Ann Rule is the grande dame of the true crime genre. The author of 20 books and 1400 articles, mostly on criminal cases, over her 30 year career, Rule's exacting research and no-nonsense writing style is the standard by which all other true crime novels are judged. What sets her apart from others in the genre is her ability to choose cases that are not only stories of horrific violence but also fascinating psychological portraits of the victims and murderers. In 1981, she published The Stranger Beside Me, an account of her friend and co-worker Ted Bundy, and her growing suspicion and horror that he was, indeed, a serial killer. The story of Diane Downs, the Oregon mother who drove her three children out to a lonely highway and shot them all, was the subject of her bestselling 1988 book Small Sacrifices. Rule's most recent books are Heart Full of Lies (Free Press/Simon and Schuster) and Without Pity (Pocket Books) an anthology of 12 stories from her crime files.
She is currently working on a book about Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer. On December 18, 2003, Ridgway pled guilty to murdering 48 women in a crime spree that had terrorized the Northwest since the early 1980s. Dubbed the "Green River killer" because many of the women were murdered and dumped near the Green River in the Seattle, Washington, area, the cases ran cold until DNA evidence linked Ridgway to the crmes. With Ridgway finally caught, Rule has begun work on the story she has been waiting 20 years to write.
We asked Ms. Rule seven deadly questions, which she answered from her home in Washington.
Q. For starters, do you ever have time to read? What are your favorite books? Favorite writers? Who inspires you to write?
A. Of course I find time to read, even if it's late at night and always in the bathtub! Anne Tyler is my favorite writer, and I also like Wally Lamb, Garrison Keillor, and Anne Quindlen. For true crime, my favorites are Jerry Bledsoe, James Neff, and Kathryn Casey. I really prefer non-fiction: biographies and medical books.
Q. People may not know that you used to write under a male pseudonym because no one believed that a woman could know so much about criminology. Do you think the climate has changed for women who want to write true crime and crime fiction?
A. Certainly it has. There have been a number of good true crime writers who are female: Shana Alexander, for example, and the above mentioned Kathryn Casey. Unfortunately, there are also a number of women true crime writers who dash off "quickie" books on murder cases which are not very good. I think the key is that superior true crime writersmale or femaleneed to take advantage of every opportunity to understand police procedure and forensic science. There is at least one female writer who purports to be an expert in actual criminal investigation, while she is basically a fiction writer. One of the best true crime writers was Edna Buchanan, two-time Pulitzer prize winner as a crime reporter for the Miami Herald. She now writes fascinating crime novels, but I miss her true crime books!
Q. So many people make their living from the fact that there is a great amount of crime in this country; criminal defense lawyers, parole officers, contractors who build prisons, etc. What do you think of crime as an industry and what does it say about the US, assuming the US is different from the rest of the world?
A. The US is no different from any other part of the world, in my opinion. Crime has always fascinated those in the UK and in Germany and France. It is an industry of a sort, but we have always had criminals among us and lawmen and prosecutors and correctional officers. It's a fact of life. Actually, many prisons are built by the prisoners, particularly in Texas. I only hope that we may learn more about rehabilitation of those who qualify, and more secure prisons for those who don't. All TV and books are cyclical and right now crime is of great interest. In the next few years, we may go back to Westerns, historical novels and television movies, etc. Each genre comes around again like a merry-go-round horse.
Q. Many of annabelle's writers are from the Northwest, and for some of us, growing up amid the infamous cases of the Green River killer and Diane Downs murders had a profound effect on our young psyches. I grew up outside of Eugene, Oregon, and every time my mom had all of my sisters and me in the car and the road was dark and empty, I was sure she was going to pull a Diane Downs. (I had an overactive imagination, I'm sure.) Do you believe the reporting of crime feeds or assuages fear (for you and the public)?
A. I heard that a lot of children in the Eugene area were frightened that their moms, too, might harm them. That was one of the worst side-effects of Diane's crimes. When I was little, the scariest stories were about the Lindbergh Kidnapping and William Heirens, the serial killer in Chicago.
Crime reporting should be enough to warn us of potential danger, but not pervasive enough to make us feel that there is something awful waiting around the corner. Today, the media seems to fall in love with certain cases and report them to death. (Sorry.) Examples would be O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, Chandra Levy/Gary Condit, Elizabeth Smart, and now Laci Peterson. Sometimes, I think that over-coverage results in numbing people to the humanity and the tragedy behind these cases.
Q. Quite a few of your books are based on true crimes in the Northwest. Is there something particularly interesting about the NW and its stories? You have said in the past that murderers are attracted to the ocean. What effect does ecology, weather, and geography have on the criminal mind?
A. Initially, I wrote about Northwest cases because I was too poor to travel to far-off states, set up housekeeping, and, of course, my children were little and I didn't want to leave them. And I was the "stringer" for the Northwest for True Detective magazine, and four other fact-detective magazines so this was my territory. Now, I write one "at home" and "one away." I go where the most interesting cases are. I've been to California, Oregon, Kansas, Buffalo, New York, San Antonio, Texas, and several cities in Florida to research books.
What I have said is that I think serial killers have a compulsion to kill and that they move on, hoping that they will find a "geographical solution" to their obsessions. Eventually, they come the land's endthe ocean. And a lot of them end up on the West Coast. I don't think the weather or the evergreens makes them kill, however. They are addicted to murder and it doesn't matter if the sun is shining or if it's raining. Remember that Ted (Bundy) killed in the Northwest, in the snows of Colorado, and in the sunshine of Florida.
Q. Are there any TV shows these days that you find especially interesting? What do you think about the explosion of interest in forensic science shows?
A. I must admit that, for me, the homicide detective and CSI shows would be a busman's holiday. I don't watch them because that's what I do all day as I'm researching and writing. Occasionally, I will watch some of the documentaries on interesting cases on 48 Hours, Dateline, and on A&E. I learn the most about forensic techniques and advancements by going to police conferences and seminars where I both teach and learn. As a side note, some of the stuff they use on CSI isn't yet in use or even perfected.
Q. Do you ever get freaked out when you are writingespecially when it is dark outside? Do you have big dogs? And finally, how do you maintain a positive attitude about the world, knowing what you know about killers?
A. I have big dogs, and I have three bigger sons. No, I don't get freaked out. I decided long ago that if I was going to be scared all the time, I shouldn't be writing true crime. I take more than normal precautions, and then I go about my life as if I wrote a cooking column or historical romances.
I don't feel negative about humanity because every trial brings one bad guyor bad girlbut at least three dozen heroes: detectives, prosecutors, witnesses, surviving families, victims' advocates, all who are intent upon bringing justice to the victim, and so I come away believing that the mass of humanity is good and cares what happens to others. Killers make up such a tiny percentage of the world's population.
-Interviewed by Alisa Welch
Features: Interview: Ann Rule | Interview: Texas Justice | Law and Order | Kid Fears | What You Should Know The Next Time You're Arrested |Vacation: Alcatraz | Murdered Denizens of Green-wood Cemetery | Quiz: Are You A Criminal? | Photo Gallery: Crime Scenes Before and After | BONUS: Stupid Laws | Crime: That's Entertainment!
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