I’m a little worried that an e-mail from Ann Rule is going to pop up in my inbox any minute.

Why would I be getting an e-mail from Ann Rule, you ask? And why would that worry me? Well, it’s like this: The other day, I turned in a review of “But I Trusted You,” the fourteenth and latest volume in the Seattle true-crime author’s “Crime Files” series. It’s being published on the Reading Local Seattle web site. It wasn’t, shall we say, lavish with effusive praise for the book. In fact, I devoted nearly 2,700 words to exploring why the book wasn’t very good. In my opinion, of course.

And I said these things even though I made clear in the review, more than once, that I have the utmost respect for Rule and for the majority of books she’s published in her long career. I wasn’t pulling punches, wasn’t trying to have it both ways, either. It’s really what I think.

And I said what I said because I also think it’s important to be honest, and I don’t think there’s enough honest book criticism out there these days.

Publishing, as my colleagues at 1st Turning Point (where I also publish essays) often remind me, is a business of relationships. And, in their view at least, we should be careful to avoid saying anything negative in public because it’s bad business, because word gets around and the opportunities to develop the kind of relationships I need to make deals could disappear as a result.

I think that mentality, correct as it may be, often kills quality book criticism. (I’m not saying mine’s all that, though I will defend this review to the death as well-thought-out and informed by comprehensive knowledge of the author’s oeuvre … oh, and most importantly, backed up by my real name).

Most reviewers these days, in my observation, seem to subscribe to the “If you can’t say something nice about a book, don’t say it at all” mindset, and either post relentlessly sunny reviews or criticisms so diluted that they’re difficult to pick out of the text. To do otherwise, they seem to be saying without saying anything of the kind, is to somehow hurt their own standing in the literary community (many, it seems, depend on relationships with authors or booksellers).

Honesty should be inside books, not about books. I guess that’s the message.

To me, that sort of thinking is as useless as the thinking of those who would lob Molotov cocktails of corrosive criticism on Amazon or Goodreads from behind the cowardly safety of anonymity. (Anything worth saying, good or bad, is worth saying with the coin and credibility of your name.) That’s why I was dismayed to see all the good-riddances from the literary community when Kirkus Reviews — well-known for its abundance of negative reviews — ceased operations in December. The good-riddances were misplaced, in my view, because they focused on the mere fact of negative criticism, and not at all on whether the criticism might be accurate or well-informed. Instead, all the chatter was about how rude those reviewers were, as if that’s the worst thing a person in the literary community could be. (Funny how not that long ago, when literary lions like Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote roamed the earth, it was the best thing a person in the literary community could be.)

But the reality is that there’s a lot of crap out there these days — more so, it seems, in this time of pared-down editorial staffs at most publishing houses — and someone needs to say so. Someone who knows what they’re talking about.

I don’t know everything about everything; I wouldn’t be the right person to review, say, the latest novels by Jodi Picoult or Philip Roth or V.S. Naipaul.

But I do know about Ann Rule.

I’ve read Ann Rule books for nearly 30 years now, back before I knew I was reading Ann Rule books. (Her first published tomes were written under her true-detective-magazine pseudonym, Andy Stack.) She lives in the Puget Sound area, just as I have most of my life, and writes largely about crimes of the Pacific Northwest (which happens to be my area of professional interest). I have a tremendous amount of admiration for how she built herself up into the publishing powerhouse she is today — from being a disabled former Seattle cop to a single mom of four who freelanced for true-detective magazines on the side, building up her name and her game until she could land her first book contract. Since then, she’s knocked out upwards of 30 books, most of which are well above average for the genre, and continues producing at a fearsome pace well into her 70s. I don’t know her well, but I’ve corresponded with her a few times, attended several of her public appearances and spoken to her after those events on a handful of occasions. Like everybody else, I like her. And I wouldn’t object to getting to know her a lot better.

So why am I saying that her book isn’t very good?

Because … well … hmmm. Because it just isn’t very good.

I’m sorry. I wish it wasn’t so. And I felt an obligation to say so, given that there’s virtually no outlet that I can find for coherent, informed criticism of true-crime books. Mass-market paperback originals, especially, fly almost totally under the critical radar.

That said, I don’t kid myself that I will dissuade one person from buying “But I Trusted You.” That’s not the point. Nor is that particularly what I want to do. The point is that I’d like to be a catalyst for a conversation about what we want and expect from books in the true-crime genre, what standards we expect them to uphold, and I don’t see that serious conversation taking place anywhere now besides a on few threads on Amazon.com. (Most conversations about true crime that I can find are more TV-centric, more focused on the cases of the moment in the national and global media. That doesn’t interest me.)

So why then, if I am so convinced that I’m doing something good and worthwhile, am I so worried?

One, because I well know to criticize somebody’s work is to criticize their blood and sweat and tears, to criticize their children. My attack may be professional but I don’t pretend for a second that it won’t be taken personally, perhaps by Ann Rule but almost certainly by some of the more ardent folks among her legions of fans (who she affectionately refers to as ARFs, for Ann Rule Fans). I’m a human being. It was never my intent to hurt anyone’s feelings, even as I knew going in that I might do exactly that. All I can say is that my criticism, taken in context, is constructive and not destructive.

That’s what I hope people keep in mind if there are any consequences, as a result of my review, on my ability to forge and maintain the kind of relationships that will allow me to become a published author myself. I know there could well be, especially in the world of the Internet, where people often react without pausing to think and post slashing, searing rebuttals in the heat of anger.

That I can handle. The idea that people won’t deal with me in the future — people I’d like to have deal with me — because I violated publishing-world protocols of politeness and professionalism would be much tougher to take.

So the question is: Is any literary criticism deemed to be rude by definition? Or, could it be that I’m just fretting over nothing, and that what I say just might be taken by everyone who reads it in the spirit in which it’s intended?

Actually, the idea that I’m fretting about this is kind of funny, given that one of my next blog posts will feature an absolute shredding of another true-crime book released last year — a book so indifferently reported and incompetently written that I think it threatens to undermine reader confidence in the entire genre. A book that Ann Rule couldn’t or wouldn’t write in her worst nightmares. Bet your ass I have something to say about that.

It’s been a tough month.

I think I’ve been dealing with a low-grade depression the past few weeks, possibly brought on by the short days and long stretches of darkness. Getting anything done these days seems like a long, slow slog under water … and as a result, I haven’t gotten much done. I’m overdue now for not only a blog post, but a book review, a 1st Turning Point article and a long-form newspaper piece.

I’ve gathered string on them all, but haven’t wrapped up a single one.

I know writers in generally are moody bitches with overdeveloped interior lives, and I’d be curious to hear from others if they too swim through metaphorical molasses when it comes to tackling work at this time of the year. Or do they just recognize the possibility in advance and take a mental-health break? Or is it a non-issue?

Anyway, it hasn’t been a completely unproductive time. Here’s some of the highlights, lowlights and sidelights of my December so far:

• I tried to play amateur attorney with the Washington governor’s office in an effort to shake loose some documents that shed light on why Gov. Gregoire turned down the subject of one of my stories for a pardon — after her handpicked board supported the petition. I did some legal research, coming up with some reasons I felt the documents weren’t covered by executive privilege or attorney-client privilege. But the governor’s office, in a letter I received Dec. 11, argued otherwise, and cited specific statutes to support its point. The documents I requested were included with the letter, however — completely blacked out. Nice touch. I think that left me feeling a bit defeated. More than a bit, really, since the simple reality is that smarter, more powerful people than me righteously kicked my ass for presuming I was fit to step into the same arena with them. I really wanted something from the governor’s office for my story besides stony silence. And I’m having to accept that I’m just not going to get it.


• I finally finished doing all my interviews for the long-form article, two months later than I had hoped. I had to let go of some prospective sources who just weren’t returning my calls or e-mails despite their initial pledges to cooperate, however, and I had to really ride herd on others who kept making promises and putting me off. Some of the squirmiest people were those who had the most to gain from my story, too, which still leaves me scratching my head. Now I just have to write the damned thing, and try to keep its length in line — which means that better than 90 percent of my herd-riding won’t be reflected in the final version of my story. I accept that … and yet, it makes me feel a bit bogged down.

• I’ve noodled every few days on the 1st Turning Point piece, the book review (on the latest true-crime compilation from Seattle’s Ann Rule) and the long-form newspaper piece, plus a lengthy blog in which I shred another true-crime book. But I can’t honestly say any of those have progressed much beyond the roughest-of-rough-drafts stage. Normally I might procrastinate a bit before I fully plunge in and bang a piece out. Not this December.

• I’ve whipsawed wildly on my fiction-writing efforts. One day, I’d dick around with the rewrite on one manuscript. The next, I’d tool around with a novel in progress. Then I’d work on an outline for another, and then pull a short story out of the cyber-trunk. It’s been something beyond ADD, like a spring-loaded 5-year-old who’s off his Ritalin dosage. All the more so because in between, I’d slump on the couch and watch five “West Wing” episodes in a row.

• Just this Monday, I made visits to see the subjects of two different true-crime stories at the state women’s prison near Gig Harbor and at the McNeil Island Corrections Center. That’s tough any time, given the general dreariness of prisons, but harder this time because both inmates were feeling pretty low. Both were feeling the pain of holidays not being spent with loved ones — in the woman’s case, loved ones she had killed — and, I think, making themselves a little crazy over the possibility of being free within a few months or a few years. (As Jeannette, the female inmate, put it: “I’m getting a little crunchy.”) And there was a new burden: As of Jan. 1, they’ll lose the right to wear their own clothes. Everything, including underwear, will be state-issued. This, I’m told, is a giant morale-crusher in places where morale, obviously, is none too strong to begin with. You may have no sympathy in the abstract for this — “It’s prison, dammit!” — but I assure you that if you get to know some of these prisoners as people, you will rethink those hardline assumptions. I left both facilities carrying a little bit of their funk with me, I think.

There were some good things, too, though. The last of my major interviews for the long-form piece was an absorbing two-hour talk with Gov. Gregoire’s former senior legal counsel. I made some pretty solid progress in getting all the interviews transcribed. (It generally takes me an hour for every 15 to 20 minutes of recorded conversation.) I attended the latest state Clemency and Pardons Board hearings, and emerged with a couple of cases worth at least knowing more about. I even came up with a quick-hit book idea that I can turn around in a few months for a small side-stream of revenue should I need it (i.e., should my ever-precarious newspaper-editing job get yanked out from under me).

The wheels are always turning. It’s just a matter of whether they do it in mud, or on pavement. And, just today, I feel the ground getting a little firmer under my feet. And I think it’ll get a little firmer still once I arise on Christmas morning, eat my usual breakfast by myself, take my usual dinner to work that afternoon, do my usual thing in the newsroom that night, and go home and put this most difficult of holidays behind me for another 364 days. And finishing something for a change, if only a blog post.

I take that as a good sign. Because a week ago, I couldn’t have even gotten started.

So, Merry Christmas to me. And to you, my readers and friends, who make me believe that my dreams of becoming a book author will someday soon come true.

I am here, in Olympia. Just in the nick of time, after sleeping in an hour later than I intended to. Looks like we’re starting a little late, though, so thank goodness for small, small favors. Looks like we have the full five-member contingent of the board present today (last time there were just two present, with a third participating by speakerphone) and fewer cases (eight today, twelve when we last did this in September).

One thing I forgot to do, in rushing out of the house, was to grab my camera. So I’ll have pictures today, just via BlackBerry. I’ll post those as time allows.

We’re just about to start.


10:11 a.m.

First up is the case of Leon Toney, 32, who is seeking a commutation of his prison sentence. As before, I should note, I was not able to review the petition files beforehand, so I’ll be learning about these cases along with you.

Not sure what Leon’s crime is, but he is completely disabled and needs 24/7 care. Right now, he’s on an “extraordinary medical placement” in a Tacoma nursing home. His family wants his out of DOC jurisdiction so they can take care of him without the hassle of DOC rules.

The prosecutor’s office in Pierce County does not object.

But how did a 32-year-old criminal become this disabled?

Here’s the story. Wow. He was hanged in his McNeil Island Corrections Center cell in 2008. But was it a murder attempt or suicide? He’d been in prison since 1996, on a 28-year sentence for shooting a man in the stomach during a home-invasion-style robbery.

It’s been established, however, that as a result of the hanging, Toney is in a “persistive vegetative state.”

The board votes 5-0 to commute Toney’s sentence. As board member Cheryl Terry noted, “he’s clearly no threat.” Toney is here today, and one look at him in an extended wheelchair makes that obvious.


10:24. a.m.

Next up is John Coleman, who is seeking the restoration of his right to run for public office after being convicted of a felony. But he’s not here. Not good form.

He was convicted of “using the telephone to facilitate the sale of cocaine” in 1995. He was released from prison in 1997, and was was released from DOC supervision in 1999.

His petition is granted by a 5-0 vote.


10:29 a.m.

Next up is Emery Krahn, who is also absent. He was convicted of a marijuana offense in 2002. He’s satisfied all his post-release requirements. He’s now a community activist, and hopes to hold a school board post someday.

Another unanimous “aye” vote.


10:31 a.m.

Next up is the case of Morris Goldberg, who’s seeking a commutation of his prison sentence. Here’s his story. (Short version: He participated in a 1991 murder in Spokane County, though he didn’t actually pull the trigger. He has said that he believed he was helping stopping a child molester within the family.) His advocate, a prison counselor named John O’Connell, says “he’s turned his life around.” He’s now an elderly man, O’Connell said. (He’s now 78.)

Goldberg, from prison, speaks. At the time, he felt his actions were justified. Now, at board chairwoman margaret Smith’s prompting, he says “I don’t know.” He says he felt that he was easily susceptible, “a dupe.” Sounds like he’s questioning the premise of his crime.

Interesting case. He wasn’t convicted for nearly 10 years after the crime, and even though he said at trial that he would do the crime again, he says now that he was under the influence of his then-wife (who actually pulled the trigger). Now he says he give anything to give life back to the victim, in keeping with his newfound Christian beliefs.

“I have radically changed,” he says.

He says that while he has no information that the victim, Peter Zeihen, wasn’t molesting his 2-year-old granddaughter, it doesn’t matter now. He would not now be influenced by the people who influenced him to that belief then, and as a result, he might now make different choices.

During the eight years between the crime and the trial, his ex-wife was threatening him and other family members to keep quiet, Goldberg said.

Several letters have been put forth in opposition to Goldberg’s clemency. And Cheryl terry isn’t impressed by the way he distances himself from the murder, and isn’t expressing accountability. Goldberg’s answer, basically: You may not understand, but God gets it. “He has forgiven me, and I am asking mercy from man. … I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m saying that My Father is right.”

He further says: “Whether or not you let me out of prison is irrelevant … in a few short years, I will be underground myself.”

Having sat through many of these hearings before, I can tell that Goldberg isn’t going to get clemency. His age isn’t enough, nor is his good works, nor is his Christian faith. Just as in other cases, accountability and ownership of the crime trumps all, and I can tell the board members just aren’t getting what they want to hear from Goldberg.

“I am tired. I am tired of life itself,” Goldberg says in conclusion.

Now comes three people speaking on his behalf. First up is a daughter. She apologizes for his seeming defiant tone. She is citing, heavily, his declining health. And now, also, his change. “We believe that this is a horrendous act that should never have happened,” she says.

Hers is a simple plea for mercy.

“He will be a financial burden on the prison system, and I offer my home to care for him in his final years,” she says.

Next up is Jesara (?) Goldberg, who is the granddaughter. She says “the abuse did happen.”

“That man saved my life,” she says simply, and walks away.

Next up is a 20-year friend, in from West Virginia, speaking about his pal “Mel.”

Here’s more about the case. I now recall that I actually covered this 2004 hearing for the hometown weekly paper (Newport News-Miner? Something like that.). I remember getting paid $75 for it, anyway.

“He was rather henpecked by his wife. She wore the pants in the family,” the friend says.

Another friend says: “He’s a wonderful man. He’s no threat.

Now comes the opposition, in the form of Steve Tucker, the Spokane County prosecutor.

“This was one of the more sensational murder murders in Spokane County,” because he was wearing a bulletproof vest at the time he took a 12-gauge shotgun blast — in the head.

“They did a great job of covering it up because they covered it up and nobody would talk,” Tucker adds. None of the evidence could be directly traced back to the perpetrators.

Tucker insists that there was no sexual abuse, that his now-deceased daughter made up the story.

Goldberg’s trial quote is memorable in law-and-justice circles, Tucker says: ‘”I’ll make this easy for you. I did it, and I’d do it again.'”

Goldberg’s serving 26.6 years, “and that’s what I would ask that he serve.” The ex-wife, JoAnn Peterson, is serving 25 years.

Next up: Dave Salsman, a first cousin of the victim, Peter Zeihen.

“He had the chance to set the record straight for his granddaughter … and he didn’t do it,” Salsman says of Goldberg.

Also: Salsman says the family took pictures of Zeihen’s corpse as “family show-and-tell.” He says that should Goldberg get out, “I’m afraid, not just of him but what he’ll bring out on the streets with him. … For God’s sake don’t let him out.”

Board member John Turner moves that the clemency petition be denied. Board member Raul Almeida seconds it.

Board chair Margaret Smith says that successful cases should be “extraordinary,” and this case just doesn’t meet that threshold. His health problems aren’t grave, she says, and his good conduct in prison is only what’s to be expected. But mostly, “I don’t believe that Mr. Goldberg has expressed remorse,” she says.

Terry agrees. And Smith isn’t impressed by the age arguments, pointing out that he chose to particpate in murder when he was 60 years old. She still thinks he’s a threat to society. “I don’t think we’re in any position to be taking any chances,” she says.

The vote to deny is unanimous.


11:33 a.m.

Next up: The case of Kevin Bingaman, who’s asking for a commutation of his prison sentence. Can’t find anything on the case, but his mother is here , pleading for mercy on medical grounds. Bingaman apparently was in a serious accident, “and his life expectancy is that he won’t live to be 25 because of the pressure on his brain.”

Odd case, timingwise. He was convicted of his latest offense in April 2008, and his earliest release date is July 2010. The board is historically unkind to petitioners who can’t hold their water and serve out their time when there’s so little time left to serve.

But the board’s concern right now is a pattern of criminal behavior dating back to his juvenile days.

His mom: “I believe that since Kevin has been incarcerated, his thought processes have changed.” Which doesn’t make sense: If his previous choices were about neurological impairment, how can behavior modification change that?

I don’t know much about his accident, but he was in a coma for seven days and everybody here seems to agree that it was a miracle that he survived. Mom wants her son to have access to medical marijuana. He had it at home before he was imprisoned, per a doctor’s prescription, she says. She says he gets nothing for the pain now.

His latest crimes were triggered by access to alcohol in the home, it comes out.

Mom has faith in her belief that Kevin has changed, and that if released, the old problems wouldn’t resurface.Margaret Smith empathizes, saying she has crippling migraines herself, but she’s thinking it would be better to work with the DOC to get him the pain meds he needs.

Bingaman speaks: “I’m in excruciating pain.” And: “I know what I did was wrong, and I’ve learned.”

Kevin’s grandmother speaks. She spends 4-6 hours a week with him in prison, and is convinced his turnaround is real.

Board members are still unconvinced that Kevin will have the structure he needs to stay out of trouble, supervised only by a mom who’s out of work and needs a job. The plan seems long on promises and short on safeguards. “Once you go back to work, who will be responsible for his structure?” Cheryl Terry asks. Respite Care, she answers. And grandma will be involved too, she says.

Apparently, he lives in Anacortes, and was in Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after his accident. I still has no specifics on that. The discussion has sidetracked into the minutiae of his medication.

And now we’re back on track. “Since Kevin’s been incarcerated, he has grown and matured,” his mom says.

A family friend says that she’s seen him grow and become more accountable for his actions. Kevin himself speaks up and says he’s learned to make better choices about friends (apparently, it was old friends that got him the alcohol that got him in the trouble that got him in prison today).

The Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office, where Bingaman was sentenced and apparently committed his crimes (burglary and theft with a firearm, among other charges), says it already has shown leniency through reduced charges and lenient sentencing recommendations. They ask that the punishment not be reduced any further. He’s serving 24 months now

His current release date is March 2010, Turner says. Mom says July; DOC agrees.

Amanda Lee, of the board, is leaning toward clemency on medical grounds. she’s be OK with it if he were put on an ankle bracelet to provide the accountability and structure the board seems concerned about. She doesn’t want the discussion to devolve into a referendum on medical marijuana.

But Almeida and Turner stand against it, citing the criminal history and the short sentence, as well as concerns about community safety. Terry agrees, citing the role of prison structure in Bingaman’s turnaround. Smith concurs.

The vote: 4-1 to deny Kevin Bingaman’s plea for commutation.


12:13 p.m.

Next up: Margaret Haines. Again, I’ve been able to find no background on her. She’s here, seeking a pardon.

She was born in the slums of Calcutta, abandoned by parents into orphanages in the 1970s. She knew neglect, abuse and poor nutrition, her attorney says. Nobody even knows her real age. But she was adopted by an American family. That didn’t end her troubles, as she had trouble adapting to American ways.

Add “teenagers, alcohol and boys,” the lawyer says. She got pregnant, collided with her family, ran away, “got picked off by predatory elements” and pushed into prostitution. But she eventually met her husband, slowly got out her lifestyle, got good jobs, and became educated with managerial jobs. She earned certification as a nursing assistant, lives in the Seattle area.

Her convictions are for prostitution, and the felony convictions prevent her from performing more than limited duties as a nursing assistant.

“Two words describe her: Resilience … I’m impressed that she’s not embittered toward life considering where she came from. The second is compassion.”

Haines speaks: “I believe I have gotten the fairytale that many people dreamed about … having a great home, a great job and a great family.” She doesn’t blame her adoptive mom, and has repaired that relationship.

“I do have a dream, and that is to become a nurse someday. I believe in my heart and soul that nobody should be alone in life.”

What are her goals? Smith asks.

She wants to get into the nursing program at Shoreline Community College and then to the University of Washington, to become a registered nurse.

The lawyer says it’s impossible to completely trace Haines’ complete criminal history, as many aliases were used during arrests from 1988 to 1993. She had no ID, no valid birthdate. Six convictions are included in the record, per the Washington State Patrol’s WATCH report.

The husband is a MUCH older man. I’d say there’s at least 25 years between them. She has a child who just graduated from high school. They’ve been married 14 years

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg personally wrote a letter supporting a pardon for Haines. Smith calls that “extraordinary.”

Says Lee: “You’ve done amazing things with your life. It’s clear that you’ve left your criminal history behind.”

Says Turner: “Sixteen years crime-free … that to me speaks mountains.”

The vote is 5-0.

Last case coming up shortly, as one apparently dropped off the docket.


12:42 p.m.

Last up: James McMillan. Again, I can find nothing on this case online. He’s seeking a pardon.

He is here. Nice-looking, well-groomed man in his early 30s, I’d say. (Boy was I wrong; he’s 46.) He’s got a 2004 conviction for fourth-degree assault.

He wants to join the District 17 fire department out of Roy, in southeast Pierce County, but the conviction’s in the way. “They don’t want people who might explode under pressure,” he says. He not only wants to join the fire service but he wants to rejoin the National Guard, as he’s otherwise eligible to do as befitting his age and prior military service.

He cites a horrifically abusive childhood, and the inevitability that it would surface within him. But he’s taken medication, gone into counseling, changed his nutrition so he could get off the meds. He says he’ll live if he doesn’t get the fire department job, as he currently owns a painting business. “I’ll just keep trying to build that up,” he says.

The victim, a former girlfriend, has forgiven him. They even got back together after he made amends. “It was important to me to be a good parent and break that cycle of abuse,” he says. The relationship later ended for other reasons, and his current girlfriend is here with him today.

Turner, however, is hestitant because “we don’t know much about you. Your file is pretty thin. And, as you know from the news these days, we can’t give pardons very easily.”

The board voted no, but encouraged him to come back soon with a stronger petition.

And that’s a wrap. The last meeting went till almost 6:30 p.m. Today’s ends at 12:56 p.m.

Not that anybody would ever ask, but if a book publisher offered me a $1 million advance to write a book about the Amanda Knox murder case, I’d turn it down.


Given the circumstances of this case and the nine-ring circus surrounding it, I just can’t see how an author could a) write a good book that would b) sell very well.

Why do I think this? Here’s 11 reasons why I wouldn’t touch this story with an 11-foot pole.

1. What Really Happened? Given the gaps between the forensic evidence and the statements of the witnesses and the accused, I think it’s almost impossible to put together a coherent, factual narrative of what actually happened that late fall night in 2007 when Meredith Kercher was killed. A narrative without bias, that is. How does a writer objectively decide whose statements are true and which are lies? The Italian justice system made a mess of it … how can one writer improve upon that? Not saying it can’t be done, but in my view, it would take a team of Ph.D-level criminologists working for months to pick everything apart and put it back together. There’s just an overwhelming volume of stuff to sort through, only some of which is probably reliable.

2. Can You Walk The Tightrope? The nine-ring circus surrounding the case is part of the story. Given the sheer volume of blather and shrieking from all quarters, how does a lone writer pick through it all and pull out only the most representative and worthy of anecdotes and perspectives while still keeping the core narrative moving forward? And without plumping the book up to an untenable page count?

3. Will You Develop Stockholm Syndrome With Your Story? What’s more likely to happen, given the senationalist bent of the case and its polarizing nature — the people who most closely follow the case have split off into “she did it” and “she didn’t do it” camps — is that more than one book will be written with one of those points of view. I’m sure there’ll be “Amanda Knox: Victim Of Alien Justice” paperbacks just as much as I’m sure there’ll be “Amanda Knox: The Succubus Of Perugia” pulp. These books will cherry-pick the evidence and testimony to support their points of view, much as at least half a dozen books did during the O.J. Simpson trial.

And what emerges? A version that may provide cold comfort to one side or the other — the family of a dead woman and the family of a woman who will likely be inside prison until she’s almost fifty — but ultimately leaves more discerning readers dissatisfied because they’ve been brought no closer to the truth. Writers who write books that don’t satisfy generally don’t have long careers.

4. When Should You Shut Your Piehole? How do you write a book that examines a) the minutiae of the case; b) the nine-ring circus surrounding it; c) the student expatriate experience; d) the Italian justice system; e) the Madonna/whore contradiction; and f) Italian culture … and keep it under 500 pages, let alone 5,000? I know I’d make myself crazy about 5,000 times over agonizing over what to keep in and what leave out. The salad days of comprehensive, 700-plus page true-crime tomes like Joe McGinnissFatal Vision and Blind Faith are a quarter-century behind us. In these risk-averse, cost-conscious-crazed times in publishing, editors are going to fight you over every word — and they’re going to win.

5. Will Everybody Talk To You? A lazy writer could slap together an insta-book based on media coverage and other public-record documents; a better one will write a better book because he or she has the tenacity and skill to develop key relationships with the people closest to the heart of the case. But is there one writer out there who will have access to everyone needed to write the most cogent and comprehensive book possible? Think about it: Amanda Knox, from prison, will cooperate with one writer … maybe. (And that writer will have to convince me that he or she did not trade advocacy for exclusive access.) Same with Raffaele Sollecito. Who will that writer be? Will that writer have equally strong contacts in both the Knox and Meredith Kercher families? Does that same writer have access to Mignini, the prosecutor, and other key Italian officials? I personally don’t want to read a book about this case, let alone write one, that has less than near-comprehensive access and perspective. (Part of the reason I’m working on the true-crime book I’ve got in play is that I have access to every single person at the center of the crimes. With one exception so far, everybody has agreed to share their stories with me. That comprehensiveness the only reason I believe my story will work, and will be worth reading.)

6. Are We Ready to Relive The Case? Don’t underestimate the burnout factor. Many of the O.J. Simpson books that came out once the verdict was rendered were not particularly strong sellers, I’ve read. And that was before the Internet — blogs, in particular — had become a major factor in disseminating news and commentary. In other words, in the mid-’90s, information about the O.J. case — despite the 24/7 cable-TV-commentary machine — wasn’t nearly as easy to get as it would be now. Today, however, you can find online just about anything you want to find on the Amanda Knox case. Seattle writer Candace Dempsey keeps a well-followed blog, as do people representing the Meredith Kercher side, and there’s several others, all with their own particular bent. Why them, one might well ask, would I want to pay for a book when I can find all the information I want for free online? And why, that same person might well ask, would I want to read more about the case when I’ve spent two years immersed in it on a daily basis through online coverage and commentary?

While there is something to be said about having a complete narrative in one source, it won’t just be one source. There will be more than one book, and probably upwards of a dozen or more once British journalists, American journalists and Italian journalists finish making their publishing deals — not to mention the family members and other insiders looking to cash in for themselves or raise money for other people. These will inevitably vary wildly in quality, and make the non-burned-out consumer’s choice a far more difficult one. How would my book stand out in this global cacophony?

7. Just How Much Hatred Can You Take? While the true-crime writer always runs the risk (and many would say “inevitablity”) of receiving threats of bodily harm, there’s been a toxic level of that in the Knox case. I’ve been following the sheer ocean of vitriol swamping Dempsey, who will have a book coming out next year called Murder In Italy on the circumstances surrounding the case. She even had members of her family targeted for harassment. I could put up with a certain level of that toward myself. But probably a lot less than Dempsey has — and I’d have just about a zero-tolerance policy for hate aimed at my family. I’m not sure I’d back away from a project in which I’d already invested a lot of time and money, but I would be very careful in picking and choosing my projects from the outset with that kind of acidic potential — and the “emotional beatdown factor” would be part of the consideration criteria. And in a case with global impact like the Knox one, there’s always the chance that the negativity associated with one’s name would stay firmly attached when it comes time to look for future projects — and negotiate future deals with publishers.

The author that comes to mind is Jon Krakauer, the onetime Seattle resident whose books include Into The Wild, Under The Banner Of Heaven and the recent Where Men Win Glory. But, in the public consciousness, I get the impression that Krakauer will always be “the guy who got a climber killed on Mount Everest” from his own role in the mountain-climbing tragedy depicted in his Into Thin Air book — an episode for which he was buried under an avalanche of vilification, to the point that he disappeared for several years. That stigma hasn’t killed his career, but it certainly slowed his momentum — and I think he’s no longer the widely celebrated and respected literary-adventure figure he once was.

I want Jon Krakauer’s career, but I don’t want to be Jon Krakauer … as unfair as that may be. And I certainly don’t want Candace Dempsey’s e-mail inbox. I can be tough when I need to be … but I don’t usually seek out situations where I’ll need to be as tough as I can possibly be. And on the Amanda Knox case, especially given all the other problems with writing the right book on it, I’d say “pass.”

8. Million Schmillion? One million dollars sounds like a fantastic amount, but think of how fast that would evaporate in the Amanda Knox case. Between the costs of travel, the costs of the lease needed to stay in Italy for several months or even a year or more researching the case and covering the trial, the costs of meals and greasing the palms of Italian officials (where pay-for-play is much more widely the custom than in America, if that’s possible) and the costs of subsidizing a life back home, I’d think that million would pretty well evaporate within a year or so. And that doesn’t even include post-publishing costs like publicity and book tours, which publishers increasingly expect authors to cover themselves.

And God help me if my book doesn’t “earn out,” in industry parlance. If my book doesn’t sell well enough to cover my publisher’s expenses — including my advance — then not only can I expect to never see a royalty statement with a positive balance, but given the financial failure of the book, my chances of getting a decent deal for any future project in this economically-crushed, risk-averse time in publishing is somewhere between “slim” and “none.” And, as I’ve said before, I think the chances of an Amanda Knox book being a huge Sarah-Palinesque bestseller are equally between slim and none. I could be wrong, but I think I’ve got pretty good reasons for thinking I’m not.

9. Does It Keep Good Time? There’s a lot of bad timing all around. Let’s say that I successfully pitched my book to a publisher once it became clear that Amanda Knox was headed to trial. I would do so having no idea how long the trial would last. Let’s say my publisher gave me a deadline well in advance of the verdict, which they almost certainly would given the publisher’s need to meet the demands of its marketing arm to slot the book into a firm schedule for promotion purposes. What kind of book would come out of that? And who would want to read a book about a case that ends with no resolution? I sure wouldn’t … and I sure wouldn’t want to write a book like that.

Then again, let’s say my publisher agrees to let me deliver my manuscript after the verdict. My guess is that I’d need a minimum of two months to finish writing and a minimum of four months for several rounds of revisions. The publisher would then, I think, need a minimum of eight months for legal review, marketing plan development and all that other fine-print crap that publishers do. Then it has to fit into a scheduling slot in its catalog. I think it would take, altogether, a minimum of 18 months after the verdict for the book to show up at your neighborhood Barnes & Noble. Now, while I’m sure there’s still interest in the Knox case, I’m also sure that most of the people in the world will have moved on. There’ll be other sensational murder cases, other pretty and pathetic young women in distress, other things to chatter about on Nancy Grace’s TV show. Unless the book promises to be a shocking expose of lies and corruption — and actually delivers to the point that a retrial is possible — I can’t see the book as something a significant number of people will pay $28.95 for in the summer of 2011.

10. Does Truth Get In The Way Of A Good Story? While noble crusades against injustice make for good fiction, they rarely make for good nonfiction. One, they’re just not 100% reliable. If the author has an agenda to, say, prove Knox’s innocence, he or she will mold the facts to fit that premise — whether or not they’re intending to do so or even aware that they’re doing so. Two, the narratives behind the injustice and the crusade are often complicated, with all sorts of undisclosed motives, and don’t lend themselves well to coherent narratives. And three, it’s likely that nobody will care except Knox’s true believers, and while they might buy the book out of loyalty to the cause, chances are they already know or embrace 95% of what’s in the book.

11. Is This Really A Satisfying Career Move? What it comes down to is this: I just wouldn’t want to do it. I have no desire to build my name and my fame by riding a brief but intense wave of bottom-feeding media to its inevitable crash upon the sands of the public’s short attention span. I’d much rather find good stories of human character and motivation that the public doesn’t know about, so I can make them feel like they’re getting something worth their while from me that they can’t get anywhere else. That’s what books represent to me — the opportunity to offer something new to know, not something that amalgamates what we largely already know. But hey, that’s just me.

None of this should be taken to mean that I don’t wish every success to those who have decided to undertake a book about the Amanda Knox case (check that; I hope anybody pumping out an insta-book crashes and burns and suffers painful boils). Everybody’s honest sweat and toil in this business should be rewarded in equal measure.

In fact, thanks to a mutual friend, I may soon be able to line up Seattle author Candace Dempsey for an interview about her book. As with my other interviews, I’m less concerned with what the book is about than how it is about it. Stay tuned.

The Washington Corrections Center for Women doesn’t look much like a prison. The sprawling campus near Gig Harbor, built in the early 1970s, is occupied by comparatively modern single-story buildings. And situated alongside a major secondary road just off State Highway 16, it looks like nothing so much as a community college campus surrounded by razor wire.

Click here to see a video of life behind bars there.

It is the place that Jeannette Murphy has called home since October 1983.

Jeannette is the inmate I’ve come to visit Monday morning as I dash through an apocalypse of rain and check in with the desk sergeant. A moment later my shoes, belt and jacket are off for inspection as a corrections officer waves me through a sensitive metal scanner. All I’m allowed to bring in is a plain white card that can be used to purchase food and drinks in the prison visiting room. I’ve paid $20 for one; I’ve found that good prison-visiting etiquette dictates that I be in a position to offer to buy whoever I’ve come to see a snack or a soft drink or a cup of vending-machine coffee.

After waiting less than patiently in the downpour to pass through a series of electronically controlled gates, I enter the visiting room. It’s smaller than the one at McNeil Island but just as airy and light and almost cheerful, with kids’ toys and books stacked along one wall and a bank of vending machines against another. The room is nearly full of inmates — most of whom are wearing shapeless gray prison-issue sweatshirts and sweatpants — and their friends and family members, sitting at tables and chatting. A few are playing cards; Uno seems to be a particular favorite.

I check in with the visiting room sergeant and am told to wait at “Table 11.” This helps; as with my visit last week to McNeil Island to see Aaron Borrero, I really didn’t know what the person I came to see looked like. All I’d ever seen of Jeannette were photocopies of smudgy photos from her 1983 trial in The Olympian newspaper. They don’t assign you tables at McNeil, however, and Aaron and I had to do some awkward eyebrow-lifting exchanges from across the room before we finally figured it out.

Jeannette came in a few minutes later. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I had a vague mental image of someone who had been worn away by more than 26 years in prison. Someone maybe overweight from starchy institutional fare, as many of the inmates seemed to be. Someone with lines as deep as irrigation ditches around her eyes and mouth, with hair shot through with gray and iron-gray hardness in her eyes.

Instead, I was greeted by a slim, pleasantly chatty woman with a constant high-wattage smile. She looked no older than her age — 46 — and her black hair had a stylishly short trim. A media friend who knows Jeannette described her to me as “someone who seems like she represents the Junior League,” and I could instantly see what my friend meant. It was clear, too, how Jeannette earned her reputation as a leader among inmates. She’s an active and engaged listener, with nothing sullen or bitter sullying her disposition. I’d read a lot about how she counseled young women entering the prison, and counseled those destined never to leave the system, in their final days.

“I’m everybody’s shrink,” she said, with a bit of a chagrined laugh.

Chagrined because 26 years of listening to everybody else’s problems while keeping her own stuffed deep down inside could well be the reason Jeannette is still in prison. Even her visitors, she said, tended to use their face time with her to dump out their problems and rarely inquire about hers. I told her that in a way, I thought that made sense, that those of us on the outside can’t understand or empathize with life on the inside. And there’s the simple reality that many of us, inside and out, are self-involved and largely unable to see past the things that complicate our own lives.

Jeannette nodded at that. “You know, it’s funny,” she said, in a way that indicated it really wasn’t funny at all, “but in more than 20 years, nobody ever asked me what I did. Or if I did it.”

Ah, that “it.” I should probably touch on that.

In early 1983, Jeannette Murphy was 19 years old, and stuck. She was living in Lacey, a suburb just north of the capital city of Olympia with her parents, John and Elke, and her younger sister Natasha. She had just flunked out of Western Washington University in Bellingham (where I went to school a few years later), had no job, and was about to lose her boyfriend to the Army and a posting at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. But, by all accounts — including her own — the Murphys were a loving, functional, tight-knit family, with nary a hint of abuse. Jeannette wanted to join the Army herself, in a bid to join her boyfriend, and her parents made it clear that they didn’t think that was a good idea. There was also talk that both parents had had extramarital affairs in the past, affairs that Jeannette knew about. That, as far as anyone on the outside knew, was the extent of Jeannette’s problems with her parents.

On the late afternoon of April 22, 1983, Jeannette shot her father in the head with his .357 magnum handgun shortly after he arrived home from his job as the emergency-room administrator at St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, then did the same to her mother minutes later as she returned home from her job as an accountant at nearby Fort Lewis. She then set the Murphy house on fire to cover up the killings, and left to pick up 14-yearold Natasha at school. But the fire was stopped short of completely incinerating the house, and less than 24 hours later, authorities knew the that John and Elke Murphy had been shot. Jeannette denied any knowledge.

As authorities continued to find no evidence that led them to other suspects, however, they began to zero in on inconsistencies in Jeannette’s statements. About three weeks after the slayings, she took a polygraph examination at the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office. When she, in cop parlance, “blew ink all over the walls,” she was confronted with her lies. But she continued to deny any culpability, and left.

From there, panicked, she tried to cash a check, using her sister’s bank account and her mother’s name, but was denied. She then hastily packed a bag, drove to Sea-Tac Airport, bought a plane ticket to Oklahoma City and hours later dropped in on her surprised, estranged boyfriend at Fort Sill. Over the next two days, she confessed to him that she had set the house on fire, saying that her father begged her to after he shot her mother and then himself. She also claimed to be pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. She talked vaguely about leaving the county, either for Germany, where her mother was from, or Mexico.

Instead, the boyfriend persuaded her to stay with friends of his in Portland while she sorted things out. He then told his superior officer, who contacted local police, who contacted Thurston County officials, Two days later, nearly a month after the killings, Jeannette was arrested in Portland. At her trial for arson and two counts of aggravated first-degree murder, she stuck to her story of denying the killings but setting the fire. But the combined weight of her own furtive actions and the lack of evidence pointing in any other direction turned the jury against her, and she was convicted — not, as the prosecution wanted, of aggravated, premeditated murder, which would have carried a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, but just plain first-degree murder. Two counts, along with the arson.

She was sentenced to two life terms plus 30 years, and with good time and parole board approval, she could have been out as early as … this year. But then the state Sentencing Reform Act went into effect in 1984, and in 1990, the state Indeterminate Sentence Review Board (which replaced the parole board) reviewed all pre-SRA sentences and readjusted them to conform to the tougher SRA guidelines. The calculations get complicated, but the upshot is that Jeannette’s earliest possible release date was pushed back 12 more years, to October 2021.

In October 2021, Jeannette Murphy will be 58 years old, and will have spent over two-thirds of her life in prison. In fact, I just realized, it’ll be almost exactly the same stretch of years, over the same time in life, as was served by the fictional convict portrayed by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption. Right now, Jeannette is in a peculiar place, sentence-wise. She’s considered to have served her sentence for the arson, was paroled for one of the murders in 1999, and is nearly 10 years into a revised 24-year term for the second slaying. Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me, either.

It didn’t make much sense, either, to the state Clemency and Pardons board when they heard Jeannette’s petition in late April to be released early. And it was a point in Jeannette’s favor as her attorney moved on to the next point: That Jeannette has done not only good time, but great time. Between those who wrote letters on her behalf and those who actually showed up at the hearing and testified for her, some sixty people painted a portrait of her as a tirelessly sympathetic shoulder and an indefagitably hard-working volunteer. Her infraction record is pretty thin, and several prison staffers came forward to express admiration for her comportment and character.

But then came the counterweights: Her crime, and her perceived lack of ownership over it.

Jeannette publicly denied committing the murder for a long time. In fact, her first hesitant admission came at the 1999 hearing in which she was paroled for the one murder. Since then, she’s been equally hesitant to expand on it. Her attorney, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, who has handled several such cases, tried to smooth it over before the board members by steering them back to her good conduct and good works. “Actions speak louder than words,” McCloud said. But board chairwoman Margaret Smith wasn’t buying in: “I get what you are saying … but I think words are important here, too.”

Her point: Without ownership of the crime — a stated understanding of what she did and why she’ll never do it again in a way that doesn’t sound scripted — board members wouldn’t feel that they could assure the governor that’ll she never do it again. And freeing a convicted murderer from prison is one of the most politically risky things a governor can do. Anybody remember Michael Dukakis and Willie Horton?

So Jeannette had to come up with the words. And, well … she just couldn’t. Not very well, anyway, even though she did manage the words: “I killed my parents.” The most she could say to explain it was this: “The crime itself is unspeakable.” That wasn’t good enough, and she knows it.

And, as we talked Monday in the visiting room, she’s aware that she choked. Part of it, she said, was that she was ill-prepared for the hearing, unaware of the format and the process. And part of it was being unprepared, period. In prison, she explained to me, it’s easy to talk about your crimes with other inmates because they’ve been where you are and “there’s no judgment in their eyes.” (Though, she said, they don’t often spill their guts to one another about their crimes.) But she’s never discussed the murders with anyone with whom she felt there was a risk of judgment. And part of the reason for that is her everybody’s-shrink quality — people come to her with their problems, she said, and she rarely feels with them that she can interject with their own.

In its deliberations, the five-member board zeroed in on Jeannette’s difficulties in accepting public responsibility for her crimes as “the weakest part of her petition.” And then the votes were taken. One board member supported her petition, citing the arbitrary inconsistency of the shifting sentencing guidelines that have governed her time. Another said, simply, “I got to think of the victims here.” In the end, Jeannette’s petition failed by a 4-1 vote. She was invited to reapply in “a couple of years.”

Another reason for why Jeannette choked, she said, is that as a long-timer, she hasn’t had the same access to mental-health counseling that shorter-term inmates have. Not all prisoners get the same privileges and program access. I imagine the state Department of Corrections’ rationale is something like: Why should we invest professional services in somebody unlikely to benefit from them on the outside … because, hello, she won’t be on the outside anytime soon? Then again, who needs help just getting by day to day more than someone who committed an “unspeakable” act? Such as, say, orphaning yourself in spectacularly violent fashion as a teenager?

But she wasn’t offered that kind of help, she told me, and as a result, all she could do was stuff the pain and the unanswered questions deep down inside. For years and years and years. She could occasionally take advantage of group therapy sessions, however, and could sometimes see a counselor (many of whom, she told me, were more interested in pumping her for gossip about other prison staffers than in helping her).

In the mystic and secretive ways of the corrections system, however, a huge silver lining emerged after the April hearing. Jeannette was suddenly given access to a top-tier therapist, with whom she does role-playing in which she reenacts the horrific events of 1983. “He really kicks my butt,” she told me. And, in a way, cooperating with me for the book I’d like to write about her story may be good therapy for her as well. That isn’t necessarily my purpose, of course, but as I sat in the prison visiting room talking and even occasionally joking with her, I realized that I liked her and was OK with the idea that she would benefit in some way from my work. (It’s important to like the people at the center of the story you propose to tell. My late mentor Jack Olsen once told the story of spending nearly a year chasing the story of a federal agent who was framed in a series of rapes in New York City. And while the facts were compelling enough for a good Olsen book, one fact stood above them all, Jack said: “He was an asshole, and I couldn’t write the book because he was an unsympathetic character — both for me to work with and the reader.”)

Jeannette, despite the fact that she murdered her parents, is not an unsympathetic character. You’ll be repulsed by what she did, but you won’t be repulsed by her. It’s an intriguing tension that I think serves her well as the central character or a book.

That brought us a big step forward from our first letters several months before, in which she expressed wariness of the media and seemed concerned that I would be focusing exclusively on the murders and the trial. So, in a reply letter and again on Monday, I reiterated my purpose: “I will not be focusing exclusively on 1983. But neither will I be ignoring it. It’s a vital piece of a larger story.” And I made clear that working together means that at some point, we’re going to have to talk head-on and in detail about the murders, about the arson, about the lies she told in the days and weeks and months and years afterward. And that she’s going to have to tell me why she did it, and that she’ll have to overcome the overwhelming instinct to talk around it.

And she nodded. She understands that. Just as she understands that I am going to interview people who may not have the nicest of things to say about her (as well as a lot of people who do). She understands that I am her storyteller, not her advocate. And, on the other hand, I understand that if my work ends up being used to advocate her the next time she comes up before the Clemency and Pardons Board … well, then so be it.

So, as our time together — nearly two hours — drew to a close, I realized that I had the same feeling with Jeannette Murphy that I had with Aaron Borrero the week before. The feeling that I had chosen well, that I had made a connection with someone capable of digging deep for me — and capable of recognizing that doing so means doing good for themselves along the way. That I had found someone with a powerful story to tell, a story that would find an audience that’s thirsty for it. We shook hands again, agreeing that I would be back to see her two weeks later.

A moment later, I stood in the relentless rain, waiting for the first of several razor-wire-ringed gates to open, feeling cold rivulets of water run down the back of my collar. And I smiled.

Because Book Number 2 is a go.

A Little Housekeeping

Some odds and ends:

— We do have a winner from last week’s drawing for a free, inscribed copy of my friend Craig Lancaster‘s debut novel, 600 Hours Of Edward. From 11 scraps of paper in a baseball cap, I drew the name of Kristin Hanes, my favorite Seattle radio news reporter. Congratulations, Kristin … and thank you to everyone else who participated in last week’s Q&A with Craig. And even though you didn’t win, I hope you’ll buy a copy of the book. Not only is it a great, fun, breezy, poignant read, but it’s a great way to support small-press authors who get no advances and have to cover most of their own marketing and promotion expenses.

— I’ve packed it in on NaNoWriMo after seeing early on that while I think I’ve got a great idea for a genre mystery novel and enjoy working on it, I just don’t have the time to write on it enough to maintain the necessary pace of nearly 2,000 words a day to get to the finish line at the end of November. Right now, on Nov. 13, I’m at 8,633 words, when I should be at a minimum of about 24,000. But, like I said, I do think I’m onto something good, and I’ll git ‘er done eventually.

— I submit monthly reviews and interviews with Pacific Northwest authors of mystery and true-crime books to Reading Local Seattle, and last week saw the posting of my review of Bainbridge Island author Anthony Flacco‘s The Road Out Of Hell. (The short version: It’s a good book, and Flacco masterfully carries off the difficult and ethically tricky task of recreating vast swaths of dialogue between long-deceased people while staying true to both the spirit and the letter of what actually happened.)

— My latest monthly piece for 1st Turning Point, a Seattle-based Web site of shared marketing and promotion strategies for authors, is titled “Pissing Matches As Platform Builders?” It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the only semi-ludicrous idea that staging a literary feud with an acid-tongued reviewer could be a good way to boost an author’s visibility — and sales. I hearken back to the late Jack Olsen‘s long-running, high-profile feud with The Seattle Times to make my half-serious point.

— In the If You Write It, They Will Come Dept., the fine Self Publishing Review has asked me for permission to reprint my Q&A with Craig Lancaster, whose book was originally self-published. I said yes; it should go up sometime this weekend, I’m told. And apropos of nothing, the Twitter site of Field’s End, a celebrated authors’ collective on my hometown of Bainbridge Island, posted a link to my blog about my visit to the state prison at McNeil Island. Nice little boosts for everybody. I love how that works.

— Speaking of prison visits, look next week for my report on my planned Monday visit to the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor. I’ll be meeting for the first time with Jeannette Murphy, a woman who has been behind bars for more than 26 years for shooting both of her parents in the head and setting their Lacey home on fire to cover it up in early 1983, when she was 19. She’s done well in prison, becoming one of the facility’s most prominent inmate leaders. And while she narrowly fell short of her bid for clemency from the governor at an April hearing, I think she’s got a good shot at making it in her next bid in two to three years. All that’s missing for her is a clear and unhesitant vocal ownership of her crime. She has to be able to say what she did and why she did it to the governor’s Clemency and Pardons Board in such a way that they’ll feel confident in telling the governor that she’ll never do it again. It’s my hope that I can nudge her in that direction — it’s not only in her best interests, but in the interests of a future crime book I’d like to write.

— And I remain hard at work on a planned news article about Robert Holmes, a convicted rapist and murderer who sought a governor’s pardon, won a recommendation from the Clemency and Pardons Board — but was turned down this summer by the governor’s office. I’ve done several interviews, including ones with Holmes and the parents of the teenage victim — and have a partial first draft written. It’s my hope to have this all wrapped up within two weeks, and ready to pitch to local news outlets.

Check in with y’all next week.

Jim Goes To Prison


My first thought as rains let up and the ferry drew me close to McNeil Island for the first time: Holy crap! The island is being attacked by giant mutated Slinky worms!

946162.standalone.prod_affiliate.5Yes, there really are that many loops of razor wire all over McNeil Island Corrections Center. Which, I suppose, is as it should be. McNeil may be a medium-security facility, housing short-term inmates rather than the worst of the worst, but it is a prison nonetheless — the last island prison in the United States. And the mainland isn’t far away — less than a mile in places to the north and west from where it rests in the South Puget Sound region of Washington state. And escapes were not uncommon from McNeil, at least not in its days as a federal prison prior to 1981.

McNeilmap1980In my 20-plus years as a Washington journalist, I’ve been to the prisons in Shelton, Walla Walla and Monroe to cover stories for newspapers and interview inmates. I’ve been to the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor more than 20 times (and will be back next week; more on that later). But that rainy Monday marked not only my first trip to McNeil, but my first visit as a citizen rather than a journalist.

My mission: To meet with a man convicted of attempted murder, to see if he’s willing to cooperate with me for the book I hope to write about his crime.

I’ll recap here briefly: Aaron Borrero is the man, who, in March 1997, participated in the robbery and attempted killing of fellow drug dealer Les Lemieux in Kent. Borrero is the one who actually dumped the hogtied Lemieux into the Yakima River to die. By a miracle, Lemieux survived. But not knowing that, Borrero took off for California — along with girlfriend Elizabeth Hernandez, also wanted for attempted murder in the shooting of her ex-boyfriend. The two were featured on America’s Most Wanted and, after two months on the run, were turned in by an AMW tipster. Borrero stood trial in 1998 and received nearly 23 years for first-degree kidnapping and first-degree attempted murder. His earliest possible release date is early 2017.

But Borrero turned his life around in prison, taking ownership of his crimes and personal failures along the way,and his good behavior got him a transfer to McNeil. It also gave him the idea of making a bid for clemency and an early release through Gov. Christine Gregoire‘s office. At his September hearing, Lemieux surprisingly testified in support of Borrero’s early release, and an impressed Clemency and Pardons Board voted unanimously to recommend to Gov. Gregoire that Borrero be released within 18 months. Today, that recommendation awaits a decision from Gregoire. That could happen tomorrow, or next month, or a year from now. Or it could happen on the last day of Gregoire’s term. By statute, it’s entirely up to her.

I knew at that hearing that I wanted to write about this remarkable case, and I set about securing the cooperation of the two principals. Les Lemieux, who did prison time himself for drug dealing, agreed to work with me, and we started formal interviewing on Nov. 2. Aaron Borrero responded to my letter with a short one saying that he wanted to meet with me before he made his decision. And as soon as I received state Department of Corrections clearance to visit McNeil, I set a time and date through Aaron’s helpful mother.

15728306Because I was “just” a visitor this time and not going over as a member of the media (arranging formal prison interviews is a far more complicated process), I had to leave all the tools of my trade — notepad, pen, camera and digital recorder — behind in a locker on the Steilacoom side of the water. A shuttle bus then took me and a dozen or so other inmate visitors to the ferry terminal, about 15 miles south of Tacoma, and we boarded the passenger vessel Neil Henly — named for a former McNeil superintendent — for a crossing of about 25 minutes.

From Steilacoom, McNeil loomed a couple of miles southwest, its whitish-gray buildings a start contrast to the dense thickets of evergreens, cedars and maples surrounding it. It was odd to see the shoreline of a Puget Sound island waterfront uncluttered by the luxury homes that pockmarked Fox Island to the north and Anderson Island to the south.

But it made sense, given that McNeil Island has been a prison island as long as Washington has been a state, and that no private citizens have lived there since 1935. In fact, the non-building part of the island — i.e., most of it — has an otherwordly land-that-time-forgot quality. On the bus ride to the ferry headed back to Steilacoom that afternoon, we traveled through beautiful, rolling, tree-dotted greenery punctuated here and there with weathered white clapboard houses on sagging foundations that looked for all the world like something out of Depression-era small-town Saskatchewan.

That central part of McNeil looked as though the island had been evacuated by the Joad family from The Grapes Of Wrath, and left untouched since by the presence of humanity. Small wonder that the place we departed from was called Still Harbor.

On the arrival trip in the late morning, we trudged up the dock and along a winding, wire-crowded path to the building housing the McNeil visiting room, which looked for all the world like an elementary school cafeteria. Which, I suppose, was the idea — as I walked in, I saw children playing with toys, board games and coloring books at table. Their daddies, many of which had gang tattoos crawling up their necks, smiled and laughed in delight as their kids happily busied themselves. More common was the sight of adult visitors playing cards with their inmate friends and family members.

I waited at a table for just a few minutes until a handsome, bespectacled, shaven-headed, lightly complected Hispanic man in his mid-thirties walked out from the main prison housing complex and caught my eye. It occurred to me, at just that second, that I had no idea what Aaron looked like, but I felt certain this had to be him. We shook hands with a smile and sat to talk.

Within three minutes of conversation, I knew I had chosen well. Aaron is not only personable, but bright, articulate, thoughtful, possessed of a strong memory and infinitely willing to embrace his failings and his crimes. I have a pretty strong bullshit detector, but my antennae didn’t twitch in the slightest as we talked for nearly two hours. As he spoke, I developed an increasingly focused picture of a man who realizes that the key to a successful future lies in claiming complete ownership of his past.

His path to redemption began some eight years before, after a series of “dirty UAs” — positive drug tests — while he was incarcerated in the far more hardcore state penitentiary in Walla Walla. According to Aaron, the corrections sergeant who administered the most recent test said, essentially, “You’re a better person than this, I can tell … what are you doing here? I don’t want to see you here again.” And then he sent Aaron, as he was obliged to do, to “the hole.”

It was in solitary confinement that Aaron did the reassessment that started his life on a different course. Since then, Aaron’s prison record has been almost completely clean. He repaired his relationships and reconnected with a lot of his childhood friends, many of who knew him since before his days as a cheerfully womanizing football star at Kentridge High School. He embraced an interesting mix of Christianity and self-empowerment through motivational speakers like Anthony Robbins. (I got the impression that Robbins’ book Awaken The Giant Within was just about as important to him as the Bible.) He’s also a big fan of Warren Buffett, and has a deep interest in financial planning and investing.

He spoke with remarkable candor about his crimes, starting with an armed assault just after his 1993 graduation from high school that landed him in a King County work-release program. It was through a work-release contact that Aaron made his first drug-dealing connection, and from there developed a reputation through Kent as a badass drug dealer who was not above robbing other dealers. Everything he told me checks out with the official record.

Aaron Borrero doesn’t deny what his did to Les Lemieux, and their stories largely agree. But he does feel that he took the fall for the crime’s mastermind, a guy named Kyle Anderson, who managed to escape clean after two mistrials. And after reading the police documents and court transcripts from his case, I’m inclined to agree that of the three people who participated in the robbery and attempted murder of Lemieux, Borrero’s punishment was disproportionate to his culpability. In other words, he deserved the sentence he got — but the other two should have been at least equally punished. But that’s not an argument I’ll make in my book. That’s not my purpose. It’s simply my belief that once the reader takes in all the facts, that’s the conclusion they’ll come to.

Anyway, the upshot is this: Aaron Borrero has agreed to fully cooperate with me as I prepare this book (which I have tentatively titled Everybody Here Gets Out Alive). And to that end, we’ll meet every two or three weeks on Monday afternoons. He’s also agreed to help secure the cooperation of others I’ll eventually want to talk to, including Elizabeth Hernandez, the mother of his youngest child. Hernandez got out of prison in 2004, lives in the Seattle area, and the two amicably co-parent their son even though they’re no longer a couple.

So this, in essence, means that Everybody Here Gets Out Alive is a go. Even if none of the secondary characters in the story agree to work with me, I’ll still have enough material for a good book based on police reports, court documents, trial transcripts, the Clemency and Pardons Board records … and the detailed memories of Aaron Borrero and Les Lemieux.

The best ending I can think of? In my first meeting with Les, I asked him if he would be willing to meet with Aaron once all the legal issues are behind them (there’s a lifetime restraining order between the two, which is pretty much automatic for any attempted murderer and his victim, but it can be lifted if the victim wants it lifted).

He said yes.

On Monday, I asked Aaron the same question. He too said yes.

I would very much like to be present for that moment. It would be an incredible way to conclude an incredible story.


Edward Stanton is a man hurtling headlong toward middle age. His mental illness has led him to be sequestered in his small house in a small city, where he keeps his distance from the outside world and the parents from whom he is largely estranged. For the most part, Edward sticks to things he can count on…and things he can count. But over the course of 25 days (or 600 hours, as Edward prefers to look at it) several events puncture the walls Edward has built around himself. In the end, he faces a choice: Open his life to experience and deal with the joys and heartaches that come with it, or remain behind his closed door, a solitary soul.

— The back-cover copy for 600 Hours Of Edward, by Craig Lancaster

Last year at about this time, my good friend Craig Lancaster and I started the National Novel Writing Month event together. We checked in on each other every day, held each other accountable, talked one another through our struggles, kept each other excited about writing.

Only I blew it, getting bogged down by a bad start in mid-month, deciding to start over, and coming up short of the 50,000-word finish line by Nov. 30.

DSCF9547Craig, on the other hand, succeeded at NaNoWriMo in a way almost nobody has. He not only finished his novel, but finished early at nearly 80,000 words. And after a short tweaking period, he self-published the novel — then titled 600 Hours Of A Life — and set about it promoting and marketing it from his home base in Billings, Montana. Despite some missteps borne of inexperience, he made enough connections among the local literati and generated enough positive word-of-mouth that he wound up being offered a traditional publishing deal through Riverbend Publishing. The revamped novel — now titled 600 Hours Of Edward — rolled out Nov. 1 and is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

That’s right, folks … from nothing at NaNoWriMo time to mainstream publishing success in a year. I couldn’t be more proud of my pal.

As such, I think there’s a lot that all of us who have struggled to finish a novel — let alone get one published — could learn from Craig’s story. So, below is a Q&A I’ve done with him that may answer a lot of questions you may have about how he did it — and how you can do it.

And, as a guest blogger, Craig will be checking in throughout the day to answer your questions and respond to your comments. And to sweeten the deal, I’ll be giving away a copy of Craig’s novel through a random drawing; everyone who posts a comment or a question for Craig is entered into the drawing.

Thanks, my readers. And thanks, Craig. (By the way, if you haven’t already, follow him on Facebook here and on his fan page here.)

Q: I know you well enough to know that YOU are not Edward Stanton, the protagonist of 600 Hours Of Edward — even though you’re both fans of Dragnet, the Dallas Cowboys and rocker Matthew Sweet. So where did he come from? Was it from anything in your own experience?

A: That’s funny, because one of my family members, upon reading the book, said, “That’s you!” You’re right, of course. He’s not me. But I think, were Edward real, he and I could connect on a very narrow range of subjects we’re both interested in.

Edward’s creation stems from the chestnut about writing what you know. The things he likes are things I like, but those are only background pieces to flavor the story. His personality, his mannerisms, his heart — the things that ultimately make the story what it is — are his alone. He’s more afflicted, less bombastic, more regimented and far sweeter than I could ever be. I once described my method of creating characters like this: I steal attributes from people I know, and then I give them a good, hard twist into something else entirely. That’s what happened with Edward.

Q: 600 Hours Of Edward was written largely during NaNoWriMo in 2008. How much did the unique discipline of the event — the challenge to pound out at least 50,000 words in 30 days — fit with your personal work ethic?

A: I like to get to it, and NaNoWriMo certainly demands that. But I’d tried the event before and never made it very far, so I had more going for me than discipline. Actually, in a big sense, I credit you for what happened in those 24 days (that’s right — I finished the nearly 80,000 words of 600 Hours a week before the event ended). I was going to sit out NaNoWriMo 2008. I’d had a rough year, and I was just starting to emerge whole from a motorcycle accident I’d had in July of that year. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want any more disappointment, and up to that point NaNoWriMo had been nothing but disappointing. But when you asked if I’d take part, I thought about it and figured I’d give it a whirl. I spent a day thinking up the broad outlines of Edward’s story, and on Nov. 1 I got to work.

Once I hit about 20,000 words, I knew I had something, but I was writing so quickly that I wasn’t sure how good it would ultimately be. I’m a pretty fast writer under any circumstance, but this was a marathon at sprint speed. These days, I still write every day, but I’ve learned to walk away when the wheels go a little wobbly. Whether it’s 400, 750 or 2,000 words that I’ve managed to get down, I know I’ve pushed down the road. Eventually, they all add up to a novel, if you keep going.

Q: Given your knock-it-out-of-the-park success with NaNoWriMo on your first go, what advice would you offer others who seem to struggle with the challenge?

A: NaNoWriMo 2008 wasn’t my first go; I’d attempted it at least twice previously. But it was the first time I’d put my ass in the chair and made myself write. The primary reason I was able to do so was I had a plan (read: outline) and a pretty clear idea of where I wanted to go. Those things help. Beyond that, I would tell anyone taking part in the event to really take the spirit of it to heart. The goal is to write 50,000 words, not 50,000 pristine, ready-to-be-published words. Allow yourself to write with abandon and with a minimum of cogitation. Accept the high probability that you’ll squeeze out some dreck. Form a symbiotic relationship with your story and write the living daylights out of it. If, at the end of 30 days, you have a good pile of clay to work with, you can worry about the finer points in December and beyond, as you hone it into something more approximating art.

In other words, don’t even worry about publication. Not yet.

Q: One of the more remarkable things about 600 Hours Of Edward, to me, is that you steer well clear of what I think of as “Debut Novelist Disease.” You don’t drown your characters and themes in dense poetic prose — in fact, you seem to have an excellent feel for what to leave out so that the story zips along and develops its characters and themes along the way. How did you manage to steer clear of the need almost every other first-timer has to describe the leaves on the trees and the dew on the grass and give every character a zillion pages of backstory?

A: My answers to these questions notwithstanding, I’ve always been a fairly spare writer. Part of that comes from my grounding in journalism and its demand that you draw the shortest line from A to B. Part of it stems from emulating writers I’ve admired, particularly Hemingway. When I was in high school, I mainlined Hemingway’s stories. At his very best, he wrote the most muscular, uncluttered prose imaginable. I think it’s a real shame that his style has fallen out of favor in popular literature, because to me, it’s timeless.

Here’s the other thing: Every time you flash back, or describe a room in punishing detail or whatever, the forward motion of a story stops, and so does that pleasant feeling of being swept along for the reader. You have to be able to judge when it’s OK — nay, when it’s vital — to stop the story like that. In all other instances, resist the urge.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing, to me, is letting the reader have some control over what a scene/person/object looks like. In 600 Hours, Edward spends a bit of time in his basement, building a toy for Kyle, the neighbor boy who is the first person to start breaking through Edward’s wall. I didn’t describe the basement at all. I figured that single word — “basement” — was evocative enough for anybody reading the story. He or she can decide whether it smells dank, or it’s finished, or where the work bench is, or how steep the stairs are. It’s out of my hands.

Q: Speaking of publication, how would you describe that feeling when you first held a bound, finished book, written by you, in your hands?

A: Everybody says it’s surreal, and everybody is right. You can’t help but think of what it took to get there and the high hopes you have for it.

That said, the biggest emotional payoff for having written a book is not rooted in the physical book living on someone’s shelf but in the story living in the mind of someone who’s read it and enjoyed it.

Q: You originally self-published 600 Words Of Edward. How well did that work out?

A: I would call it a mixed bag of success. I did so many things wrong, but I also did the biggest thing right: I wrote a good novel that captured the attention of a publisher who could do more for it than I could in terms of getting it out there. (The hard pushing of marketing and meeting readers and stumping for the book still fall largely to me, and that’s fine. Great, even.) In my haste to get the book into people’s hands, I emerged with a story that still needed editing and a cover that absolutely screamed “poor self-publish job.” Because the book was print on demand, I was slowly able to make good on those things, but it was a less-than-professional way to go about it, and one that still embarrasses me.

Q: What do you know now about self-publishing that you would have liked to have applied to that experience?

A: I would have been much more deliberate — securing a good editor and a good cover designer before the book ever saw the light of day. I would test-driven parts of it with public readings. I would have realized the value in a slower build, in getting blurbs and sending out review copies well in advance of the release. Slapped-together projects (very) occasionally work in publishing, but the smart money is on steady and professional. Self-publishers, more than anybody else, need to go with the smart money.

Q: Based on your experience, for whom can self-publishing work?

A: Despite some notable success stories — like my friend Carol Buchanan, who won a Spur Award for her self-published debut, God’s Thunderbolt — it’s undeniably a tough road for fiction writers. The audiences are harder to find and identify — this is also true for traditional publishers — and the legwork, beyond the marketing expected of almost any writer, tends to get in the way of the next book.

Peter Bowerman, the author of The Well-Fed Self-Publisher, contends that someone with a surefire nonfiction book and an established platform can realize some impressive pure profit by self-publishing. He seems to be proof of that contention. So I think, in a general sense, that nonfiction will fare better in that realm. Of course, nonfiction also fares better in the traditional realm.

I’m interested to see what the massive tectonic shifts in the industry hold for self-publishers. It seems obvious to me that the playing field is leveling a bit.

Q: Does having your book picked up by a publisher make you feel more “legit”? Or does your literary self-esteem come from other places?

A: I’m going to say yes, but in a very narrow sense. My publisher, Riverbend Publishing, has a reach into my market that I couldn’t replicate on my own, and if that reach means that more people will now read my book, that’s a good thing for my so-called legitimacy as an author. But the story was just as good when the book was a print-on-demand item that I moved one at a time.

As far as literary self-esteem goes, that comes strictly from readers. They’re the completion of the circle. The publishing apparatus is the necessary middleman between me and them.

Q: How has your newspaper background helped you as a novelist? Has it detracted in any way?

A: There is no writer’s block in journalism. You write, no matter what. So the biggest help has come from that. I have the discipline to sit down and do it, and if you sit down and write enough times, you’re going to reach the finish line (unless you’re Michael Douglas’ character in Wonder Boys). Journalism also helped me develop a sense for recognizing a good story — not just “news,” but also subtle human stories that really form the backbone of what I try to do as a novelist. I’m grateful for the ability to pluck those moments of inspiration out of the air.

Beyond the physical act of pounding the keyboard, newspaper writing and fiction writing are entirely different things. When I edit a news story, I want the salient details up top, because I’m banking on the fact that a good number of readers will never make it to the end. (Hmmm. Maybe I’ve identified what makes so many newspaper stories so relentlessly pedestrian.) With fiction, you assume that readers will reach the denouement and structure the story accordingly.

Q: You’re a very fast worker. Are you a writer who generally trusts his first instincts and find that they hold up through the revision process? How do you keep from paralyzing yourself over word choices, prose cadence, segues, plot points and the like?

A: My first instincts get plenty of challenges, but that happens in subsequent drafts. On the first go, I just try to get it down, baby. If you’re in perpetual first-draft mode, agonizing over every little thing, the finish line will never come into view.

I’m enormously hard on my work in the second draft. Things get bloody. The third draft may bring a smaller amount of corrective surgery. After that, I apply spit and polish.

I’ll say this: I’m thankful that it isn’t more of an ordeal. I know writers who put down 150,000 words in a first draft and spend subsequent drafts cutting that in half. That would drive me crazy. Or crazier.

Q: Writing for a small publishing outfit, you’re largely responsible for promoting your work and getting it into the hands of paying readers. What, in your view, are some of the best high-upside, low-cost ways of making that happen?

A: This is one of them. You have a lot of readers, and you’ve given me an opportunity to talk up my book. I’m involved in social networking about to my tolerance point — because I love it on its merits, and because it allows me to connect with readers and potential readers.

But here where I live, nothing beats shoe leather. I’m planning to support the bookstores that stock my novel, and I’ll go to any public library or civic group that will have me. And then I’ll hope that the math of word of mouth favors my book. We shall see.

Q: How confident do you feel in your public persona as an author? Do you feel comfortable giving readings, speaking to classes, gladhanding, talking with strangers, making friends among other authors?

A: I’m still a newbie at this, and I still have a vivid memory of my first public reading — the shakiness of my hands, the waver in my voice. But I got through it, and I’ve gotten progressively better at standing in front of a group of people and talking. Maybe I should join Toastmasters and really ramp up my game.

The thing that I struggle with, on a personal level, is that I’m fairly goofy, and I have to guard against that becoming too closely associated with my work, which is intended to be taken seriously. So in a public situation, I try to straddle that line between warm and amiable — which I am — and irrepressibly stupid. Which I also am.

Q: Who are some established authors you’ve gotten close to, and what have they been willing to do for you? What do you feel you can do for them … or do to honor in some way what they’ve done for you?

A: I’m lucky to live in a such a richly literary place as Montana. In my town alone, there are several established writers who have been very generous with their time and counsel, among them Sue Hart, Russell Rowland and T.L. Hines. Sue, who has forgotten more about the literature of the West than I’ll ever be able to learn, has invited me to her classroom and introduced me to other folks (and wrote a hell of a nice blurb for my book). I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to repay Russell for all he’s done. It was his encouragement, after he read 600 Hours, that convinced me I had something worthwhile. He’s given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And Tony has been a good friend to talk to about publishing and pop culture. We’re both kids of the ’70s and ’80s and we like a lot of the same stuff, and that makes our chatter free and easy.

Ron Franscell is another one, although not a Montanan. He’s been a vast resource for tips on staying sane and for some good, rollicking conversation.

I think the best thing I can do to honor them is to follow their example and be generous with my time and advice if I’m ever sought out in a similar way.

Q: 600 Hours Of Edward is set in Montana, and while its settings are largely urban and suburban, your reverence for the flavor and mythology of the West is obvious. What is it about Montana — and Billings, specifically — that speaks to you as an author as much as a person? Could 600 Hours Of Edward work just as well if it was set in, say, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania?

A: Billings is where I live and the place I know best, so it was an easy decision to drop Edward into this world. I’ve never been to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but I suspect that Edward’s story could have been told there. You’d just have to change up some of the details; maybe Edward’s father would have a background in state government rather than in Big Oil.

In the stories I love best, setting is almost another character. Think of Of Mice and Men and that farm near the central California coast. Could Steinbeck have set it on a dude ranch in New Mexico? Maybe. But that changes the fabric of the story. Had he done that, we wouldn’t know what we were missing, of course, but imagining it retroactively takes something away from us.

Ultimately, I strive for a setting that provides a distinct flavor but a story that has universal themes.

Q: When you’re working, what’s a tolerable level of distraction? Music or no? Facebook or none? Dogs on your lap or no?

A: Absolute quiet and no external distractions. I’m lucky in that my most productive hours are after I get off work, between midnight and 3 a.m. My wife is in bed, the dogs are tucked away, and Facebook is more or less quiet. I sit in the dark and I try to find my way through the next scene, the next chapter, the next plot point.

Q: Do you ever have days where the words just won’t come? How do you deal with that?

A: If I’ve committed myself to writing on a given day, I really try not to leave without having pushed the plow down the field. I may know that I’ll never let the resulting pablum see the light of day, that I’ll double back and fix it at the first opportunity, but at least I will have done *something.*

As I write this, I’m in the middle of a lengthy break from fiction writing. In late July, I finished my second novel (now in the query stage), and I promised my wife that after writing two novels in less than a year, I’d let her see my face for a while. (And, to be honest, I needed the emotional recharge.) I’m about to start up again, and I’m eager to see how that goes.

Q: What expectations do you have for yourself in terms of eventually becoming a self-supporting, full-time writer?

A: It’s certainly my aim, though I’m heeding the advice of my friend Ron Franscell, who warns me that it’s a long road. Whether I ever get there, I’m going to keep writing and keep hoping that someone will find my stories worthy of publication. And, most important, that readers will find them worthy of their time and money. I don’t take either of those things for granted.

Q: What’s next for you? What can you say about Novel #2?

A: It’s finished. I’ve tentatively titled it Gone to Milford. Like 600 Hours, it delves into human relationships, but it comes with much darker undercurrents. 600 Hours is a very straight-ahead, sequential tale. Milford, I think, is the more difficult achievement. It spans a few decades and puts more things into play.

Here’s how I described it in query letters:

Mitch Quillen is in a rut. He’s on the cusp of his forties, his marriage is peeling apart, and his career has gone sideways. When his estranged father, Jim, calls unexpectedly — and then keeps calling — Mitch views the intrusion as one more problem he’s ill-equipped to handle.

Compelled by his wife to leave their home and go to his father, Mitch embarks on a journey not only forward in the here and now but also backward through a father-son relationship gone horribly wrong. Mitch goes to his father hoping to square accounts and find peace with what happened in the summer of 1979 in a small Western town, the place to which he traces a lifetime of losses. He finds reconciliation at home and with his father, and it comes with a harrowing yet affirming lesson in the power and the poison of the things we keep inside, and what happens when our secrets are dragged into the light.

Q: Any interest in doing genre fiction, or book-length nonfiction?

A: Genre fiction doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me, at least not as a writer. I sometimes wish it did; if I could write two or three thrillers a year, my future in this business would probably be much more clear.

When I moved to Montana in 2006, it was partly with the idea that I would write a nonfiction book about my dad, who grew up here and whose young life was like something out of a Dickens novel. But then life and work took over, and I never made much progress on the intensive research such a project would require. As it is, I’ve managed to exorcise some of those compulsions through my fiction. It’s no accident that father-son relationships drive the narrative of both of my completed novels.

Q: What’s the nicest thing someone’s said to you about your writing?

A: A dear friend wrote to me some weeks back and told me that she works with someone who’s a lot like Edward — irrevocably fixated on details, difficult to know, obstinate and probably suffering from some of what ails my character (who’s OCD and has Asperger syndrome). She said that since reading my book, she has found herself caring more about him and being more patient with him. That brought tears to my eyes. I mean, imagine that: a fictional character inspiring more empathy in real people. And, brother, I can’t think of anything we need more than a greater understanding of each other.

… and they’re still hurting, and they’re still angry.

This morning, I spent a little over an hour on the phone with the parents of a girl who was killed in January 1979, when she was just 16 years old.

Almost any journalist will tell you that talking to the victims of sudden, violent deaths — and convincing them to share their memories and reactions with the world — is the roughest gig in the business.

I’ve done it before in my newspaper-reporter days, often just hours after somebody’s kid died in a car crash or somebody’s spouse went down in a plane — and it’s every bit as brutal as you might think. Even worse, it gets you to questioning what you’re doing, and just how you came to choose a career path that put you squarely in the path of a private person’s private pain.

The answer we eventually come to is this: That people usually want to talk about their loved ones, and that having them do so benefits everyone. That being a conduit for shared empathy and sympathy in your shared community is a good thing.

And it is.

And yet … damn, it makes my guts roil and boil. Mucking about in human misery will do that.

If you’re good enough, and a little lucky, however, you can make something magical come out of it. I think of my late friend Jack Olsen, the “dean of true-crime writers,” whose 1996 book Salt Of The Earth told the story of the abduction and murder of a 12-year-old — and the later suicide of her anguished father — through the eyes of the mother and wife, Elaine Gere.

Olsen spent some two years with her, patiently extracting an incredible amount of detail about her early life and her more painful later memories. And the reviewers took note: “By viewing the world through the eyes of Elaine Gere and her devastated family, he finds the core values that enabled them not only to survive and flourish, but, in the end, to triumph. Salt of the Earth is a remarkable saga of indomitability, an inspiring and cathartic elegy to the increasing numbers of Americans whose lives are transformed by violence.”

I doubt I’ll ever be that good. Or even one-fiftieth that good.

But I do feel good about have gotten a little further down that road today than I ever have before in my 24-year journalism career.

It’s not easy even getting to the point where survivors of a tragedy will talk to you. And I think it’s even harder when the tragedy took place as long ago as the one about which I’m writing. What must it take to be willing to cut into the scars of ancient wounds for the benefit of somebody else? I can’t even imagine.

I like to think I won these parents over with a few simple facts. One, I’m telling a straight story, not taking sides. Two, I’ve done my homework on their case, and am not pestering them to rehash basics. Three, I’m a politely persistent fucker.

That said, it wasn’t easy. Not only did these folks lose their daughter to an unbelievable act of brutality, but they’re being forced to relive it today — one of the two men convicted in her murder has been pursuing a pardon through the governor’s office.

And that pisses them off.

They think he should still be in prison.

And they wanted me to agree with them.

And I couldn’t do that.

That made the conversation a little awkward, as there were these little pauses in which they seemed to be reminding themselves that they were talking to somebody who isn’t on their side.

And it’s moments like that, that I wish I could still drop in on Jack Olsen in his drafty old garage office at his Bainbridge Island home and ask him: How did you do it? How did you be on the side of your subject … and still stay on the side of your story?

I want to ask that because the hour-long conversation this morning wasn’t enough. I’m going to have to go back to them again. And again and again. And I’m going to have to press, patiently and skillfully, for more details. What was she like? How did you feel? What did you do? Tell me more. Tell me more.

This story, as I might have said before, is a labor of love. It’ll likely be self-published, and God knows if I’ll ever clear a dime after expenses. But I don’t think too much about that. It’s just something I have to do.

And love hurts sometimes.

God knows it does for this family.

So it’s good to talk about it.

Isn’t it?

Things are picking up.

I’ve gotten clearance from the state to visit two prison inmates who have agreed to talk with me for separate books I’m preparing, and will be seeing both within a couple of weeks: Aaron Borrero, who’s doing 22 years for kidnapping and attempted murder at McNeil Island; and Jeannette Murphy, who’s in her 27th year at the Washington Corrections Center for Women for shooting her parents in the head as a teenager and setting the house on fire to cover up the crime.

I’m also planning to meet next Monday with Les Lemieux, the victim of Borrero’s attack. I’ve received the entire Clemency and Pardons case file on Borrero — 857 pages’ worth — from the state and am picking my way through some frankly fascinating reading. By week’s end, I expect to have the transcript from the Sept. 10 hearing in which the Borrero petition was successfully heard. I’ve been calling and setting up appointments with a list of former-inmate friends Jeannette gave to me, because I want the story about her to be rich in behind-the-scenes looks at the culture of the women’s prison.

And, when time allows between all that and my regular job and, oh, you know, sleep, I’ve been working on my outline for my National Novel Writing Month project. I’m going to make time for it that I don’t really have, which will be extremely interesting. Do I have at least 50,000 words of a novel in me ready to come out of me by Nov. 30? I’ll be really surprised if I do … and really pissed at myself if I don’t. Hoo boy.

And, in the last few weeks, I’ve been building up to a whole new project that will, in all likelihood, be ready to roll by Nov. 10 or so. (As metro editor Michael Keaton’s secretary said to him in The Paper when he tried, and failed, to juggle too many people at once: “Are you completely psychotic?” To which, he replied, with dry distraction: “Eh, I have occasional episodes. Nothing serious.”)

You’ll like this one. It concerns a third story I hope to develop into a book (though it’s the one I’ve been working on the longest — nearly a year, in fact). It’s slightly self-destructive. And it’s on slightly soggy ground where journalism ethics are concerned.

Read the following and tell me what you think.

In December 2008, when I first decided to write a book about the most dramatic and interesting cases before the Clemency and Pardons Board, I attended a hearing in Olympia in which the case of Robert Holmes was aired.

In 1979, when he was 19, Holmes played a secondary, somewhat passive role in the rape and murder of a teenage prostitute in rural Snohomish County. He went on a drunken joyride with his older cousin, David Duhaime, whose idea of fun was to pick up a couple of prostitutes in downtown Seattle and rob them. One girl got away; the other wasn’t so lucky. Too drunk to act and too intimidated to protest, Holmes sat mute as Duhaime drove them to a remote spot and ordered Holmes and the girl to have sex.

Duhaime then hauled the girl out of the car, raped her and cut her throat.

The two were caught a few days later. A few months down the road, Holmes agreed to plead guilty to first-degree rape and second-degree murder, and testify against his cousin. Duhaime just missed getting the death penalty, thanks to a juror who balked at the last minute, and Holmes was sentenced to 20 years to life.

Holmes did good time, however, and was paroled after just 8 1/2 years behind bars. He went home to his native South Dakota, married his childhood sweetheart, had two daughters and scrapped about for several years in search of subsistence-level work. Several years ago, he landed a good job as a freight hauler for FedEx, and hasn’t been in a scrap of trouble since.

But Holmes has been hit by a series of setbacks in the last couple of years.

One, newly tightened Homeland Security regulations brought about a new look at everybody who held a commercial driver’s license with a hazardous-materials endorsement. Holmes, with rape and murder on his resume, was told that his CDL likely wouldn’t be renewed when it comes up again in 2010.

Two, in the wake of Megan’s Law, Holmes was required to register as a sex offender, and his neighbors were notified that they had a convicted rapist in the neighborhood.

And three, the sex-offender status caused Holmes a big problem this year, when South Dakota child protective services took his 2-year-old grandson away from his oldest daughter when he wandered away from her home a couple of times. Holmes and his wife tried to become custodial parents, but that effort went nowhere when Holmes’ criminal record came to light. The grandson remains in foster care, and Holmes gets to see him “maybe for an hour every other month,” he told me.

Talking with South Dakota authorities got Holmes nowhere, either. The answer was the same everywhere: As long as he’s got murder and rape convictions hanging over his head, the hands of bureaucracy are tied.

So, with the encouragement and help of his 1979 attorney, Holmes set about trying to get those convictions off his record, reasoning that his cooperation then and his unblemished record since was a strong basis for requesting a pardon from Gov. Christine Gregoire. After several months of preparation — digging up his past court records, recruiting several people to write letters of reference for him, verifying that his record from his 1987 release on was clean — he was granted a hearing before the governor’s five-member panel.

The centerpiece of his presentation was a surprising letter of support from Russ Juckett, the Snohomish County prosecutor who had initially pursued the death penalty against Holmes three decades before.

The hearing went well for Holmes. Despite the opposition expressed by the parents of the murdered girl, the members of the board voted, 4-to-1, to recommend that Holmes receive a pardon. I sat just a few rows behind as Holmes turned to embrace his wife and daughters.

Impressed by the story’s dramatic heft, I got hold of a copy of the petition packet, and went to Snohomish County to dig up the 1979 court file as well as clippings from the The Herald of Everett’s coverage of the case. I then approached Holmes for an interview, and we wound up meeting in May at his home in Sioux Falls.

Then, in August, came stunning news: Holmes’ petition had been denied by Gov. Gregoire. The letter sent by her office offered no explanation. I felt one was needed for my story, so I spent the next couple of months banging on doors at the state Capitol in search of a short interview with Gregoire. I was rebuffed at every turn, however. And the last door was slammed in my face when the governor’s senior legal counsel — who advises Gregoire on matters having to do with the Clemency and Pardons Board — told me last week that he wouldn’t comment because the governor is his client, and their deliberations on Clemency and Pardons Board cases are covered by attorney-client privilege.

(This doesn’t strike me as being quite right, given that she’s an elected official and he’s a state employee, and they were discussing official state business. But I couldn’t find anything in the Revised Code of Washington statutes to contradict him, and the past case law I found online seems to indicate that it’s a deep dark gray legal area. Besides, who can afford a lawyer to argue this? I sure as hell can’t.)

Still, my sense of fair play is outraged to the point that I feel compelled to do something — even as the old-school journalist in me warns me to stand down, shut up and not monkey with the machinery. A journalist reports what happens, after all. He ‘s not supposed to make things happen to report on later.

That held me back for a few weeks until, recent and uncoincidentally, I watched All The President’s Men on DVD. (It just happened to be the next movie in line in my Netflix queue.) And as I watched, I realized that what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did was just what I was proposing to do — write a story in hopes of rattling some cages and spilling out some sunshine. At least half of their published stories in what turned out to be a Pulitzer-winning series appeared to be calculated to induce people to spill more information that would lead to more stories. And it worked.

That quelled one ethical dither. But another loomed: By proposing to write such a story, am I becoming Robert Holmes’ advocate rather than the objective chronicler of his story? Do I risk being seen that way?

After thinking about it a little, I’ve settled on two answers: No. And probably not.

First of all, I am the objective chronicler of Robert Holmes’ story. I’ve taken great pains to represent myself that way to him and to everyone else I’ve interviewed this year in the pursuit of this story. I like Robert, personally, but that’s not stopping me from revealing the painful details of what he did — and didn’t do — on the night of January 26, 1979. It’s not stopping me from interviewing the parents of the victim, who remain dead-set against any leniency for him and frankly think he and David Duhaime should both be on Death Row.

Second, I can’t control what other people may think.

Third, really … why would anybody think that, anyway? (Besides me in my whinier and more insecure moments?) What I’m proposing to do is write a factual story, with plenty of documents and recorded interviews to back me up, that in essence puts the question to the public: Does Robert Holmes deserve a break? Or, as a convicted rapist and murderer, did the governor give him what he deserved when she shot him down — even though she overrode the advice of her own handpicked panel in the process? Either way, does he deserve an explanation? Do the people of Washington state?

I think it’s fair and ethical for me to write a story that lays out the issue according to the facts and invites its readers raise that question on their own. The fact I that I’m trying to get readers to ask that question doesn’t ethically trouble me in the least any longer. Every day, there are newspaper stories that are published specifically for their potential to provoke public reaction.

In this case, I’ll be trying to provoke readers to provoke Gov. Gregoire into speaking publicly about the Holmes the case — or, at least, authorizing her senior legal counsel to do so. I suspect the reason she turned down Holmes was political, and I think political pressure (of a populist sort) could, just maybe, provoke her to change her mind. Or at least talk about why she won’t. Realistically, I believe the chances of getting her to talk about it are slim. But at least I’ll know I’ll have done everything I could possibly do to get her to do so. And that’s just good journalism.

(By the way, there is precedent for Gov. Gregoire turning down a clemency request from a convicted murderer — again, over the recommendation of her board — and later changing her mind. I’ll be getting into that in my story; trust me, it makes for a very intriguing sidebar.)

Not sure who will publish it, but I’ll approach the Everett paper first, and if they turn me down, there’s a decent-sized list of credible Seattle media outlets to approach. Someone will publish it, given a) how good a story it is on its own merits; b) my own credibility as a Pacific Northwest journalist; and c) the fact that I can back up the facts I cite with the interviews I’ve recorded and the documents I’ve gathered.

The worst-case scenario? I publish it on my blog and get as many blogs and news sites in the greater Seattle area to link to it as possible.

So, this is something I’ll be working on, on top of everything else I’ll be working on, for the next couple of weeks.

Good thing I have no life, isn’t it?