Decades after the death of Allan Wolf’s boyhood friend Ed Disney, Wolf and his brother set out along a back road near their hometown of Blacksburg, Va., to find the exact spot where two young assailants shot Disney and left him to die.
The Asheville-based author will launch Who Killed Christopher Goodman? — a young-adult novel based on the events surrounding this crime — at Spellbound Children’s Bookshop on Friday, March 17. While Wolf’s book is a fictionalized account, the Christopher Goodman of the title isn’t exactly the Ed Disney who inspired his character. But as Wolf describes his search, it’s clear the reality of his friend’s death still looms large in his imagination and in the imagination of his now-grown high school friends.
“Suddenly our blood ran cold,” Wolf says of finding the scene of the crime. “On the ground was a little plastic cup with dried flowers. Somebody had been there within the last few months and actually left this little memorial.”
In a way, Christopher Goodman is itself a return to Blacksburg: It’s the first time Wolf has taken up his own youth as a subject after a long and winding journey to become a prominent YA writer and a popular presenter at schools across the country. Wolf had been teaching at Virginia Tech and leading what he describes as “weird, Dada-esque poetry events” when a colleague got a job with the Asheville-based organization Poetry Alive. Wolf followed suit and wound up touring with the troupe that evangelizes young people for poetry and performance.
“I ended up working with kids,” he says, and in the process, “I met a bazillion teachers and librarians and editors. I got to know all of those people through performance poetry … and one thing led to another, and that’s how I started writing for kids.”
Wolf published his first book, The Blood-Hungry Spleen (a collection of poems exploring the working of the human body), in 2003. Since then he has published a new book every few years, including New Found Land, about the Lewis and Clark expedition and The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices From the Titanic. At the same time, he’s kept up an unrelenting schedule of school visits and performances.
Though he’s now working solo, his goal is similar to when he worked with Poetry Alive — to turn young people on to poetry. “The major point is not that they become poets,” he says, “but that they can begin to see the world through a poet’s eyes.”
As Wolf’s writing career developed, the events surrounding his friend’s death remained sharp in his memory. “I journaled on it, I wrote a series of poems about it,” he says. “I’d been collecting notes forever.” Then, after he pitched the idea to his publisher and began his research, he found he wasn’t the only one. “I opened up this whole Pandora’s box of people who have been obsessed with this kid’s murder.”
Still, Christopher Goodman is a novel. “Everyone wants this book to be about this kid, Ed Disney, but it’s not,” Wolf says. “The more I dug into the research, the more I started fictionalizing it.” And while he originally imagined a frame in which adults come together years later to process what happened to their friend, during the writing it became a story told in multiple points of view, of teens forced to trace the apparently innocuous choices that left their friend — so deeply admired for his kindness and his unique approach to life — alone with his murderer.
It’s also about how these young people deal with the aftermath.
“There wasn’t anyone who could talk us through it,” Wolf says of those touched by Disney’s death. But Christopher Goodman’s friends make peace with this tragedy, and the author hopes that his book will bring closure to those affected by the real-life crime as well.
“I feel like I have created something that lets those people off the hook who feel like they could have done something,” he says. “I hope those people who have suffered more than me will find some solace.”
WHAT: Allan Wolf presents Who Killed Christopher Goodman?
WHERE: Spellbound Children’s Bookshop, 640 Merrimon Ave., spellboundbookshop.com
WHEN: Friday, March 17, 6 p.m.