Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why Don't You Write a Book? / Why in the World Did You Write that Book??

Reflections on "The Last Murder: The Investigation, Prosecution, and Execution of Ted Bundy"

Prosecutors accumulate wealth, but not in the form of money. They accumulate a wealth of stories, and when they get together, they like to swap those stories. Over the years, I have told the stories associated with the prosecution of Ted Bundy hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Almost invariably, someone would ask me "Why don't you write a book?"

I gave any number of reasons for not writing: I'm not a writer. I'm too busy. I [insert rationale of your choice]. And each of those reasons had some weight. The weightiest reason, however, was simply that it was too painful. Telling anecdotes about amusing incidents during the investigation and trial was one thing. Confronting the pathos of the crime was something else entirely.

Finally, after the passage of three decades, I decided to write the book. Enough time had passed that the bad memories weren't as painful--or so I thought. As I soon realized, the memories were still painful, I just hadn't dwelt on them in a very long time. Some chapters of the book were so painful to write that I had to put away the project and take long breaks. Inevitably, after the passage of weeks or months, I would go back to writing. Some of the men and women involved in the case who have read the book tell me they had similar experiences reading it--they would have to stop and take breaks from the awful memories before continuing to read.

I continued to write, and I began to shop the book to various academic publishers. Trying to get a publisher to agree to print your book can be tedious, but I kept at it. Then came the day when Praeger said they would publish the book if I could hold it under 90,000 words including endnotes and bibliography. When I got the news, I had written 120,000 words (not counting endnotes and bibliography) and still had three chapters to go. Those final three chapters collapsed into one, and I took a red pencil to the manuscript, mercilessly cutting as much as I could and still tell a coherent story. The book was still too long. I went back to Praeger and explained my difficulty, and they said they'd accept a longer book, but they'd have to charge $10.00 more per copy if I exceeded 100,000 words. I suggested dropping the endnotes and bibliography as a method of cost cutting, but they vetoed the omission of endnotes. I did get them to agree to omit the bibliography by promising to use long form endnotes. Finally, I got the wordcount under 100,000 and the cost of the book under $50.00. I had to leave out a number of interesting and informative incidents, but I got the story told with brevity and clarity.

When news got around that the book was going to be published, something unexpected happened. People quit asking me why didn't I write a book and began asking "Why in the world did you write that book?" "What can you add to a story that has been so well told by professional writers?" "You're just in it to make a fast buck, aren't you?" They asked other questions of a similar nature, but those were the three main ones. I'd like to answer them in reverse order.

You're just in it to make a fast buck, aren't you? No. The time to make money off of a book about a crime is right after it happens, when the story is still current in the media. If money were the object, I would have written the book 25 years ago; I would have suggested the story to a lurid true crime publisher, not an academic publisher; I would have talked Praeger into publishing the 150,000 word book that I intended to write.

What can you add to a story that has been so well told by professional writers? The professional writers all told the story of the "glamorous" celebrity slayer and media figure, Theodore Robert Bundy. The least "glamorous" of his killings was his last one, and the professional writers gave it short shrift in their stories about the "charismatic" serial killer. My story isn't about Bundy. My story is about an unglamorous investigative and prosecutive effort to seek justice for one innocent victim of a brutal slaying. It's about a group of unsung heroes and heroines in law enforcement who worked tirelessly to rid the world of a cancer.

Why in the world did you write that book? My main reasons were: (1). It's a good story. Even a poor storyteller would have a hard time making it a bad story. (2). It's an educational story. The best way to learn from mistakes is to learn from the mistakes of others. We made a lot of mistakes in the investigation and prosecution, and I have tried to give a non-judgmental documentation of those mistakes so that investigators and prosecutors reading the book will be able to avoid those mistakes in the future. (3). I also thought somebody ought to do something to demythologize Ted Bundy. Judge Cowart was right on point when he said Bundy was a "miserable waste of humanity." In the book, I try to emphasize those facts which bolster Cowart's assessment.