Writing Biographies: The writing of When You Find My Body
When You Find My Body
There is no doubt about it; if you want to learn nearly everything there is about a person, write about them. If you want to be as intimate with the subject as possible without ever actually meeting them, write their biography.
I read somewhere once that the most important thing you can do as a biographer is to write from the heart and to write only about someone for whom you have deep feelings. The suggestion was, I suppose, that if you care deeply about someone—negatively or positively—then so will the readers. If you care less about the subject and write only for money, the readers will likely not finish the book. If all that’s true, I’m in luck. I can only write from the heart.
My latest book, When You Find My Body, is listed as “Biography, Non-fiction” genre. While it is not a detailed, in-depth biography of Geraldine Largay, who was lost in Maine on her Appalachian Trail hike and sadly perished, it does cover in some detail her most endearing qualities, of which there were many. What was interesting, and still is, was the process of the writing. Beyond the normal writing processes of research, drafting, editing, and re-writing, there were the relationships made along the way.
I write by ear, and as I said, from the heart; the rest of the body and the brain just seems to tag along, like a trusting puppy who simply wants to be a part of things. If the subject matter is interesting, and the work is put in with diligence, the stories seem to come out okay. With any luck at all, the writing process proves to be more about the journey than the arrival, just as with a good road trip. But in writing When You Find My Body, the journey took on a heart and soul of its own.
I wrote in the book that often hikers on the Appalachian Trail embark seeking solitude, only to find that community is the thing—that the relationships they forge along the way serve to shape them as individuals. Some relationships, even brief encounters, change the hikers for a lifetime. Gerry Largay died on her Appalachian Trail quest, but before she did, she touched the lives of many she met. She laughed, and she joked. She reminisced, complained and lamented…yet she never stopped smiling. Until she got lost.
As a writer, I forged my relationship with Gerry through those close to her, which is to be expected, but the friends I made along the way are precious still. My friend Doug Comstock, whom I had known for some months before starting the research, helped me immensely and became more of a research assistant. We shared some poignant moments, and our friendship grew in the sharing of information gleaned from the exploration. We shared insights and moments that didn’t make it into the book or were removed during the editing. I was blessed to meet Dottie Rust, who took the last photograph of Gerry as she left Poplar Ridge Shelter on the trail, and her husband Mark, whom I took a liking to immediately.
While I have not yet met Dottie’s hiking companion, Regina Clark, we have spoken and written numerous times — as she poured her heart out in correspondence. In total, I met, interviewed, or corresponded with sixteen people who met Gerry along the trail. All were fond of her.
Then there was Betty-Anne Schenk, “B.A.,” as Gerry referred to in emails and letters; Gerry’s lifelong, childhood friend. Some of those conversations were difficult. I spoke with others who new Gerry as a younger woman. I even tracked down Betty Anne and Gerry’s Girl Scout Troop. There were those friends and acquaintances who simply could not speak about the loss of Gerry.
The Maine Game Wardens were helpful — though some more than others. But the important ones discussed the search for Gerry. Lieutenant Kevin Adam, the man in charge of the search and rescue efforts in Maine, was giving of his time, which is precious to him, I’m sure.
I was fortunate to speak with Lieutenant Commander J. D. Walker (Ret), who, when the search for Gerry was underway, was in charge of the Navy’s training facility located nearby to where she became lost. We plan to play golf together. J. D. led me, thank God, to Dennis Haug, a former Navy survival and search and rescue expert who was a team leader for one of the Navy teams who combed the woods along the AT searching for the lost hiker. We keep in touch still and hope to go hiking this summer with Doug.
Gerry and her husband George’s friends in the Atlanta area are planning a “final farewell” get-together this coming June or July. I’ve been invited and time permitting, will attend.
Just as with any long-distance trip, writing Gerry’s saga was more about the experiences than the destination. I find it interesting and in some strange way comforting that six years after her death on the Appalachian Trail, Gerry Largay is still pulling people together and creating friendships. She’d like that.