Posts Tagged ‘murder’

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.

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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.

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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.

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… 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?

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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?

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Camille KimballCamille Kimball, like everybody else in Phoenix, lived in fear during parts of 2005 and 2006 as the “Serial Shooter” prowled the city streets day and night, wounding and killing people and pets at random. In all 29 people were shot, eight fatally, and 13 horses and dogs were also hit. And like everybody else, she was relieved — and intrigued — when it turned out the “Serial Shooter” was actually two people. The veteran broadcast journalist decided to turn her interest in the case into a book — and emerged a few months ago with her debut, A Sudden Shot: The Phoenix Serial Shooter. Camille, a Facebook friend, agreed to share with me how this book came together — and what challenges she faced pulling this multifaceted story together into a coherent narrative.
Q: Tell me about your background as a journalist.

A: I stumbled into a radio newsroom when I was 17 years old and I pretty much never found my way out. I’ve been a columnist for the Arizona Republic. I have an Emmy in investigative reporting. I’ve had bylines in the L.A. Times and the Irish Times of Dublin. I’ve had work appear in Newsweek and in Sports Illustrated. I did take several years off to have a brain tumor. That was fun. Then I came back to write this book.

A Sudden ShotQ: Before A Sudden Shot, did you have much experience with long-form writing?
A: Not really. Switching from short form to long form is far more than a matter of word count. It’s a whole different structure. And it requires the development of different skills. Just remembering what you’ve already included can be an Olympic sport! While journalism is an excellent background for these books, you have to be willing to put some of your journalism habits in a drawer and try out some new and uncomfortable ones. If you can’t do that, your project will strangle itself to death.

Q: What were you doing when the Serial Shooter killings began? Did you provide daily coverage of them as one of a group of Phoenix journalists?

A: At the time of the shootings, I was inside a newsroom doing anchor work. So I didn’t get out on the street for stories. A radio audience heard me delivering the stories.

Q: At what point did you see the potential for a book in this story — and see the potential for you to be the author?

A: The day an arrest was made. An entire town — a major U.S. metropolis — had been held captive. How could that not be a book? I thought I could write it because my agent thought I could and I’ve learned not to argue with her!

Q: Once you decided to write a book, how did you go about getting an agent and a contract? Was the book a tough sell?

A: I already had an agent. She did a great job getting the proposal in front of the right people. Then it became a matter of timing. Publishing is a lot of hurry up and wait with sudden flurries of activity.

Q: How did you decide how to get your arms around this story, given that so many people and so many criscrossing storylines are involved? Talk about how you approached the organization of A Sudden Shot, and developed a focal point for readers to peer through and not get lost?

A: Imagine yourself standing in a pile of five billion facts. You are the tiny little scribbler at the bottom of the skyscrapers. I did the only thing a professional can do and that is just start writing. After awhile, I began to see a potential structure. You know, all Michelangelo and stuff — once I had the clumps of words, the shape inside revealed itself. For jurors at trial, the prosecution began at the very beginning and I knew this was very hard for the jurors. I couldn’t do that to the reader. I decided they had to care about individuals right off the bat and glimpse the epic battle between villain and heroes surrounding those individuals.

Q: How did you develop your inside access to the law enforcement people at the heart of this story? Did you get access that nobody else in the media received?

A: Yes! of course I did! I did it the old fashioned way, picture a fedora with the “press card” tucked in the band, making cold calls and meeting in hallways and restaurants out of view of others. It was pretty cool, actually, as they began to trust me because at first they didn’t, of course. These are people with jaundiced eyes who are trained to sniff out the worst in people. None of them knew how the book would turn out until they bought their own copies. So can I have that laminated? “This Person Passed by Homicide Detective Gauntlet.” I’d like to tuck that in my fedora from now on.
Q: Was there a risk for you of developing a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with the cops you got close to — to the point that you questioned how objectively you could tell the story of their investigative work? Or was maintaining the right distance and detachment from them never a problem?

A: As a longtime journalist, I hope my objectivity skills are intact. I got to know the players first as names on documents. It’s hard to develop Stockholm Syndrome with a stack of search warrants and transcripts! I knew none of the cops personally until long after the arrests. It didn’t matter if any of them ever talked to me or not, I would have written it the same way. If I had found a major weakness in their work, I would have exposed it. But facts are facts. The bottom line speaks for itself — these serial killers were captured in record time.
Q: One of the tougher things for you in A Sudden Shot must have been the realization that because of the sheer volume of victims, you couldn’t tell the stories of all the victims — those who lived as much as those who didn’t — with the same sort of character development and personal color that you were able to with survivor Paul Patrick. Did you struggle with the unfair reality that not all victims could be equal in the book?

A: What would have been more unfair would have been if none of their stories were told and they all continued to suffer the aftermath in lonely obscurity. I reserved a special page to tell all the players that the book had to stand in for everyone involved, whether or not their own particular story was fully explored in it. Each one could have been a book of its own. When the families call me, they never complain they didn’t get enough ink. They all shower me embarrassingly with thanks.
Q: Once you had a contract in hand for the book, did you have a deadline for it that disregarded the timing of the trials and sentencings? Or did your publisher give you the time you needed to give the story the ending it needed?

A: The publisher does give a true crime author a deadline, or at least mine did. They need to work the book into their catalogue schedule and you have to have it ready so everyone else at the publishing house can do their jobs. I believe the ending in this book is exactly what it needed. Crime is about people, not laws. The judicial process will continue to play out over many years to come. The bad guys are convicted by the end of this book, what else is necessary?

Q: Did you approach Sam Dietemann or Dale Hausner, the convicted killers, for interviews? If so, what happened?

A: The most truth Dale ever spoke is on the wiretaps. He testified he deliberately lies to reporters. I sat through many days worth of Dale’s speaking on the stand at hearings as well as at trial. I sat near him during over 6 months of trial. I observed him up close and listened to him as much as anyone ever wants to. There was nothing to be gained. More lies and denials? Which pages would I replace in the book to add more of that?

Similar story with Sam. I’ve been near him quite a bit over the last couple of years. His wiretaps, his testimony and police interviews are voluminous. I felt it was both more raw and substantive having him speak for himself through those venues.

Q: Did you work with assistants or researchers at all? Or did you do all the digging yourself?

A: Assistant? What is this creature of which you speak?

Q: How much time did you have to do the actual writing? How did you work — just lock yourself at home and unplug all possible distractions for as many hours a day a possible as you could physically endure? Or was the process not quite that gut-churning?

A; Oh, the process is gut-churning. As a reporter, you think you’re pretty good at deadlines but taming a 325 page beast with its tail trapped in New York City is a challenge you haven’t contemplated. Distractions? they don’t bother me. A hectic loud newsroom is my natural habitat. But there is the fickle finger of fate. Phoenix is an annex of hell during the summer and, due to a freak storm, we were without power for days. Try doing this without air conditioning when it’s 115. Or any form of electricity. There were many such freak obstacles and at times I didn’t think it was possible to continue.

Q: How did the revisions process go with your editor? Was there cleanup work here and there, or wholesale structural changes? Were there disagreements between you and she about how the final version should be structured and written?

A: An editor’s eye is very helpful. Books are experienced in a different way than TV is or newspapers are and you really need the editor to help you make the shift. Moving a paragraph from page 283 to page 147 can suddenly make all the sense in the world, when your editor points it out. One of my favorite things she did was organize the photos to tell a story of their own and that was beyond my ability to conceptualize even though my background is in the visual medium of television.

Q: Were you concerned at all about prose style, or just getting the bones of the story onto the page? Did you want to write a new In Cold Blood, or just a good piece of Phoenix journalism? How big were your literary ambitions?

A: I guess I would have to say over time I thought less and less about my literary ambitions and more and more about making people count. People across the country are crying for Claudia and cheering for Paul. Both cops and families are thanking me tearfully. Isn’t good literature supposed to move people? I guess I can exhale, then, both for my ego and for my soul.

Q: How has the book been received so far? Good reviews? Have sales met expectations — or have expectations even been outlined?

A: I keep being flabbergasted that people like it so much. After one has read the drafts eleventy million times, it’s hard to have any opinion about one’s own work. So, yes, the reviews are good and I’m so grateful. Number One best selling mass market paperback at the influential and international Poisoned Pen right now, so sales seem good, knock on wood! (it’s hard to come by hard numbers, otherwise, at this point)

Q: Is the book seen as having reader appeal beyond Arizona? To what extent is your publisher promoting the book on a national level? How have your personal publicity efforts gone outside Arizona?

A: Caught on tape secretly reveling in their crimes and tailed by law enforcement while actively hunting prey — these are the only serial killers I know of where you can get that. By my standards, that’s pretty interesting. Does the D.C. Sniper interest people outside Washington? Does the Zodiac spark interest beyond San Francisco?

I have done publicity outside of Arizona and it has gone quite well. It’s a compelling story with intriguing people in it and that is universal.

Alas, with true crime, you have to move on to your next trial and that curtails the amount of out-of-state promoting you can personally do. Gotta have your kiester sitting on a hard bench downtown, you can’t just write on a laptop in a hotel room.

The book is available at any store coast to coast and it’s going to have to pull its own weight while I sit behind another killer at another defense table!

Q: I see on your blog you’ve had a number of signings and group appearances with people from the book — have they all been good sports about becoming major public figures?

A: Watching the cops become celebrities has been a delight to me! These are guys who work in the dark streets as a breed apart for their entire careers. They can’t believe people actually want to thank them, get an autograph. I knew it, though, and I love watching them blush!

The victims are living in a different emotional register. It makes my heart flip over for them to receive the well wishes and condolences of good-hearted people. They already know how horrific their suffering has been: what they don’t know is that anyone else cares. The signings are a time for fellow citizens to speak up and tell them they are not alone. Yes, they like it.

Q: How comfortable are you being a public figure? Any creepiness attached to that? Any jealousy or backbiting from the media community there?

A: All of them have wished me well and personally thrown their support behind it. I couldn’t be more blessed and I’m proud to be a part of them! I can’t speak for them but the feeling I get is that all my fellow reporters see this as their own baby or at least a nephew and they all have a stake in seeing it succeed!

I also couldn’t have finished this book without the help of KTVK reporter Mike Watkiss or Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer. Really, there’s so much good energy about this book it’s remarkable. And they are all fans! As a book author, you’re able to do far more digging than they are able to do as daily reporters. They are all knocked over at how much more there was to the crime spree.

A good example is Melissa Sharpe of KYOT, who titled her review of the book, “The story you thought you knew.”

Q: What’s the best and most memorable thing anybody’s said to you about A Sudden Shot?

A: So many, so many. How about this text from Adriana, who lost her sister to the spree: “In the name of my sister in heaven and in the name of my parents, a thousand thanks.”

Or when Paul Patrick’s daughter wrote on the Facebook fan page: “This book is his voice, without it, who knows if he would have had the will to survive?”

Or when fan Erma Pais wrote that “never has a book moved me so much.”

Or when Running with the Devil author Kerrie Droban purchased a copy and later let me know that she had by saying, “Your book made me realize suddenly why I write true crime — to inspire and to tell an amazing story that no one else has the guts to reveal.”

Or when the orphaned 13-year-old of one of the characters in the book was brought to me for his own private signing?

I could go on and on but then I’ll cry for the rest of the day so I better stop.

Q: What’s next for you? Do you have another book in mind? Do you have a contract for a second book?

A: I have what’s called an “option book” written in to my contract. And, yes, I do have things in the pipeline. I would be very glad to notify this blog when we are ready to make announcements, how’s that?

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