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'Shutter' author was inspired by her own work as a crime scene photographer

Ramona Emerson is also a documentary filmmaker. She owns a production company with her husband called Reel Indian Pictures.
Soho Crime
Ramona Emerson is also a documentary filmmaker. She owns a production company with her husband called Reel Indian Pictures.

Updated November 3, 2022 at 2:20 PM ET

Before she became a novelist, Ramona Emerson spent 16 years documenting crime scenes. As a police department photographer in Albuquerque, N.M., she covered everything from car accidents to refinery explosions. Once she had to ride a mule up a mountain for two hours with all her gear just to document a scene where someone got hurt.

"It's a strange job," she says. "When I first started, I think those first two years of my job, it was tough for me. I would have nightmares at night. I would carry the images that I had in my head with me for months."

Emerson started writing down a memoir, but as she progressed with the manuscript, it morphed into her first novel. Recently long-listed for the National Book Award for fiction, Shutter tells the story of a forensic photographer named Rita who, like Emerson, is a member of the Navajo Nation.

Rita is haunted by the ghosts of the crimes she documents, and she struggles to reconcile her work with Navajo taboos about death. Emerson says growing up on the reservation, death was something that just wasn't mentioned.

"We are always told not to talk about it. It's almost as if if you talk about death, you're asking for it," she says. "I wanted to really examine where that belief came from."

/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

Interview highlights

On developing the character of the ghosts that are seeking justice

I knew that Rita was going to be haunted. And so when I decided to do the opening scene, I knew for a fact that this lady would not be able to go on to the next world without having some kind of justice. And so I just started developing this profile of [the ghost] Erma Singleton and what she would do, what her background was, all the things that were going against her. ... Why would somebody be so hell bent on revenge that they would come back from the dead to get it? And the one constant for me that I could always think of was a mother. A mother will do anything for her kids. And as a mother myself, I thought about what would happen if somebody [murdered] a mom and they were leaving their kids behind. Wouldn't they want revenge? Wouldn't they be so chuffed that somebody took their life away that they weren't going to be able to spend the rest of their life watching their children grow up?

On whether she believes in ghosts

I've only had a few ... paranormal experiences, and it was after I wrote the book, strangely enough. I was on the fence about whether ghosts exist or not. I mean, I have watched enough paranormal shows to, like, roll my eyes and those guys scaring themselves in their paranormal investigations. But so I was kind of on the fence, but I had a couple of things happen to me that kind of freaked me out and it made me wonder. ...

I was in Santa Fe teaching a film workshop to youth in the summer. ... I had a mug of coffee sitting on the conference table that's in the center of the room, a very long table. And we were sitting there looking at an edit that one of the kids was doing, and I heard some rustling behind me. ... We looked and I watched my coffee mug slide all the way down the conference table right to the edge of the table and stop. Unaided. Nothing was in there. ... That room still freaks me out to this day.

On dedicating the book to her grandmother

Oh, my Grandma was the best human in the world. She taught me to read. She took care of me for many, many years. She sent me to Catholic school. She made sure I went to college. She bought me my very first video camera. She bought me my very first photo camera. She bought me my first truck. I still have it. I drove it to the interview today, a '97 Ford Ranger pickup. But she never stopped believing in me. And she sent me letters every week. She always encouraged me. She was just a great woman. And she was so smart and so strong. And she raised all these kids on her own, including me. And I have only the deepest respect for her. She was my hero.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Sam Briger