An Ordinary Tragedy Author Q&A
Lori Hart Beninger’s new book explores memories, research, and interviews with family and friends to understand her brother’s life of escalating crime. This intimate memoir profiles the dynamics of an All-American Family in California and the secrets they kept from the middle 1950s to early 1980s.
Editor Marie Valentine checked in with Lori about the recently completed work and her experience as a publishing writer.
Marie: Congratulations on the publication of your new book, An Ordinary Tragedy. It takes commitment to complete and publish several books. Could you please describe your writing practice?
LHB: I’m a daily writer, but not always associated with any particular project—I blog or journal or make notes of story possibilities and outlines, interspersed with actual work on a manuscript (of which I may have two going at the same time). I also research (a lot) when I’m writing historical fiction—to avoid anachronisms and make the story as realistic as possible. I have to say I’m dedicated to the craft of writing but not structured in my approach.
You’ve had a satisfying writing career by publishing your own books. Can you tell us about your other books that came before this one, and how you came to publish your own work?
I have been writing short stories and novels since I was 11 years old, but (until 2011) was never satisfied with the endings – I found them trite or unrealistic. I’m not a fantasy writer (although I admire authors who are), so realism is of utmost importance for me. It wasn’t until I developed the story for Embracing the Elephant that I happened upon a realistic story with (what I believe is) a great ending. Once that came to me, the rest was easy AND I haven’t struggled with endings so much—it was a breakthrough of the best kind. I approached a few agents with Embracing the Elephant (a historical novel set during the California Gold Rush), and had a few “nibbles” but ultimately nothing came of that. In the meantime a friend of mine who once worked for Penguin and Random House recommended self-publishing—because of the creative freedom. While I am still looking for an agent (and a big publishing house, with all of the publicity resources they bring to the table), I am happy to have been able to publish the works I have so far.
How did writing fiction pave your way toward nonfiction?
The fiction is fun and satisfying and stretches my creativity, but An Ordinary Tragedy may be the book I was meant to write all my life (because of its personal and cathartic nature). In my fiction, I hope to entertain. In this nonfiction, I hope to help other families understand how harmful some dynamics can be—even when they aren’t meant to harm.
An Ordinary Tragedy is an unusual work because it’s a family memoir, focusing not so much on your own experience but penetrating the mystery around a family member’s life. How did shifting the focus from you to a biographical profile about your brother affect your writing (make it easier/more difficult, etc.)?
I never intended to write a book about myself—it was always going to be about Scott. It took me only three months to write An Ordinary Tragedy, but 35 years to conceive and ten years to research, mold, and structure. The structure was the hardest part because I couldn’t believe I had been living with a sociopath or psychopath all those years and not known it – Scott just never fit into that profile. I was convinced he was trouble, but not mentally ill. When I came across the behavioral description of a boy with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (in the Fall of 2015), the structure of the book just fell into place. That boy behaved like Scott. That was when I knew how to present Scott to the world—and the writing just flowed. It was never about me.
You did some interviewing for this book. What tips do you have for nonfiction writers/memoirists when it comes to researching their books and deciding what to keep or cut?
I think the process for deciding what to keep or cut works the same for fiction as for nonfiction. If it doesn’t move the story along or provide some crucial insight into a character, it isn’t worth keeping. I have some great memories of childhood that never made it into the book because they provided no background or understanding as it related to my parents or my brothers or me.
You touch on several sensitive moments in your family’s past and also share others’ reactions to events in your lives. How did you deal with potential sensitivity of your family to the revealing of these events and emotions?
I let critical family members and anybody whose full name I used read (or offered to let them read) an early draft. I had been articulating the story with my mom at least a year ahead of publication. Verbal at first. Then, when I gave her the draft, I warned her that everything we’d spoken about would come across different in print. I told her she could correct anything I got wrong, but she couldn’t change something just to make herself or others “look better.” I offered to let my younger brother read the account, but he said “I trust you.” My uncle read it, because I’m not always kind to his mom (my maternal grandmother)—and told me I’d captured my grandmother’s personality perfectly. None of Scott’s friends asked that I change their names (to protect the innocent). Because of this reaction, I think I got it right.
Do you have any new writing projects on your desk?
I do! They are all works of fiction—two a continuation of the Embracing the Elephant saga and the third a modern day tale inspired by a true event. Right now I’m struggling with ways to promote all of the existing books, but the writing is what drives me!
Is there anything else you want to say about the writing world today, or advice for a newbie who wants to publish?
Don’t overlook the difficulty of getting your book noticed. Getting a book published is fun and exciting—then you have to get the word out that it exists, and that’s the hardest part of all. I’m still looking for effective ways to introduce myself and my work to new audiences!
Marie Valentine specializes in editing family memoirs, with more than fifteen years of experience.