"A story tells you what to do after a certain point": an interview with Alex Mar

Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy, out now from Penguin Press, tells the story of the 1985 murder of Ruth Pelke by 15-year-old Paula Cooper. More from the book's publisher's page:

In a city with a history of racial tensions and white flight, the girl, Paula Cooper, is Black, and her victim, Ruth Pelke, is white and a beloved Bible teacher. The press swoops in.

When Paula is sentenced to death, no one decries the impending execution of a tenth grader. But the tide begins to shift when the victim’s grandson Bill forgives the girl, against the wishes of his family, and campaigns to spare her life. 
This tragedy in a midwestern steel town soon reverberates across the United States and around the world—reaching as far away as the Vatican—as newspapers cover the story on their front pages and millions sign petitions in support of Paula.

Author Alex Mar carefully weaves the case's tapestry from threads that include ignorance of adolescent development, inattentive child-protection systems, draconian sentencing statutes, and debates over the framers' intents...among many others. 

I spoke to Mar April 13 about choosing a medium, pros and cons of in-person interviewing, timeline-clarity process, and more. This is the first part of our conversation, which I've edited as lightly as possible for clarity and pace. - SDB

Sarah D. Bunting: First of all, congratulations. The book is fantastic.

Alex Mar: Thank you. Thanks so much.


Second of all, how's it been? How's promotion been?

It's been good. It's been exciting actually, because I worked on the book for what ended up being about five years, which is the longest I've spent on any single project. It's a story that has that kind of a scope. And I just continued to feel like, "No, we're not done. No, it's important for me to go and meet this next person. I have to see them face-to-face." So it took the time it needed to take.

Now to be able to actually talk to people about it -- you are catching me at an interesting moment because this week of my book tour is actually taking place in Indiana. So I'm back visiting a lot of places that are connected to the story. A lot of people connected to the story in the book actually came out for some of the events this week. That was pretty remarkable.

And now I'm in Bloomington. So let's see what happens here. But yeah -- there's almost been an emotional side to some of the events this week. But overall, a whole range of people have been showing up for events, including, I had a pastor of a local congregation show up when I was in Harrisburg in Pennsylvania. He talked about how he shared the story of the book with his congregation that Sunday because he just found it so extraordinary, the forgiveness piece of the story. There's just been surprises at each event, in terms of how the book has gripped people.


That's really fantastic. Was there a point where you thought you might not be able to do a traditional book tour behind this book? Because I had a book come out in September of 2020. And it was just like, we didn't know where we were with that stuff.

Yeah. Oh my goodness.


Galleys [went] off March 12th of that year or something. …Was there a point in your process where you were like, "How am I going to bring this to the world?" Or did you just trust that this --

Yeah, I was concerned that the book would come out when we were still deep inside of the pandemic, just because psychologically I really needed the chance to share it face-to-face. I think we all feel that way as writers. You want to emerge from your cave and be able to interact with people and be surprised in ways. Virtual events were great to have during the pandemic, but I think everyone knew that it wasn't satisfying that same need.

I told myself that the fact that the book was taking longer than I'd planned was actually all because I was strategizing to be able to have a book tour when we eventually published this, which was wasn't the case.

Penguin Press didn't hesitate about a tour. But I think there are a lot of bookstores that are still concerned. They want to make sure that they can put on a successful event. …But there's definitely this energy of people wanting to be at events again in person, I think.


Right. Well, it seems like, based on another interview I read with you at Shondaland -- which I want to get back to on another axis in a second. But it seems like you have definitely a much more in-person requirement for research and gathering work and talking to people than I do. I feel like I process in interviews a little bit differently from how you do it. So that was interesting to read, that you really felt like that was an important part of the build. And you were able to get that done, for the most part, the important part before lockdown started.

Yeah, I was really lucky in that regard. The vast majority of the research just happened to have been finished within months of lockdown starting in early 2020. It's interesting that you bring up in-person versus remote interviews. Because someone like Terry Gross, for instance, with her live interviews or -- well, close to live. But Terry Gross with her interviews, I've heard her comment that she prefers, even if someone comes to the studio in Philadelphia, to have them, I guess, down the hall in another booth. And not have them within eyesight. Because she discovered over the years that she was communicating a lot through just the physical presence of two people looking at each other. And that it wasn't putting the heart of the conversation in their voices as much. So that's a different kind of animal.

But for me, I've done a lot of reporting where I'm describing the present day. And I want to be immersed in the environment and see where someone lives and how they carry themselves, and the clothes they wear. And really any other details like that that are about a sense of place. This was a combination, because a lot of the action happens in the '80s and the '90s. But then it eventually jumps towards the present day. But the material is so sensitive. It's a pretty intense story and there's a violent crime at the center of it. And I felt that there's a kind of sensitivity and empathy you can convey in person much better than over the phone, right?



And with some of the people involved, I wanted to demonstrate to them that I'm not a newspaper reporter on a tight deadline like the people you've dealt with over the years asking you about this sensational crime. I'm someone who's going to take her time. It's a book. This is going to be a relationship. And if you want to get a read on me and, physically in the room, decide how much you want to trust me, then I wanted to give them that opportunity too on their side.


You talk about this in the book too, that it's like, it's pretty easy to not return a call or not return an email, whereas if someone is in front of you, then it's a different decision tree. So that was interesting from a build standpoint, to me.

Yeah. Well, there are sometimes surprises that emerge from those in-person conversations that change the shape of the book. It's not necessarily that you go in knowing that you need information about a really fraught event that you want to include. It's just that you might be struck by someone in a different way in person. So for instance, I initially hadn't planned to do any more than just maybe have a brief call with the prosecutor in this case, who went for the death sentence initially for all four girls, 14, 15, 16 years old. And did get the death sentence for Paula Cooper.

I thought, "I know what his agenda was at the time. That's all I need. I don't really see a space for him in this story beyond that." But I did end up meeting him in person. And I'm really glad I did, because I think he then saw the seriousness and the breadth of the book and what it was trying to cover. And he started to open up in a different way.

And I was able to make him into more of a fully realized human being. Even though I personally disagree with a lot of his agenda back in the '80s, I was able to turn him into someone whose decisions I hope the reader can at least just relate to a little bit more, or you just have a better understanding of the choices he made. I mean, he's someone whose hero was Bobby Kennedy, and yet he was this passionately pro-death-penalty, tough-on-crime guy.

RFK in Indianapolis April 1968


So those kinds of surprises for me make it really worthwhile, because that's the thrill is to not really know where this stuff is going to take you. And how your allegiances are going to maybe open up or shift a little bit along the way.


Right. Well, yeah, [the aforementioned prosecutor] Jack Crawford is...I mean, that's another whole book, I feel like.

I agree.


But I will get back to him; I wanted to talk a little bit about the medium that this ended up being. You did talk to Shondaland also about how you and this story came to take hands, so to say. But I wanted to ask about when you knew this was a book, versus a documentary film or a series or even a podcast. Because you do work in other media. So I was wondering if it was always a book, or if other media suggested themselves to you and then the story told you how it wanted to be told.

Well, I made a documentary feature, American Mystic, back in 2010. For me, that really cracked open my relationship to non-fiction. Since then, I've really been focused on writing. So it's long-form journalism and books. I had my writing optioned and developed for different formats over the years. My identity as a writer is sort of the core of it for me. So I was actually on tour for my first book, Witches of America, when I started doing some research, wondering what the next big project might be. So I was very much looking for something to dive into deeply.

I think, for me at the time -- my first time taking on the story of a violent crime, a heinous crime, something that had that kind of drama at its center, I wanted to make sure that I could have room to pick that apart and pick its impact apart on a big palette, just a much larger scale. So that I could have the time and the space to get away from just the logistics of what had happened, which are enough for an article easily, right?



I mean, there's a lot here to unpack.


That sort of fed into my next question, about the many story "streets" that branch off your main story. And how you managed to stay on the road of this one, even though, I mean, the number of other figures in this book who could have books of their own...how did you discipline yourself to not have this be "Volume The First"? Or did the story tell you how to do it? Because sometimes that's how it is, that the story is like, "No no no no no, this is what I want to be. Come back over here." Other times you really have to grip the steering wheel with both hands.

I lost control of this metaphor, but I was wondering about that, because --

I like it, though. I like it.


I kept dog-earing pages, and being like -- because even cases you would mention tangentially that weren't solved, or the whole lottery/sexual harassment donnybrook with Crawford. It's just like, oh my gosh, how did you avoid just wandering into the library stacks to think about that? Maybe this is just a discipline issue that I have. But I was wondering how that was for you, when you were in the thick of writing it.

Yeah, that is a great question. I do firmly believe that a story tells you what to do after a certain point, you know?


Mm-hmm. Yeah.

That the story uses you to become what it needs to become. So there's that. But more specifically, I knew in my gut that this relationship between Paula Cooper and Bill Pelke...the man is the grandson of her victim and chooses to forgive her. So that to me is absolutely what grabbed me from the very beginning. I knew that that relationship was going to be kind of the spine of the book.

But then beyond that, the only other rule I had was, okay, let's try to keep everyone who I spend meaningful time with only about one degree of separation from Paula or Bill. So there's this series of, almost a Venn diagram of overlapping circles representing different relationships with them at the center. I started to see that after a certain point.

But I know what you're talking about. Because I really wanted to try to make something that would be a unique experience instead of simply giving you the core facts of this dramatic and emotional event, I really forced myself, in the first probably two years in particular, to stay open. Anytime I met with someone, if an interesting contact emerged and I wasn't sure if I really needed to talk to them, I would say, "No, no, no. Keep the appointment. Go." And I would make sure to ask everyone about their larger story. This is a habit I've developed over the years. Really, their childhood all the way up to what we're really talking about that's the most relevant to Paula Cooper's case. Because I was finding these patterns. And I was finding unexpected connections between people in Indiana who had different roles in this story.

photo by Robert Belott

I wouldn't have found those connections if I hadn't really tried to figure out, who is this person, where are they coming from? And then that way I could understand who's integral to this larger picture. And a model, for me, was always [Norman] Mailer's The Executioner's Song, which I think he had a huge amount of --


Oh, sure.

There's a large cast of characters in that book, which is about Gary Gilmore's crime and execution back in the '70s. So for me, that was a great example.


I revere that book. I wouldn't necessarily need Mailer to use my bathroom, but that book is just stunning.

Look, let me tell you, Sarah, my feeling is especially the ones who misbehave or act out of turn, they owe us all their fancy tricks as artists.

But I think the work really speaks for itself. And there's a number of people of questionable character whose work I think ends up inspiring work by other people who you would be willing to have lunch with. So that's my feeling about that.

But I think once you embrace the approach of a chorus of characters with these two lead singers in the middle, then there's freedom, but there is structure. And otherwise, it was my editor just kind of telling me that "I'm sorry, but you can't have half a chapter about the history of the Franciscan order." And then stuff like that would go.


Right. Well, look, we've all done that research. And then been like, "Look, I went all the way to X and I spent Y amount of time wearing archival gloves. And it's staying in. These are my children."

But I bet you've had a lot of good times in the archives. So there's that part of it too. Part of it is the thrill of just diving all the way in, even if not all of it ends up on the page.


Yep, absolutely.

I wanted to ask a more specific process-y question, about your choice in terms of verb tenses. Because I felt like your authorial decision to have the context of the case be as central as the case details itself was clear -- and correct, for what it's worth. But I was wondering about your choice to be in continuing present tense in whatever timeline you were in. Was that just something that suggested itself as the only option, or was there a conversation about how that reflected the strangeness of time, both for you writing it and for Paula behind bars and so on and so forth? ...That was like ten questions in one. Sorry.

I think that in this case, the present tense helped to keep things more vivid. And I wanted the reader, and also for myself as I was writing it, to really be thinking about the stakes of the decisions that each of these characters were making in an active way. It's easy to look back at 1985 and feel that it's so long ago. And frame it as, "Oh, the '80s," and whatever presumptions you have about what the '80s were like. But I wanted some kind of immediacy. So I did try a universal past tense at one point in certain sections. For me, it felt a little bit too safe in this particular case. 


I found that it made the prose better able to mirror some ambiguities, and just the fundamental unknowability of people at times that you mentioned explicitly in the text. I thought the present tense put that idea forward more effectively than universal past would have.

Oh, I'm glad.


But it must have been a challenge also to be writing from within whichever '80s or early '90s timeline you were in -- and not betray what you already know is going to happen. Was that difficult in terms of, for instance, writing about a sentencing hearing and knowing that we have all these advances, legislatively and so on, in terms of what we think of adolescent development? Were you trying to write from a place of "the characters in this timeline don't know that yet"? I mean, not "characters."

No, that's a great point. The choice of present tense also was informed by that. So we are in this moment in the mid- to late '80s, early '90s, whatever section of the book you're in. And we're working with what we've got. Because the challenge to me, I really wanted people to be able to live inside of each character as you encountered them. And so many of these characters are fighting a piece of the battle, right?

And they're working with what they've got. It was intended as an immersive narrative, where the emphasis is on that human everyday level of decision-making that then ends up adding up over time and having an impact. So for me to then step out of the narrative and lecture people about, "Well, in the larger context of things, what they're not aware of is that the juvenile justice system is about to go through a change." That constantly would be pulling people out of the narrative.

So when we find out, let's say, basic facts about the death penalty for juveniles or the history of the death penalty, it's up until that moment in time. So when Monica Foster, who's one of Paula Cooper's appellate attorneys, when we meet her, the stats about the death penalty are presented as stuff she's grappling with as she tries to help public defenders in Indianapolis around the issue. It's not an outside voice so much. I tried to avoid that unless it was really necessary.

But that was challenging, because I didn't want readers to be misinformed. I wanted people to walk away from the book with a deeper and maybe more emotional curiosity around some of these issues around juvenile justice and capital punishment. But I wanted it to feel a bit more like a novel than anything else.


Right. Well, and after the fourth time you've used "unbeknownst to" in the draft, it's like, "This is not going to work."

I'd really love someone to use that in the voice-over about my life as I walk into a room. "Unbeknownst to Alex Mar..."


It's the stereotypical planning wall with the red string on it, and it's like, "Unbeknownst to Alex Mar." ...I feel like that we can make that happen for you somehow.

Oh, wonderful.


In terms of that, keeping it in the present, you are also functionally emotionally embedded with these people, and the trauma and the journey that each of them has undertaken, sort of coming to the same point. I, at least, got a good sense about Paula, about Jack Crawford, about Bill Pelke, that these are complete dimensional people who aren't their best selves every second.

Paula Cooper (AP) and Ruth Pelke (the Pelke family) via AP

But how was that for you as the author to try to...I don't know how to put this. Be in step with them in the timeline, but also not, for instance, throw [Paula's mother] Gloria under the bus? Which I would not have been able to resist doing. I admire your restraint, all of my notes about her are like, "This fucking lady. What the hell?"

I really am curious to examine your reading copy.


If you can read my handwriting, there is a parade waiting for you.

Oh my goodness. ...I guess I tend not to want to write about people for whom I can't muster up some degree of empathy, because then it collapses the situation, right? It flattens the story out for me. So for someone like Paula's mother, Gloria, I feel I just took the tack of I'm never going to understand where she was coming from. And probably there were significant mental-health issues at play. Then I really tried to remove any kind of judgment if I could.

In theory, someone could read this book and come out the other side pro-death penalty. I think it's hard to do. But I didn't see the book on that level either, as championing one side or the other. I do think that if you put certain events and certain facts in front of people, you can predict the vast majority of people's responses. So that ends up being a little more powerful.

Something that really has always been a huge influence on me is visual art. So I'm constantly looking at work at galleries and museums. I've always loved the freedom of that. I'm not someone who thinks that it makes sense to tell the viewer what their experience of the piece of work is supposed to be. And I think it applies with literature as well, right?



So I didn't want to come on too strong. There was a conversation with my editor as well where she felt the same way. So there might be a moment here or there, maybe with the prosecutor, where my language had a little bit of an angle to it. And she said, "Are you sure? Because this is not the tone of the book so far." And I agreed with that.

But the other piece of that is I'm really drawn throughout my work to an exploration of belief systems, like what are the beliefs that we lean on, especially in extreme circumstances? So you have someone like Jack Crawford who was Catholic, going to Mass, but he didn't see that as a conflict with his tough-on-crime, death-penalty agenda. He found a way to work around that. And then you have Bill Pelke, who was a devout Baptist. His devout Baptist family was very much in favor of retribution. And he had to say, "My version of my faith is taking me in a totally different direction." So how do you get inside of something as intimate, and potentially really embarrassing, to write about as someone's personal faith?

So I really tried to have kid gloves and just try to put on the page how that person described their feelings around that and their perspective. So, a really sensitive scene was the scene of Bill's revelation up in the crane cab at the steel mill one night, the night that he decides that he's actually going to forgive Paula Cooper. How do you put that on the page and stay in his perspective, give people a sense of his emotions, his confusion, and not have it be colored by any of my feelings about Christianity or what someone is supposed to do or feel in that situation?

So that's also part of why there's really almost no first person in this book. That was a very, very thought-out decision, even though I've used the first person plenty of times in the past.


Right. There are moments, I think, where you have Jack Crawford sort of musing about someone else, like, "What kind of person is such a camera hog in this situation?" Then there's a text break before you move on to the next section. And I was like, "Hmm."

That's probably the closest I got to commentary.


"Yep, message received. That's a nice low pH on that guy."

Yeah, he had an issue with Bill Pelke for speaking out against Paula's death sentence to the press. And I just thought it was too perfect of a parallel. So he had an issue with that, and yet I include the saying that was popular around Lake County legal circles at the time, which was, "The most dangerous place to be is between Jack Crawford and a camera." I will say, I was so concerned about getting the tone and the feel of the life in the courts in Lake County at the time right. Because Lake County, and Gary, Indiana in particular, it's just like a treasure trove in terms of a really unique, but very American location and context for a story, that I just can't believe there's not more written about this county.

I mean, it just had a tremendous reputation of being very politically corrupt, had an enormous crime issue. Gary has this fascinating history and had at the time, and still now, a very strong Black community. And all of this together was something...I really wanted to get that snapshot right. So I talked to so many attorneys, former prosecutors, former public defenders, current-day people, in addition to Jack. Because I felt that if I got the climate in the prosecutor's office wrong, it was going to undermine the legitimacy of the book, because that's the foundation of how this crime was framed.


Right. Well, the context is the text, basically. 

...I've never heard that line. I like it.

The second part of this conversation will go live in a few days. In the meantime, you can pick up a copy of Seventy Times Seven right here.

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