How Patton Oswalt steered his late wife's brilliant final book to completion
Patton Oswalt still can’t recall the aftermath of his late wife’s death.
He’d been married to Michelle McNamara for more than a decade when she suddenly died in her sleep on April 21, 2016. They had a young daughter, Alice, born in 2009, and worked successfully in different areas: Oswalt being an acclaimed actor and comedian, McNamara an accomplished armchair detective who ran the popular cold-case website True Crime Diary. Yet when she passed, Oswalt immersed himself in her space — he became committed to completing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the true-crime book McNamara had been researching and writing for nearly as long as they were married, and bringing it out into the world.
How did he do it? Manage to push himself through such an intense grieving period? “I wish I could tell you some moment of epiphany when I realized that I was going to finish it, but I don’t have it,” Oswalt tells EW, trying to recall the steps he took to get the book done. “That whole year is just this really painful blur.”
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark marks McNamara’s greatest achievement, a fitting cap to a career of investigative writing. It’s the product of her nearly decade-long hunt for the Golden State Killer, who committed at least 50 sexual assaults and 10 murders from 1976 to 1986, but is fashioned as her own story too: a personal account of what it means to track down a killer, intermixing conventions of memoir and short-story writing for a wholly innovative true-crime read. At the time of her death, she’d written much of the book, but (spoiler alert) was unable to unmask the killer, with handwritten notes and thousands of computer files left unassembled.
With regard to completing the book, Oswalt can only describe what happened in the broadest of terms: how he, while wading through shock, grief, and chaos, assumed the mentality of, “I’m going to get this book done.” Reflecting on that unimaginably difficult time, Oswalt apologizes repeatedly for having no specifics to draw on, only that he started “sending emails,” “making calls,” and encouraging all involved to “get this done.” He does remember being nervous about getting the book right, however. “Absolutely, yeah,” he says when asked. “It was her book and it’s an amazing book. I wanted to do right by her.”
Jennifer Barth, McNamara’s editor at HarperCollins who acquired I’ll Be Gone in the Dark in the summer of 2013, says that Oswalt took great, necessary steps to ensure he did just that. She recalls how he recruited McNamara’s researcher Paul Haynes and crime journalist Billy Jensen to compile the book. (The pair wrote the slim third and final section; other subsections are versions of articles previously published by Los Angeles magazine, and clarifying editor’s notes are sprinkled throughout.) Barth explains that through his profound memory of McNamara, Oswalt guided them all through the process of doing right by her. “He’s just been leading the way,” she says. “He knows the book: He just got how Michelle thought about it.”
Barth, Oswalt, Haynes, and Jensen would sit down periodically as they put the book together, engaging in healthy debate over the late author’s intentions, often in regard to turns of phrases Barth now describes as “vintage Michelle.” There would be disagreements, inevitable given the sensitivity of the endeavor, but Barth recalls Oswalt being engaged throughout the process, avoiding “knee-jerk” reactions and instead providing thoughtful commentary and perspective. “If Michelle had been married to somebody else, I’m not sure that they would have pressed on with the book and been able to help make it happen in the way Patton did,” Barth says candidly. “It was a total commitment. … He’s just been a real champion.”
Because of McNamara’s frank approach to storytelling, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark provides small, revealing glimpses into what her family life looked like: How she’d scour the web in a playroom after her husband and daughter were sound asleep, or how while attending a film premiere for Oswalt, she’d lurk in the background, eyes glued to her phone, as case clues kept rolling in. Oswalt says the random nature of facts “crashing in” meant that McNamara “was always writing,” and that it was important for him to leave her to her process, noting, “I was very conscious of giving her time alone to write.” Even at a distance, though, he saw what motivated her — what her obsession was rooted in.
“She was a very logical person with a lot of compassion,” Oswalt says. “When she saw someone act with such cruelty, the logic part of her brain would kick in and go, ‘Well, that kind of cruelty should be met with justice, and there should be someone to answer for the victims.’ To have all of those threads and have it be open and unresolved for so long really ate away at her sense of order. She took on the pain of the survivors and of [those] that lost family members because of this guy. That’s what drove her.”
Barth remembers what Oswalt brought to the process: He’d speak openly about losing McNamara and the difficulty of moving forward, in effect “giving insight into how involved she was in this book and this story, and just the humanity of the victims and even the killer.” He’d tell stories and provide photos that had a stinging intimacy, of the kind that scattered notes and research could only hint at. Oswalt’s main goal, Barth adds, was to keep things “in Michelle’s voice.”
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark publishes Tuesday, concluding a nearly two-year journey to completion. Time has passed and life has changed for the family: Oswalt has remarried, tying the knot with actress Meredith Salenger late last year. But he’s no less committed to honoring McNamara’s memory. He checks in with Haynes and Jensen about once a week, and they talk about showcasing more of her writing. Oswalt particularly hopes to get True Crime Diary back “up and running,” and, together with Haynes, form a nonprofit in her name to aid investigative journalism.
Yet with the book’s release right around the corner, Oswalt reveals that it’s difficult for him — even, or perhaps especially, given the praise being heaped on it. He can’t help but look at things from McNamara’s perspective, as both her longtime partner and a fellow writer, and realize that this isn’t precisely the story she wanted to tell. “It’s very painful,” he admits. “I think other people are going to really love the book, but to me, there’s so much that’s left unsaid and unfinished.”