The Real Ghost in The Ghost of Milagro Creek
Writing is so much trouble, and it pays so poorly, that I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to. It does for me what religion does for some people; it makes me whole again. My work grows out of a sense of loss, a yearning to recreate a world that has slipped through my fingers before I can make sense of it. In the year 2000, shortly after my husband David and I had settled in Taos, New Mexico, with our two-year-old daughter, David was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
“So I’m toast,” David said when the doctor told him he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and we both cried. David was thirty-seven years old and had two years to live. When his paralysis set in, we moved back to my hometown of Rome, Georgia. That year, just three months before our son was born, he passed away.
Before we left New Mexico, we spent a weekend at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu. In the silence of this Benedictine Monastery, high in the cliffs of the painted desert, I conceived the germ of The Ghost of Milagro Creek. At first, I was simply struck by the fact the doors had no locks. I began to think about criminals, and what a great hide-out this would be for someone who was running from the law. Electronic communication was limited; by the time law enforcement vehicles managed to traverse the 13 mile “driveway” from the road, the bandit could be lost in miles of the surrounding cavernous rock.
Around this time, the local papers ran a story about a young Taosenio who had killed his best friend, turned himself in, and then, during a leaf-raking assignment, mysteriously disappeared from the Taos jail. In the news story, the young man, who was reported to be quite personable, committed subsequent murders while on the lam, and I imagined a story about a psychopath.
So, in 2001, I began researching histories of serial killers in hopes of developing the character who would eventually become Mister in The Ghost of Milagro Creek. After many hours of research and countless failed attempts to create a story, I remembered the words of my creative writing teacher, Max Steele, “We are only interested in characters who love someone or something.” Psychopaths don’t love; I needed a character with a heart.
In those two years when I was a young mother and my husband was dying, love was inextricably mixed with grief and a longing for the land of Northern New Mexico. While he could still walk and talk, David went around with a video camera recording our days: our three-year-old daughter Zoe licking a brownie bowl, our dog Sadie sitting behind the wheel of a car, me telling stories. It was as if he were going on a trip and planned to take this movie with him.
After he died, I found some footage he had taken on a windy mesa outside of Taos. Behind the camera, he is invisible, and his voice, already slurred from the disease, is often broken off by the sound of the wind. What you see is a breathtaking vista: white clouds sweeping across a deep blue sky, a purple mountain capped in snow, fluttering beech leaves catching the light like new pennies, the ragged red earth. He is saying, from what I can make of his words, that he will never see this again.
In the beginning, I tried to write a very male book. The spare writing style mirrored the uncluttered landscape of New Mexico, and the terse dialogues, even those involving females, only suggested the interior worlds of the characters. In this manuscript, called Christ in the Desert, Mister, no longer a serial killer, loved a woman, but something was missing.
Slowly, draft by draft, Abuela began to shake the story out and make more sense of it. Her honesty forced the other characters to face themselves and confront each other. By 2009, at the end of the final rewrite of The Ghost of Milagro Creek, Abuela has empowered young Rocky to take charge of her own life, bringing the feminine energy to the forefront. When Rocky says to herself, “… the daughter did not commit suicide. She don’t know what she’s gonna do, but the bitch is breathing,” she describes a metamorphosis that mirrors my own transition from wife to widow.
I don’t know if books can be haunted, but I wrote this one with my favorite haint in mind – a desert-stomping, sax-blowing, bad-boy Catholic from Houma, Louisiana – the late David Marr.
- Melanie Sumner on The Leonard Lopate Show
- Television Appearance on Good Day Atlanta
- Sumner shares her experience with Write On, and offers advice for new writers, creative writers, and those on their quest to become published.
- Algonquin Interview
- Interview with Atlanta Magazine
I Love You, New Mexico
I begin to feel it in the air as the plane circles over the Sandia Mountains – excitement, and relief. I am home. Driving down 25, I feel all this space around me and with that space, the freedom to be myself. Walking along the irrigation ditches in the village of Corrales just outside of Albuquerque, heading towards the sandy bank left by the Rio Grande, I take my shirt off because I’m hot. It doesn’t matter. Later (shirt on), I pass a man cutting river cane and gather a few stalks to give to the kids. At the end of the day, outside The Flying Star restaurant, a couple of cowboys hitch their horses to the post and take a table.