Behind THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE

On July 16, 1978, two men and a woman robbed the Sirloin Stockade, a family steakhouse in Oklahoma City. The robbers waited in the restaurant until it closed for the night, then ordered the six employees into the  walk-in freezer and murdered them.

The crime stunned the city. Nothing like this had ever happened in Oklahoma City. Nothing like this could ever happen in a place like Oklahoma City. Four of the restaurant employees were teenagers, the  youngest only fifteen years old.

At the time I was thirteen and worked across town at Braum’s, a local ice cream parlor and hamburger grill. The steakhouse killings changed  the way I looked at the world. Every time headlights flashed in the parking lot at closing time, I felt my heart stop. Every time I stepped into our walk-in freezer, I thought about the kids at Sirloin Stockade –kids just like me, kneeling on the cold floor – and imagined what they might have been feeling.

Three years later, in September, I was working at a movie theater in Oklahoma City when two teenage girls vanished without a trace from the State Fair. This crime hit even closer to home for me. The mother of one of the girls worked at the theater on weekends, checking attendance for the studios. After her daughter disappeared, she kept coming to work. I watched her as she clicked a counter for each customer who entered the theater. Her face was blank, her eyes utterly empty, and I imagined what she might be feeling.

The two events made a profound impression on me, and I wrote The Long and Faraway Gone because I could never stop imagining. Years had passed, decades, but I still wanted to know more about the people touched by such terrible darkness – the ones who died, and the ones left behind to carry the burden of memory.

I also wanted to write a novel about an entire city that experienced tragedy in a profound way – the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh – and found a way to survive it. Oklahoma City is rich fictional territory. It’s a complex, surprising, gritty, quirky, and beautiful place, with a colorful history, some of the best  Vietnamese food outside of Hanoi, stunning big-sky prairie sunsets, and NBA stars who hang out at the local coffee shop. And it’s thriving now, booming and changing in ways that no one here could have imagined twenty  years ago.

Lou Berney
Lou Berney is the author of three novels, THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE, WHIPLASH RIVER, and GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, as well as a collection of short stories, THE ROAD TO BOBBY JOE. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and the Pushcart Prize anthology, and he has written feature screenplays and created television pilots for, among others, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Focus Features, ABC, and Fox. He teaches in the Red Earth MFA program at Oklahoma City University.

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