Daniel Wallace explores mystery, obsession, tragedy and empathy in his new book
Daniel Wallace didn't always know he was going to tell stories. But early in life, he met someone who became a hero and something of a role model.
William Nealy was a cartoonist, mountain climber, a chronicler of rivers, a fossil hunter, snake keeper, private eye, a writer and much more. He would also go on to marry Wallace's sister. Then, at the age of 48, Nealy died by suicide.
The grief Wallace felt after that tragic event eventually led him to write a book about Nealy called "This Isn't Going To End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew."
It's a tribute, a memoir and a mystery. It also manages to be both heartbreaking and funny, and when you read it, you have to keep reminding yourself that it's non-fiction.
Wallace is the author if six novels, including "Big Fish." He joined WUNC recently to talk about his new book and more.
This is an excerpt of an edited transcript of that conversation. You can hear the full interview by clicking the LISTEN button at the top of this post.
You first set eyes on William Nealy when he was contemplating jumping off the roof of your parent's house in Alabama with the goal of landing in the swimming pool. I think you were 12 or so. Would it be fair to say you were starstruck? What was it about Nealy that caused you to idolize him?
"That's actually a great way to put it because like a star who wanders into your orbit, it changes the reality that you are living in. William, through this moment — where I was watching him jump off our roof — skewed the direction my life was going in until that point. I didn't know it at the moment, but you don't discover things about yourself until you really look back and investigate. And that was a seminal moment for me."
When you look back, and even in that moment, when he was contemplating that jump, what was it about William that drew you to him?
"I lived with my folks — a really wonderful middle class existence, where my path in life seemed prescribed. And his example was one that allowed me to see, 'Well, there are other ways to be in the world.' That was the beginning, at 12, of this possibility offered to me that I could be an artist. And I know that's a stretch from seeing somebody jump off the roof, but that's how it starts."
There's another fellow that comes into the story named Edgar Hitchcock, who disappears. When his body is discovered it kicked off an obsession for William and that's where the private eye side comes in. Edgar was William's best friend. What made him think he could solve the murder that police couldn't or wouldn't?
"William thought he could do anything, especially when it entered a darker, nefarious, paranoid world full of liars and murderers. He's at the top of his game. So, he moved — along with Holly — down to Birmingham, to work on solving this murder. And he met everybody. And he settled in on one suspect and focused on him for a year and actually presented evidence to the police, which allowed them to charge him with the crime.
"But again, that didn't work out the way that he wanted it to and was another reason why the decision to die by suicide was a lot easier for him to make.... His lover, his wife, being tortured by rheumatoid arthritis and then his best friend, murdered and justice not served — there was really too much and he thought as both of those things is his own failure."
About 10 years after William died, your sister Holly dies. You find photo albums and journals that outline their life together which you keep. You don't read them, at least not right away. What prompted you to begin that process?
"I had his journals for years. And it was like a secret that you know, you're going to tell someday but you don't know when and eventually, after a lot of soul searching, asking different authors what they would do, whether that was ethically okay, I started reading them, and discovered that William had created this false front for himself — a persona — which was, in many ways, the opposite of the one that he took with him inside. And it was this battle between the two of them, which made his life torturous. He wrote once in his journals, 'I must not let them see who I really am. They could not handle me.'
"And the truth was, he was the only one who couldn't handle himself. We could have, easily, because we loved him."
You were so mad at William for taking his own life. Which is not unusual. Did the story of the other William from his journals and suicide notes create some empathy in you?
"Absolutely. I think that the more you know about anybody else, the possibilities of empathy exists to a greater degree and reading about the interior life brought a greater understanding to what he had done, and made me feel that even though his suicide was a shock to everybody when it happened, it was actually an act of heroism that allowed him to live as long as he did.
"It gets into a different terrain when you talk about forgiveness. Because understanding doesn't always equate to forgiveness, at least in my experience. It takes it outside of that realm that allows you to kind of bestow human grace to someone who does something that is damaging to themselves. But the people who are left behind, their lives are changed forever. So, a reconciliation I guess, is the one way to put it."
Daniel Wallace is the author of "This Isn't Going To End Well." He's also the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.