In this segment of The Story Behind the Story, Eric Laster talks about what motivated him to write “Re: Guilt.”
I wrote “Re: Guilt” during a time of exploration, when I was exercising different voices in short form, and it features one of the straightest voices I rendered—without idiosyncratic “verbal” tics, without much of the hesitation, stuttering, repetition, redundancy, and filler (“like,” “you know”) so common in speech. Because of the sensationalistic subject—the adult narrator lives through a gunman’s attack on diners in a restaurant; he manages to escape but abandons his parents in the process—and because the narration is supposed to seem spoken, I knew in advance that I didn’t want anything “literary” in the language. Nor would I succumb to gimmicks, such as a complete lack of punctuation so as to suggest urgency. I wanted “Re: Guilt” to read like a mostly matter-of-fact bulletin from the front lines of a tragedy.
Not all spam is created equal. The title of the story comes from a bit of virtual junk mail I received, the subject line of which was “Re: Guilt.” I greatly enjoyed that subject line, its mingling of the public and personal, its suggestion of business correspondence—the memo-like “re:”—coupled with the stuff of personal diaries. (I never read the actual email.) Some time later, I heard a woman on the radio talking about an ordeal she’d lived through, similar to the one described in “Re: Guilt.” The title and the story just fell together at that point; I knew the last lines instantly.
I often don’t understand why I’m drawn to a subject until I’m in the middle of grappling with it. But looking back now, doing my little interpretive dance and risking pretentiousness, I see “Re: Guilt” as an open-ended study of the limits of filial love, of selfishness and regret for that selfishness. The reader is a rubbernecker. Fascinated by horrific incident, compelled by morbid curiosity to stop at the scene of a crime, the reader perhaps learns more than she would like, becomes belated witness not just to the tragedy of those killed, but also to the tragedy of survival, when instinctive behavior under mortal threat seems wrong but inevitable, and might or might not warrant forgiveness.