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October 6, 2009

Michael Mewshaw: Revisiting the Past

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Michael Mewshaw, today's guest blogger, reveals the unusul circumstances that led him to write his eleventh novel, Lying with the Dead. The story is narrated in turns by Quinn, Maury, and Candy, who are asked by their mother to return to their childhood home in Maryland, where the pieces of a dark puzzle finally come together.

Having published ten previous novels, I know that the genesis of most novels is as opaque as the human psyche and as elusive as dream logic. Much as a writer may draw on past experience, the process defies easy explanation. But with Lying with the Dead I feel comfortable in saying that it had its origin in specific childhood events that shaped the man I became, and that have now been reshaped by the imagination.

In 1961, a friend of mine, Wayne Dresbach, age 15, murdered his parents and was sentenced to life in prison. If the trauma was devastating for the Dresbach family, it was only a little less so for me. While a tragedy of this type leaves a mark on the whole community, it had deeper, long lasting implications for me and my family. It changed the already precarious emotional equation of our lives, as Wayne's younger brother, Lee, moved into our home, and as my mother, a woman who combined emotional fragility with physical strength, became increasingly obsessed with the case. For more than a decade, while raising four children of her own and running a day nursery for other kids, my mother served as a surrogate parent for both Dresbach boys. She raised Lee to adulthood and worked tirelessly to overturn Wayne's conviction and get him released. The cost to her health, the cost to the rest of the family, was inestimable.

Like Maury in Lying with the Dead, Wayne did 12 years at Patuxent Institute for Defective Delinquents. And like Maury's siblings, I passed my adolescence in the shadow of the US penal system. There was a trial, a failed appeal, then the long dreary calvary of "doing time." Sunday was visiting day. Christmas brought the annual convict party celebrated in a cellblock with pretzels and Kool-Aid. Summers meant picnics on a lawn surrounded by fences and armed guards. Each New Year commenced with another parole hearing, an emotional mixture of hope and dread, then the letdown.

As Wayne remained behind bars, I went on to college, then graduate school, always hoping to write a novel about murder and its ongoing effects on a family. It seemed to me like Greek tragedy, a cycle of hubris, nemesis and catharsis, an ongoing generational saga. But when Wayne was paroled and moved in for a time with me and my wife and son, I became persuaded that at least at first I owed it to him to tell the story from his point of view as non-fiction. I did this in 1980, with the publication of Life for Death.

But inevitably the story and its aftermath stayed lodged like a stinger in my brain, and so now I have circled back to it, not just revisiting the past but reimagining events, reconstituting a family forever teetering on the brink of discovery and dissolution, and re-examining elements of personal biography and reframing everything as fiction. The result is Lying with the Dead, my eleventh novel, a tragic-comedy almost fifty years in gestation. To me the story, despite its sorry, and sometimes sordid, aspects, is instructive and ultimately redemptive. I hope readers will come away from it convinced of the human capacity to survive and prevail in inhuman circumstances.

---Michael Mewshaw