In less than a year, I wrote two books. In the midst of that, my sister died, my husband contracted a bone infection, and another loved one had a meltdown of sorts.
Then, after meeting an extremely stressful deadline, I found I couldn’t write. It’s been a month now and my fingers have finally found their way back to the keyboard for more than a random email, tweet, Instagram photo, or Facebook post.
Part of the problem is having my husband in the hospital since February. Not continually, but in and out since then, beginning with a 10-hour visit to the emergency department. We’ve been to the hospital so many times since then I’m thinking of reserving a room there. (In fact, I’ve got a length of soft blue fabric that matches his eyes, from which I could fashion a lovely window dressing in no time.)
The last year has roared by at warp speed, while simultaneously seeming like it would never end. I felt like Princess Buttercup meets Scheherazade, where events conspired to tangle me up in one mess after another, all while writing two books in what turned out to be about six months. Looking back that feels like an exaggeration, but in reality much of the research to write Skylar’s book took three or four months. Only then could the writing process begin. (To be fair, I have a coauthor, but today’s blog is about how the last year affected me.)
Along the way, one emergency after another kept cropping up, among them a family member’s brush with the law, which led me to seek psychiatric care—for them, not me. (Although truth be told, by now I could probably benefit from such care myself.)
If I wasn’t talking to shrinks or orthopedic doctors or police detectives or undertakers in my professional time, I was doing so on my personal dime. It’s amazing how so many events in my real life ran parallel to those in the book I was writing. There were police investigations, mental illness and drug use to worry about, both on and off the clock. They say art imitates life, but in this case my life mimicked art.
That art was true-crime, and The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese was released as an ebook in February. It was designed to allow people to follow Shelia Eddy’s murder trial. Then Eddy pleaded guilty, leaving no trial—and little time to unearth anything else for the print book, Pretty Little Killers, which will be out in July. (Amazingly, quite we unearthed quite a bit, in the form of at least 100 more pages that makes this book finally feel finished.)
Then somehow, sandwiched between my day job and my home life, I had to board a plane and fly 3,000 miles to Los Angeles to appear on the Dr. Phil show. That episode contains enough memories to create at least a short story. One of them involves my 3 a.m. airport run where, after flashing my high beams at a driver who was blocking the passing lane, I found myself being chased up I-79. Though the interstate was fairly deserted, every time I passed another vehicle, the enraged driver kept creeping closer to my bumper. I watched my speedometer climb higher and higher, until the gauge read 90 m.p.h. I tried to call 911.
Only nothing happened when I used my car’s hands-free device. Instead, an automated female voice kept repeating: “Phone is not in range.” Eyes glued to the road, my free hand fumbled around inside my purse, feeling for a phone that wasn’t there. In the haste to make my flight, I forgot it.
The egomaniac was still tailing me when I reached Washington, Pennsylvania, so I took the first exit. When I returned to the highway he was gone. I managed to make it to the airport and through security but as I hurried to my gate I heard myself being paged over the intercom. I was the last passenger to board, but I made my flight.
After landing in Los Angeles and being driven to my hotel, I ate a quick dinner and fell asleep. In the morning, I rode to Paramount Studios with Mary and Dave Neese. As I sat in the audience at the show, I realized everyone on stage looked fuzzy, including Dr. Phil. That’s because the crew had me remove my glasses for the camera. In hindsight, I should have left them on because it felt really weird not being able to see. Still, I was a bit dazzled when Dr. Phil held up a copy of our book.
Forty-eight hours later my fifteen minutes of fame was behind me and I was back home, writing again. Somewhere between rewriting chapter thirty and nailing down a new ending there were other media appearances and time needed to care for publicity matters, all of the extras you never think about when you sit down to pen a book.
It was a daunting task, to say the least, but not an impossible one. Essentially, I had to take the rumors we knew, add the facts revealed at the sentencing hearings for Shelia Eddy and Rachel Shoaf, and see if everything when added together equaled a motive for murder.
At the last minute, the deadline looming, I created a makeshift workspace outside of my husband’s hospital room where he was being treated for osteomyelitis. There, for one solid week, I wrote and rewrote and conducted at least four more interviews—one inside my new, temporary office, the rest away from the hospital—leaving various friends to babysit my husband while I drove to see the people who promised to reveal new details about Skylar’s murder.
After publication, seeing our “baby” find its way to publication and then land at number 12 on the New York Times best-seller list was just the icing on the cake. In the end, like Scherazade, I overcame the turmoil and rescued myself—but not without a little help from my friends, who dropped off food and coffee and provided emotional support and editorial encouragement and never stopped asking: “What can I do to help?”
Throughout this entire time the most important lesson I have learned, in the words of one of the dearest of them, is that writing a book isn’t unlike rearing a child: it takes a village.
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Editor’s note: Berry and Geoff Fuller teamed up in 2013 to write the authorized version of this story. BenBella Books released The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese February 18. You can also find it on iTunes and Barnes and Noble. Amazon readers have given it 4.6 stars.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of silence, watch Berry’s TEDx talk, given April 13 at Connecticut College, live. Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”