Sunday, May 13, 2007

Cleaning up the Aftermath: An Interview with Gil Reavill

Crime is big in our country, not only on the streets, but on the television as well. Nightly you can watch a CSI or Law & Order spin-off or catch any of the many other crime related dramas such as NCIS, Close to Home, or Criminal Minds. While many of these shows deal with the law aspects, CSI and NCIS tackle the crime scenes in all their bloody, stylized glory--Hollywood's take on what the end of someone's life looks like. These shows never deal with the after though. Who cleans up those bloated, week-old bodies and suicide splatters?

To this question, author Gil Reavill has the answer. He spent time working with the men behind Aftermath, Inc. a company that cleans the remains from crime scenes and works to find the best way to get blood out of the sub-flooring--jobs traditionally left to grieving families and church groups. He chronicled this time in his new nonfiction novel, Aftermath, Inc, about which PW said:

In this grisly, swaggering tale of gut-churning crime scenes and the men who clean them up after the forensics team is done, veteran true crime scribe Reavill (Beyond All Reason: My Life with Susan Smith) holds nothing back. From descriptions of crimes ("The fusillade of bullets tore through Johnson's body.... Blood, bits of flesh and bone fragments exploded everywhere") to hepatitis C "bleed-outs" ("All four walls of the bathroom looked like someone had taken a blood hose and turned it on them"), Reavill grabs the reader by the throat and doesn't let go. He follows the techs from Aftermath, Inc.—a bioremediation outfit in suburban Chicago—as they make the rounds of shotgun suicides, multiple murders and meth lab cleanups; dealing not only with the gross-out of the work but trying to stay sane doing it. While some black humor seeps in around the edges, Reavill mostly depicts a cadre of low-key, hardworking men doing a horrible job with respect and compassion. The narrative pace flags a bit in the last 50 pages when Reavill tries to connect Aftermath's work with larger moral issues, but otherwise, if anything can get CSI watchers to flip off the tube and pick up a book, this is it.

Gil, the husband of former guest columnist Jean Zimmerman, was kind enough to join me today to answer questions about his book, crime dramas, and what kind of publicity do you do for a book about cleaning up after the dead.

Bookseller Chick: Thanks for joining me, Gil. You've been a journalist, screenwriter, ghostwriter and the co-author of a parenting guide, how was writing Aftermath Inc different from your other projects?

Gil Reavill: In ghostwriting, which I’ve done a lot, I have a real sense of personal concealment. I’m not “me”; I’m the author to whom I’m giving voice. This is true to some degree in journalism and screenwriting as well. As a writer, I’ve always fooled around with voices and masks, with assuming other identities and characters, probably due to chicken-shit insecurities, false and otherwise. I’ve never been immersed in a subject to the degree I was working alongside the techs at Aftermath. At the same time, I’ve never been exposed personally in my writing to the degree I am in this book. I guess the two things — immersion and exposure — go together. Because I was immersed, because working with the techs remediating crime scenes had such
an immediate intensity, I didn’t have any option but to wear my emotions on my sleeve. Going into the project, I wanted to appear hard-boiled, cool (in the Marshall Mcluhan sense) and “objective.” I wanted to be Hammett’s Continental Op. But I discovered I was totally unable to front in that particular way. I found the material too challenging. I needed to process these intense, jittery personal experiences through my writing. There wasn’t any other choice. I had to be me, to paraphrase Sammy Davis, Jr. So the experience of Aftermath was different from my other writing in the sense it brought me out somewhat from behind my protective journalistic smoke screen.

B.S. Chick: Once upon a time I thought I could hack it as a coroner, but having read some of the crime scene descriptions in your book I'm pretty sure I would have lost my lunch on the first day. What compelled you to follow along with Tim, Chris and their crew on their jobs?

Gil: I did lose my lunch on the first day! Literally! I come from a rationalist, humanistic background. In theory, what I was encountering — death, blood, the muck of mortality — was the most human stuff there is. So in theory, I should have been able to handle it. I could have merely accompanied the crews as a passive observer. That’s what they expected. But I felt to do the experience justice I had to strap on a respirator, climb into some Tyvek and work alongside the people who do this for a living. A line I quote in the book is from the Latin poet Terence: “Nothing human is foreign to me.” I’ve paid that line a lot of lip service in my life. Aftermath was my chance to measure my commitment to it. And as it turned out, there is quite a damn bit that is human and utterly foreign to me. You live and learn. Or at least, you live.

B.S. Chick: Was there any point where you wished you hadn't?

Gil: Plenty of times. You know that old Tooter Turtle cartoon? “Help, Mr. Wizard! I don’t want to be a crime-scene clean-up guy anymore!” I often had that feeling, “Get me out of here.” Not only because of the gore, either. Some of the scenes I encountered had a wrenching commonness to them. Up close, some lives and most deaths seem sucked dry of all romance. It’s disheartening.

B.S. Chick: How was what you experienced different from what we see on the TV crime dramas like CSI or Law & Order?

Gil: It’s the difference between the city of Orlando and Disney World. A crime scene on TV is a pretty stylized thing. Advertisers don’t want directors to get too graphic. So you see a pile of blood here and a smear of blood there. A real crime scene is a lot more chaotic than that. Blood makes it around corners and bounces underneath doors; body fluids drip into the subflooring. Hitchcock has a line: “In films murders are always very clean. I show how difficult it is and what a messy thing it is to kill a man.” On the other hand, one thing I liked about going out on jobs was measuring the differences and similarities between the world of Gil Grissom and the world of Aftermath. I’d ask myself, How might Grissom handle this? But it was mostly just a mildly amusing game. Grissom is a character played by an actor. Like most of prime-time television, shows such as CSI or Law & Order give only the most perfunctory of nods to reality.

B.S. Chick:
Congrats on the great review from PW, but like Paul Bresnick I've got to ask: can anything get CSI-ers to turn off the television?

Gil: I’m a great believer in the book. You can pick up a copy of Aftermath, Inc. at JFK, fly to the west coast, and finish it by the time you land at LAX. I guarantee my book will twist your mind around in ways that the inflight movie just can’t do. I would also have no objection at all to anyone reading my book while they are watching CSI. During the commercials! There are so many! There will always be a solid core audience of reading devotees. Plus an editor friend of mine told me, “Publishers can always count on the gore fans.” I’m a great believer in the book, but I also have a couple of blogs, a MySpace page on the way and some virals on YouTube. No sense in not hedging your bets.

B.S. Chick: What are you doing for publicity given the nature of this book?

Gil: Among other measures, the owners of Aftermath (the company) are putting up a billboard beside a Chicago interstate that will be seen by a quarter million people a week. That’s a first for me. Gotham has promised a “killer marketing campaign.” There’s an understandable concern about public reaction to the subject matter. There are those who can’t get enough of it, and those who can’t handle any of it.

B.S. Chick: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Gil. What I've read of your book has been really interesting (I would even call it great, but given the subject matter that seems a bit inappropriate), and I'm kicking myself for offering up my copy as a giveaway. Still, a promise is a promise, so here's y'alls chance to get a free copy of Aftermath, Inc. Just leave a comment about this interview, answer whether or not you think CSI-ers will ever turn off the television, or ask a question of Gil (or hell, even myself) and I'll enter your name into the drawing for this brand new (only slightly read) copy of Gil's book.

If you still find yourself fascinated by all things Gil, visit his writing blog, and the website of Aftermath, Inc or check some of his other books j(those without a link are no longer available):

Hollywood (Compass American Guides/Random House)
Manhattan (Compass American Guides/Random House)
Beyond All Reason
Raising Our Athletic Daughters
(Sentinel/Penguin USA)
(Simon and Schuster Spotlight Entertainment)
Aftermath, Inc.
(Gotham/Penguin USA)


Stephanie said...

Did you find yourself taking much longer showers while you worked w/the cleaning crew?

Elsandra said...

I'm glad there are crews like Aftermath around to help clean up scenes after stuff like this, it can be veru gruesome. Gil, you could have been doing this jobs for years being rational and collected and still have one crime scene that would get you. I am a police officer and a crime scene technician and it took a while to get "hardened" to the stuff I saw. It's still a bit freaky to be at a scene and see the victim read some of the same books I did or had copies of the same movies I had, etc. I'll have to pick up a copy of the book!