As a photojournalist, she and I have already worked together on a few projects, including my 2001 exploration of the Little Bighorn River’s deep and ancient cultural significance to the Crow tribe in Montana. The time we had together there -- working and relating, both -- was a gift to me as a father.
"FALL" will be released Dec. 2 in Wyoming; in January nationally. It's available for pre-ordering now at Amazon.com. Click here.
QUESTION: In some past essays, you’ve described true crime as a genre that too-seldom has a soul. What did you mean by that?ANSWER: Only that most true-crime writing has become a formulaic exercise since Truman Capote gave birth to the genre in “In Cold Blood” back in 1966. Today, the typical true-crime writer parachutes into town, maybe attends the trial, takes some notes (extra points for a jailhouse interviews!), snatches some grisly crime-scene photos and catches the next plane home, where somebody slaps a blood-spattered cover on the book and sells it in supermarkets to readers who furtively glance first at the photos inside. Where Capote wanted to tell a deeper story about society on two sides of a dark mirror, today’s true-crime writer (and editor) plays more to the readers’ lurid fascination with blood and betrayal. So the genre has moved from the mind to the abattoir.
In the past 40 years, we’ve seen some extraordinary exceptions: Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter,” Joseph Wambaugh’s “Onion Field,” Joe McGinniss’ “Fatal Vision,” and James Ellroy’s “My Dark Places.” Those books had soul. They weren’t just commercial exercises.
Q: OK, so tell me about the title of your book, “FALL: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town.”
A: This monstrous, small-town abduction of two young sisters in 1973 -- my next-door neighbors and friends at the time -- ended in rape and murder at a towering steel bridge over a deep, dark canyon. Both girls were thrown from the bridge. One plummeted into oblivion, the other into an even darker life that became a kind of corrosive purgatory for her. So the crime itself involved a fall that still twists my gut.
But the two killers fell, too. They were caught quickly, tried and condemned to die. Although their death sentences were overturned in our national spasm of conscience about the death penalty in the 1970s, their free lives -- however unnatural they had been -- were over, too.
And finally, for me and a lot of other kids who were splashed by this crime, it was a plunge into reality. We lost our childhood sense of security and our innocence. In my interviews I discovered profound emotions lingering among the now-grown children who were there, and whose safe world was suddenly not so safe.
Q: This story is now more than 30 years old, and although it was a grotesque case, it wasn’t widely publicized in 1973. How do you bring a fresh perspective to an old story?
A: That’s a question a lot of editors asked just before they rejected the proposal! The zeitgeist in crime stories today is ripping stories from yesterday’s headlines, so it was certainly a tough sell.
Certainly the fact it isn’t a widely known story helps. But while it’s not a current story, it’s got some current elements. How do we confront our fears in a post-9/11 world? How do we awake from our false sense of security and go forward, despite the lurking dangers? How and why does tragedy ripple through human hearts across generations?
And in some ways, this story continues. I can assure you that in the small city of Casper, Wyoming, where I grew up and this all happened, it remains a fresh wound.
Q: You spent a lot of time interviewing the killer Ron Kennedy. His presence haunts this entire book, and the past 30-plus years of your life. What was it like to talk to this guy whom you say robbed you of innocence too young?
A: Our seven phone conversations lasted a total of about 14 hours (undoubtedly monitored by prison officials) and were remarkably friendly. Ron Kennedy exudes a country-boy charm that’s seductive, just part of his sociopathic makeup. He’d get angry at some questions (usually about his treatment by the law or society in general) and he’d choke up at others (usually his mother.) He talked about what he could see beyond the prison walls, about friends and family. He was genial and joked freely. But he never stopped playing me.
He was the most important piece of this story to me. Not because he’s the last survivor of the four people whose lives converged on Fremont Canyon Bridge on a black night in 1973. Not because he was likely to reveal anything new about the crime itself, much less finally accept blame. And not because a jailhouse interview has become a standard component of true crime.
But because he was my mirror. I wanted to know something about me. I believe deeply in the value of honest journalism, that messengers have played a vital role in the human community since the dawn of man. I wanted to know if my deep-set feelings about this man -- or rather what he represented and did -- were stronger than my passion to be a conscientious messenger. If I couldn’t take a step back from my feeling to allow him to tell his own story in his own voice, I wouldn’t be the newspaperman I thought I was … and he would have raped me of that, too.
Q: You spent the night of the 30th anniversary of the crime under the bridge, in the same spot where Becky Thomson sheltered herself in the dark after she was thrown from the bridge, just a few feet from where Amy Burridge’s body was found. How did you prepare yourself for that?
A: When I started researching this book, I had always planned to visit the bridge on the 30th anniversary -- Sept. 24, 2003 -- just to offer a prayer and leave two flowers. But while researching the moon phase for the unusually dark night of the crime, I learned the moon would be almost exactly the same on the night of the 30th anniversary. I wanted to live through a similarly dark night under that haunted bridge, especially if the sky and weather conditions were going to be similar. And they were.
It was late September in Wyoming, and I knew the overnight temperatures would fall to near-freezing, but I dressed lightly -- jeans and a sweatshirt -- and went down there for the night. Because of the steep canyon walls, dark fell early. Before midnight, I began shivering and didn’t stop until well past dawn the next day. The intense blackness of the night, the wild sounds, and the loss of any sense of time or space … it all forces you inward in a frightening way. The night seemed to last that whole sad year, and when dawn came, I scrambled out of the treacherous canyon and never went back.
God, Becky had been down there in a light pullover top, naked below the waist, raped, her pelvis broken in five places and her skin carved open by glancing off the canyon wall -- ironically, a crash that saved her life. Her would-be killers were still up above her someplace, and her little sister’s corpse floating in the water a few feet away. She warmed herself by curling up and partially covering her legs with her long dark hair. At the trial, she talked about a water rat crawling across her hand, but she was so afraid of being found by the two killers that she didn’t make a sound. Before daybreak, she literally dragged her wounded legs up an impossibly steep wash to the dirt road where she was found by fishermen. [See excerpt in this blog]
Spending that night below the bridge told me more about Becky’s will to survive than I could have learned in a million interviews.
Q: You took more than a year off from newspapering to research and write this book. Did it mean so much to you that you’d walk away from a regular paycheck to live with this story 24/7?
A: Yes. And I’d do it again.
Q: While you were writing this book, you also visited Holcomb, Kansas, where the grisly “In Cold Blood” murders happened. Why?
A: To seek ghosts. I wanted to see how a community survives trauma. I wanted to see what it looks like 40 or 50 years down the line after a man-made tragedy shakes a place to the core of its beliefs and its complacence. I also wanted to make a pilgrimage to the spot where the first and greatest true story about crime in a small town happened. Maybe I just wanted to catch some of Capote’s mojo. I didn’t write about Holcomb in “FALL” but it’s there.
[Ron’s essay about the visit to Holcomb appears in this blog]
Q: You’ve written novels and now a nonfiction book. Do they have anything in common?
A: The main thing they share is a small-town setting. Whether it’s because I grew up in an isolated community, or because I have always found small towns to be far more fertile ground for storytelling, I don’t know. The world has plenty of big-city authors writing about the concrete jungle and the urban battlefield, and many of them are very good at it. I wouldn’t be very good at it. I know small towns intimately.
But my stories, both true and imagined, also feature characters who seem familiar to us -- at least, to me -- even if their problems are uncommon. Whether it’s Cassidy McLeod in “Angel Fire,” who fears intimacy because of what it might do to anyone he loves, or Becky Thomson in “Fall,” who keeps her fears and her fatal sadness a secret until it’s too late, these are people we know.
Q: What’s harder: Fiction or fact?
A: Good question. I’m glad to see the investment in your college education paid off!
Neither is easy. Each presents unique problems and requires unique skills. One thing they share is an obligation to consider the reader’s trust.
In nonfiction, the reader trusts an author or journalist implicitly to tell the truth. Telling the truth isn’t hard (except for James Frey) but making the truth clear, useful and important is more problematic. In fiction, you admit you’re lying and the reader knows it, but the trick is to make it seem so real that a reader can believe every word. So in both cases, readers trust an author to fulfill his promise.