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Caitlin Rother worked for almost twenty years as a newspaper reporter, and the skills she honed along the way certainly paid off. Now a full-time author of non-fiction crime and crime fiction, her books are tightly crafted, believable and rich in detail.
Her breakthrough book was Poisoned Love (Pinnacle, 2005), a riveting true account of the murder case concerning Kristin Rossum, a beautiful blonde toxicologist who took a lover and then murdered her husband with drugs from her lab, trying to pass the death off as a suicide.
Rother's first novel, Naked Addiction (Dorchester Publishing, 2007), is a gripping mystery in which the author introduces Detective Ken Goode, an undercover narcotics cop who discovers the body of a beautiful young woman near a dumpster and becomes embroiled in a complex homicide investigation and love affair.
Twisted Triangle, which was released this month, is an exclusive non-fiction account of a story that made headlines all over the country in the mid- to late 1990s. Here is attempted murder, corruption and deception as two married FBI agents, entangled in an abusive relationship and involved in a love triangle with famous author Patricia Cornwell, struggle to sort out their lives.
Caitlin Rother has won numerous awards for her journalism, including a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 by The San Diego Union-Tribune for her story on the bizarre suicide of a young man in San Diego County. For further information on the author, her writing career and her books, visit here.
In this recent interview with the author, she generously shares her experience and thoughts on writing and her plans for the future.
BOOKTHINK: Caitlin, when did you decide that writing was important to you?
ROTHER: My father was an English professor and both my parents have Ph.D.'s in English, so I was brought up with writing in the house. The walls were lined with books. When I was little, my father showed me a book by Dylan Thomas (he doesn't remember this, but I do), and he pointed out the dedication, which said, "To Caitlin." I thought that was pretty cool, to see my name in print!
I've always liked to write, even as a child. I remember writing a book about a family of mice as a project for my first-grade class. We had to bring some fabric from home and make our own little hardcover books. Apparently I killed off the mother of the family of mice in my story and my mother was quite concerned about that! She thought I must be angry at her, but I guess I've always thought there's no story that's worth anything unless someone dies.
BOOKTHINK: Ah-ha - good lead-in for my next question: Why did you gravitate toward crime writing?
ROTHER: The funny thing is, in my journalism world, I've mostly written about government and politics.
BOOKTHINK: Criminals all?
ROTHER: Well, you know, I finally got so sick of the spinning and the lying I just decided I'd rather write about murderers. When I started out as a reporter, I was in Washington, D.C. and I was covering government and legislation. When I later got a job covering small cities and towns in Massachusetts, it gave me a chance to write about a lot of things, including crime. In the beginning I wrote mostly about government; then as I grew as a journalist, I developed my investigative reporting skills.
I was writing up to four stories a day back in the late 80's in Northampton, Massachusetts while working for the Springfield Union-News. I was feeling kind of burnt out. So I started taking a writing workshop and found a whole new world opening up for me. I thought to myself, "What kind of novels could I write that I would enjoy and that would actually sell?" And that's when I started gravitating toward mysteries.
I've always wanted to write something more literary, so maybe I'll try that at some point, but because of what journalism does to your brain by having to simplify everything - you use such short words and write quickly - I think it takes more discipline to think and use metaphors and images. With commercial fiction the stories are usually more plot-driven, but I try to develop my characters as well.
BOOKTHINK: Well, yes, you have to write what people are willing to read, and most of today's audience seems to have a short attention span.
ROTHER: Right. So I started writing what became Naked Addiction way back in this writing workshop. It was based on a young woman's murder, and this was a sister of my boyfriend's ex-girlfriend, so it was based on a crime story that actually happened and that I wrote about for the newspaper. At the time I was a City Hall reporter, but we still ended up doing crime stories here and there. So I kind of backed into the true crime genre.
I used to read true crime in magazines like Vanity Fair and New York magazine, which I subscribed to because I thought the crime stories were so good. Over time, I kept working on that novel and re-writing it (because I'm stubborn) and would go back and forth between general assignment and crime stories for the newspaper, gravitating more and more toward the murders.
I started asking for the cop shift - we did a rotating shift on Saturdays, where you might cover parades or something, or you might get lucky and get a good murder. Then I developed a specialty for writing about bizarre deaths. One was about a 19-year-old here in San Diego County who lit himself on fire outside of a Wal-Mart. I ended up writing a long narrative about it, talking to his family and friends and taking the angle that he must not have known how much his actions were going to hurt himself, his friends and his family. And that's the piece that got me nominated for the Pulitzer. It's not exactly crime but more of a bizarre death. There was another story I wrote about a guy who committed suicide by starving himself to death - he put foil on the windows and just stopped eating and drinking. Nobody found him for eighteen months.
BOOKTHINK: Do you find this at all depressing?
ROTHER: You know what? For me, it wasn't depressing. I don't know quite how to explain this, but I sort of gravitated toward those really tragic stories because it touched me and it touched other people. Readers would say, "It made me cry, and you really moved me with this story." I don't know, I like to write about things that evoke emotions in people.
BOOKTHINK: You do it well. When I read Twisted Triangle, it was painful to read for me. I've never experienced abuse at the hands of anyone, but boy. I had some vague memories of that case when I started the book, but reading it, I could feel emotional pain.
ROTHER: I think that's good, as long as you can get something positive out of it. I tried to bring it to a positive place.
BOOKTHINK: It was certainly interesting, especially with author Patricia Cornwell being involved in the love triangle. Did you have any direct communication with her while you were writing the book?
ROTHER: I tried. John Hess, my collaborator, started the project before he even knew who I was and interviewed Margo (the abuse victim) and wrote a manuscript and attempted to interview Patricia Cornwell. When I came on board, I asked Margo if she would contact Patricia herself. There was no bad blood between them. The reason they stopped talking was because Margo didn't think it was safe because of her husband Gene. She was trying to protect Patricia Cornwell, and she was trying to protect herself. Patricia had also said to Margo she would be happy to help her with a book if she ever decided to write about it. Margo tried to reach her, but she never even got a call back from Cornwell's agent, and only managed to talk to an assistant. I had the same experience, and I finally sent a certified letter to make sure that I had legal proof that I had tried to contact her. I wanted to make sure that Patricia knew about the book and that she had an opportunity to tell her side of it. I got a message back that she "wasn't interested."
BOOKTHINK: But she never expressed any feelings either pro or con regarding the publication of the book?
ROTHER: No, not while I was researching and writing it. Margo and Patricia have mutual friends, and I interviewed some of them. There was no message through them regarding her sentiments about the story.
I'd like to go back to your earlier question: The reason I really ended up writing true crime books honestly was because I ended up getting hold of that Kristin Rossum case and started writing about it for the paper. After the prelim, I asked if I could cover the trial because I wasn't a court reporter, and I had to get special permission. In exchange, I had to make a deal with the paper not to pursue a book deal until I finished covering the case. So I started out in crime fiction, but the Rossum story was the first book I got published.
BOOKTHINK: And that was Poisoned Love?
ROTHER: Right. Then I was able to go back and improve Naked Addiction, adding depth to it, until it became much more real. Naked Addiction actually got accepted for publication while I was writing Twisted Triangle.
BOOKTHINK: Naked Addiction was, for me, a real page-turner. I could not put the thing down! And it's your first novel, correct?
ROTHER: It is, even though I started writing it a long time ago and significantly re-wrote it a number of times. Michael Connelly gave me a critique which turned into this version. I took his advice and changed some things and was finally able to get it published. It was great to have his help.
BOOKTHINK: The main character is police detective Ken Goode. How difficult was it for you to write the story with a male voice?
ROTHER: It took a long time to get that right - a long time. I had shown some earlier versions to an editor at Berkley; he read two different versions and he still didn't like it. I was in a writing group that had some men in it. It went through a number of readings; eventually I got the voice right. I had to have men read it and say, "This is not what a man would think, or a man would say," until I finally figured it out. I have a lot of male friends and I get along with men well. I always kind of thought that I think like a man, but I learned that I don't - and that was an interesting discovery.
BOOKTHINK: In Twisted Triangle, I really found the world of the FBI agents interesting. I thought you did a good job of exposing some of that, and particularly that the undercover agents run real mental health risks in doing that kind of work, which became so obvious in the case of Gene.
ROTHER: In the original version of the manuscript, I ended up having to cut a big chunk out of what was the beginning of the book because my editor felt it took too long to get started. There was more about Gene and his undercover operations and more about their early years when they had just joined the FBI, and it ended up on the cutting room floor. It needed to get to the point faster.
BOOKTHINK: I'm sure that making those cuts is very hard part of writing.
ROTHER: That's right. But I just did it with my most recent book, too. I cut about 15% out of it. But it actually makes it go faster, and it makes it better, as much as it hurts me to do it. You want people to read the book, right? If it bogs down or it takes too long, people get bored. You don't want them to stop. You want them to finish the book.
BOOKTHINK: One of the recurring themes in your books is addiction. Is that because addiction is tied to so many crime situations?
ROTHER: I think I'm just sort of drawn to those stories with psychological aspects. I think addiction is also closely tied with people who are mentally ill. My husband, for example was an alcoholic, and he, like many other people who have an addiction, had an underlying mental health diagnosis. He had depression and borderline personality disorder, and he ultimately committed suicide. Suicide and addiction are also tied together because often times people who are alcoholics are addicts too and end up committing suicide because either their underlying diagnosis makes them depressed, or the drug changes their brain chemistry, or they realize that they just aren't happy without the drug and they don't want to live anymore; or they've caused so much wreckage in their lives that they can't repair it. There are many different aspects to how these lives end up playing into tragic stories. For example, you'll find a number of murderers who are meth addicts. They just lose it. In the case of Kristin Rossum (Poisoned Love), she probably wouldn't have murdered anybody if she hadn't been addicted to meth. The homicide detective and I both suspected she also had a narcissistic personality, as many murderers do. With Twisted Triangle, I didn't pick that story for the psychological angle, but as it turns out it had one, with Gene and his defense. I always try to find the why behind people's behavior, and what made them into the person they are.
BOOKTHINK: Having successfully written both true crime and crime fiction, I'm sure that you have to use really different approaches in each. Which is more difficult, and which do you prefer?
ROTHER: I enjoy both, but I'd have to say that fiction is more my passion. It's also much less work because I don't have to do anywhere near the same amount of research as with my non-fiction. Unfortunately, because fiction doesn't pay as well, at least at this point in my career, I may not be able to afford to write it as often as I'd like. It's much more difficult to write narrative non-fiction - meaning all "in scene" - as I did in Twisted Triangle, where there's not as much "information" that you might read in a straight true crime book. It takes about four times as much reporting to write narrative with authority because everything - the events, dialogue, memories and feelings - all have to be true. But when you get into a hardcover they want it to be more literary and more novelistic than a mass market paperback. I actually learned how to write narrative at the newspaper, but I'd already been writing fiction at home. My journalism and my fiction were pretty different, but my non-fiction and fiction are now getting more similar-because the fiction writing is helping the non-fiction, and the information that I've learned in the research for the non-fiction is helping my fiction. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two, and I believe they are both improving.
BOOKTHINK: I would think you have to draw on your imagination much more in the fiction and yet keep it real - that's got to be challenging.
ROTHER: I've gotten a lot of different advice on fiction writing. Some people say you want to make your characters larger than life - your murderer can't behave like a real person, it's got to be more than that. And yet if I read fiction like that, I don't feel that it's real; I feel that it's overdone, so I'm not sure that I agree. I like reading something that feels authentic even though I know the author made it up. I like a story that's based in reality where the characters talk like people really do and where they act like real people would.
BOOKTHINK: I thought your character Ken Goode was very real - that's why I liked the book. The characters are so important in fiction.
ROTHER: I worked really hard on the characters in that book. For years, that's what I was working on - character development. What happened was the investigative aspect of the story wasn't catching up with my development of the characters. So I had to go back and really re-think some of the story line and give it more verisimilitude. And I could do that based on all the knowledge I'd gained by doing the Kristin Rossum book. I was never a cop reporter day in and day out, or a court reporter; I was a government and political reporter. But now I know a lot more, and I've done in-depth research into a number of homicide cases with these books. This one I've just written, Body Parts, which hasn't come out yet, is actually four cases in one.
BOOKTHINK: That's the serial murderer?
ROTHER: Yes, the serial killer who murdered four women and dismembered two of them. There were four separate victims, four separate counties, four sets of investigators, and a lot of information that I gleaned from that.
BOOKTHINK: How do you decide what crime situations to write about? What "grabs" you about something?
ROTHER: The book about Kristin Rossum I was excited about from day one. It had a lot of really sexy elements to it. You had a young attractive woman who had everything going for her; she was pretty, she came from a good family, she was a promising toxicologist, ambitious, well-educated, and she threw it all away with drugs. She was also having an affair. You had sex, adultery; everyone was attractive and smart and young.
BOOKTHINK: Those darned hormones can ruin your life, can't they?
ROTHER: Yes, Kristin was in love with being in love with her boss, Michael Robertson, and it was mutual, so there was this passion to this story as well, except it was horrifying because she goes and kills her husband. There was also the government incompetence angle, which is how I got onto this story. Because the medical examiner's office did some things they shouldn't have done, and made mistakes. In Twisted Triangle I was really interested in the FBI angle. When I first read about the case in Vanity Fair, I was a Patricia Cornwell fan. So that was interesting, and I didn't realize Patricia Cornwell was gay, and that was news to everyone at that time. Also, as I got into that story more, Margo and I connected, and I thought there was a more important story to tell than just the crime story. Something more positive which could inspire people; the whole coming-out aspect of her story, and the struggle and the survival of an abuse victim. In the serial killer story, Body Parts, the murderer actually turned himself in, which I thought was pretty unusual.
BOOKTHINK: He turned himself in?
ROTHER: Yes, with a woman's breast in his pocket. He called his brother and said he'd done something bad, and needed help in turning himself in. They had some sort of pact since childhood that when Wayne would do something he would tell his brother because he knew his brother would have to tell on him. He also had had a really bad head injury earlier in his life from being hit by a drunk driver when he stopped to help a traffic accident victim. The impact sent him 40 feet down an embankment and half his face was torn up, and that's when he started getting more and more weird. So there are many psychological aspects to that complex story as well.
BOOKTHINK: That's so sad. I don't know how you do what you do!
ROTHER: This last one was very difficult for me because it was so dark. My husband had the same personality disorder that this serial killer had and the women who were killed had troubled lives, with drugs, prostitution and some homelessness, so that was difficult for me, too.
BOOKTHINK: What advice would you give to aspiring writers in this genre?
ROTHER: It's been difficult for me as somebody who has written for the newspaper for so long; I always felt like I had a higher purpose. When I'm writing about politics and government I'm helping voters decide who to vote for. I'm the watchdog. In this case, I sometimes wonder what my purpose is. People say the purpose is to entertain. But I don't want to glorify violence. I don't know what advice I would offer except to try to find a noble reason to write about crime, give people dignity and respect. I don't see things the way some prosecutors do - in black and white. I don't necessarily see it from the other extreme either. I try to be fair to everybody and not take sides; that's my training as a journalist. Now in Twisted Triangle my editor wanted me to take an angle where I told Margo's story, so in that case I did sort of have to take sides; but I did still try to be fair to Gene by being as accurate as I could and to try to get his point of view in there as much as I could. I feel that's the way to write these stories with some integrity, and I try not to put my own opinion in - but that's been my choice up to this point; some true crime authors do offer their opinions and in some books, that's part of the story.
BOOKTHINK: Of the books you've written so far, what is your favorite?
ROTHER: That's such a hard question, because I like them all for different reasons. I guess I'd have to say the one that I felt most important for me to get published was the novel because it took 17 years. It meant so much to me to get it published because I'd worked so long, re-writing and re-writing it, and so that was really a big accomplishment for me. As I was putting together Twisted Triangle, I was thinking it was the best thing I've ever written, but I could be wrong. It's so subjective and the books are all so different.
BOOKTHINK: And Twisted Triangle is coming out in May?
ROTHER: It will be out by May 1st if not before. I'll be at some book signings all through San Diego and in the San Francisco Bay area. I just finished Body Parts. After I get a little bit of a break, I'm hoping to start work on my sequel to Naked Addiction, for which I've already got a draft done. Because it was so difficult to write as a man, I've decided to bring in a female protagonist who is an investigative reporter. Ken Goode will be the love interest, working on the same case. This will be an opportunity to help people understand the relationship between police and reporters. The reporter can't really work with the police, and the police can't share everything with the reporter, so it's sort of already a good set-up for conflict, plus there's good sexual tension between the two. But again, I don't have a contract for it because I haven't finished it yet, so a publisher may ask me to do something else with it.
BOOKTHINK: Even as an author you don't have total freedom.
ROTHER: Oh, God, no. But I can go to the pool or go for a walk or to a coffee shop and do my work.
BOOKTHINK: And once you are successful, there's more pressure to produce.
ROTHER: And to keep hitting a good mark, to keep growing. With some authors, you read their first book and you think, "Wow, that was so good." Then you read later books and wonder what happened, probably because they had to complete one book a year. It's because they worked very long and hard on their first book before it finally got published.
BOOKTHINK: You also have to keep fulfilling readers' and editors' expectations.
ROTHER: My agent said to me, "You are not going to be able to please everybody, and the bigger that you get, if you want to take your writing in a certain direction, you may lose some readers, but then you'll gain some new ones. You can't think about trying to please everybody."
Poisoned Love (Kensington/Pinnacle, 2005)
Naked Addiction (Dorchester, Nov. 2007)
Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband's Violent Revenge (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, May 2008)
Body Parts (To be published by Kensington/Pinnacle, March 2009)
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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