INTERVIEW: Doing Time For The Crime

How do you find the time to write true crime and practice law?
Writing true crime and practicing law share a lot of similarities; both require honing a craft, taking a set of fixed facts and characters and giving them shape and context in a way that’s compelling and persuasive. One career informs the other although someday soon I’d like to join the ranks of those writers who consider themselves former lawyers! I’ve been very blessed to have two amazing careers. While criminal law has opened many doors for me as a true crime writer it has also shut opportunities. It’s hard to straddle both worlds. I’m not an investigative reporter and so I have no journalist’s “shield” around me; I have to be mindful of the dos and don’ts of fact-gathering and interviewing witnesses from an attorney’s point of view. I have to worry about potential conflicts of interest. Everyday I’m given fascinating cases to litigate but I can’t write about them! I can’t interview people on death row, for instance, who are represented by counsel and who are not my clients.

I practice law still because I need to pay my bills, finance my research and investigation for my true crime, pay for the transcripts and the court watching time. There’s a myth that ‘true writers’ should be writing for hours on end in noisy cafes. The reality is I steal time in between cases to work on my books. Some days I write a sentence, others I write a page. I don’t disappear into cafes. I don’t have long stretches of time where I’m left alone to compose in silence. I write surrounded by white noise. I write at 4:00 o’clock in the morning and when I’m dead tired. I write because it’s who I am. No one is going to make it easy for me. There are no “overnight sensations”. I’ve been writing since I was 7 years old. It’s taken over twenty years to hone my craft, to find my “Voice.”

You’ve said, “everyone has a story, not everyone has a voice.” Explain.
In order to nurture your dream of writing you need to keep writing, no matter what the venue. I parlayed my law career into writing by researching and writing appellate briefs and post-conviction cases. I found a way to remain inspired by the art of communication. It’s not just the “Story” that compels but the way the story is told, it’s the author’s voice.

My roots are in poetry, dark narrative pieces that captured imagery and mood. Rythmn was as important as the words. I discovered my “language of butchers” and it had staccato and percussion and a heartbeat. That sound became my voice. I saw a lot of violence growing up and I found a way to write about it that made it real. I wanted readers to feel it not just read it. The trick with true crime is to be thorough and accurate but not so graphic as to repel readers. I’ve been told “true crime is an unpopular genre” because people, especially now, don’t want to read about death and mayhem “for fun.” But I reject that; I believe in my books, in the messages they have to convey.

How do you decide which stories make great books?

Publishing is a marketplace-driven industry. Publishers scrutinize the commercial value of a story. Even if you have a remarkable “voice” you have to prepare for rejection. I’m reminded of that wonderful line in Robin Hood, “rise and rise again until lambs become lions.” You have to ask yourself if you’re tough enough to withstand public opinion, ridicule, humiliation and triumph, a tough pill to swallow but the rewards are tremendous. All validate you as a “real writer”. Tenacity transforms you into a “professional.” It’s easy to give up, to blame others for your failures; it takes real courage to rise above the fray and believe in the message you’re communicating.

Your writing is so graphic you’ve actually been accused of making things up, or, to quote an earlier poem of yours, “On Borrowing Details.”

I attended The Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and wrote a collection of poems called “The Language of Butchers.” Included in that collection was a poem entitled “On Borrowing Details.” I had a colleague once in a critique class challenge my work, crumple up my submission and accuse me in front of the class of being inauthentic. He told me to write about my own life, to stop “borrowing details” about Africa (a continent I had lived in for 17 years). Following that class, I had an epiphany and realized for the first time how powerful words could be; that “graphic and visceral” was my “Voice”. If I had evoked such anger and disbelief in my colleague I wondered whether I could also inspire something else? Writing invites reaction and criticism. Writing about the truth hopefully invites action too.

How did you choose to write about motorcycle gangs?
I didn’t. The books chose me and I actually don’t only write about motorcycle gangs, although I find the subculture compelling. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my true crime writing career to be approached by individuals whose stories fascinate and inspire me. I’m motivated by certain themes, redemption (Prodigal Father Pagan Son), ordinary people who do extraordinary things (Running with the Devil, Prodigal Father Pagan Son), and the truly macabre (A Socialite Scorned: The Murder of a Tucson High-Roller). The pathology of the criminal mind is a subject that fascinates me. As a lawyer I handle death penalty cases, convicts’ whose crimes strain the imagination and I struggle to understand the Why behind their horrific crimes. Understanding eradicates fear; without fear there are no roadblocks to change.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Don’t give up on your dream and be prepared to make sacrifices and to compromise. Dare to make a living as a writer. There are going to be lean times and hard times but in the end, great times. Most people don’t know this about me, but I spent the first ten years of my “writing career” extremely poor. I lived in a trailer in a crime-infested part of town and heard bullet spray at night. I had no money for food and lived on bags of popcorn from a vendor whose kindness I will never forget. Later, I survived on bagels and potatoes. But I always believed in myself. I considered my situation temporary—I was blessed with smarts and good looks and talent and I knew the only constant was change. I took any job I could that involved writing and some that didn’t (I once washed dishes in a cafeteria). There was no nobility in poverty. I never identified myself with the “job” I had; I considered myself a writer. Sometimes I was lucky enough to copyedit other people’s writing, teach writing and even freelance. I became a lawyer because I couldn’t stand poverty any longer. But the experience of being poor and worrying about starving gave me compassion, helped me identify with others who struggled, gave me a platform, gave me a venue to effect change. As a lawyer I chose appellate work (more writing) and post-conviction litigation (more research and writing) and the two careers married each other.

To “make it” as a writer, you need to write and keep writing. Don’t give up your day job until you can support yourself as a writer. Most of all be humble. No writer gets where she is without help, whether through an agent, an editor, a network of friends, a parent who offers shelter and food. Remember you’re only as good as your last book. You need to eat while you’re looking for that next story, or writing and re-writing.One of the greatest moments as a writer was walking into Barnes & Noble and seeing my book featured prominently on the new Non-fiction releases! Sometimes just for fun I go to the bookstore and stare at the shelf that contains my book. Recently, my book sat next to Ann Rule’s in the True Crime section. That was a thrill! So, is it worth the poverty, sacrifice and hard hard work? Damn right it is!