Assay@NFN15: Crime Into Story

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Peter Doyle, Laura Gray-Rosendale, and Dennis Mohr

Panel description: “Crime makes story. Whether it’s simple recounting of facts or the deep exploration of motive, psyche, desire, place and event, crime is at the centre of much contemporary writing. Crime is the point at which things fall apart. Crime narratives are routinely denounced as mendacious, exploitative or plain unseemly. Yet crime into story can sometimes enact the most transcendent literary, cultural and ethical values. Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (1965), Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Sarah Koenig’s and Julie Snyder’s Serial (2014) play with aesthetic forms at the same time attracting questions concerning the ethics of practice. Crime stories can be very good, or very bad. Or both simultaneously. This panel brings together a diverse range of international practitioners to explore the opportunities and pitfalls, the legalities, ethics, and practicalities of creating narrative from real criminal cases. Among the questions we will address include: What happens when crime becomes story? What goes right, what can go wrong? When is it art and when is it exploitation, and does the difference even matter? Does the fact that it makes a rattling good yarn always justify the telling?

Dennis Mohr: Mohr explored the cultural significance of mugshots in his film, Mugshot. What do mugshots tell us about ourselves? That criminals often look like us. He also reviewed the recent trend to bend “public shaming” into business through mugshot websites. “We have an insatiable appetite for bad news and bad boys,” he contended while scrolling through new business websites to remove (for a fee) mugshots from the internet. Although still held to the rule in our society that we are all “innocent until proven guilty,” he also made the case for mugshots as a version of proof: “When the shutter clicks, you’re in trouble.”

Mohr is a documentary film maker, director, and producer @dmohr67

Laura Gray-Rosendale: Gray-Rosendale explored the communal sharing of trauma. Researching the circumstances around a heinous act committed against her, she had few tools available. Police and witness statements (including her own) were riddled with multiple errors, from typos to perspective. While struggling to find the truth of what happened to her, she realized nearly 25 years later that her roommates were also unrecognized victims of the crime. Her book, College Girl, explores these themes.

Gray-Rosendale teaches at Northern Arizona University. College Girl was published by Suny Press in 2013. For more information, visit http://www.sunypress.edu/p-5672-college-girl.aspx.

Peter Doyle: Doyle spent extensive time researching the forensic photography archives at the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney, which informed much of his work. He shared images which fell into several categories including, “the crime scene” and the “forensic sublime” which he subtitled, “Men in Suits Looking at Stuff.” He reminded us of subjects to look at for inspiration: the back door, the alley, the space under the veranda. Doyle also called attention to the juxtaposition between police investigating crime (in the photos, quite conservative) and the sometimes avant-garde world in which crimes takes place. He left us with the chilling reminder that “nothing good will be in the center of a crime scene photo taken at night.”

Doyle teaches at MacQuire University in Australia. He is the author of nonfiction books including City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs, 1912-1948, and Crooks Like Us (2009). His latest novel is The Big Whatever (2015).

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Stacy (S.A.) Murison is an MFA candidate studying Creative Nonfiction at Northern Arizona University under the direction of Nicole Walker. Her work has appeared recently in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency — “How to Hide from Your Friends at a Restaurant.” Follow Stacy: @caseystay

Editor’s Note: Stacy (S.A.) Murison was an incredible, beautiful force at NonfictioNOW, and we would personally like to thank her for all she did to make everyone feel so welcome in Flagstaff, Arizona. Thank you, Stacy!

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