"And then one day I ran out of letters": an interview with Alex Mar (Part 2)
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 second part of our conversation, which I've edited lightly for clarity and flow; you can find Part 1 right here. - SDB
[spoiler and content warning]
Sarah D. Bunting: I wanted to talk briefly, if you don't mind, about Paula's death, and your experience of bringing us along on this journey. To that point, I will say that the book is very...I was not tempted to second-screen the information and see how it all turned out. I was like, "I'm here with the book --"
Alex Mar: Oh, I'm glad.
"-- and I'm going to trust it." But as a result, her death, especially the manner of it, was really a blow that I felt. I thought it conveyed the surreal anger that you feel when a loved one dies suddenly, but especially by suicide. How was it to write that? Was your process anything different in particular? Was it a struggle, or had the book -- like we were saying before, did the story suggest to you which way to go?
Well, it's interesting. The very first time I stumbled across this case, I never heard about Paula's story before. And I read up on the events of the '80s in some detail. It wasn't until after that that I got to the coverage of her death. So in this shortened period of time, but feeling already highly invested, I went through the story in this totally naive way. And her death really hit me. I was personally really moved by that.
Then realizing that here I was doing this initial research into a crime from the '80s, and this key character had died just a couple years before as I was sitting there reading about it. It brought it all just rushing into the present, you know?
So in terms of the process of writing it, you spend enough time thinking deeply about someone, whether or not you've gotten to meet them in person...I lived with hundreds and hundreds of letters of Paula's, mainly to Bill [Pelke] but to other people as well. And getting to know her sister, Rhonda. And talking about their childhood and their relationship, which was really intense, like two outsiders loving and protecting each other the best they can in this extreme circumstance. So [Paula] just was so vivid for me, even though I knew I was never going to fully understand her. So then I just waited until I'd written most of the book to write that scene, because it felt like the end of that relationship.
I'll also mention the first time her death really hit me, after I knew that it was coming, there was this other emotional moment where I was going through all of her letters, trying to understand the psychology of different moments for her -- when she was on death row, when she was in prison as a regular inmate, so to speak, and her relationships with people. I'm going through these letters and seeing her change over time as she gets a little bit older. And then one day I ran out of letters.
And it really hit me, because it felt like if one day I just stopped writing. If your voice just goes away. In her case, it was because she was no longer alive. And that just hit me in a way I hadn't anticipated. That [the letters] had just run out, and I was so used to living with her voice.
Right. Wow. Well, I thought it was extraordinarily done. It was very affecting.
Oh, thank you.
And prior to that -- I thought one of the things the book does especially well is illuminate, without underlining, the lack of services around this for the formerly incarcerated. But I thought her transition into -- as an adult on the outside for the first time, I thought that what was facing her was well done. Her death was both...it didn't feel inevitable when you got to it in the text, but it was surprising, but also...sensible. That's not the word I want, but I remember thinking, "Oh, no. No no no no, you just got out. Everything's fine. What happened?" But also my writer-process mind, looking at the back of the tapestry, was like, "This must have been a pointy bitch to write this part, because it's hard to go there."
I definitely felt a certain amount of responsibility to the people who cared about her and still care about her, right?
So you're writing these sensitive, very loaded moments. I really didn't want it to censor me or take me away from describing the truth as best as I could of the situation. But I pictured her sister reading it, you know?
And I pictured Monica Foster reading it, who developed such a deep connection with Paula. I think that a lot of people who are readers of different kinds of writing about crime and justice, there's a fascination that is very human. But it comes from having a great distance [from] the reality of what took place. It feels very different to be in it with family members, and with people who were there at the time and who lived with the memory of this. It's just a different kind of weight that goes into the process, for sure.
Right. Yeah. I mean, I have a number of grand unifying theories about true crime because I do spend so much time with it in my day-to-day work. Most of them are probably bullshit, but I think one of mine that holds is that people are coming to it from a place of "knowledge is power." And sometimes that takes really outré forms, like people trying to get their minds around cannibalism, for instance. But also trying to get their minds around wrongful convictions, unfair sentencing.
But any aspect of true crime in terms of the criminal justice system, but also the trauma -- I think there's an attempt to try to control this terrifying unknown by taking on information about it. Even though having read every, whatever, Ted Bundy book probably would not have protected you from Ted Bundy. ... But yeah, I think that's one of the instincts from the reader's standpoint, that they're trying to both close the distance by reading these accounts, but also to reinforce it with information, if that makes any sense. I don't know if I'm right.
No, I think that's a really interesting theory, this idea that the information is going to empower you. And that staring something that scares you in the face, that somehow that is going to prepare you for something else about life.
I think there's also -- we would all really love for justice to be uncomplicated, in the way that most prosecutors are selling a certain sentence to us as the solution. In this case, you have: Ruth Pelke's death was a horrible tragedy. Her life mattered. Therefore, in a death-penalty state, we are going for the death sentence, because that's how we measure the seriousness of the event that took place. And the family gets on board.
And not just for the prosecutor, but I think also potentially for some readers, the idea that a victim's family member is standing up and saying, "No, my grandmother would never have wanted this, and this is a miscarriage of justice. It doesn't make any sense. We shouldn't be doing this." To think about how complicated even the conversation around finding justice for Ruth Pelke really is, is unsettling. So you have family members who are angry and traumatized. And then you have family members who are angry and traumatized, but they just don't see the prosecutor's agenda as healing for them or any kind of recompense. There's that kind of reaching across the aisle where Bill was saying, "I have something in common with this other family," right?
Everyone involved is a human being, and another death isn't going to bring back the victim. That's a really complex and complicating view of how the system should work. It's a real challenge to the system. But to me, one of the really big takeaways from working on this was just this vivid sense that there's a family on either side. And it really shakes up the idea that there's a good-versus-evil narrative that's really clear, and it's very satisfying to get to the end of that where justice is achieved.
I've had people at book events ask me what I think justice would look like, just in general. I don't have a clear answer, but I do think that a story like this proves that if we're at least willing to embrace how gray that zone is, then we'll be in a better place than pretending that, let's say, a very simplistic tough-on-crime agenda is going to keep us all safe. So that's my little rant, but hopefully a gentle rant.
Hey, I'm a big fan of rants. But I think that when you were talking about this on CrimeReads with Sarah Weinman, that you guys were just talking about the nature of narrative in criminal justice -- and then the nature of all human narrative and every single story that we tell each other, whether it's advertising or pop music or whatever, is to try to bring order out of chaos. Because black and white is a calming, authoritative, sensible, non-chaotic state. And gray is, like, it's gray. It's like, "Well, but is it a brown-gray or is it a blue-gray? I don't know what to do with this." The human mind wants to simplify and use pattern rec, and -- it's almost never available in the criminal-justice system. So the criminal-justice system tries to square the circle. And that's my rant. One of them, anyway.
No, that sounds about right to me.
Last question. Are you reading anything in the broader true-crime/criminal-justice genre right now that you would like to recommend -- or warn people away from if it's not great?
Ooh, I'm getting so little reading done right now because I am barely sleeping and seem to always be late to get into the rental car. But I've been thinking a lot about a series from last year, Under the Banner of Heaven, inspired by Jon Krakauer's book of the same name, about a terrible murder within a fundamentalist Mormon community in 1980s Utah. It's a scripted series whose lead detective character is actually a composite, but a great deal of detail draws directly from Krakauer's terrific, in-depth reporting. And the series poses some very challenging questions about the fraught role faith can play in many people's lives, and how it shapes our relationship to violence. It's a series in line with some of the questions I wrestle with in my own work.
Read more from Alex Mar here.