We should probably stop calling it a “book tour.” I only did five readings, and I only had to get on a plane once. Although I’m going to the Texas Book Fest next week. I’m excited. I’ve never been to Austin.
That’s surprising. It’s in the Southwest, and you’re a Southwesterner.
The question of whether Austin qualifies as the Southwest, and/or where in Texas that dividing line falls, has occupied hours of my life. I might survey some Austinites (Austinians?) about that. I think I’ll know better once I’ve been there. Southwesternness is like pornography: you know it when you see it.
Are you going to wear a bolo tie?
I wish I owned one, just for the sake of author photos (yes, that is a Christmas present hint). I might wear my cowboy boots, but with those on I’m like 6’7”, which can be a little much for people.
You live in Albuquerque. What are your thoughts on ABQ?
Better than Santa Fe, worse than Tucson.
Are you sick of people asking you about Breaking Bad?
Not yet. The Breaking Bad trolley tour stops on my block—they filmed at a house two doors down, although I think it was just interior shots. I’m sure it’ll get old soon; I was just in Baltimore and my friend was complaining about how everyone still assumes it’s like The Wire.
Your book’s set in the West, mostly in Arizona, including your hometown of Tombstone. Do you consider yourself a Western writer?
Whenever somebody talks about Western writers, which isn’t often, I think about how Larry McMurtry used to wear a t-shirt that said “minor regional novelist,” or how Wallace Stegner referred to the New York publishing world as “headquarters.” If you write about anywhere but New York, you’re going to be treated as provincial to some degree. But I really admire many of the great Western writers, and I think Westerners, like Southerners, are much better at writing place and understanding its role in people’s lives. So if somebody called me that, I’d take it as a compliment.
The term “elevator pitch” is reductive and dumb, obviously. But you should probably still give the elevator pitch of your book.
The thing is, the elevator pitch—it’s a memoir about my mother’s murder, and my family’s life in Tombstone, Arizona, the famous Old West town—is sort of counterproductive, because it usually makes people not want to read it. It sounds too depressing.
So why should people read it?
Because I appreciate the reader’s time and effort, the value of those hours of their lives. When I set out to write it, I knew the subject matter would alienate some readers. I figured I couldn’t do anything about that, but, if someone did pick it up, I could make sure they didn’t put it down. So I prioritized the pacing; I tried to structure it to move in a way I don’t think many memoirs do. Maybe the most common response from readers is that they read it quickly.
I hope it also has a lot more tonal texture than the elevator pitch would indicate. There are some deeply strange and even darkly funny moments in the book. I also think it’s more than just a straightforward memoir. I never really thought of it as that. Memoir is just a marketing term, a necessary evil; I always thought of it as a hybrid work of nonfiction: memoir, biography, even a bit of investigative writing. It’s not just a story about me.
That’s what all memoirists say. If it’s not about you, what’s it about?
My mother. Violence. Misogyny. Masculinity. Class. It would be stupid and pretentious to say that it’s about America, but I do think the story I tell sheds light on larger, pressing issues.
What’s the response been like from readers?
Pretty kind, so far. I love hearing from readers, even—maybe especially—when my mother’s story prompts them to share their own similar experiences. That can be hard to deal with, emotionally, but I think it’s valuable for both them and me. The thing about living with a loved one’s murder is that nobody wants to hear about it, so you feel like you have to hoard that pain, and it’s a relief sometimes to be able to let it out a little bit, if there’s somebody else you think might understand.
Is your book true?
It’s hard to believe, but I’m the first and only person to ask me that, at least in so many words. The idea that a prose narrative can be objectively true is absurd. To ask different people to describe the same event, person, or place is to understand immediately how subjective all accounts are, how faulty and fictional memory is. That said, there is a historical record of certain verifiable facts—names, dates, marriages, deaths, police records, and so on—and I did feel the responsibility to verify those when possible. I did a lot of interviewing and research for the book, in order to give as factual of an account as possible. But I also changed a lot of names and altered the timeline for the sake of movement. All of which is mentioned in the author’s note.
There were a lot—I read pretty much all of the well-known memoirs to see how they worked, as well as a lot of other nonfiction—but the biggest was In Cold Blood. In some ways, I wrote the book as a response to In Cold Blood, which, in addition to being ethically suspect and riddled with fabrications, focuses on and glorifies the murderer, not the victims. It’s essentially a love letter to Perry Smith. I read it years before I started writing my book, and wanted to write a nonfiction account of a murder from the perspective of somebody who knew and loved the victim. (Which is not to say I was the first to do that: James Ellroy’s My Dark Places was also a big influence.)
Your least favorite question: What’s next?
I wish I knew. Turns out it’s hard to write much after a book comes out, because you have a lot of minor obligations that, added up, occupy a lot of your time. And there’s definitely a book hangover effect; the idea of having to do it all again still seems impossible. I’ll probably go back to fiction eventually, likely a novel. I’m open to suggestions.
JUSTIN ST. GERMAIN is the author of Son of a Gun, a memoir, which was released in August by Random House and has been a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, The Arizona Republic’s Book of the Month, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a GQ Punch List selection, an Oprah.com Book of the Week, and was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered. He received his BA and MFA from the University of Arizona and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction writing at Stanford University. He has taught at Arizona, Stanford, and the University of San Francisco, and is currently the Joseph M. Russo Professor of Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico.
Author photo credit: William B. Bledsoe