An interview with Sarah Weinman, part the second
I spoke to Sarah Weinman, author of Scoundrel and The Real Lolita, last week about what she wishes people would ask about her book, Dorothy Kilgallen, fresh Zodiac takes, and the hem of James Baldwin's garment. (You can read the first part of our conversation right here.)
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
Sarah D. Bunting: It definitely is one of those times that, and you and I have talked about this before, that sometimes in non-fiction books, it's like, look, I went out to this archive in the middle of nowhere with no air conditioning. And I tracked down this fact and it doesn't really matter, but goddammit, it's going in. This is one of those times when it's totally earned, like, we all had to live with this...
Sarah Weinman: But that also brings up a point that, you know, the difference between Scoundrel and The Real Lolita is that The Real Lolita felt like I was really just mining every little scrap of information to put in the book, because there just wasn't a lot. You know, it wasn't like Sally Horner documented every part of her life. She did the opposite, in fact, so I had to do much more inserting of myself in the narrative and much more speculation that frankly -- I had to work against my own inclination. I was really uncomfortable with that level of speculation, though I think it succeeded.
But I also knew for Scoundrel that I was practically drowning in primary source material. So I didn't need to be in the narrative except for the introduction, where I was just basically stating, here's why I'm telling this story in this way, that I'm taking the wind out of the sails. You're not gonna be in suspense that Edgar didn't do it, because that's not important. What's important to me is the why, and the "how the hell did this happen" and how were people duped and things like that. Those were the much more pressing questions, but I had to really pare down what was included, and it wasn't like I could quote from every letter; I had to still create a sense of pace and narrative.
And I know that some readers are like, oh, this middle section drags. It's like, yeah, but how else am I going to represent the fact that you have a guy sitting on death row? And the only way of really communicating with people is by letter. And it's all very internal and yes, there are visits, but I just have much more information about what letters they're exchanging and what they're saying to one another.
So how do I convey that? But also not get the narrative too bogged down. So that was a real central structural question that I had. And then obviously the opening sections are, you know, murder, trial, conviction, trying to stave off execution. Those are natural points of sort of thriller-y-type pacing. And then after he gets out, then there's more action and there's more sort of movement, and Edgar's going to California. And then when he is on the run after he nearly kills Lisa Ozbun, so the momentum sort of picks up again, but there was really very little I could do aside from what I did do.
Structurally, well, yeah. That part -- the pacing that felt normal and fine to be. Because I was like, this shit just takes time. Also in true crime, death penalty fights like this --
They take years or decades. Yeah. Yeah.
It's not like it was a hundred years ago where it was like, he's convicted, he's sentenced, he's dead. These things take a lot of time. So that reflected a reality to me and didn't feel slow, but you know, I did sometimes have to put the book down, because it's like, girl.
Yeah. I know.
What about spending time with [William F.] Buckley? Because he seems to me like both the catalyst of this story, and also in the end kind of marginal, possibly partly by his own doing, but also because you can kind of assume how he felt at various points -- it's text. So how is it spending time with him? I mean, this isn't necessarily someone you and I would choose to marinate in, except for this aspect of the story.
It was funny too, because with The Real Lolita I had to spend time with Vladimir Nabokov, who was also really a tough nut to crack -- and trying to figure out how to humanize him was really tough, because he would create this sort of artificial author persona, and his whole thing about how interviewers had to submit questions in writing in advance. And he was really desperately trying to control the narrative. And I would just be like, how do I get past all this stuff? And pierce the veil.
With Buckley, the challenge was that most of what has been written about him, and I think it's understandable, is about Buckley and his ideas or what ideas he actually had, which upon examination are kind of -- he didn't really have a lot. I mean, as a columnist, he was -- I don't know, a lot of people are like, oh, how would Buckley fare in the post-Trump world, and I'll be like, yeah, he just would shit-post all day long.
Yeah. Probably. Or he'd be working for the Lincoln Project, who knows?
God. [laughs] Yeah.
Although that Pat Buckley bit where she's like, get those criminals out of my bedroom --
I am so glad I was able to footnote that because I just, I wish I could have put it in text, but the source who told me, he couldn't nail it down, he just was like, this is what I remember hearing. And there was no one else to ask. So that's why I was like, I'll footnote it in this way, because I have to include this. It feels so consistent with what I know of Pat's personality and how she would've reacted to things. And of course she would've hated Edgar.
But to go back to Bill, it was really important to try to figure out what made him tick and why he would do this. And the thing I landed on was that is this idea of, he would never let ideology get in the way of a good friendship. And because friendship was so important to him and he would do it in this way, that almost was like heightened romance, just in the way he would write to people. And even though his letters tended to be very short because, you know, he'd be dictating stuff from his car, he'd be dictating stuff from the office.
But I found with Buckley that, you know, he was good company, but I never wanted to forget that he believed and wrote some really reprehensible shit. Some of which I discuss, like the editorial about why the south must prevail, which is horrible. And some of which I decided not to, like the horrible piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine, on gay men and AIDS and wanting to tattoo their buttocks. I really went back and forth. But I just felt like for the purposes of the narrative, it's really about Buckley and Sophie and Edgar. And I need to just be very laser-focused on that, and concentrate on that trifecta and how it broke apart and how, you know, in the late nineties there was one last little bit of correspondence.
So I left it out, but I always bring it up in interviews because, you know, Bill basically wrote that op-ed to gain relevancy because he felt like he was slipping. And was losing cultural potency, even in the Reagan era. So he wrote this to basically just get people mad, in the way that people like Ben Shapiro get people mad. It just felt like that.
And obviously, I don't know one way or the other, which is also why I didn't discuss it, what homoerotic levels there were to Buckley's life or personality -- you know, I've heard a lot of unsourced stuff, but my attitude was, if my fact-checker can't prove anything, I'm not gonna include it.
Right. Is there anything else like that, that you wish you were able to chase down or include?
I wish Paige had talked to me more. I mean, I had that one conversation with her when she was a little more forthcoming, but then she just basically went completely dark on me, and I get why -- she went through a lot of trauma. And just, you know, being so young and feeling like, here is this older man of some renown who I believe is innocent of this girl's murder, and I'll start a new life with him and it quickly goes to hell and, you know, she's implicated. She was arrested as an accessory, and then that got dropped; I actually tried to find the woman who wrote the letter vouching for her, but she never responded.
So I remember talking to Paige, but I didn't record it because at the time I was like, I'll keep it off the record. And I just wanna kind of, you know, sound her out. But I mean, I broke the news to her that Edgar died. She said she would not have known, because she had told the prison to stop forwarding any messages or letters from him, because he was being abusive and trying to stalk her and all this stuff.
I try to reach out; she popped up on Signal, and I tried to message her there and Facebook and email and various telephone numbers. And then, you know, at a certain point you just have to let it go.
Also, I wish that Vicky's family had cooperated a little bit more. I had one off-the-record conversation with Myrna where she sort of intimated to me that, you know, someone was writing a book with her. I'm like, oh, that's interesting. And then I never heard anything again, but I was in touch periodically with Vicky's niece, Liz -- and she told me some stuff about, like, what had happened to the family thereafter, but even she had been in the dark about a lot of stuff, and this, it is a classic thing. And it happened with Sally Horner's family, just -- a big trauma happened, and you never discuss it again. And I think in light of the fact that Vicky's parents had such a volatile marriage -- and that divorce decree, that divorce complaint was awful. The things that Mary accused Anthony of, it's impossible to say for sure what was true and what was not, but it's such a very specific accusation about the dog --
Yeah, like who is making that up --
In 1959? Like, you just know something awful happened. And then she's like, but I didn't speak to him for several weeks. I'm like, "several weeks" [laughs] God.
"Well, that'll teach him." Yeah. Is there anything that you thought people would notice or comment on from the book that they haven't, and you wish they would ask about?
That's a good question. I'm surprised that the stuff at the end with, um, Edgar's daughter and granddaughter didn't get as much attention. Because I felt like that was such an important part of the story. And part of it is just the way I was able to track them down. You know, I finally get access to Buckley's archives in the summer of '19. I write to Christopher explaining that the book is under contract, it's with a major publisher. I've already visited independent archives. So while I'm still gonna write this book and it will get published, it would benefit everyone greatly for me to have as much access as possible.
And then I sent -- and it was actually an accident, but I think it tipped the balance; I sent him a letter that Edgar wrote Buckley in the late nineties, basically apologizing without maybe fully apologizing, but it's as close as Edgar was ever gonna get, which I knew was not in Buckley's archives.
So six hours after I sent that email, Christopher writes back and says, okay, permission granted. I was like, nice. And I forward it on to Yale and it's like, let me in [laughs]. And within minutes of getting all set up, I look at a couple of initial pages, and I see this unsigned affidavit that has the next married name of Edgar's first wife, Patricia. So from that, and a quick search of Ancestry, I'm able to figure out where the daughter is, what her actual name is now, where she's living, find her email, email her within an hour. She writes back and says, sure, I'll talk to you.
And I love talking to Patty, she's just no-bullshit. Very matter-of-fact, not sentimental, cares about family, loves her daughter, loves her grandkids. I think the main stipulation with both me and my checker was like, please don't name the grandchildren. I'm like, they're not part of the story. It's fine. They're only part of the story in the sense of they exist and that's it.
Well, and here we are back at Capote again -- I mean, it's not funny and I guess it's not really that peculiar either, but that sort of experience that they had as a family, it reminded me of this story in Popular Crime that Bill James tells about Dick Hickock's biological son reading In Cold Blood in school, and like dropping the book and running out into the hallway to vomit because he just put it together, that that --
Was his father.
Was his biological father. So, yeah. I absolutely understand why this happens and how years and years go by and you're like, well, man, it's too late to say anything. So I guess I'm just gonna have to wait for them to submit DNA somewhere, and then better to apologize.
I totally get why this happens, but it does seem so like, so frequent that it's like, these, these conversations are not forthrightly had, and especially in a country where so many people are incarcerated. It's like, you know, maybe there needs to be a little less shame around it for family members who are just family members. When millions and millions of people are behind bars for something, many of them, for things they didn't even do, it's like, why are we stigmatizing the family? They didn't ask for this. And they have to suffer for the rest of their lives in a different way from the, the, you know, from those who are related to the people who are harmed and murdered.
...I mean, just the people who walked into this narrative, you know, Capote, Mailer, Mary Higgins Clark. That was a big one. I mean the Edgar Smith case really was the formative case that made her a crime writer, which is just bonkers to me. But, you know, it's mentioned in Where Are The Children? She wrote an essay in 1978 about the case for a Mystery Writers of America anthology and talks about, like, what it was like to be a New Jersey housewife. And then she tells me, like, yeah, I went to the trial and that was essentially our entertainment.
And who's the other name that floated in that, like, he's a true-crime guy, but it's not -- was it Selwyn Raab?
Yeah. Justice In The Back Room, it was called.
Right. But this isn't his genre. He's like the godfather, so to say, of Five Families writing, but then --
But this was what he did before.
Right. I think he's still alive, too.
Yeah. I believe so. I didn't think to track him down, but like at a certain point, it's just like, I have so much material.
He's somewhere doing a talking-head for the History Channel about the Bonannos. He's like, I brought my own makeup. It's fine.
It's like Shelby Foote in The Civil War.
[laughs] Bless his heart. ...I'm gonna wrap this up and let you go, but first I want to know if you're reading anything in the genre right now that you recommend.
Jimmy The King by Gus Garcia Roberts, which came out earlier this month and weirdly has had very little attention to it. And it's about the level of criminality in Suffolk County and Long Island -- and a lot of it centers around the town of Smithtown, and it turns out I have a friend who lives in Smithtown, so I was telling her about it, like, you must read this book.
Yeah, that's been on my list. First I have to get through -- I did not realize that Lee Israel had done a book about Dorothy Kilgallen.
That was how I first heard of Lee Israel, was that book. I am also a Kilgallen obsessive and definitely fell down the rabbit hole of, like, how she died and what the hell happened there -- but there's a project that I've been trying to get off the ground for a long time related to her first book, which is called Girl Around The World when she, um, traveled the world, first on the Hindenburg -- and it was this competition with these two male writers. And I just feel like, this is such a good story. And she's just come off, you know, covering the Lindbergh trial and she's young and she's trying to impress people and I'm just like, this would be fun. But finding a copy of Girl Around The World has been a real headache. It's almost impossible. But just like getting a copy of Capote's ABC documentary, we all have our white whales. And those seem to be the two at the moment.
Even Murder One, it's like, it's just us book dealers swapping the same fourteen copies.
I've got mine.
And then the other book that just came out, which I, I still am thinking about is Trailed by Kathryn Miles, about the two queer women who were murdered in the Shenandoah Valley as they were hiking.
And you know, I gotta bring up Jarett Kobek's Motor Spirit. Which, if you talk to Elon Green, he's also incredibly obsessed with that book. It is a literary book, a literary non-fiction account from soup to nuts of the Zodiac case that actually doesn't suck. And in fact is kind of brilliant, and Kobek, his background is like art stuff and novels and tech. He's kind of a polymath, but he, during the pandemic, just sort of got interested in debunking current suspects of the Zodiac, because basically all of them are terrible.
As Eve and I are always saying, it is and remains not either of our dads.
So Kobek wrote this whole book to just be like, here is a history of California as the Zodiac case was happening, and just goes through from first principles, and you realize, just, how pathetic Zodiac was and like really just such a loser.
And then he writes a companion book, which I have some qualms about just because it would never pass, like, a legal read. But he makes a pretty good argument for a suspect that nobody knows about. And the reason that he lands on the suspect is basically through fanzines, because it turns out that one of the notes references something that was in a fanzine and he finds writing that's very comparable. So do I think that this guy is the guy; I'm not sure, but it's more persuasive than any suspect that has ever been put forward as Zodiac -- and basically [Robert] Graysmith. That book is called How To Find Zodiac, and I would strongly recommend tracking it down just so, like, I can talk about it with you and not just Elon [laughs].
I am on it.
And I can reveal that when the Scoundrel paperback is out, we are changing the subtitle to The Story of a Murderer Who Charmed His Way to Fame and Freedom.
I think that's closer. I mean, I understand why the hardcover subtitle -- like, that's how you sold it in the room, so you're gonna keep it.
Well, that was actually a suggestion of my Canadian editor and we were like, yeah. And then we actually got the subtitle before the title, which is unusual. So I'm not surprised that it's changing and I was fine with it -- and they're changing the cover. So it's more basically it looks kind of like an I'll Be Gone In The Dark clone, but I'm like, great, sell more. I don't care.
I love the cover of Scoundrel. I think it's great. I would've loved for it to be the paperback, but I've been steeped enough in book-publishing land to know why they changed things. And I'm like, yeah, I would like this book to be sold in Target. I would like this book to reach people who are not necessarily -- who don't know that they should be reading it. So more power to that.
Right. That's how you shift along the spectrum from true crime to social history, less red on the cover.
Oh no, it's still gonna be red and black.
'Cause almost all my books are red and black. And then the next anthology is basically Unspeakable Acts, but if the third section was the entire book. So it's much more about systemic injustice and trying to reckon with the past few years in particular. I think the current title is Evidence of Things Seen. So it it's a big reference to that Baldwin book.
Well, how do you feel about that? That's a big hem to be standing on.
Oh, it was my choice, because that's all I was thinking about when I pitched it in the summer of '20, it was right around all the protests. And I just could not get Baldwin's book outta my head. Yeah. And I think that it's really one of the unheralded true-crime classics, even though he would never have considered himself a true-crime writer.
Right. Should be required reading for all.
Yeah. It's basically a book about systemic inequities and it's Baldwin's prose and it's marvelous and it's woolly and you just have to kind of go with it.
That and Last Call are my best sellers, historically.
I love that. That's so good.