Without knowing it, I'd always had two unspoken arrangements with the world. The first was that I would not trouble it with unpleasant conversation about my father's "gangland-style" murder when I was six years old. The second was that as a consequence of this discretion, I would have the right to feel whatever I felt about the event — not what would be nice to feel, or what was flattering or appropriate to feel.
It's a little disquieting that it's out there in the world now — how I felt, or didn't feel, perhaps how I failed to feel. How I portrayed a man I didn't really know and hardly remembered. A friend of mine once kept an admonition in his painting studio: Give it all. Give it now. I thought about that maxim from time to time as I worked on Evening's Empire. Among other things, writing is a way to confront what is otherwise too difficult or unpleasant to think about. There are certainly other and more popular reasons to write, but books are one of the few places left where we can be serious about what it means to live out our lives on this planet. If there is no difference between being serious and being morbid, then I don't know how our lives will ever have any meaning. I was hoping to write my book in that spirit. A biography, a memoir, a true crime story, a nonfiction novel, a combination of all those things. It is also a portrait of me making a portrait, using whatever I had.
There was a factual story to be told: What were the events that led up to my father's murder? Who was involved? How did it happen? Then there was a bigger mystery to consider: Why are people murdered at all? Which is to ask, what is evil? And so it seemed that the facts alone were not going to be quite enough. To make the facts live as I wanted them to live — for me to understand them in the way I wanted to understand them — meant that I would have to try to imagine them playing out. Because how can you have even an inkling of what evil is, or is like, if you never get beyond the rational? And how can evil register for the writer or for the reader if it is not evoked and made emotional?
What if there were no places left to be serious about what it means to live out our lives on this planet? If we had to live like children all the time — sometimes enchanted, sometimes disenchanted, always more or less confused? I think life without seriousness might look something like an anecdote I started writing and then chose to omit from my book. It was an anecdote about myself on the day after my father's murder, a six-year-old boy already seduced by the narcotic power of daydreaming. What I did on that day was profoundly unserious: I went to school and bragged about it. My father's murder was exciting, an adventure story I couldn't wait to share with my classmates. There were also two policemen staking out our house and I was thrilled to have them there, standing behind the gate with their holstered guns.
I omitted the anecdote because the book was not meant to be about me, it was meant to be about my father. I omitted it because, although the story is true, to include it seemed contrived. I could have kept it in and added more passages like it and made the book something that, although factually true, would have felt to me emotionally false. False, because the confusion and sadness of the six-year-old boy is not of the same order of magnitude as what happened to the 40-year-old man who was murdered. The 40-year-old man will never have the chance to be anyone beyond who he was at that moment in the stairwell of the parking garage. The six-year-old boy has grown up into someone infinitely different from who he was on that day.
When people ask if writing a book about my father's murder was "cathartic," I find myself uncomfortable with the word. I believe in catharsis, but I think of it as a fleeting, delicate state of mind, like joy or sadness. If it is indeed fleeting, then cartharsis is actually the opposite of "closure," that other word we hear so much in connection with loss or grief. Closure implies a wrapping-up of affairs. I've never understood how this is any different from forgetting or just not thinking or feeling. It is in fact by opening up — by confronting what is otherwise too difficult or unpleasant to think about — that we achieve catharsis. There are a lot of casualties by the time we get to the end of King Lear. Our pleasure in The Tempest is that we've seen how much could have gone wrong but didn't. A play or a book can probably not change us very much in any permanent way, but catharsis is important in the same way that joy and sadness are important. Catharsis lets us feel a kind of dignity that we are frequently unable to feel.
It was the one story I thought I should never write, suspecting that it was the wellspring of my writing impulse, my ur-story. And yet I felt inclined to write it; it was the ultimate story. It was a way of getting to know my father for the first time — a man who might have gone on living, and if he had been able to do so, might have altered everything I think and feel.