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Author Interviews

Author Interview: Kathryn Casey

Kathryn Casey is the only true crime writer I have interviewed and I wonder why I waited - I think you'll agree this is one of the more interesting interviews we've ever published. Not as well known as Ann Rule, Casey nevertheless shares Rule's talent, and two of her books, She Wanted it All and Die, My Love are two of my favorite true crime reads of all time. This interview is also a great way to welcome true crime listings to our website. Check there also for reviews of the two books named above. Thank you, Kathryn, for your time & openness to questions - FYI she took time off of covering a trial to answer these.

Q: How did you come to write True Crime? Were you a journalist first, or did a story just totally take hold of you and not let go?
A: After earning a journalism degree, I went to work for Houston City Magazine in 1985. I was asked to cover a murder case in Daisetta, a small East Texas town in the area known as The Big Thicket. It was a fascinating case, a love triangle with racial overtones in the middle school involving the principal, the school secretary and the football coach. I spent weeks on it and got so engrossed that I then went to the seven-week trial. I've been hooked on courtrooms and murder cases ever since. After leaving Houston City I freelanced and wrote articles for nearly twenty years for Rolling Stone, Texas Monthly, TV Guide, Reader's Digest, MORE, Ladies Home Journal and other magazines, many of them on criminal cases or related matters.

The books started when I met Linda Bergstrom in the early nineties and write The Rapist's Wife. Linda was married to a true psychopath, a dangerous sexual predator. I wanted to understand why people like James Bergstrom do the things they do, to take a closer look than is possible for a magazine article at such monsters. Researching the book allowed me to do that, including through long jail interviews with Bergstrom. (That book, by the way, is being reissued next year with a new epilogue, pictures, cover and title: Evil Beside Her).

Let's just say, at this point, I can't control myself. True Crime has become something of an obsession. My bad cop book, A Warrant to Kill, followed, then She Wanted it All, on Austin's sensational Celeste Beard case. This past April introduced Die, My Love, on the Piper Rountree case, and next year, A Descent into Hell, on Austin's bizarre Colton Pitonyak case, premiers.

Of course, sometimes True Crime is incredible frustrating. Along with attending trials, many weeks, even months long, I interview as many as 100 people for each book. Still, there are some things I may never know for sure, like exactly how a murder took place when there are no witnesses except the victim, silenced by the crime, and a killer who maintains his or her innocence. Perhaps that's why I decided to branch out into fiction.

This coming July, my first novel will be published by St. Martin's, Singularity. The main character is a Texas Ranger / Profiler named Sarah Armstrong, who lives outside Houston, in Tomball, Texas. I must admit that writing a novel was very freeing. For the first time, I didn't have to rely on others for the plot points. I wrote my own. Two more Sarah Armstrong books are in the works. I'm not too worried. With twenty years in courtrooms and reporting on crime behind me, I have a bit of experience to draw on.

Q: Q:How difficult is it (I guess this is a journalism question) to keep your own feelings off the page? Some of these stories are so sad and tragic, it must be hard not to be very angry as you write about these people.
A: I always start out knowing what I believe about a case. All I know is what's been published in newspapers or what I see on television, and I'm well aware that the media sometimes gets it wrong. So, I truly try to withhold judgement about anyone's guilt or innocence until I've had the opportunity to learn more about the case, first hand.

First in the courtrooms, I listen and weigh the evidence as the jury does. Afterward, I fill in the holes, tracking down family, friends, and co-workers, literally anyone involved who is willing to talk to me. At some point, I form a judgment about what I believe happened. If that judgement is that the person accused is guilty, that they knowingly and intentionally robbed a victim of years of life and a family of a loved one, perhaps children of a parent or a parent of a child, yes, I become angry.

I've interviewed too many families who have suffered horrible losses not to understand their pain. No family should ever have to go through the horror of having a family member brutally murdered. Murderers are narcissistic personalities. They believe that their desires, whether for money, power, control, or sexual pleasure, takes priority over another person's right to live.

Q: I guess true crime is kind of looked at as the stepsister of the "crime" genre, but to me, it's where it all begins. Done right, it's all about motive and character. What are your thoughts on character development as it pertains to your books?
A: I want to truly understand not only the how, what, where and when, but the most important question, why. I believe that's why I'm a true crime writer. I'm obsessed with filling in the blanks an understanding why things, horrendous things, happen.

To do so, I dig into the pasts of the main subjects, the families and the histories of the victims and the killers and anyone else who plays an important role. I spend months interviewing sources, often going back to childhood, to understand the motivations of those involved. Without thorough research, a true crime book is little more than a long and elaborate newspaper account of a crime.

Q: One of the problems people have with true crime - and I find it's not a reader cross over too much, either you read mysteries or true crime, but not both - is that there is a lot of sensationalist trash out there. In one way it's great as the really good writers truly stand out, but in another way it pulls down the whole genre. Any thoughts on that, or do you just write and not think about that kind of thing?
A: There was a time when true crime meant In Cold Blood and Blood and Money. The authors of those books approached them as I do mine, devoting months to interviews and pulling together facts, quotes, and insider information to form a portrait of the crime. For too long now, true crime had been split into two genres: one, serious books, including authors like Ann Rule and Carelton Stowers; the other, the turn-out-a-book-a-month authors who paste together newspaper and magazine accounts and add little to what's already known. Unfortunately, the quick hit books hurt all true crime authors. It demeans the genre as a whole. Sadly, publishers will continue to put out such trash as long as readers buy them.

Q: Can you talk about your research a bit? Your books are so well done and a big part of it is the way the reader gets the "whole" picture of what happens - a novelist's skill! How do you approach a new project?
A: As I mentioned above, I have mountains of information at my disposal when I sit down to write. By then I've written quotes, facts, along with information on settings and personalities, on index cards. I organize the cards into chapters and scenes, then, finally, begin writing. I try hard to draw readers in by constructing detailed portraits of events and those involved. How well I succeed is something readers will have to judge, but that is my intention.

Q: Are there writers who have been really influential in the way you write? I got into reading true crime as a kid when I borrowed a friend's copy of Tommy Thompson's Blood and Money, a real classic. I also love Ann Rule, and I can see some of her influence on your work - true or no?
A: I never miss Ann's books or Carlton Stowers' books. Small Sacrifices and Careless Whispers are still two of my favorites. I try to be careful about what I read, especially while writing. It's easy to subconsciously pick up style, etc., and I'd rather have good influences than bad ones.

Q: Does moral indignation fire you up a bit? When I read Ann Rule, I can see she's a real victim's advocate; Joe McGinnis seems to get fired up about the children left behind. Is there that kind of driving force as far as you're concerned?
A: It's hard not to feel for victims and their families. I understand that often it's a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God situation. That could be my child, my husband, myself or a beloved friend. My dream is to wake up one morning and find that there are no horrible murders to write about, that people aren't killing each other, assaulting each other, victimizing each other. I'd like everyone to put me out of business as a true crime writer by giving me nothing tragic to write about.

Q: On that topic, as I read Die, My Love, I was so moved by the death of Fred Jablin - it was so wrong, he seemed like such a good person and a good father. It's a very powerful book. Can you talk about that case a bit?
A: What interested me in that case was that Fred was such an unlikely victim. A college professor, he lived for his three children, his students, and his research. He was a quiet man who wanted to help others, to make the world a better place. His mistake was marrying the wrong woman. Fred's ex-wife, Piper Rountree, was beautiful and brilliant, yet. From the beginning of the marriage, troubled. By the time they divorced, she believed that she heard the voices of angels. In fact, the voices Piper listed to were far from heavenly. As a criminal case, this one involved investigations in two states, Virginia and Texas, and an intriguing cast of characters, including Piper's eccentric sister, Tina. Die, My Love is the story of a family torn apart by a mother's obsessive love and dark betrayal. In the end, Piper robbed her children of both a mother and a father.

Q:Want to talk about the business end at all? I feel like, for example, that true crime books aren't given much assistance in the marketplace by the publishers, but they must sell. It must be a different paradigm than the one that exists for fiction writers. Through the years, while we have hosted many book events, I think only two have been for true crime writers, and that's not really by choice, it's just who's out there circulating.
A: You're absolutely right, TC books aren't promoted. With the exception of Ann Rule, most TC writers are on their own when it comes to selling themselves for TV and radio interviews. I have no budget to travel, so my signings are usually limited to Houston and day trips out of the city. Yet the books sell well. A Warrant to Kill is in its ninth printing and She Wanted it All is in its eighth. Thankfully, what we TC writers have is a solid base of readers who appreciate our books.

Q:I also feel - and this may not bother you, but it bothers me! - that the mystery awards, specifically the Edgars, are often given to the wrong writers. It seems like the Edgar committee looks for "prestige", so they end up giving an award to someone like Sebastian Junger, whose book wasn't really a crime book, in my opinion. I feel like this is a category that should be embraced by the mystery and publishing establishment, as the best writers (yourself included) are really at the top of their game. Or are the awards just a minor blip to you?
A: In all honesty, I know almost nothing about the awards. I, of course, watch for the nominations every year - hoping to one day see my name - but I'm unaware of how the books are chosen. I did recently join the Mystery Writers of America, the organization that sponsors the Edgars. Everyone hopes to be recognized for their work, and I'd love to make the list, but it's actually more important to me that readers enjoy my books. True crime readers are ultimately the most important judges.

Q:And finally, please tell us what you're working on next. I've devoured all your books and look forward to another.
A: In addition to The Rapist's Wife reemerging as Evil Beside Her, I have two new books debuting next year, both in July. The first is my novel, Singularity, which I described above. I'm very excited about branching into fiction and I can't wait to have it out in the world, to hear reactions from readers. I know that many true crime readers don't routinely read fiction, but I'm hoping they'll make an exception and give Singularity a try!

Second: A Descent into Hell, on the Colton Pitonyak case, is the story of a former altar boy and National Merit Scholar Finalist. When he left Arkansas for the University of Texas in Austin, many predicted that he'd one day have the success of Donald Trump. Instead, he was suckied into the underworld of college life, sex and drugs. Four years after arriving at UT, instead of walking across the stage to claim his diploma, Colton was being hunted as a suspect in the most gruesome murder ever committed on the University of Texas campus.

While I'm going through copyediting on the books already written, I'm working on the next Sarah Armstrong novel and researching my sixth true crime book. With a working title of Shattered, it's on Houston's David Temple case, a cold-blooded, Scott Peterson-type murder so complicated it took nine years for prosecutors to gather enough evidence to bring it to trial.

Thank you so much for your time and insights, Kathryn, and best of luck with all your new books - I'm looking forward to all of them

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