Deep in Mississippi, John Safran found that true stories don’t unroll in a convenient way. Illustration by Andrew Dyson.
A dead body fell in my lap. I’d pranked a Mississippi white supremacist for a television show.
He had started legal action and the prank never aired. Eleven months later the white supremacist was found dead in his home. He’d been stabbed so many times around the neck his head had nearly fallen off.
A young black man had been arrested. How could I not jump on a plane and return to Mississippi to write a true crime book?
My schtick was comedy documentaries, not books. And an unexpected thing happened. Starting in a new medium hit my reset button. I became re-obsessed with truth in storytelling.
I remember, 15 years ago, sitting in an ABC edit booth with the editor, splicing together my first documentary story. It was set in an abattoir. The editor decided if he took the moos from cows in the paddock and overlaid them on cows about to be bolt-gunned inside, it made things more dramatic. But, but, but, I stuttered innocently, that’s not the truth.They’re not mooing inside!
Pretty soon, you fudge a little here and a little there and you’re less journalist and more PT Barnum. A few years later I’d have happily gone into a booth and mooed terrified moos myself. But that’s comedy TV; this was a book. I decided this needed to be the truth.
A foreboding tale was playing out as I began my investigation in Mississippi. It was the story of Mike Daisey. It freaked me out more than any Klansman.
Daisey, like me, is a non-fiction storyteller who kneads his personal journey into the plot. He had been performing, to terrific reviews, a monologue about the Apple factory in China. He was a hero in his own story, a mixture of Woodward and Bernstein and Batman. He had snuck into the factory – past the guards with guns! – and communed with disenfranchised workers. He met one whose hand had been crushed by a machine. The hand was now more like a claw. Daisey pulled his iPad from his bag and described in his monologue the claw swiping over the tablet. It was powerful stuff – our disconnection between workers and the gadgets we love.
Daisey’s monologue was broadcast on the This American Life radio show. An American journalist stationed in China was listening, scrunching up his face. Hang on, he thought, guards at factories in China don’t have guns. The journalist retraced Daisey’s steps and picked apart everything.
Soon Daisey reappeared on This American Life. The host, Ira Glass, who had gushed over him in the earlier episode, was now the inquisitor. Over a wince-inducing hour, Daisey weaselled and wove until he kinda sorta confessed. Yes, he went to China, but he may have exaggerated a little. Maybe he wasn’t exactly in a secret labour meeting in a backroom in the factory. Maybe he heard that part of the story from someone else. Okay Ira, I never met a man with a claw for a hand! Daisey was shamed and flogged and mocked. But I was not going to let this happen to me. I bought a Dictaphone and a Flip video camera. I was going to tape everything in Mississippi. Everything was going to be the verifiable truth.
Pretty soon I realised life doesn’t unroll in convenient ways for non-fiction writers.
In our first meeting, the mother of the killer told me the white supremacist pulled up outside the house in a black SUV. The aunty of the killer told me the white supremacist pulled up on his bicycle. Both were insistent they’d got the story right. So which one should I go with?
Worse, even if you find out the truth, it doesn’t reveal itself crisply. It flops out of the shadows in a sloppy, lame way. At one point in my investigation, I picked up a day-old newspaper to find a story about the case I was covering. The district attorney had told the paper’s reporter he would no longer be seeking the death penalty for the killer. Why didn’t the DA tell me that when I interviewed him a couple of days earlier? That would have been a good scene for the book. Or why didn’t the DA announce it at a colourful press conference? I could work with that, too. How pathetic that the truth of this monumental plot twist is I read it in a day-old paper. Some other writer found it out.
In my first draft of the book I struggled. I spent ages trying to omit these inconvenient bits and still make the story work. And there were many inconvenient bits. The mother of the black killer wasn’t the sympathetic character I wanted her to be. Yet a key white supremacist in the story was! How could I write a book where I got on better with the white supremacist than the black mother?
And then the killer pleaded guilty so there was no trial. The book doesn’t work without a big trial scene, I moped.
And then the killer wanted to be paid. I wanted him to want to tell his story for its own sake. Wasn’t everything tainted if he just wanted me for money?
Finally it dawned on me: finding out about the death penalty decision in a sloppy, lame way has its own pathos and humour. Just write what happened, Safran. And that you got on well with the white supremacist is kind of funny, too. So I went back over my manuscript and left in the lumpy truth.
This method of storytelling freed me up. I learnt the lumpy truth is more than merely acceptable, it might be the most interesting thing there is. And there’s more dignity to it than faking cow moos.
Murder in Mississippi by John Safran, published by Penguin Books Australia, RRP $29.99 paperback, $12.99 ebook.
John Safran is an award-winning documentary maker and radio broadcaster. Murder in Mississippi is his first book
Andrew Dyson is an artist for The Age