An interview with "Scoundrel" author Sarah Weinman
Sarah Weinman, the author of The Real Lolita and Scoundrel and editor of Women Crime Writers and Unspeakable Acts, sat down with me earlier this week to talk about the gestation of Scoundrel, Capote in Texas, research cringe, and much more. This is the first part of our conversation.
[This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.]
Sarah D. Bunting: I went down, um, both while I was reading it and while I was putting together some questions, I went down like four different Wiki holes and came out like in Houston, in the seventies --
Sarah Weinman: Oh, I know which I know which rabbit hole you fell down. Mm-hmm.
I think the one I fell down in with you the last time we spoke.
Yeah. Was it the Truman Capote, you know, going to Wayne Henley's trial and being like, I've seen it all before.
[laughs] No, this was his Houston diaries that are -- I was like, all right, I'm gonna take my ass to the public library, put on the gloves and have a look.
Uh, I did, so... [laughs]
Yeah. Should I bother?
I mean, it was, I don't think anybody had looked at them until I had, so that was pretty thrilling.
Because it was, there was a scrapbook and, you know, there was a tie on it and I undid the knot and I'm looking at it. [laughs]
Like, a silverfish walks out. You're like, hey buddy.
I can send you the picture. I was just like, no one has seen this. What? Or did the archivist not look at this? I never know what, what they do if they just sort of receive it. And then they're like, well, this is a scrapbook, but they don't actually like go in and investigate. But basically it's, he did a whole diary of clippings. So anything you wanna know about [Dean] Corll from that time, Capote had a clipping of it, which was bananas.
I mean, Nabokov kept every single review of Lolita possible. Yeah. So I was, I remember looking at that at the New York Public Library also just being like, the shit that authors keep -- [laughs] speaking as one --
But the provenance of those diaries, it was relatively recent as an acquisition to the library.
It was, I think, 2018, 2019.
Some guy found it in his mom's house or something.
Yeah, I think so. And if you go to the NYPL page, which I think I still have bookmarked, cuz I actually wanna interview that person. Eventually I'm going to be on my Capote rabbithole project, which we can --
Oh my God. Well, I mean, drop a dime because I know, for some reason, just an obscene amount about, like, minor books that went out of print. Like, The KBI Agents At The Black-And-White Ball: A Memoir -- who cares? For this, I guess I did.
Anyway, we're already doing it, but I was struck by how many other stories this book could have been or had in it. If you hadn't, you know, had more discipline than I would've shown in a project like this. I'm thinking about Capote as a prospective blurber or reviewer of Edgar Smith's book.
That's still one of my favorite anecdotes from Scoundrel, just how that all came together. And it's just this idea that here was this convicted murderer, who's trying to get off death row and he's written a book and his publisher naturally wants to go to what was apparently the go-to criminal justice pundit of the time, Truman Capote, which is still something that's hard to wrap my head around. Yeah.
But at the time that Brief Against Death was being finished up and getting ready for publication. Capote was two years removed from the publication of In Cold Blood, maybe a year and change removed from the Black-And-White ball. So he really was at the top of his game and he had nowhere to go but down and at the time he would go on talk shows and talk about criminal-justice stuff. And especially the death penalty, he even testified at, I think, a congressional hearing.
Yeah. I think that's right.
And he just said some really off the wall stuff. I just remember reading it going, wait, that's what you think? That murder should only be a federal-court crime. It shouldn't be tried in state court. It's like, okay dude, that's an interesting opinion.
Good luck settling that out logistically. Yeah, the relationship of this literary figure to, to true crime is -- well, whatever, I'm not going down this rabbit hole again right now.
No, but it is, like I said, that's a rabbit hole that I'm hoping to go down in earnest because also concurrent to all of this is that Capote was researching a documentary that was supposed to air on ABC. It was called Death Row USA. And he went along with Piedy Lumet -- she was like a swan without being a swan. She was in that world. And she's still apparently alive in her nineties, which is also kind of wild and I'm hoping I can find her.
But she went with him to San Quentin. She went with him to the Colorado death row. And in the NYPL archives about Death Row USA, I'm looking at the notes that were being collated, I guess, to figure out who they wanted to interview. [Capote] wanted to interview Edgar Smith. Edgar's name was on that list, but he couldn't get to it because the death row at the New Jersey state prison expressly did not allow media in, which is of course how William Buckley got around it because he was on the legal team and Sophie Wilkins, the book editor, got around it because she was "his cousin" -- that was the fiction that they concocted, but what was Capote gonna do? [laughs]
And her life, just the life of Sophie Wilkins and her various assignations, and that, you know, she ends up marrying this poet -- like, okay, this is a whole other book probably. And then her whole "I'll do whatever I have to do to get this book" -- like, I don't know if you've watched Julia, but --
No, not yet.
The story there about Julia [Child]'s editor. And then the great Judith Light as Blanche Knopf losing her eyesight, spoiler --
I read the biography of Blanche, so I know.
And Blanche just like being a battle-axe to her fellow woman editors, the way that it was for these editors mid-century, and then Julia's editor was also [John] Updike's editor --
That just reminded me of that, and the stories within stories. So getting back out of the rabbit hole --
I know, although it is interesting. I never really got anybody to tell me if Sophie and Judith Jones had much to do with each other. And I guess the answer is no. But, you know, the [Robert] Gottlieb stuff was more fun [laughs].
I mean, that's another rabbit hole entirely leading to Janet Malcolm --
Oh, yes. Who was also BFF with Gottlieb.
Mm-hmm, and I'm not gonna get on that rant.
Was this the book that you pitched, or did this confluence of stories sort of evolve as you were working on it, and the book became something else? It doesn't strike me that it is wildly different from what I saw in the trades when it sold, but --
No, because -- so maybe this is a good time to get into the chronology of how this sort of came into being, because it took like seven some-odd years from inception to publication.
Right. Because you did mention in text that like that the letters between you and Smith were like mid-teens. So 2014 or --
It was the tail end of 2014. So what happened is, I had published the article in Hazlitt that became The Real Lolita. And I really thought that my next piece for Hazlitt was going to be on the Edgar Smith story. I knew nothing about Sophie Wilkins at the time. So I really thought at that time the magazine project was going to be figuring out what went on, how [William F.] Buckley got duped, why we didn't know this story in the way that we knew the Norman Mailer or Jack Henry Abbott story. Right. Or even the Caryl Chessman case, which we can talk about another time [laughs] because of course I bought the Chessman book at your store.
So I just started researching and getting in touch with people, and I think it was at that point when I -- I did a lot of reading. There was a long piece by a woman named Lona Manning called "The Great Prevaricator" that had a lot of good background. Although I thought the writing was a little -- it wasn't the way I would've written it. Let's just say that.
But I wrote Edgar then, because I didn't really think much was gonna happen. I didn't know what, like, his state of health was. I didn't know if he was gonna write back. I didn't even know if I wanted to talk to him, frankly, because based on what I had already read from parole hearings and the case, I just thought, I don't think he's gonna tell me all that much that's useful. But as I recount in Scoundrel, he did write me back and he wanted to know how I knew stuff. And in my second letter, I just was like, well, you know, all these people are dead and you're still alive. What the hell? And he wrote me this letter -- I think he was, you know, he was basically fishing for information. He wanted to know why I was writing to him, what my agenda was. And I could just tell, even from that second letter, that this was not going to be a fruitful exchange. Right. So I was like, here are questions that I'm pretty sure no one else has asked and I will never get my chance again. So I might as well do it now.
And then he insults Christopher Buckley, which was very funny, and also kind of terrible [laughs], and essentially, I don't wanna say he busts me 'cause it's pretty obvious, but he's like, you clearly seem to be writing a book about me, I don't wanna cooperate. And then he proceeded to answer every question anyway! Because it's like, he couldn't help himself. And I get it, like, you're an eighty-something-year-old man in prison. The chickens have come home to roost. No one is writing you anymore.
I didn't know this at the time, but I would find out many years later that he did know his daughter and his granddaughter and they came, he basically paid for them to come visit, and then they cut him off. So he had basically very few people, there were a couple of people who never responded to any of my entreaties, but there was this -- he somehow befriended an ex-cop and his wife who lived in the Pacific Northwest. And so when he was stalking Paige from prison, Paige being a second ex-wife, I'm pretty sure it was through that conduit as to how it happened. It wasn't like Edgar magically had internet access in California state prison, although he could have, but I just don't think that's likely, I think he had somebody on the outside doing the dirty work.
Yeah. Or I think there's a black market in smartphones, but I'm not sure someone that age would --
I don't wanna rule out that he had a contraband cell phone, but I just feel like, I feel like he would've had some insulting thing to say about cell phones [laughs] He still had a typewriter that he was typing, you know, writing me letters.
So this is all happening and you still think, it's gonna be an article.
Yeah. But it becomes clear to me that number one, a number of sources are not going to cooperate. I remember reaching out to Paige that early, maybe in late '14, early '15. And she was just like, I, I can't do this. And the information was, I can't do this while he is still living. And I totally got it. And then I had requested access to Buckley's archives, and was denied. And I totally get why, because, you know, the Sarah Weinman of 2014 is not the Sarah Weinman of even 2019 or 2022 in terms of credentials and publications and the legacy, like, you know, Christopher Buckley didn't know who the hell I was or [laughs] why I was doing this. And especially talking to him later, I did get the sense that this was, you know, a tough subject, even for him personally, because he was involved, to a little bit of a degree.
So I get that too. And so if, like, if I don't have access to Buckley's archives yet -- but I already can tell it's going to be a book. It just felt like, let me just put this aside, and sort of wait Edgar out. And so, you know, I go on and I edit Women Crime Writers for the Library of America that comes out in the fall of '15. I get the proposal for The Real Lolita sold in the summer of '16, and I work on that book. I get diagnosed with breast cancer and go through cancer treatment while I'm working on the book.
And then back into fall of '17, by this point, I still periodically check the California state inmate search. You know, every couple months, "Is Edgar still there." He's still there. He's still there. And then I check in May of '17 and I get a "404 not found" response. Like, this is interesting. And I place a call to the public-affairs person and they were decidedly unhappy to hear from me. And at first didn't wanna confirm. And I just was like, can you just tell me, just tell me he's dead. That's all I wanna know. I don't need to know, like, beyond the bare facts of it. I just need to know he is deceased. And maybe if you wanna give me a death date, that would be great. And she's like, fine. He's dead, he died March 20th. "Do you know cause of death?" No.
And eventually I turn in the first draft of The Real Lolita, and then I think later in September of '17, the word finally leaks out to the Washington Post and then the New York Times, and they run it, and I call my agent, because at this point he knows that I am leaning towards making this whole story my next book, and I'm like, so I guess I should get that proposal ready. He's like, yeah, do that soon. And I basically burped out a draft overnight, and obviously revised at leisure, but it was all sitting in my head.
And so by that point also, I think I learned of Sophie's archive in February of 2016. That's when I know I visited Columbia for the first time. But it was just, again, idle internet rabbit holes, doing some related searching. And I see Sophie Wilkins has an archive. Oh. And Edgar's listed as a correspondent. I wonder what interesting things I'll find between, you know, book editor and her author, it'll probably be business stuff. And then I go and I just do a fact-finding mission. I look through boxes knowing that I wanna come back to it at some point in the future. I can't figure out when.
And that's when I find the smut. [laughs]
God, it's juuuust --
And I'm like, I can't -- in the Columbia rare books, manuscripts library, what's going on?
And it had to go through lawyers too. That's sort of a jump ahead to a future question, so I'll put a pin in it. So, this did evolve somewhat in terms of --
Let's put it this way. The working title was The Convict and The Conservative, which, you know, again, Janet Malcolm echoes, but I really thought it was going to be -- they were the central characters. And what I realized as I did more reporting and research is that Buckley was an integral part of the story, but he wasn't -- that wasn't the whole story. What interested me more was the collective harm that Edgar caused women and girls. And just the fact that no matter what happened, Victoria Zielinski just kept getting forgotten, kept getting maligned, kept getting slandered, kept getting her reputation stomped on the way that, you know, her head was stomped on. I mean, it is just like, that became much more integral.
So even though it's called Scoundrel, I really believe Edgar's the least interesting person in the book. And I structured it in a way that you're never actually fully in his head until the very end when he's in prison and he has nowhere to go. And that was also by design.
I mean, you could almost have called it Scoundrelled, because really this is about, and you mentioned this explicitly a couple of times, the relationships among people who had relationships with this, you know, narcissistic personality. So there's no core at the core.
Yeah. I mean, other people can call him a sociopath, call him a psychopath. I sort of land on antisocial personality disorder because he was diagnosed with that. And I feel like that, you know, that feels like a more factually accurate descriptor of what he was. And certainly just in terms of the behavior --
Well, it definitely put me in mind, as many things do in the genre actually, of this passage in one of the updated editions of Fatal Vision wherein is quoting from Herve Cleckley's description of psychopaths. That it's a finally tuned reflex machine designed to mimic human response. And after a while there is the feeling that some key element is not present. And with guys like that, who just sort of adapt to whatever situation can be manipulated --
Yeah. And it creates this uncanny valley of personality. That, you know, they're essentially a black hole that you can throw in whatever personality traits of any person they're around. And so that's why, especially in Edgar's letters, like the difference in tone when he is writing Buckley, versus the difference in tone with Sophie is like, I don't wanna say they're two different people because they feel very related to me, but he's like, he's trying to accomplish two different things in his manipulations.
Well, and then the difference between his letters with Sophie and then when she appears in person -- like this is sort of the foundational problem with internet dating, so that, that was very relatable, but also the ways that she was manipulating herself to make this situation okay.
I related so hard to Sophie and not just because there are some commonalities in background, although she's from Vienna and my family, you know, my people were from the Ukraine Pale of Settlement, old country, whatever you wanna call it, but -- you come to a country, she's 12 years old. She doesn't speak English. She's very, very intelligent. And just trying to get ahead and accomplish stuff.
But she's also bogged down by getting herself involved with a lot of terrible men, or just a lot of really mentally unstable men. I think like, I don't know anything about [the first] husband. That was basically like a quick "blink and you miss it" kind of marriage. She never talked about it. And the father of her children, who was a psychiatrist, I believe. And he ended up dying of suicide because he was really that mentally unstable. And then husband three, who was a professor and a non-fiction writer, Thurman Wilkins, he really struggled. His sons, the eldest son in particular, Adam, really had fond memories of him, but he also, you know, had no illusions about the communal mental-health issues happening in that house.
I mean, he did say to me, it seems like, she was never diagnosed, but a lot of the behaviors align with bipolar disorder. And I think based on reading Sophie's letters, I can definitely see the mood swings. The highs were very high. The lows were crushing.
I think she was not unaware of that either. ...And then there's also the, not ghost signature, but Norman Mailer and Jack Abbott, this was later, but you know, Mailer is, at the time that Smith is sort of devolving back into trouble, he's writing Executioner's Song. And then not only is there the Jack Abbott saga after that, but Gary Gilmore is also this sort of weird third dark saint in this triptych of, um, celebrated released incarcerated people who created a blast radius in other people's lives and in the culture as a result? And Mailer is always around these stories?
Yep. I didn't rely on it too heavily, but I mean, there's a whole book about Buckley and Mailer that Kevin Schultz, I think, wrote. And I read it because I was like looking for information about, like, what was happening here? And they were friends. Just the Buckley, Mailer, Capote trio and what cultural impact they had in the sixties and even the seventies -- and I guess you can add Gore Vidal there too, although he never as far as I know helped a murderer.
I own Dick Cavett's memoir, though I haven't read it yet; I wonder if he's not the center circle of this Venn, because I also was sort of reminded of this like seventies, cause-celebre guys going on Cavett, talking about either their carceral experience or how in Jeffrey MacDonald's case, the army CID screwed them over --
I just feel like that Capote, Mailer, Cavett, Buckley nexus -- and then you have this other weird, like, Warhol-Factory lobe of the --
Right, right. And then of course, Warhol got shot by Valerie Solanas.
What was it about this time in America? The seventies are really two different decades: you have the end of the sixties and then you have this, like, Watergate and post-Watergate nihilistic paranoia; disco --
It's just like everything was breaking apart and coming together, you had civil rights, you had Vietnam, you had the Warren Court, and police actually quote, having to, you know, follow the laws and, you know, not beat up suspects and not interrogate them without lawyers and do crazy shit that frankly...I mean, that's also the thing that struck me as I was working on Scoundrel is that it actually felt like a tragedy because I could not, I would try to intuit any other way that this story could have happened. And I just couldn't. Like, the conviction should have been reversed. And it was.
I suppose you can't really retrofit criminal justice cases that were pre-Miranda to post-Miranda. But if you can, then basically anything before 1966 is under suspicion and should be. And then if you start pulling that thread, you realize that the criminal justice system never worked except for wealthy white people. And even then that that might be a problem.
And it's a New Jersey case also. And, look, as a native, you have this tolerance for everyday graft that -- it's just like, shrug, it's New Jersey. But I would say the entire 20th century in New Jersey justice is all cases where you're like, well, he did something, but they didn't prove it. Right. Hauptmann, Exhibit A. So there was also that aspect of it for me; once you realize, oh, this took place in New Jersey, there's like a baseline of -- not accepted, but assumed incompetence ,shortcuts. And also like everybody's in on it, it doesn't have to be discussed.
Right. And it's not like I think that Guy Calissi was a terrible prosecutor. I just think that the standards of the time where [Edgar Smith] seemed guilty as hell, and the defense was, I mean, the, the defense was ridiculous. It was literally a "some other guy did it" defense. And then naming him an open court, and then he testified, and everybody testifies. And you're just like, what is going on here? Or just opening up the crime scene to journalists before there's an official arrest. That was bonkers to me.
So many famous cases in New Jersey where you look at like evidence preservation...okay, it's the 1920s --
Oh, you're thinking, like, Hall-Mills. I know there's a book coming out on that in the fall.
And I'm very excited for that. But also: Fred Neulander, like, are we ever really gonna know what happened? No, because: New Jersey court and we're never gonna get it untangled. The fact that his entire family was like, nope. And just turned on him. ...But there's definitely a three-volume book about cases like this in this, like, galaxy of people from the seventies. And I am not qualified to write it, but someone needs to, and I'm very excited for it when it finally comes out. If Robert Caro ever finishes this Lyndon Johnson series...
He's merely 87 years old or however old he is now, like, plenty of time left! ...That sort of brings me back to the question I put a pin in from earlier, which was to ask what it was like spending time with these people, and specifically with witnessing Edgar and Sophie's relationship. You talked about it a little bit before, but as a reader, there is definitely a "train wreck in slow motion" quality to the proceedings.
That's exactly how it felt reading the letters, you know? After that initial visit in 2016, once I sold the proposal, I knew there was plenty there, even if I hadn't looked at all of it at that point. So I sold the proposal in summer of '18, before The Real Lolita came out, and then after I was done with all the major promotion for The Real Lolita, like December of 2018, that's when I got to work. And I started going back to Sophie's archive, so I could just get every single page possible between her and Edgar, and just sort of start from the beginning.
I wanted to do that so I could sort of feel in real time how this relationship developed and how it went so off the rails and what happened, what were the beats -- and trying to figure out from Sophie's correspondence to Buckley, so there was a lot of triangulation I had to do between the three of them of who was here, where, and who was saying what to whom, and what did Buckley know about the nature of Sophie and Edgar's relationship? And it turned out it was more than more than I expected, but it wasn't like he knew every little explicit detail. Not that I think he would've wanted to, but he was definitely aware, but just reading through Sophie and Edgar's letters, and there was just so many instances where I'd be like, oh, Sophie, don't do that. Don't write him. Don't, don't go visit him. Don't do this. Don't -- just, it was very, very cringe.
But in this way, that's how strongly I identified with her. And I just had such empathy for her, because I could also see exactly how she fell into this, that she was so lonely and so alienated at home and at work, and she just lost her sense of self. And I think that Edgar was -- more than he may have allowed himself, but he could never really be. You know, that was his nature is just not to do that. His nature was to charm and to cajole and to seduce and to manipulate and to do whatever it took to get anybody on their side.
Which is also how he sort of charmed other women too, including his first wife, his second wife, girlfriend, et cetera, et cetera.
But yeah, just sitting in that archive, knowing that other people around me had no idea what I was reading [laughs] was very trippy.
As a reader, you're sort of like, you feel compassion for Sophie, but also vaguely embarrassed for her. And for him, just the trampling of boundaries, and all the stuff had to go through lawyers --
Oh, but it's not like the lawyers were looking at it. They would receive it and just, you know, look the other way.
Did you ever have to take breaks from that part of --
All the time.
When I went back in '18 and early '19, from December through February, I was just up at Columbia, a fair amount. And I knew that I had to save the really explicit stuff for last, because I just needed to build up to it. And I knew that it would make me very upset [laughs] and embarrassed and cringey and -- you know, it's, it was gross, kind of, reading this, and it's not that I'm a prude and it's not like I think that sex is terrible. It's just, that felt very --
I used to be a Penthouse proofreader, I'm not a prude either, but it's really hard to write this stuff without...I mean, I'm not judging you, but "thigh necklace"? I just, I can't be in my own skin right now.
Right. Or just the whole dick-measuring thing, which was funny because, oh God, I knew that I had to include it, but I had some pushback from one of my book editors -- like, are you sure that we need to get this explicit? And then the other book editor was like, no, we need to know. We need to show the full range of the derangement here. And I was like, yeah, that's exactly it. That's why. And then my fact checker, Rosemarie Ho, actually captured the image that was in the letter. Because I had it. I just hadn't siloed it off. And so that's why it's in the book. I just was like, you know what? You just need to see level of madness here.
"We ALL have to go here."
Yeah. I had to go here, so I'm taking you all with me. [laughs]
Watch this space for Part 2 of the interview...