Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘jack Olsen’

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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

… 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?

Read Full Post »

Author and friend Craig Lancaster conducts a Q&A with me on his excellent blog. Check it out here.

Read Full Post »

DSCF9098

When I was younger, I pictured true-crime writers like my hero Jack Olsen as fedora-sporting, notebook-schlepping Kolchaks who slunk around the back rows of courtrooms and shook down reluctant sources in seedy bars.

A very secondary part of that fantasy was picturing these three-day-growth-of-beard wonders poking through dusty file cabinets in forgotten basements, poring through ancient papers with a penlight in their mouths against noir backlighting in search of the “Aha!” moment.

Turns out that fantasy is actually reality, sort of. Just a very non-noir recasting of it, in my experience. And, really, just the paper-chase part of it. Hmmmm. In other words, not much like the fantasy at all.

A big part of my true-crime project involves searching for stories along a common theme — crime, punishment and cases made for redemption through the Washington state governor’s office. And finding those cases, and the diamonds of the stories that I can actually use amid dozens if not hundreds of rejects in the rough, means going through a lot of process. A lot of process.

I’m not going to describe every detail, to protect my proprietary interests, but here’s an idea of what I have to do:

First comes making the formal request for agendas, going back as far as 10 years, from the governor’s office as well as the state attorney general’s office, which took over responsibility for the state Clemency and Pardons Board in 2006.

Once I get the agendas, I run the names of people petitioning for clemency and pardons through Google and other databases to get an idea of how interesting their stories might be. Not many are; the majority are people who committed relatively minor felonies a long time ago and just want to be relieved of the stigmas, real and perceived, of being convicted felons.

Sometimes I can’t find the names in the search engines precisely because the crimes are so old and so minor. That means that, in the interest of being thorough, I have to “take a flier” on cases I’m not sure about and request the files.

This is not a casual decision, and calls for some diplomatic finesse. The people I deal with, by and large, are overworked paralegals and administrative assistants. And they’re even more overworked by what I pile on their plates, because by law they have to accommodate my requests. And it’s more than just going into a storeroom and pulling files — also by law, they have to go through each page and redact things like Social Security numbers, some medical information and victim-family addresses and phone numbers. I can’t even imagine how much time that takes, or how mind-numbing that task must be.

DSCF9096

So I try to be judicious about my requests, not only because it’s the diplomatic thing to do, but because the more I request, the longer it takes to fulfill those requests. In some cases, I’m asking for several thousand pages. If I’m lucky, it takes two months. If I’m not, it takes upwards of six.

(See, I told you this was fascinating. Now wake up.)

When the documents are ready, I have to make an appointment with the people I’m dealing with to reserve a room at the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office, in Olympia and nearby Tumwater. They then have to “babysit” me, sometimes leafing with thinly veiled impatience through a magazine at the far end of a conference table, while I sort through for those diamonds in the rough.

DSCF5667

This Tuesday, about three months after I requested about fifteen case files, I kept my appointment to spend the day in the governor’s conference room, driving an hour and half from my home in Bremerton.

There, several boxes of binders and file folders stuffed with tens of thousands of pieces of paper awaited my perusal. I spent the next several hours dutifully marking those pages I wanted copied — and I was careful about that, as the state charges me 10 cents a page, which I hope to God will be deductible on my 2009 tax return. (Thankfully, the attorney general’s recently converted to electronic recordkeeping; now I just pay a dollar for a CD full of documents to be mailed to me.)

A well-prepared Clemency and Pardons Board case file typically contains the following:

— Documents from the original court file. (These are often incomplete, because they’re selected by the petitioner and thus often somewhat shaded in his or her favor.)

— A letter from the petitioner describing why he or she is entitled to get out of prison or be pardoned from a past felony.

— Letters in support of (and sometimes against) the petitioner. In a perverse twist, it’s the responsibility of the petitioner to make a good-faith effort to find people from the victim’s family or from the criminal-justice system who might be opposed. If nobody is found in advance, then the petitioner will be asked about it as his or her hearing.

— A state Department of Corrections record of the petitioner’s behavior in prison. Also a Washington State Patrol check of the petitioner’s record after prison, if applicable.

It’s no one-stop-shopping stop for everything I need, however. Usually I need to go back to the county where the case was tried and dig up the original file. I like to dig up the newspaper accounts of the crime. (Depressingly, few newspapers maintain clip files or morgues any longer. And their online electronic archives are sketchy, incomplete and often hard to search. Usually I have to get what I need from the local public library or historical society.)

I wore no fedora, needed no penlight and I already have a beard. But there were some “Aha!” moments, I’m happy to say. Of the fifteen cases I scoured through that day, I came across two very strong “possibles” for my book, and three others that bear deeper scrutiny. It was time well-spent.

DSCF9105

But after nearly five hours of eyestrain under the watchful eyes of the portraits of past Washington governors, it was time do something else.

I headed for the nearest seedy bar.

Read Full Post »

n700181432_712788_1163

Hi. I’m Jim. I’m just some dumbass off the street who hopes someday to be a published book author. Maybe I’ll make it. Maybe I’ll be living under a bridge at this time next year.

Here’s a closer look at what will decide which way I go.

Q: What are you working on?

A: The project taking most of my waking, non-working time and attention the last several months is a collection of true-crime stories. What they have in common is this: Each crime took place in Washington, and each criminal has only the one big crime (including, in some cases, murder) on his or her record. Each criminal was caught, tried, convicted and did the time … and, in some cases, are still doing the time in prison. They’ve all lived relatively clean lives ever since, usually over several decades. And in recent years, each has petitioned the governor of Washington for clemency or for a pardon. The reasons have been as all over the map as the petitioners themselves: Some want their gun rights back so they can hunt or join the military. Some want to regain the right to vote. Some want to be able to get passports so they can travel. The ones in prison feel their sentences were unduly harsh, or that their sentences would have been shorter today under current state sentencing policy. And virtually all want formal recognition that the people they are now are fundamentally different from the people they were then, and that the label “felon” is a psychologically burdensome one that has outlived its validity.

I’m telling mostly success stories, based on cases that have come before the governor’s Clemency and Pardons Board over the past decade. There are also a few notable failures.

My working title: Redemption Songs: 12 True Tales of Pacific Northwest Crime, Punishment… and Ultimate Forgiveness.

Q: Interesting. So how’s it going?

A: Slow. It takes time to a) identify the right cases for the book; b) research the crimes, the court proceedings and the petition paperwork; and c) obtain, conduct and transcribe interviews with the principal figures in each case. I’m not allowing myself to cut many corners; my standard-bearer in this enterprise is the late true-crime author Jack Olsen, a fellow Bainbridge Islander who befriended me more than a decade before and made me understand that great stories of character and motivation must be underscored by journalism of the highest quality. Every fact must be double-checked, every assertion must be seconded and every word I write must be libel-proof and then some. That’s fine with me, because my two decades of journalism training and experience tell me exactly the same thing. This won’t be hackwork.

Over eight months, I’ve identified seven cases I want to write about so far. I’ve done principal research and interviews for three, and have several requests pending with state agencies for more state Clemency and Pardons Board case files to review. Those requests, thanks to ever-shortening short-staffing at the governor’s and attorney general’s offices, take some time to fulfill.

Q: So when will you be done?

A: Hell if I know. Next spring is my hope.

Q: Working on anything else in the meantime?

A: Oh, yeah. All the months of researching and interviewing without doing any actual writing started to make me a little stir-crazy to come up with something creative and all my own that’s longer than a Facebook status update.

I’ve been taking a close look at writing a suspense novel. For one, there’s a zillion of them out there, and most are formulaic and dreary. For two, they sell well regardless of how poorly they’re plotted and written. And for three, my friend Gregg Olsen, who broke into this market a few years ago in crossing over from true crime, has encouraged me to give it a go.

So, nearly a month ago, I hammered out a 7,300-word summary outline of a story set on a fictional island in Puget Sound, blending Northwest history with murder and rather dysfunctional romance. To make things even unnecessarily harder on myself, I decided to make my main character female — a 30-year-old newspaper reporter. After two passes at the summary outline, my plotting had just a few leaks but the story seems overpopulated and perhaps a little overstuffed with plot. Still, I know how it starts and how it ends, and most of the stuff that needs to happen in between.

I’m tentatively titling it Desolation Sound.

There’s also the bitter, brutal little crime novel I took a good but failed run at last November during NaNoWriMo, in which writers are challenged to bang out at least 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November each year. My first run at it ran off the rails, swept astray by too much backstory, but it’s a story with a lot of bones. Stephen King once wrote that the difference between a trunk tale and a good story was that the good ones keep bugging you to be written. That’s what’s going on with this one, which I call Twelve After Midnight. I let it go after getting to the 42,000-word mark last November, but I figure there’s at least 20,000 salvageable words in there, and maybe I’ll give it a go from the get-go for NaNoWriMo this November.

Q: So, with all that on your plate — plus a full-time job — why start a blog?

A: Many reasons. One, a writer writes, regardless of the medium.

Two, I think there’s value for others following the same path to publication in following mine. I stumble sometimes. I make some major breakthroughs once in a while. I’m learning about the book-publishing business as I go. I am my worst enemy in this endeavor as much as I am my best friend — I’m sometimes lazy, sometimes overcome by paralyzing self-doubt, sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer scope of a book-length work of journalism. Sometimes I just want to read mystery novels or watch seven episodes of “The Sopranos” in a single night. I pretty run the gamut of swirling emotions and stumbling blocks and self-discovery. In short, you’re going to get to know me as a person as much as an author.

Three … well, getting back to that self-discovery business, I’ve been learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t in terms of writing, researching, pitching, promoting and publishing. Just as many of you like to share what you learn, so do I. And so I will. I’ll use this as a place to steer to you other blogs and other sites I think have something valuable to impart. Maybe someday they’ll do the same for me.

Four … well, getting back to that someday-they’ll-do-something-for-me business, the big buzzword nowadays for prospective authors is “platform.” What is platform? As Christina Katz puts it in her excellent book, Get Known Before The Book Deal: “The word platform simply describes all the ways you are visible and appealing
to your future, potential and actual readership.” Maybe admitting that I’m looking to use this blog in part to sell books makes me crass … but I’m hoping to show you that part of my journey here will be in learning how to be less crass.

Think of it is this way: If you’re here, it’s likely because you know me from Facebook or Twitter. And if you know me from one of those, then you know that I make the effort to personally connect with you. I think you know I’m not just a spammer; I’m here to make readers who are also friends. It’s my goal to not only sell you a book, but to buy you a drink.

Q: So, do you really think you’re going to make it?

A: The answer may change from one day to the next, but more often than not, it’s this: Yeah. I do. I have the talent, I have the skill, I have the desire. I do my homework. My focus and my work ethic could stand to be a little stronger, but it’s good enough on most days. My fear of failure — and homelessness — keeps those right the heck on track.

Read Full Post »