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Haunted: Michael Mewshaw on his 'Lying With the Dead'

November 14, 2009 |  8:10 am

Michael Mewshaw

Will Michael Mewshaw ever slow down? At age 66, Mewshaw continues to be productive as a novelist, book reviewer, travel writer, investigative journalist and tennis reporter. "Lying With the Dead," his 11th novel, has just appeared (his 19th book, "Between Terror and Tourism," will be published this winter). And yet, NPR's Alan Cheuse has called him “the best novelist in America that nobody knows.”  If that’s true, then it must be said that Mewshaw has been hiding in plain sight. In the course of a varied career, the experiences Mewshaw has had are quite unique, as he suggests: “I’ve played basketball with Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving, played tennis against Roy Emerson and spent two weeks in Rome with Sharon Stone when she starred in the film of my novel, 'Year of the Gun' -- and I never scored with any of them.” Jacket Copy talked to Mewshaw on the occasion of his new novel and its relationship to his past.

"Lying With the Dead" has the feel of a novel with deep personal meaning.  You end with an afterword connecting it to incidents from your childhood.

All my novels have personal meaning for me. But while the Dresbach murders, which directly touched my family and which I wrote about in "Life for Death" in 1980, can be seen as the genesis of "Lying With the Dead," it would be wrong to read the book as autobiography. Rather than a factual account, it’s a meditation on possibilities, a reflection on the impact of similar events on different characters.

The mother in "Lying With the Dead" seems frighteningly real. Where did she come from?

A much different place than my biological mother. The fictional Mom came from my imagination. The character in the book isn’t my mother, any more than the character of Candy is my sister. In real life, I had polio as a kid. In the novel, Candy’s life is defined by the disease. That’s how fiction works, through a process of selection and rearrangement.

Still, there are the murders from your childhood. Why go back to them?

I’ve never really gone away from them. Murder, family turmoil, confusion about names and identities run through my books -- the nonfiction as well as the fiction. Call them themes, call them obsessions. I believe the Greeks had it right: Man hands on misery to man. But he hands on other things too: forgiveness, hope, redemption.

For all the references to Greek tragedy in "Lying With the Dead," there’s a lot to suggest you’re also a Catholic novelist.

Well, I’m Catholic and I write. But the category of "Catholic novelist" has never gained traction in the U.S.  In a 40-year career I’ve never been referred to as a Catholic writer. Maybe Catholicism has simply passed into midstream America, and its beliefs and rituals have lost any stigma -- which is a good thing -- yet have also lost any great resonance ... which is a shame if true.

Your work is divided between fiction and nonfiction, literature and journalism.  Did you plan it that way? Does one feed the other?

There was no plan. I published five novels and expected to continue teaching creative writing. But with "Life for Death," my first nonfiction book, I found a different way to make a living. In that sense, the nonfiction didn’t just “feed” my fiction. It fed my family. But I don’t want to leave the impression I did hackwork to pay the bills. I turned down some plum jobs that didn’t interest me. I refused to do a script for Goldcrest Films about Ali Agca, the Turk who shot Pope John Paul II, and backed out of a $150,000 deal as a ghostwriter for a top political advisor. But then, in 2008, for an advance barely big enough to cover expenses, I traveled overland across North Africa from Egypt to Morocco to do a book. What real writer wouldn’t want to do that when there’s supposed to be a clash of civilizations?

-- Desmond O'Grady

O'Grady's books include the novel "Dinny Going Down" and a travel book about Italy's Abruzzo region, "The Sybil, the Shepherd and the Saint."

Photo: Michael Mewshaw. Credit: Sharon Wohlmuth

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