For the past several years, I have amassed hundreds of pages of documents and photos, and conducted a bevy of interviews in order to write the book I’m currently at work on.
It’s a true crime story.
Several of you have heard me talk about it and I’m heavy into the writing of it now. The focus of the book isn’t on the victim – it’s on the killer.
This week I had an exchange with someone connected to the victim. My approach to writing true crime is that I want to give everyone who plays a part in the story a chance to share their truths. Now that doesn’t mean I interview every person in the victim or killer’s life. I don’t. But I do and try to interview the main characters. I don’t badger anyone. I write letters, or emails or make phone calls. I give them the chance to speak on record.
Obviously, murder is a very painful issue, no matter if you are part of the victim’s circle or the murderer’s circle. No one is spared in these situations. It can be very painful for the community-at-large, as well. For law enforcement and criminal court, for pastors and teachers, for friends and family. So dredging all that up is almost always difficult.
When murders happen, however, there is always a lengthy paper trail. So a writer could, if they know what they are doing, write an entire book based upon the paper trail alone. One would actually never need to interview a single soul. That’s not my approach but there are writers who do take that approach.
The uninitiated are often surprised to learn that their involvement with the victim or the murderer is part of the public record. Obviously, this isn’t the sort of high profile anyone desires. Just being friends with a person who is either the murderer or the victim can thrust the unsuspecting into the public limelight. This is especially true when it’s a true whodunit case.
Why would you write a book that focuses on the murderer?
That’s a question that causes quite a bit of consternation for those who have known and loved a victim. They fear that any such book might illicit empathy for a murderer. And the last thing they want is somebody feeling anything but disdain for the person who did the killing. But the truth of the matter is that human beings are complex creatures. This is true whether one is writing true crime or fiction. People are complex.
Recently, I was talking with a young man who likes to write screenplays and science fiction. He’s a bright kid who has read widely – H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, etc. He’s working on a screenplay now. Something I have never even attempted to do. I asked this senior if his language arts teacher was encouraging.
Oh! Yes! he said. He is the reason I got interested in writing to begin with. He has really encouraged me.
Then he paused and added, That’s why I couldn’t understand all that’s happened to him.
Oh. You mean your teacher was the coach who got arrested?
I had read about the incident earlier this year. A local teacher and coach, a father of a high school student himself, was arrested on multiple counts of child pornography. I didn’t know the teacher, so I had not followed up on all the charges pending.
Yeah, the kid said. He was a great teacher. I just don’t understand.
Understanding people’s motivations is a large part of what makes me a writer. Writing helps me makes sense of the world. Like Flannery O’Connor said: I write so I know what I think.
Well, I told the kid, that’s the thing about people, isn’t it? There’s good and evil in all of us. Even when writing fiction, that is why you need to give your most evil character some good qualities and your best character some flaw. Because you can be a good teacher and also have a harmful addiction.
You can be a loving brother and be a killer, too.
We like to see the world in absolutes. This is exactly the reason fundamentalism is on the rise worldwide. Our insatiable desire to overcome human nature by imposing hard and fast rules. Of course, in the end fundamentalism fails, because it does not take into account the very thing it is trying to exert control over – human nature.
What makes a good teacher, someone who obviously cares about kids, get addicted to child pornography?
Why would a joyful person turn to drugs?
Why would a tender-hearted person kill the unsuspecting?
Human nature is a curious thing. As a writer, I am always trying to explore the depths of it. I suppose in some ways I am trying to locate that trigger that turns a good person evil. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. Maybe I think if I can pinpoint that switch, I can avoid it. Maybe I think by writing about it, I can help others.
That’s always my goal, my objective in anything I write. Whether that’s true crime or fiction, I am always trying to learn something, to teach something.
You’d think writing about such hard things as murder or mental illness or child abuse or drug abuse would make me more fearful of the world, but quite the opposite has happened. Writing has made me more open to people. Writing has made me a more compassionate person. I don’t think in absolutes the way I used to. I see people for the complex human beings we all are.
I see the hungering for grace and mercy in all of us.
We are a people starved for belonging.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND: A novel. (Mercer University Press). She is at work on her next non-fiction, a true crime about an Oregon murder.