer’s arrest and how she found her footing after the axis of her world was shattered. In the midst of getting ready for publication, Perry found time to answer some questions about her book, what it was like to write about something so personal, and her writing process.
Writing creative nonfiction can be a fine line between being “journal-y” and not. How did you balance that, and do you think writing about hard stuff can be therapeutic ?
I would never want to critique someone else’s process (writing-wise) or processing (life-wise). But, for me, the work has to come first, with any therapeutic benefit being incidental to the narrative and aesthetic demands of the book. But it’s hard to untangle this in memoir. When your life is dedicated to your book and the book is about your life, things can get intensely reflexive. I did a lot of real writing work in therapy sessions, because I had to figure out what various stories in my life meant to me before I could begin to think about what they could mean for the book or to a reader. So it was more that the therapy served the book than that the book served as therapy.
Did you do anything to prepare yourself before writing this, or before publishing it? What did you do, if anything, for self-care while writing it?
I was fortunate to start the book when I began the Columbia MFA, which provided me with a network of incredibly smart, empathetic women writers. Probably the biggest thing I did was get better at accepting generosity, letting other people care for me. Writing an emotionally draining book compels people to show their love: Friends bought me beers, took me to concerts, spent hours and hours reading and editing chapters of the book, etc. Knowing that other people had contributed to this huge project kept me going in dark times; continuing to write was a way to honor all that generosity.
You did an amazing job of bringing characters to life, especially your mom. You really shifted the focus to her *life*, and allowed the reader to see her as a person/woman/mother. Tell me about your process.
I have my journals and diaries from when I was a kid, which were helpful. I identified as a writer as a kid, and I captured some useful details. I also had access to the police records in the case, and there are a lot of interviews with Mom’s friends and family, as well as people she dated, etc. These people provided additional lenses through which to see her, and I could use them to sort of triangulate different aspects of her personality. I also did many of my own interviews. I also tried to cast spells on myself to get new memories to come out: I made playlists from specific eras of the book, and visited places that appear in the story. I’m really grateful to have gotten some of those moments back through the process of writing this.
Your honesty about your family is, at times, heartbreaking. Have they read this, and how have you dealt with their reactions to the book?
They will have the opportunity to read it in advance of its release. I’m hoping for the best. A couple weeks ago, I was on the phone with my aunt Glenice, and she said, “There’s nothing you could write that would make me upset with you. It’s your story.” I’m really grateful for that; I was very touched. Even if some of my family members are hurt or upset, I know that at least most of them are trying to come at this with the same spirit of open-mindedness and love. We’re all trying to put Mom first.
The book spans such a long period of time; how did you decide what to edit *out* of the book?
As I dug through the police records, did my own research, and read my old journals, I put everything I could think of in a big timeline document, which runs from my grandmother’s first marriage, in the 1930s, to about 2012. Some events are just listed, some are accompanied by fleshed-out scenes, some are represented by quotations from primary sources. It’s about 100 pages, and it helped me to see bigger patterns and figure out which events were the most significant. I knew I wanted to fix everything in place, but the reader didn’t need every little thing. Having this document was sort of a release valve on that need to capture everything. Also, my editor at HMH, Naomi Gibbs, was an absolute master at tactfully cutting large swathes out of the manuscript. We cut as many words as appear in the finished book. I don’t know how she survived me.
At the end of the book, you say that you chose not to interview the murderer for a variety of reasons. You do mention that you considered it — was there a deciding factor, or was it a gradual understanding/decision?
I went back and forth on this question for around three years. Sometimes it seemed ridiculous to try to talk to him, sometimes it seemed vital. I wanted to be a tough journalist about it, to know that I hadn’t shied away from anything in the creation of this book, but I had to ask myself: Would I just be playing out some darkly glamorous fantasy? Since this is a memoir, I decided pretty early on that the guiding principle of my research should be that I would only do things that were personally relevant and important to me. In the end, I decided that I didn’t want to grant him an audience for whatever he might have to say.
What is your hope for the book, out in the world?
I hope this book will help people see the connections between everyday misogyny — catcalls, mansplaining, interrupting women when they are speaking, groping, slut-shaming, etc. — and more extreme violence such as that which was visited on my mother. Although my mother’s killing was very extreme, the culture of male sexual entitlement and toxic masculinity which produced her killer is, sadly, omnipresent. Until we can get everyone to recognize women’s individual agency and right to their own bodies, these crimes will keep happening. We must spread love, show respect, and not take any bullshit, no matter how small. Men must advocate for women when they become aware of misogynistic behavior or comments from their fellow men.
I would further complicate this by reminding myself and everyone else that these principles apply up and down the gender spectrum, in all kinds of relationships; straight, queer, and otherwise. On a simpler note, I do hope the book gives strength to those who have suffered from violence or lost loved ones to violence. You are always stronger than you think you are.
Were there any books that informed/inspired you while writing this? What books do you return to, again and again?
Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, about the long-awaited trial for her aunt’s killer, is of course an inspiration, as is her earlier book, Jane: A Murder, which focuses more on her aunt’s life. Nelson is a genius and does an amazing job of connecting the personal with the political in a way that is still narratively and emotionally engaging. Other memoirs that I found inspiring on a craft level include: Lucy Grealey’s Autobiography of a Face, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. She Left Me the Gun, by Emma Brockes, was especially relevant, as she includes the process of going back and digging into her family history in the story itself.
The book I go back to most in life, though, is Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces. On the simplest level, it’s a novel about a poet who survived the Holocaust. But really it’s about place and memory and grief and love. It’s the best; absolutely everyone should read this book. It’s a first novel by a poet: a category of book I often gravitate to.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m working on some personal essays. I’m enjoying working in a shorter form, and exploring a few ideas at once. The themes are similar to those in the book: violence, media representations of women, bodies and identity, the nature of memory and how it works. I’m also doing a lot of focused reading — I think it’s really important to read intensely and constructively, to replenish the part of your brain that makes things. It feels like a kind of recovery after a long six years.
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Jaime R. Herndon is a writer and editor. Her writing can be seen on Book Riot, Fiction Advocate, the Rumpus, Heard Tell, Mommy Nearest, and more. She drinks too much caffeine and buys too many books, and is at work on a bibliomemoir, when she's not running after her toddler son. Follow her on Twitter @IvyTarHeelJaime.