Craft Corner: The Millions Interviews Emma Copley Eisenberg

April 20, 2020 | 1 11 min read

Emma Copley Eisenberg’s The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia was released in January to rave reviews. NPR called it “a masterful work of journalism,” and Melissa del Bosque agreed in her New York Times review: “In the end, The Third Rainbow Girl is not just a masterly examination of a brutal unsolved crime, which leads us through many surprising twists and turns and a final revelation about who the real killer might be. It’s also an unflinching interrogation of what it means to be female in a society marred by misogyny.” It’s a fascinating, dense, and ambitious project that manages to simultaneously work as investigative journalism, true crime, memoir, cultural criticism, and a social history of Appalachia—specifically, Pocahontas County, W.V., where Eisenberg worked after college and where the Rainbow Murders, as they became known, occurred in 1980.

I was excited to talk with Eisenberg and learn how she had approached an undertaking of this size and complexity.

The Millions: Emma, I’ve admired your short fiction for a while, a form with which, in my estimation, you have a great deal of facility. How do you feel your short story/fiction chops informed your work on this project? And, related: as someone best known for, and perhaps most comfortable, working in short fiction, did you have any trepidation about working in the realm of journalism/true crime/creative nonfiction?

Emma Copley Eisenberg: Thanks! I love fiction, particularly short fiction; it’s my first love, my first language. I tried to write this book as fiction at first, but it just didn’t work. I realized pretty quickly that because I’m not from the place where these events took place and where the camera of the book is looking, my imagination would not be able to supply the bone deep details and insights required to tell this story well and truthfully.

In many ways, this book has its roots in genre trouble. I was getting my MFA in fiction at the University of Virginia when I began writing this book and a few things happened around the same time, all in November of 2014. One, I was having a crisis of belief in “fiction”—did it demand a kind of “coherence” that falsely smoothed over and story-ified the bumps of real life? Two, Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” article came out, throwing UVA’s campus into turmoil. Three, a black student-led protest in response to the failure to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown drew local white supremacy out into the open in Charlottesville. And four, two young women—one white and cis, one black and trans—went missing and were later considered murdered to vastly different community and law enforcement results.

Many of my fellow fiction MFA students seemed to feel these events had nothing to do with them. But I felt I could not go into my room and write from my imagination at that moment. I wanted to participate, in some way, so I opened the door to nonfiction. To be fair, I had also already worked in two alt weekly newsrooms by then, where I had learned the fundamentals of reporting and fact checking. Once the door was opened to nonfiction, what would become The Third Rainbow Girl came tumbling out.

I didn’t think about it as in a particular genre at that point, like journalism or true crime. I just kept letting the sentences pile up. But it quickly became clear that the information I would need to tell this story did not exist on the Internet or in my brain, it lived only with real people and in documents that belonged to real people. Reporting is really just calling people and asking them questions, so I set about doing it. One thing led to another, naturally.

And also: I was absolutely terrified! But most of the terror came later, when I realized and realized again the responsibilities tied to writing nonfiction that we do not attach to fiction, and navigated again and again my positionality as an 85 percent outsider, 15 percent insider to the place. There were a lot of moments of being scared to pick up the phone or send the email, but then I would do it.

I think my fiction training shows up a lot in the book. First of all, I love sentences and playing with language and cramming lowbrow and highbrow words into the same sentence. When I first started writing the book I was writing in “serious nonfiction voice” where I was like “As he perambulated the cobblestone path, an innovative concept appeared in his brain.” I thought that’s what reported nonfiction should sound like. But that’s bad writing! And boring! And then I remembered that I knew how to write sentences and things improved. Also scenes and dialogue. My fiction skills really served me well in taking trial transcript and making it into a scene with human interest and desire.

Once I started working on nonfiction, my fiction improved tremendously; basically all the fiction I’ve published to date was written while I was also writing The Third Rainbow Girl. I think this is because I was trying to tackle big questions of class and race and sexuality in my fiction but it came out clumsy and didactic. Once I had a place to really probe those questions elsewhere, my fiction became so much more fluid, playful, and strange.

TM: Building off that last question, can you talk about the tremendous pressure in writing a book like this, involving a real case with real victims and suspects, to “get the story right” in a sense that doesn’t exist in creating fiction? (In my fiction, I’m personally tremendously unconcerned with factuality and only really care about not being obviously wrong, and reading your book it struck me what a luxury this is.) Did you find this to be the case? And if so, how did it impact the imaginative process?

ECE: Yes, I absolutely felt this pressure, as all writers of nonfiction about real people should. For about the first three years or so of the project I just interviewed, read, wrote, interviewed, read, wrote, listened listened listened. I racked up all this material and felt I was drowning in it. Every time I thought I “had it right,” I would talk to someone new and they would say, “Oh no, that’s not it at all.” Ultimately, right before we sold the book, I realized that was what the book was about—the fact that the story of these crimes and this place have been told so many times and it’s never all the way true. There were two alleged witnesses to the crime who put men in jail with their testimony whose accounts do not include that the other witness was even there. There’s a statement that both suspect and investigator swore the other wrote. Fact itself, storytelling itself, contradiction and multiplicity, these things became the center of my book rather than its periphery, not out of my imagination but because the material and the “truth” demanded that it be so.

That’s one thing I think I learned: that the creative process for fiction and nonfiction is very different. In fiction, there may be (should be) some surprise coming from the elements, the sentences as they are written, but in (good) nonfiction it’s like 100 percent surprise. There are so many things you did not know you didn’t know. Something happens and everything you’ve done up to that point is worthless. It’s very exciting and humbling and woke me up to the hugeness of other people and information and truths I could not ever have created myself.

Then, during the fact-checking process, there were things I found I’d made up or embellished for the sake of scene or coherence as you would in fiction and my wonderful fact checker caught them and I took them out. (Note: nonfiction books are not fact checked by publishers, if you want to be confident everything in your book is factually correct you must hire your own fact checker at your own expense. Because of this, many books are never fact checked). It was interesting to see that my fiction brain could not totally be turned off.

The Millions: One thing that I think is true of almost all full-length books, whether fiction or nonfiction, and regardless of genre, is that they are an exercise in world-building. And part of the challenge of writing a book is figuring out what the boundaries of that world are; or, put another way, I feel like when you understand the boundaries, you often understand the book. The Third Rainbow Girl is such a capacious story, concentric rings of stories, really, that include the crime and investigation, the victims, the suspects, West Virginia, Appalachia, our national history, and your own life—how did you figure out the boundaries of the book?

ECE: Oh dear, indeed! How did I? I really didn’t understand the boundaries for a while, I would say for about three years. As you say it’s a huge story that kept sprawling and my process was very open and organic. My agent, the excellent Jin Auh, read many drafts and refused to take the book out one moment before I knew what it was and for that I am very grateful. I do a little writers festival each May in southern West Virginia in honor of Grace Paley, and in the May of 2017, I sat on this beautiful swath of land near where I used to live there and felt as stuck and mixed up about the book as I ever had. It felt out of control and a mess and I worried it had no story and never would. So I decided to just make a list of everything I knew to be absolutely true, whether it be about the community, the crimes, me in the place, anything. The result was “True Things,” the list that became the book’s prologue, and the thing that convinced my agent the book was ready for sale. That list came to serve as a kind of true north for me, which may be something similar to the boundaries of the project.

The Millions: As mentioned, you include a great deal of your life in this book—it is arguably as much a memoir of your time working for VISTA in West Virginia and living there, as it is true crime. Can you talk a little bit about the way this project presented itself and evolved? To put it simplistically: did it feel like a memoir that started drawing in elements of nonfiction, or nonfiction that started drawing in elements of memoir, or did both sides evolve more or less synchronously in the writing process?

ECE: There are seven parts to the book, my personal story is present in two of them. After I moved away from Pocahontas County, I felt haunted and confused by things I’d done and witnessed and just also super homesick, if you can be homesick for a place you’re not from. It’s the most beautiful place on earth. So there was always some introspective writing, mostly notes towards essays that I was working on in the years 2011 to 2013. But when I began working on the project that would become The Third Rainbow Girl, I thought I was writing a purely reported and researched narrative about Pocahontas County and what became known as “The Rainbow Murders.” But as may be clear by now, I’m not a pure journalist, finding out the answers to factual questions has never been compelling to me, and I knew there were so many aspects to the crimes that would never be fully answered, that could not be fully answered by a purely factual accounting. I felt I needed another element to the book, something that could both offer context to the place where the crimes took place and supply the emotional truth that facts, and particularly legal and law enforcement facts, sometimes lack.

The things I read about the case, the way women in the county got shafted when it came to power and possibility but also were able to survive and connect in much higher numbers than men, and the way some of the men accused of the crimes seemed to carry a particular kind of guilt that seemed to be related amorphously to their bad treatment of women felt familiar, rhymed and resonated with my own experiences as a person living in Pocahontas County. I’d driven that road that used to have a grocery store on it but it was gone now, I’d drank and played music on that mountain where Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero were killed.

Further, it was important to me not to portray Pocahontas County, W.V., as a place from the past, a historical place, a place where only old and bad things happen. People were thriving and working and struggling in contemporary West Virginia and contemporary Appalachia, though their lives are inexorably tied to, and connected by, their particular history. I wanted a way to talk about how West Virginia is actually a way more politically liberal state than Virginia by most measures, and that Pocahontas County has the highest concentration of crazy talented musicians of any place I’ve ever lived, and the trans guy who’d been a student at the nonprofit where I worked and was still making sense of his time there. I also wanted to talk about the Appalachian diaspora, that so many people from Appalachia don’t live there, and that there are also a lot of people like me—not quite from, not quite away—whose experiences don’t fit neatly inside the insider/outsider boxes. To do all this in the most straightforward and honest sense, I eventually realized that I had to include my own experiences in the book.

The Millions: On that note, I think a really interesting thematic aspect of The Third Rainbow Girl is the consideration of queerness vis-à-vis West Virginia (which, as the book points out, has the highest transgender rate in country). Despite an image people might have of macho coal-mining hillbillies, West Virginia is a diverse place, and one that can also be “read” as a very queer place—full of learned codes of behavior and communication, as well as a sense of belonging strongly informed by its existence outside mainstream American culture. I’m interested in other ways that your time in West Virginia and your exploration of this case might have affected your sense of yourself (and vice versa: the ways your evolving sense of personal identity may have affected/informed your view of West Virginia).

ECE: Thanks for this reading, it was important to me that people see that dimension to the state. West Virginia may be the queerest place I’ve lived in some ways, for just these reasons of coded speech and code switching you describe. Appalachian people are queer in this country; they must literally change their ways of speaking and being to be accepted by mainstream America, as a recent episode of the podcast Dolly Parton’s America points out so beautifully.

I came to West Virginia as a very recently out queer person who was very excited and fired up about feminism and queer theory. I often say Pocahontas County rewired my brain, and its true. I learned there about the ways class intersects with queerness and gender and renders most of the theories I learned in classrooms wholly irrelevant. I participated in real and difficult conversations, sexual encounters, and social encounters, and all of them left me questioning and changed. I saw the way that it is so easy to hide in the costume of heterosexuality if you are even a little bit straight and how having that option afforded me love, community, and access that those without it did not have. I saw how complicated the bonds of family and community were, often trumping (pun intended) all supposed political affiliations. Just because you vote for a white supremacist misogynist (which actually not that many West Virginians did, let us recall) doesn’t mean you won’t stick your neck out at a family picnic for your queer child or show up at your biracial cousin’s house when you’re needed. Things are so much more complicated than colors on a map. That insight has stuck with me and influenced my identities in countless ways—not only will I never jump aboard the band wagon of blaming “poor white people” for Trump’s election (The facts do not bear this out!)—but I am also suspicious of any sweeping liberal opinion that demands absolute fealty or belief. If the queers in my neighborhood all believe one thing absolutely, you can count on me to be very suspicious of it and be researching it late at night. Nothing, I have learned, is ever all the way true.

The Millions: I’m always interested in thinking about process. Having successfully written, revised, and brought The Third Rainbow Girl to publication are there things that, if you had to do it again, you would approach differently? Or put another way, if you were to write another nonfiction book, are there lessons from writing this that you feel you could use?

ECE: I’m almost certain I’ll never write another nonfiction book again, or at least not one at all resembling The Third Rainbow Girl. This story was unique, it came into my life when I was very young and held me hostage; writing it has made me into a different person and there will never be another like it.

If I were to write this book again, I’d do two things differently. Firstly, I think I worked very hard and stressed a lot about thinking through my own positionality as a middle-class educated person not from West Virginia who was writing this story, but I perhaps did not interrogate myself enough when it came to being a memoirist. I was so focused on making sure everything in the account was true and ethical and substantively contributed to the larger story I wanted to tell, that I perhaps did not prepare myself for the personal and intimate revelations that memoir often brings.

Secondly, I wish I had known how psychologically grueling a book that deals with this kind of darkness would be on my mind and body. I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night for about two years. At times I was enraged, and at times I was very sad. Meeting other writers who have gone on similar journeys with their books since mine has come out has been incredibly reassuring that this process is okay, even normal for the material. But how I wish I had known that upfront!

The Millions: I like to end these interviews with one incredibly dumb question. Are you a morning, daytime, or nighttime writer?

ECE: Mostly morning, I need to get those good hours where people haven’t sent me too many emails yet and before the anxiety kicks in. But if I’m honest, many of my best ideas and sentences still happen in the night, somewhere between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. There’s a sign I keep by my bed that says “Trust no thought had after 10 p.m.,” which weeds out most of the truly bonkers stuff, but if something gets through during those hours, it’s usually a true keeper.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

One comment:

  1. This too is so fantastic!( I just wrote a previous comment)
    Thank you for bringing up the fact that working class white people were not the big Trump supporters that people imagine, forgetting that many small-business people also lack college degrees. But thank you also for continuing the theme of complexity instead of Dogma. I’m very grateful for The Millions today

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