Charlie was small and wiry as a cow dog with his ears sticking out his head. From where I lay flat on the floor, I thought him to be young and not fully grown, just a boy, standing at the base of the tree, hunting, playing a man.
Caril Ann Fugate was fourteen years old when Charles Starkweather killed her parents and two-year-old sister in their Lincoln, Nebraska, home. Before more than a thousand police officers and National Guard members finally hunted the pair down a week later, seven more victims would lose their lives.
Outside Valentine, Liza Ward's redemptive debut, delivers a remembrance of the bloody killing spree through three luminous voices: "Puggy," a lonely Lincoln teenager at the time of the crimes; Lowell, a Manhattan antiquities dealer forty years later; and Caril Ann Fugate, herself.
The author brings a personal stake to the telling: her grandparents were among Starkweather's random targets. "I've always wanted to write about this," she concedes. "It consumed me as a child."
Ward's short fiction has been celebrated in both O. Henry Prize Stories and the Best New American Voices 2004 collection. Now her novel is garnering similar praise. "Ward manages to tell the tale from all sides, and astonishingly," the Hartford Courant marvels, "reveals a deeply affecting story about everyone involved, including the girl who went along for the murderous ride."
Dave: What made you want to become a writer?
Liza Ward: When I was in second grade, our teacher made a story wheel for the class. She spun it, and it landed on the purple tingle-tangle. Then she spun it again and it was the talking sponge. That was the first story I ever wrote: "The Purple Tingle-Tangle and the Talking Sponge." From there, I just kept writing.
I've always wanted to write. I wanted to be a vet, too, but I'm bad at science.
Dave: Had you been trying to write about these events for a long time, or was this project born more recently?
Ward: I've always wanted to write about this. It consumed me as a child. I think children most want to know about the things that aren't discussed, and they sense what they shouldn't say. My interest in this grew over time.
I never thought I'd be able to know anything about it until it occurred to me that people recorded these events, that it had been a major crime. I went to the library and I found a book about it. Then for a while I tried to find a way into the story, but I couldn't make it any different from what I'd read before. I needed to figure out what it meant to me before I could write about it.
Dave: What eventually got you started?
Ward: In a class I took in grad school, we were reading Isaac Babel, imitating his style. It's this brutal book called Red Cavalry, full of terrible images presented in an off-kilter, nonchalant way.
I started thinking about Caril Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather, and how she might see the world. So I wrote a story about that. Then I wrote a story about Puggy, and it all started coming together. One night my father brought home a safety deposit box from the bank full of I won't say what. I realized at that point that this was a novel.
Dave: Did you feel any particular commitment to truth in your telling of the events?
Ward: I felt like the truth wasn't really available to me so I had to make up my own. That meant giving my grandparents life again and having a character that might be my father who hasn't necessarily come to terms with the events.
I didn't want to stick to the facts. They didn't really tell me much about who these people were or why they did the things they did. And I've always been a fiction writer. I'm not detail-oriented. I don't ever want to be bound to facts.
Dave: If we were to map this out, the character that would be you, Lowell's daughter, plays a distinctly minor role in the book, though she does take part in a defining scene near the end. Did you have to make a conscious effort to keep her on the periphery of the novel?
Ward: No. I never felt that she mattered much to the story. I never realized that I was impacted by these events until I was writing it. I thought, Why am I so interested in this? It's my father's tragedy. But the silence —I was a victim of the silence. In a way, we all were.
Dave: At one point, Lowell asks Mary, "Why would you worry about those people? They're inhuman." Yet the book shows that they're not inhuman at all. The portrayal of Caril Ann is startling for the sympathy it affords her.
Ward: At first I was angry when people told me that I was sympathetic toward her, but I guess I am. She's not involved in any of the killings. And you have to be sympathetic if you're in her head, experiencing what she touches and feels. You're in her skin.
I knew I loved her while I was writing her; those were the parts that came out the most quickly. It was very strange.
Dave: Most of the characters are trying to figure out what it means to act out of love.
Ward: And I think it's loneliness that drives them toward this need for love. Caril Ann loves Charlie simply because he loves her so much, but he hates everything else. And Puggy is searching for Lowell out of lonesome abandonment because she feels like he's been abandoned, too.
Sometimes the roots of love, the things that drive us toward love, are not exactly motivated by purity.
Dave: You've mentioned Bruce Springsteen in other interviews. Do you remember your first interaction with Nebraska, the song or the album?
Ward: I didn't know about it until a friend of mine said, "Hey, there's this album called Nebraska and there's a song about Starkweather on it." I was probably nineteen or twenty. It didn't provide me with answers, but it's a beautiful song in its simplicity. It felt so desolate. It inspires the desolate landscape.
I was driving through Nebraska one time, and a train was going by. We were driving through the sand hills on the way to Valentine, and it sowed the seed in me, that music playing in this lonely place on the edge of the prairie.
Whenever I was writing Caril Ann sections, I would listen to him. Then when I was writing Puggy I would listen to old fifties love songs.
Dave: I've been meaning to ask: Puggy? Who calls their daughter Puggy after her nose?
Ward: Oh, yes. My maternal grandmother's name was Puggy because of her nose. She was Elizabeth, and her name got changed to Puggy. So it's a family name, but I thought it was too good to let slip away.
Dave: One connection between Springsteen's song and Outside Valentine is that each takes the perspective of the convicted. Springsteen doesn't do anything to justify Starkweather's acts or to portray him as an honorable human being, but in giving him a monologue there's an implicit acknowledgment of an inner life.
Ward: You couldn't come down on either side of a fence, listening to that song. Right, that secret inner life. In a way, it made me angry that he was giving Starkweather a voice. That's not fair, but I was mad.
Dave: Lowell certainly doesn't have any patience for the sympathetic point-of-view. When he believes his daughter is trying to understand Fugate and Starkweather a little better, he blows up at her. Standing that close to the events, it's only natural that he wouldn't give them that benefit.
Ward: But there was part of me that wondered: They had to be human. How were they? How could a girl like Caril Ann Fugate get into a situation like this?
There's a point in our lives when we're fourteen years old, and it could happen if you take the wrong step, if you think too hard about something and you feel lonely enough. Suddenly it happens, and then you can't stop it. There it is, falling down like dominoes.
Dave: The novel's subject must make this a difficult tour for you emotionally, to be talking about these events day after day. What do you want people to know about you that has absolutely nothing to do with serial killers?
Ward: Well, I love to hike and ski. I live by the ocean now, but I'm moving back to Montana soon.
I'm living in our old ancestral home right now, built in 1680. There are all these secret drawers everywhere full of people's locks of hair, old gloves, and sewing that Sally Foote was doing when she died of tuberculosis in her ninth year. There are ghosts upstairs. I never go there.
It's so not me to be talking about what happened to my family all the time. I'm a very private person, and I don't even like to talk about myself. Touring, it's kind of been one thing after another, my family this, my family that. Trying to steer people back to the book is sometimes difficult. They're so interested in what happened, which I obviously was, too.
My next book is not going to be about serial killers. I'm interested in human relationships and why people do the things they do.
Dave: And you're writing about the maternal side of your family now?
Ward: A little bit. The more I've thought about it, the more I think it's inspired by my great-grandfather, who was a chaplain at Harvard, but it's definitely less based on my family than this book. I started turning it into my own story.
Dave: Have you had time to do any reading lately?
Ward: I read Grand Ambition by Lisa Michaels, which is fabulous. It's about a couple that went on a honeymoon down the rapids of the Colorado River and disappeared. I was interested in what she had done with fact and fiction. It's a fictional account; no one knows what happened. I'm also really interested in the West and the outdoors, so it fed all my needs.
I like Margaret Atwood a lot, too. And Faulkner: his idea of the past existing in the present, the past as a stone cast into a pool and the ripples spreading out from some central event—that's something that has inspired me greatly.
Dave: I saw that you worked for a short time in the editorial department of J. Crew. Can you offer any particular insight into the rollneck sweater?
Ward: I did work for the men's sweater department, it's true. I went on shoots, and sometimes I'd iron Heidi Klum's pants or whatever, which is devastating for the ego. I knew that I had to leave that job when I could walk down the street and identify people by their item: J. Crew rollneck! Snowflake sweater!
A funny thing about it was that we would make up stories for all the shoots. Tim and Jessica go to Martha's Vineyard for the weekend. He wears a Swatch and she has a puppy. To get ideas for the shoot.
It was a fine first job. It made me realize what I really did want to do. The editorial floor has sample closets for shoots and stills, and I went into the men's shoe closet with my editor and quit right there. I said, "I want to be a writer and I want to go to grad school." She said, "I know. Okay. We'll miss you."
Dave: What comes to mind when you think of a surprising lesson about writing?
Ward: People say you have to sit down every day and write three pages. If I do that, I go insane; I'm writing crap, and I don't want to write crap. So I write when I'm inspired to write. Sometimes I won't write for a month or more, and I'll feel like I don't exist, but in those moments I try to enjoy life and find things to write about.
I tried writing every day, but I couldn't do it. I know when I'm in the mood to write and when I can write something good; then I'll write for three weeks without stopping, and when I come up for air I'll have a real problem relating to others.
That's one thing I learned. Another is that it never ends where you think it's going to. You sit down and think you're going to write about something, and that's so dangerous because it always ends up being about something else.
Dave: Okay, speed round. Multiple choice questions.
Dave: Hardcover or paperback?
Dave: Cotton or wool?
Dave: Mountains, ocean, or plains?
Dave: Greetings, Darkness, or Born to Run?
Dave: Beer, wine, or liquor?
Dave: In twenty years, what will you think of this book?
Ward: I think I'll probably... I can't say this, but I'll probably hate it.
Ward: It'll probably seem like something that was very young.
Dave: Might that be a good thing?
Ward: Yes, but hopefully I'll write some more.
Dave: But to use Springsteen as an example: You listen to Greetings and you hear a young man practically bursting out of his skin. It would be hard to argue that experience didn't make his songwriting and performing better in many ways, but the uninhibited energy you hear in those early songs was rarely matched after the first albums.
Ward: I hope that I never lose it, but I'm my own worst critic. I never like what I write. I'm never satisfied. I read this book over when it came out in hardcover, and I was appalled.
Nothing is ever as good as it can be. Nothing. A lot of things that come out these days could take another turn or two through the typewriter. That's an old way of saying it, but I don't want to be complacent, ever.
Dave: Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Ward: Eggs Benedict, but with smoked salmon underneath and avocado on top, with Hollandaise sauce and bacon and lots of coffee. That was just recently.
Dave: Was it served in a restaurant?
Ward: No! In my house.
Dave: If we were in a bar right now, what do you think we'd be talking about?
Ward: I'd probably be giving one-word answers. I'm not a talker. I'm not good at meeting people. I don't come off as sociable sometimes. People when they first meet me wonder about me, I think.
I'd probably be talking about the way I feel about what the world is becoming, which is what everyone's talking about. I'm consumed with all sorts of disasters. There's a tidal wave that could wipe out the entire east coast. Yellowstone is a super-volcano. Then there's terrorism. I feel like I've been coming to terms with the mortality of our world.
Dave: What's something that might surprise readers about you?
Ward: I don't like to sightsee when I travel. I just realized that about myself on this trip. I prefer going to little towns and seeing what makes people tick. I'm more interested in roadside activities and beautiful buildings.
Dave: So what do you do in small towns, since we know you're not social? You sit and watch?
Ward: I do.
Dave: A great place to do that in a small town is a minor league baseball park.
Ward: I've heard that's the thing to do. I really have.
Dave: Among a certain crowd, I suppose. What all minor league baseball parks have in common is that they're community gathering spots. Granted, they all have baseball in common, too, but the smaller the town the larger the share of community interest. If there's nothing else to do, whether you like baseball is secondary. You'll find all the high school kids there hanging out, flirting, running around the bleachers while they're parents socialize among their own friends. It's a little Petri dish of society.
Ward: I sense some kind of beauty in all those tiny towns on the plains that are losing their population to the cities. The kids aren't staying.
I'd rather look at different kinds of old cars or watch high school kids and think about their personas. Here and in Seattle, all the kids wear hats pulled down over their brows. Why do they do that? I'm interested in different places.
Liza Ward visited Powell's City of Books on October 5, 2004.