Backstory

Authors tell you what inspired their work

Kim Reid, Author of No Place Safe: A Family Memoir

When I began No Place Safe: A Family Memoir, I didn't expect it to be a memoir at all. It was going to be me telling my mother's story of being a cop on a 1980s serial murder investigation. New to nonfiction, I wasn't sure if it should be a biography or a true crime story. Interviewing my mother helped me figure out exactly what story I was going to be telling. I also spent time looking through a box of files, notes and pictures she kept about the case, expecting someone eventually would write about it. She had hoped it would be me, but I resisted for years because I was a novelist, though I hadn't yet sold a novel.

That fact set me thinking about the case and the stories that might come of it. I'd been hell-bent on writing what I didn't know and so far, it hadn't helped me write a novel anyone wanted to read. Here was a story I knew well because I lived it, and had a perspective I hadn't found in other books written about the case. The thing that made me finally act was reading an excerpt from a fictionalized account of the investigation. It portrayed cops on the case as not especially concerned with solving the murders, and suggested a cover-up. That portrayal was so far from what I knew, I felt compelled to tell my version.

The interviews with my mother and my preliminary research shaped how I'd write the story. Everything I heard and read took me back to being thirteen years old, and I couldn't help synthesizing all the information through a thirteen-year-old's perspective of that time. So it became my story, though my mother is certainly a lead character.

With my perspective and voice decided, I had to figure out where to begin and end. With memoir, you already know how things go, but unlike autobiography, not everything goes into it. It was more difficult than I expected to find the right starting point. I originally opened with a present-day conversation with my mother about her partner on the case, who has always been adamant that the wrong man was convicted, even today from his own prison cell. In recent years, he had been an Atlanta area sheriff, but is now serving a life sentence for having his newly-elected successor killed.

It was a scintillating lede, but it had nothing to do with me being thirteen and living through a two-year-long serial murder case in which the victims looked and lived like me - a black kid growing up in Atlanta. Plus, I was having a hard time reconciling the person I knew back then with the man he is today, and decided I only wanted to have him in the story the way I remembered him.

So I cut that and started where the story really began for me - the summer of 1979, just before I started high school, when the first two victims were found. I didn't know it then, but it was the moment I left childhood behind. That's the beauty of memoir, the way time lets you view your life through two lenses -- the way you lived it then, and the way you understand it now.

Knowing where to end No Place Safe was just as difficult. I closed the story almost two years after it began, when Wayne Williams was arrested for one of the murders. I take only a brief look at the verdict. At book signings, people familiar with the investigation ask why I didn't continue through to the trial and conviction, since the case was recently in the news as Williams's defense team continues working to get DNA testing done that wasn't available in 1982. Perhaps because CSI stories are so popular on TV, readers want to know more about the carpet fibers and dog hair that was part of the evidence used to convict Williams.

I could have written about the trial phase because my mother was not only assigned to the homicide task force during the murders, she was a crime investigator on the district attorney's team that made the conviction. But like that original story beginning, the trial had little to do with the story I chose to tell, which is how a girl changes when her whole world does. My world changed during the time my mother helped search for a serial killer.

To find out more about Kim Reid, please visit her website.

(Photo credit: Eric Weber)


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