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Books

November 21, 2013

The Not-So-Great Plains

Rachel Corbett digs into a mysterious murder-suicide—and into her vexed relationship with Iowa, her home state.

Craig Fehrman

Rachel Corbett grew up in Iowa, and in her Byliner Original A Killing in Iowa: A Daughter's Story of Love and Murder, she gets the place-based details exactly right—the "weather-paled barns," the "pragmatically named towns" (Round Lake, Lone Tree), the "isolated expanse of eastern Iowa flatness."

Rachel Corbett
Why did this man I thought I'd known so well—who I’d seen the very day he died—kill himself and kill somebody else?

Rachel Corbett

But Corbett's short ebook tackles more than just the Midwest. In 1993, and in the small town of Vinton (human population: 5,257; church population: at least 13), the local police officers discovered a grisly murder-suicide. But Corbett shared a personal connection to the crime, and years later she decided to investigate just how deep that went. A Killing in Iowa recounts that journey in 13,000 genre-warping words: memoir, history, true crime, and more.

What holds it together is Corbett's understanding of place—of how a senseless crime might make a little more sense when connected to "an economy that was hemorrhaging traditionally masculine jobs like factory and farm work."

One of the nice things about reading A Killing in Iowa on your Kindle is seeing that 35 other people liked that passage enough to highlight it. In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Corbett answered a few questions about Midwestern lit, beige modular housing, and how she figured out her newfangled e-medium.

Gelf Magazine: One thing I loved about your Single is that while it's a personal story ("A Daughter's Story") it still captures the perspectives of so many people around the key event. When did you go back to Iowa to report this? And when people asked what you were up to, what did you say? Was rural Iowa up on the rise of Byliner?

Rachel Corbett: My research began several years ago, long before I'd heard of Byliner or the "Single" format. I think I just introduced myself to sources as a writer and someone with a personal stake in the story. I found that people were, for the most part, unconcerned with how or where the story got published, and just wanted the same answers I did. I worked on the story for about a year and my agent ultimately suggested I pitch it to this new company he'd heard of called Byliner, who seemed to be doing interesting things with long-form journalism at a time when everyone thought the category was dying out.

Gelf Magazine: Your Single indulges in a bunch of great digressions—the history and topography of rural farms, for instance, and the science and psychology behind abusive relationships. Did the medium encourage that?

Rachel Corbett:The project began with a pretty straightforward, if difficult, question: Why did this man I thought I'd known so well—who I’d seen the very day he died—kill himself and kill somebody else? I had no plans to write about it at first, but because he left the most intractable suicide note, and because I could never fully know what happened with both he and the victim dead, I decided to do a little research. I began reading these horrendous statistics about how common suicide is, and even murder-suicide in particular, among this white, rural, male demographic, and more questions began to arise. The digressions about Iowa's natural history and the way isolation is built into the structure of the landscape flowed pretty organically because it's all part of the story of Scott's life and death.

Gelf Magazine: The Midwest has a better literary tradition than it's given credit for. Do you have any favorite regional writers? Did they shape A Killing in Iowa in any particular way?

Rachel Corbett:Indeed, and my hometown of Iowa City has a great literary tradition in particular because the Iowa Writers' Workshop is there, although many of those authors don't stick around, of course. When I was researching this story I read and loved Ian Frazier's Great Plains, and obviously In Cold Blood. Marilynne Robinson is tremendous and of course she set Gilead in Iowa. The book that had the most impact, however, was Mikal Gilmore's memoir of his brother Gary Gilmore, Shot in the Heart. It was set primarily in Utah, not the Midwest, but I’ve never read a more breathtaking account of how our bloodlines tie us to a place and people, and for some of us that means being bound to the wrong side of tragedy.

Gelf Magazine: How's your Single been received at home?

Rachel Corbett:A few people felt they came off a little more rube-like than they thought was fair. It's regrettable, but also probably an unavoidable reality of memoir.

Gelf Magazine: A Killing in Iowa often feels extremely bleak. You live in Brooklyn now, but do you miss anything about home?

Rachel Corbett: Absolutely. I can't recall a better view than the little slice of field and sky seen from my mother's kitchen window when we were growing up. But the floodlights from the new “Billion-Dollar” car lot down the street have faded out her stars and her night sky. And a beige modular-housing development quickly drained the field of all its color. But corporate sprawl is depressing anywhere you go.

Gelf Magazine: You're now working on a new project—a book about Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin that's forthcoming from Norton. Did writing a short sort-of-book help you land your new book deal?

Rachel Corbett: This will be my first book, so I don't think it hurt to be able to say that I’d written a long narrative before. I know that a couple of editors I met with did read the Byliner book while we were shopping this new one. I don’t know whether it ultimately made a difference, though.

Gelf Magazine: Well, what about for you personally? Does writing a book seem easier or less intimidating now that you've done a Single?

Rachel Corbett: It made me realize how hard long-form writing is. And how difficult it is to write about yourself. I’m excited to not be doing that anymore. Now I get to immerse myself in other people’s lives, in this case the two very fascinating lives of Rilke and Rodin, who happened to work together in Paris at the turn of the century. I can't wait.

Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.







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Article by Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.

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