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Sympathy for a Killer

A conversation with Thomas McNeely, author of The Atlantic's June short story

June 17, 1999

  Thomas McNeely

"Sheep," the short story in this month's Atlantic, is Thomas McNeely's first publication. He found the material for the story -- about Lloyd, a shepherd arrested for serial murder -- while working at a nonprofit legal resource center in Texas, assisting lawyers with habeas corpus appeals of death-row defendants. As the lawyers often had to build a case without much time before a client's execution date (McNeely's first major case, in fact, went through the entire federal court system in thirty-nine hours), the job provided an extreme sort of stress. McNeely's colleagues each dealt with the psychological and ethical stress in their own ways: some went to the executions, some avoided them. McNeely's response was to synthesize the information -- or, in his own words, "to amalgamate the different voices of actual death-row inmates that I had heard into something fictional, something that could carry a narrative." After reading "Sheep," one might say that McNeely has heeded the advice of Henry James, who advised writers to "be one of those upon whom nothing is lost."

Previous interviews with the authors of Atlantic short stories:

Mary Gordon ("The Deacon," May, 1999)

Nathan Englander ("The Gilgul of Park Avenue," March, 1999)

Beth Lordan ("The Man with the Lapdog," February, 1999)

Carol Shields ("A Likely Story," January, 1999)

Peter Ho Davies ("Today is Sunday," December, 1998)

Richard Bausch ("Par," August, 1998)

Colum McCann ("Everything in This Country Must," July, 1998)

Elizabeth Stuckey-French ("Electric Wizard," June, 1998)

Chitra Divakaruni ("Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," April, 1998)

Francine Prose ("The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet," March, 1998)

Lee K. Abbott ("Everything, All at Once," February, 1998)

E. Annie Proulx ("The Half-Skinned Steer," November, 1997)

Garrison Keillor ("Talk Radio," October, 1997)

Tess Gallagher ("The Poetry Baron," July, 1997)

Larry Heinemann ("The Fragging," June, 1997)

Cynthia Ozick ("Puttermesser in Paradise," May, 1997)

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

Join the conversation in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

From The Atlantic's archives:

"When They Get Out," by Sasha Abramsky (June 1999)
How prisons, established to fight crime, produce crime -- a sequel to our December cover story, "The Prison-Industrial Complex."

"The Prison-Industrial Complex," by Eric Schlosser (December 1998)
The economies of whole regions have been skewed toward incarceration, and the job of incarceration is increasingly being handed over to private companies. America's prison-industrial complex, the author argues, is rapidly corrupting the criminal-justice system.

"A Grief Like No Other," by Eric Schlosser (September 1997)
Nearly a half million Americans have been murdered in the past two decades alone -- and we are by now accustomed, perhaps almost inured, to such grim statistics. What we almost never hear about is the lives lived by the loved ones each murder victim leaves behind. Many parents of murdered children have turned to one another for support.

More on crime in The Atlantic Monthly.

McNeely left Texas in 1994 to attend the graduate creative-writing program at Emerson College. Since his graduation, he has taught composition at several Boston-based institutions, including Emerson College and Suffolk University, and fiction writing at the Grub Street Writers' Workshop.

McNeely spoke recently with The Atlantic Monthly's Leslie Cauldwell.

Character Sketch
East Boston

B.A. in English, University of Texas at Austin; M.F.A. in Creative Writing, Emerson College


First Publication
This one

Last Book Read
The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James

Writing Habits
"When I have time, I try to be at work by 9:00 in the morning and to knock off at about 6:00 at night, with a long lunch in between. Usually I don't have that sort of luxury, though, so I just write when I can."

Advice to Writers
"Don't let anyone try and tell you how to write your stories."

You've spent hundreds of hours interviewing defendants and their families. How did this prepare you for writing a story from a point of view sympathetic to a serial killer?

I got to see convicted murderers as very conflicted human beings rather than as the demonic, animalistic, inhuman criminals that the state tried to portray them as at trial. Most of these people had very complicated, tragic histories. I was given much more bizarre and complex material, in fact, than I used in the story.

Can you describe the challenge you set up for yourself in "Sheep" -- namely, adopting the narrative point of view of Lloyd, a serial killer who doesn't realize what he's done?

The first challenge was simply achieving clarity -- trying to make clear to the reader what was happening around Lloyd while events were filtered through his perspective. Beyond that, it was a challenge to not be too clever. I had to turn off my own authorial voice in order to get to Lloyd's. Trying to amalgamate the different voices of actual death-row inmates that I had heard into something fictional, something that could carry a narrative, was a challenge as well.

Was it ever hard for you, on the job or on the page, sympathizing with murderers?

That's really the conflict that the story grew out of. I was constantly pulled back and forth between my sympathies toward those people with whom I had talked for hours and hours and had gotten to know (and with whose families I had talked for hours and hours), and the evidence of their crimes, both in terms of the actual results of the murders, and of the effects on the communities in which they occurred.

If the story has a starting point, it was probably an occasion on which I was looking at an autopsy photo. I didn't see a human being in that photo, but an abstraction. That photo led me to the story's central question: How is it possible to look at a photo of a person and not see that person as human? Which led to the next question: How does one person look at another as inhuman? I think there has to be a level of dissociation between an impulse and an act, or an act and its result, in order to commit murder.

"Sheep" has been taught as part of a college freshman course at Harvard called "Psychology and the Law," in which students examine the limited ability of the law to accommodate evidence of psychological damage. How much of your intention in writing this story was to educate readers about this bias in the legal system?

The judicial system, at least as I experienced it working at the Resource Center in Texas, responds to certain types of homicide with an almost Biblical vengeance. But I found that its characterization of defendants as animals or demons just wasn't congruent with the very complex reality of their lives. In that sense, Lloyd's confusion in the story was a response to the confusion on the part of the judicial system, and on the part of the criminal defense lawyer as well. What Lloyd saw or didn't see, understood or didn't understand, was getting lost, because the legal system had already established and defined categories of who he should be which were outside of his range of perception. Everything about him had been predetermined.

Did you write the story to somehow help the defendants on death row who you couldn't prevent from being executed?

No, it was a creative effort. I expect it will offend defense lawyers, policemen, judges, and people on death row. Or it might not. But it was not meant to advocate. What was flawed in the earlier drafts of the story was that I was trying to show a particular, predetermined picture of Lloyd.

Any fiction worth writing is asking a question. In earlier drafts of the story I didn't open myself up to the question of how to be sympathetic toward someone who has committed a heinous crime, or a series of heinous crimes. I had to do this in order to allow multiple definitions of what might be going on in Lloyd's head.

There are two father-son relationships in "Sheep" -- one harmful, one positive. Does this reflect what you found in your work with death-row defendants?

I often found that people who ended up on death row had extremely dependent relationships with law-enforcement officials. Convicts would seek out or respond to cops because they were the most consistent authority figures in their lives and because their own family lives were so chaotic and harmful. Even though the law-enforcement people were out to get them -- the very person who was a father figure was also trying to serve the interests of justice and was therefore trying to put the "son" in jail, or execute him -- the relationships still weren't as malicious as what they'd known. But the relationship between the sheriff and Lloyd is a lot more benign than most of those I saw between law enforcers and criminals. The law-enforcement people didn't have much compunction about locking people up and throwing away the key -- or worse.

Has the newspaper writing you did in college influenced your writing style, making it more realistic?

Not really. I wrote mainly criticism when I was in college, like movie reviews. I don't really consider my writing to be realistic, because there is so much filtering through the psychological viewpoint of the characters. I suppose you could call it psychological realism, but really it's as simple as this: when I write I see things and I hear dialogue, and that's what comes out. Now, I'm sure that's because I've been trained by the culture in which I live, and most of the writing I have absorbed is realistic fiction, but I'm not at the point in my development as a writer to be able to question that. I just take what I can get.

One of your pet peeves is the trend toward fictionalized biography and therapeutic memoirs. Charles Baxter argues against this trend in his essay on "Dysfunctional Narratives." Could you say more?

Baxter refers to narratives that do not point fingers. To me, this has to do with how people define themselves through confessions. It's very Foucauldean, saying that when you blame others for whatever moral infirmities you might be experiencing, you simplify the picture by buying into a definition of yourself that is not only spiteful toward others, but limits how you define yourself.

In terms of fiction, I think this goes back to trying to determine the purpose of a story, rather than letting the story determine its own function or meaning. More often than not, if one sets out to write a narrative for a certain purpose, one's self-justification makes the story flat and boring and tendentious. Dishonest, in a word. The "moral lesson" of a therapeutic or confessional narrative is precisely a disavowal of responsibility, and at the same time, a narrowing of what it means to be human.

How do you mean, "dishonest"?

Not letting the story tell itself. Saying, I want to tell this story because I want to get back at my mom, or, I want to tell this story because I want to get back at the judicial system, or, I want to tell this story because I want to show everybody how warm and cuddly death-row inmates are. Unfortunately, as our culture becomes less literate -- and by that I mean less attuned to meaning in all senses, whether visual or linguistic or psychoanalytic, for example -- the less patience there is for ambivalence in any kind of discourse, and the more people want some kind of an answer.

James Carroll, who was a professor of yours, used to say that writers have one story to tell, and over the course of their career they refine and retell that story. Is this true for you?

I hope that's not true. A person's experience is so varied, even in the dullest life. Eudora Welty said that you have all of your sentimental material for fiction by the time you are three years old, so according to that, you'd have to live inside a box to not get more than one story out of life. Maybe on some level what Jim Carroll says is true, but I try not to think about it that way, because if it is true, it's very depressing.

What's on your summer reading list? What motivates your reading?

I'm reading Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, and a terrific collection of short fiction by Wendell Mayo called Centaur of the North.

I try to read things that either people I respect have recommended to me, or that I think will be helpful to my own work. I also read out of curiosity. And I love trashy rock-and-roll biographies, like Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Talk about an over-determined narrative!

You've just started a stint as an artist-in-residence at the MacDowell Colony. Can you say something about what you hope to accomplish there?

I hope to finally put to rest a few stories that have been plaguing me for about the past three years. And that's about it. Wait -- I mean, I'm working on a collection of short fiction, and if any agents want to call me they are perfectly welcome!

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Leslie Cauldwell is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
McNeely photograph © 1999 Tim Mulavey.
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