For the last three years, I’ve been working on a novel loosely inspired by the final weeks of Meredith Kercher’s life. If you don’t recognize that name, you probably know that of Amanda Knox, the American student who was tried in Italy for Kercher’s 2007 murder. Knox, along with Raffeale Sollecito, Knox’s boyfriend of a few days, were convicted in 2009, then acquitted in 2011. The case has been an endless, expensive spiral of misery for Knox, Sollecito and Meredith Kercher’s family. Its byzantine developments have been nearly impossible to follow, even for avid watchers. And just when we all thought it was over — memoirs written, lives back on track — Knox and Sollecito were convicted again last Thursday, after an appeal of the appeal.
So why write a novel on the subject? Don’t we just want to know what actually happened? After spending time in Perugia and studying the players and the case, I thought about writing a nonfiction book. I would have had enough material, and probably could have presented the story in a slightly different light than the excellent books already published on the subject, namely "The Fatal Gift of Beauty" by Nina Burleigh and "Murder in Italy" by Candace Dempsey. Yet, even with those accounts, as well as thousands of hours of media coverage, it’s hard to come away with any real answer as to what might have transpired the night of Nov. 1, 2007. Now it’s 2014, and enough years have gone by that even those who lived in that cottage on Via della Pergola 7 would be hard-pressed to give straightforward testimonies about their memories anymore, no matter how earnest their intentions.
During my months in Perugia, and in the years after, I researched, interviewed and read as much as I could about the case. Amanda Knox is a straightforward, funny nerd, one friend said. No, she’s a cold, evil woman who wrongly put the innocent father of a toddler in jail, Patrick Lamumba, the man she accused of the murder during her interrogation, told me. Raffaele has been portrayed as a Satan worshipper, a virgin, a knife enthusiast, a sex addict and a geek. With every new revelation, a new judgment. And though in the United States Knox has a lot of support, in Italy — at least when I was last there, in 2012 — it was hard to find an Italian who thought she was innocent.
“Journalists say to me that we’ll never know what happened that night,” Amanda Knox said in a recent wonderfully candid video interview with the London Guardian. “Well, I think you can see what the truth is if you really want to see it.”
I did want to see it. But there was so little logic in the material I was given. Everyone was giving different accounts. The journalists, for all of their skill, weren’t able to synthesize the information. As a novelist, wasn’t I qualified to have a go at it? Couldn’t I get closer by creating a fictional version, where the logic of human nature is the only law?
To me, the most interesting question of it all was why. Why was Meredith Kercher killed? Forget everything after the night in question. Forget Knox’s strange early morning errand of getting a mop to clean under Raffaele’s sink. Forget the kissing at the crime scene. Forget the yoga in the police station and Knox’s accusation of an innocent man while she was under interrogation in a language she barely understood. That all belonged to the story after the murder. If I were in my fiction writing class instructing one of my students, I would tell him to cut those scenes. They just aren’t relevant, not to what happened while Meredith Kercher was alive.
You can see why Amanda Knox was pulled into this story. The Kercher murder, on its own, makes for a bad mystery. The setting — Perugia — is excellent, with its dark alleyways and thousands of years of Etruscan and Italian wars and upheaval. But there was no apparent motive, and the characters, in real life, haven’t come to an end yet worthy of a novel. That is, no new emotional truth was ever reached. In my book, I synthesized the actual facts with characters and motives that might have fit in with a story like it. In other words, I filled in the blank parts with what could have been. It was a weird way to write a book, but not any stranger than, say, Hilary Mantel’s in "Bring Up the Bodies." The story I ended up with is surely not exactly what happened on Nov. 1, 2007. But my version can’t be any more out there than the prosecution’s story of a satanic orgy, which wouldn’t have gotten those guys into even the laxest MFA program.
I’m focusing on Meredith Kercher because, despite Amanda Knox’s celebrity, Kercher is the story. Meredith Kercher, our intensely likable victim, was by all accounts a nice girl. But let’s go further. After all, she was a real person. To reduce her to a type is to be disloyal to her memory; she had human qualities and flaws, making it all the more tragic that, at 21, she was robbed of life. Meredith Kercher’s mother was Pakistani, born in Lahore. They were close, Meredith and her mother. Arline Kercher was ill, and Meredith had a special phone so that she could call home every day. Meredith’s father was a journalist, mainly to the tabloids. The parents were not together anymore. She was the youngest of four children, which probably meant she had to fight for attention sometimes. Perhaps this was why she was so outgoing.
When Meredith was 15, she spent a summer on the west coast of Italy, meaning she was fluent and also probably not naive. Getting an Erasmus scholarship is difficult and a great honor, meaning Meredith was intelligent and driven. A few years before, she auditioned and won a part in a music video, indicating that she was confident of her doe-eyed good looks. In Perugia, she was part of a quickly formed pack of English friends whom she went out with almost every night.
Amanda Knox was just a side character in Meredith’s life. According to their testimonies, Meredith’s British friends thought she was odd. She was loud, and burst into song at random times. They didn’t always invite her along. One night Meredith and Amanda went to a club with the boys in the downstairs apartment. They both ended up bringing men home to bed, according to testimony. Meredith slept with her downstairs neighbor. Amanda with a boy in from Rome.
Later, according to the British girls, Amanda told Meredith she, also, liked the neighbor, but that Meredith could “have him.” Enough for a chafe, but not a murder. Days later Amanda met her own boyfriend, Raffaele. According to all testimonies, the new couple was all over each other. Meredith wouldn’t have seen her much anymore. The larger presence in Meredith’s life would have been the neighbor, with whom she carried on a casual relationship. Nights in bed with an Italian could never mean nothing to a young Englishwoman. If you don’t believe me, believe Henry James. It’s just not likely that Amanda Knox was at the forefront of Meredith Kercher’s mind.
On the night of Nov. 1 Meredith Kercher was doubtlessly tired, and probably hung over. This we know from the now famous photos of Meredith at Merlin’s bar, in which she is drooling blood in a vampire costume. It’s too bad that is the most prevalent picture of Meredith Kercher. I have now seen myriad images of the victim, and she was much more beautiful than that picture indicates. This could have been a motive, somehow. Jealousy or obsession would make sense in a novel. But in the real story, there has been no indication of such that I could find.
On Nov. 1, everyone in Meredith’s house, including the neighbor, was out of town. It was All Souls Day, a somber day when most Italians go to see family if they can. No one was in the cottage. It was cold and damp out. Meredith wore jeans, tennis shoes and a sporty zip-up jacket. She went over to a friend’s for pizza. They watched a sappy movie starring Ryan Gosling called "The Notebook." Let’s lean on fiction and add what she might have been feeling. Maybe she missed her mother. Maybe the lack of sleep made her shaky. We do know that around 8 o’clock, she told her friends she was tired and headed home.
Now is when Rudy Guede enters the picture. The other main character in this scene. We know, in all likelihood, that Guede was the killer. We know because he confessed, and because his DNA was all over the room, as well as — and this is the most lurid detail — in the body. His bloody footprints were all around her, as well as his handprints. He might as well have written his name on the wall. (Guede was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison, but insisted he was wrongly convicted in a recent interview.)
But who was he? After all, killers are people. How are we to understand this? The fact is, Rudy Guede, couldn’t have had a life more different than Meredith Kercher. It is strange, actually, that Knox has the starring role in this drama, as Rudy Guede had the most interesting life of them all. He was born in Africa, on the Ivory Coast. His father was polygamous. His mother, it seems, lost interest in him. Eventually, Rudy’s father, who wanted to study science, brought Rudy to Italy when he was 5. School didn’t work out, and his father ended up finding work laying bricks.
Rudy was alone in Perugia by 12. He drifted, but had learned to be charming and polite, and was fed, clothed and housed by a group of well-meaning families in Perugia. He joined the basketball team, and, in an odd twist, was adopted at 17 by one of the wealthiest families in Perugia. But it didn’t take. Rudy skipped school, and slacked on the job the family arranged for him. Eventually he was kicked out of the home.
So this is what was happening for Rudy in 2007. He had screwed up his big chance. But then again, he had been all but abandoned by his parents. This does not go easy on a child. Rudy Guede was starting to lose it. He seemed to be looking for a home. He often slept at his friend’s house until an odd habit of sleepwalking caused him to be unwelcome; he broke into a nursery school, a private home and a law office, making messes and sleeping there. A couple of times he was interrupted, mid-break-in. When this would happen, he’d instinctively pull out a knife.
According to his friends, his behavior was growing more erratic. And on Nov. 1, he broke into the cottage of Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher. The house was dark, so likely, because of the holiday, Guede thought everyone was away. The evidence indicates that Guede threw a rock through the window, and, using the grate from the window below as leverage, let himself in.
You see how it happens. The novelist’s brain. Every question rolls into another question. What would have happened next? Our character looks around, pleased by the cozy home. He noses around. He went to the toilet. (This we know by the feces left there the next morning.) It’s likely that this is when Meredith Kercher came back. She wouldn’t have seen him behind the closed door of the bathroom and would have gone to her room to get ready for bed. He wouldn’t have flushed, because he would have heard her, and likely wasn’t sure what he was going to do next.
And what was next? Remember, character first. A truly worthy piece of fiction has empathy, even for the sinners. Would he have been scared when Kercher entered? Apologetic? He’d met Kercher before at a small party downstairs, so talking to her would not be a problem. Except she wasn’t expecting him to be there. Likely, he approached quietly. Only, frustratingly, we can’t know what his motive was. Was it to say hello? Or to kill?
Either way, he surprised her. There were reports of a scream. Likely she yelled when the barely familiar man appeared in the door. Then what? Well, if this character doesn’t like conflict, which by all previous indications Rudy Guede didn’t, he finds a way to quiet her down. He had that habit of carrying a knife. It appears this was when he used it.
This is the part where things get horrifically violent. In my own novel, narrated by the victim, I chose to write this scene sparingly. This is because I was interested in the emotional life of characters; extreme violence would have muddled it up. Unfortunately, the family and friends of Meredith Kercher did not have this luxury — the paring down of the blows. During the trial, theories of the murder were spelled out with words, photographs and pictures. The crime scene shown again and again and again in order to put the pieces together.
There is no way, the prosecution insisted, Guede could have done this alone. There were too many bruises, too many cuts. But common sense says otherwise. Think about it. It’s hard to murder a person with a small knife, and Rudy Guede had never done it before. Meredith Kercher was not faint of heart, according to her character study. Also, she knew karate. She would have fought, and turned away, explaining the immense signs of struggle. I’m no forensics expert, but how could anyone else have helped hold a thrashing woman, and left no DNA at all? No cells, no hair? Imagine fighting for your life. Most people, including Kercher, would tear at everything they could.
You’ll notice Amanda Knox hasn’t come up yet in the portrayal of this night. Nor has Raffaele Sollecito. There’s a reason for that. They just don’t fit into this part of the story. In fiction, we have to adhere to the emotionally plausible. Even science fiction, even fantasy has to follow the laws of human nature for the story to be coherent. There’s the lack of DNA. But there’s also the why. Amanda and Raffeale were young, attractive and had their own apartment. Also, Raffaele, according to testimony, was a virgin. Are they really going to be interested in anything but rolling around naked in privacy? And OK, let’s say they were involved. How would that work? Were they cheering Guede on from the living room? Waiting for him to finish so they could go in and kill Amanda’s roommate, with whom she had a tepid friendship? Guede’s claim was that he left the room after having sex with Meredith, and then the couple went in and killed her. But what would the motive be? A thrill? An existential experiment? I don’t even think Dostoyevsky could make that work.
I’m not a detective. Or a lawyer. Or anyone with any expertise, other than years of research and a novelist’s brain. Still, I stand by this: I don’t believe Amanda Knox or Raffaele Sollecito murdered Meredith Kercher. I think there is a larger, universal story here: a story of youth and friendship, love and hysteria, the human potential for darkness, and what can happen when the very young live abroad. This is the story that has sucked the world in, and the one I chose to write. But the actual facts? They present a flat tale. Rudy Guede, tragically, snapped. Meredith Kercher came home at the wrong time. A bright life was brutally wasted. And the next day, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito began a new story that hasn’t ended yet, and might not for a long time.
Full disclosure: The characters in my book are not very much like Meredith Kercher or Amanda Knox. I do not know these women, unlike my characters, whom I know as well as myself. Still, I am interested in how these people are doing, after following the case for so long. Most of the Amanda Knox interviews are so overproduced, it’s hard to get a real sense of who she really is, which is why the Guardian interview is refreshing. Now 26 and living in Seattle, Knox is losing her gamine prettiness. She is still beautiful, but morphing before our eyes into someone different: an intelligent, strong, verbal woman, if a little overly defensive after being backed into a corner by a rabid public. “When I say I was a kid when it happened, it’s because I was a kid when it happened,” she says. I believe that. She was an extremely unlucky kid with a kid’s capacity for judgment, caught in a fiction other people wanted to read.
However, as a novelist, teacher and reader, I feel hopeful for Knox’s future, as long as she stays away from Italy. (Less bright is the future of Sollecito, who, after this last conviction, has had his passport ominously seized by the Italian government.) For almost a decade, Knox’s whole world has been made up by other people. She has been brutally schooled firsthand in narratives that make sense, and those that don’t. And now she’s studying creative writing at the University of Washington. Knox has already penned a successful memoir, but this writer looks forward to the fiction she comes up with. She’s tough, and a hard worker, and knows a writer’s hell. It’s time for Knox to shake free of the stories others have created for her, so that she can write her own.