Last year, Portland writer Sarah Marshall made headlines with a piece in the Believer, "Remote Control," which dared to ask if infamous Portlander Tonya Harding and her public image were two different things. We'll be running a lengthy conversation with Marshall in our spring arts guide, but it would be impossible to include all of the things we talked about, which ran a healthy gamut from ladies figure skating to serial killers of the Pacific Northwest to Twin Peaks to pink pepper spray (arguably the best kind). Here are a few things Sarah Marshall told me about Tonya Harding, murder, Wallace Stevens' day job, and how morbid curiosity might make you a better person:
MERCURY: You've written a lot about Tonya Harding, but have you ever had a Tonya Harding sighting?
SARAH MARSHALL: No. I mean the thing about Tonya is that I think she’s this Northwest figure who everyone seems to have seen but me. I’ve met like 10 people who have been like, "Yeah, I used to go to this bar were Tonya Harding would do karaoke," or "I used to see her in my neighborhood in Milwaukie," or, my friend waited on her in a restaurant, and I feel like I’m Mulder, you know, and I’m talking to all these people who saw this thing that I want to see, and I’m like, why don’t I get to run into Tonya Harding? But everyone else has, yeah.
You also write a lot about serial killers. Can we talk about that?
I can! I’m writing about serial killers right now—not at this moment, but yeah, I’m researching, actually, this case of a couple of Canadian serial killers, called Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, that was also a big media sensation in Canada in 1995, because that was when his trial happened, and there was a Canadian press gag at the time, so the Americans were getting the news, but they didn’t really care; the Canadians wanted the news but they couldn’t get it.
There’s something about growing up in the Pacific Northwest... You have this strange relationship with just knowing about serial killers. I don’t have an explanation for why.
I’m really interested in answering that, because I think it is a Northwest identity thing… At some point in your life as a girl or as a young woman, you’re going to find that "It could have been me" story... What else? Another thing I've been thinking about, researching this project, because it's been very intensive... is this idea that if you get too into true crime or into trying to understand the mind of a killer, then you will become infected in some way, and they will reach out to you and may change you and the whole like Hannibal-Will Graham super-empathy thing, and I was thinking about that, and I honestly think that being kind of obsessed with true crime for 10 years has made me a better person.
I think so, yeah. Because I’ve had to think about how to handle topics sensitively when I write about them. And I've had to think about... how to implicate myself in my writing and think about why I'm interested in something, and to really attempt to cultivate empathy with every party that I write about, and I think if you write about crime in a meaningful way, you kind of have to push your empathy to its farthest boundary... Because I empathize with Ted Bundy. I don't sympathize with him. I don’t feel sorry for him, or think that he had any justification for what he did. But I can try and imagine what it’s like to be a sociopath, what is it like to have no meaningful human relationships—how do you kind of navigate that hell? I think that would be a hellish existence, and I think [differentiating] identifying the reason from identifying an excuse... I think that it can make you a better person as opposed to a pale, obsessive, scary person.
You write fiction on the side but you're also going to be starting a Ph.D. There isn't a lot of precedence for writers [working in academia] who do more than one thing, I've found. I don't know—there's someone like Maggie Nelson, who's an academic who also writes poetry and boundary-pushing work, and then, you know, every single genre-tracked MFA program in the country.
I always talk about Wallace Stevens. Wallace Stevens was an insurance claims adjustor, and also a poet.