Some killers disguise themselves as regular folks. True crime writer Ann Rule has made a career out of taking off the monster’s mask. Rule has published over 28 books and 1400 articles, and holds a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington with minors in psychology, criminology and penology, the study of punishment and the treatment of prisoners.
Of those 28 books, 26 made the The New York Times Bestseller’s List, and several of her books have been turned into movies for television. Her new book, Too Late To Say Goodbye: A True Story of Murder and Betrayal , is yet another example of how good she is at writing about people who have done bad deeds.
Rule got her start writing for detective magazines in the early seventies under the name Andy Stack. Years later, she learned that Ted Bundy, her friend and co-worker at a suicide hotline in Seattle was accused of being a serial killer. She began her first book about those homicides, The Stranger Besides Me, while the crimes were still unsolved.
Considered a pioneer in the true crime genre, Rule has been perfecting her craft for over 30 years. She has worked as a police officer, and caseworker and her interest in criminal justice goes way back. Rule’s fascination with the criminal mind began as a child when she would spend summers at her grandparents’ Michigan home, which had a jail attached. Her grandfather was the local Sheriff and she was allowed to visit the women in lock-up. She also helped her grandmother prepare meals for the inmates, always wondering what led these normal looking people to a life of crime.
Rule visits the accused killers or convicts in prison, trying to unlock the keys to their twisted psyche. Getting to know your worst nightmare is not the work of sissies, but Rule likes to think that by telling these sad and horrible stories she is giving a voice to the victims and their families. In her Newsletter she says that she hopes to put herself out of business by promoting recognition of the profoundly disturbed personality types that commit these heinous crimes.
Rule is proud of the fact that as a result of the red flags she raised, some of her readers were able to flee abusive situations in order to avoid becoming material for her next book.
A champion of those most harmed, Rule has twice testified before the Senate Judiciary Sub-committee on victim’s rights. She has a particularly soft spot for children whose lives have been irrevocably damaged by crimes and abuse, and she contributes to the support groups Childhelp and Childhaven.
Nowadays, Rule continues her involvement in police work by giving seminars to law enforcement groups. She is a certified instructor on such topics as: Women Who Kill, Serial Murder, Sadistic Sociopaths, and High Profile Offenders. Rule also took part in a task force hat helped create the VI-CAP computer application, a criminal profiling and tracking program, used by the FBI.
Rule puts out a new book every nine months or so, lamenting in her 2007 Newsletter, “I feel like I'm pregnant all the time!” She usually walks a couple of miles every morning before she begins writing. Her self-proclaimed vice is reading the tabloids on Friday night. After seven days immersed in a real-life tragedy and loss, who could begrudge her that?
Rule welcomes book ideas from her fans, and has taken on her readers' suggestions on many occasions. Nevertheless, she draws the line at high profile cases (Bundy being a notable exception), motorcycle gangs, drug and crime rings and cult stories. She favors "sleeper" cases, which she says can be every bit as interesting as the notorious cases, plus the reader’s don’t know the ending beforehand.
Flooded with both snail and email, Rule vows to read all correspondence but cannot possibly reply to each one, hoping that her fans would rather have her spend her time writing more true crime. Rule maintains a Blog and puts out an annual newsletter, both accessible through her website. She posts periodic updates on the lives of all the people she has written about, including the killers, detectives, prosecutors and victim’s families – no small task indeed.
Ms. Rule graciously agreed to be interviewed about her latest book, Too Late to Say Goodbye: A True Story of Murder and Betrayal. Writer Ana Moreno Amon contributed to writing this article and Patricia Phillips helped develop some of the questions.
As a true crime writer you must have so many possible stories to write. How do you choose which ones to write about? Do you ever have to turn down people’s suggestions?
Ann: I have to turn down thousands of suggestions every year, I'm afraid. Although my readers have chosen the subjects for most of my books, I have to winnow out the most likely cases from about 3,000 suggestions each year. Sometimes, people want me to write about their family's losses. Sometimes, they want me to write their own life stories. And I hear about the high profile cases–like Scott and Laci Peterson, the BTK, The Vancouver Pig Farmer, Willy Pickton, etc. etc.- hundreds of times. I can only write two books a year, even though I work seven days a week, so, of course, I have to explain why I can't write most of the suggestions that come my way.
Often, I wonder if people think the Pacific Northwest isn't in the media loop because so many infamous cases are described to me in detail, while I've already seen them on TV, read about them on the Internet, and in the newspapers. Today, crime stories hit the media almost instantly. And, all the while, I'm hoping to hear about cases that are "sleepers," where the whole world doesn't already know every detail.
What made you choose to write about the one you did for your latest book?
Ann: In the case of Too Late to Say Goodbye, I heard from people who knew Jenn Corbin, the victim, within a day or so of her murder. They insisted that she could not have committed suicide, and I believed them. Then I learned that another young woman who had tried to leave Dr. Bart Corbin had died in a very similar manner–with almost the identical scenario. That sparked my interest even more. As I investigated the crimes Corbin was suspected of, the story became more and more complicated. And that is what I look for. It takes an extremely convoluted story to fill 500 or more manuscript pages without any padding. I want a story that will involve readers and that they will be as interested as I am in how a killer is caught, and in how justice finally prevails.
When I think of true crime I immediately think of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I’m curious what you think of that work which has been much debated throughout the years. I noticed you listed it as one of the five best true crime books but I’m thinking about what ramifications that book had for the genre.
Ann: Whatever Capote's eccentricities, and whatever information has emerged about how he may have "fictionalized" parts of In Cold Blood, I have him to thank for my career. When I read that book back in the sixties, I realized that true crime could be presented in the style of a novel, flowing, captivating, and portraying the people involved in deep dimension. At the time, I thought, "If only I could get into a killer's mind and write a book about it — as Capote did — that would be my career dream." Ironically, I did get into a serial killer's mind, only not in the way I had envisioned.
Ted Bundy was my partner at the Seattle Crisis Clinic, and my friend. I had no idea that he was also a sadistic sociopath. Indeed, I had a contract to write about the "Ted Killer" six months before he called me from Utah and told me he was a suspect in all those murders in Seattle, Utah, and Colorado. I had an insider's viewpoint for my book — which became The Stranger Besides Me — but I also lost my faith in my own ability to spot aberrance. And, of course, I lost a man I thought was a good friend, and a good person. I thought because I was a cop, had worked in correctional facilities, and had many hours of classes in psychology, that I could spot someone like Ted. But I couldn't. Nor could any of the other professionals working at the Crisis Clinic.
What are the best and worst parts about writing true crime books?
Ann: The best parts are the writing itself, and the research. I love to go to homicide trials, and I truly enjoy reading through detectives' files, and interviewing witnesses. And those are also the worst parts. Writing becomes onerous when a tight deadline approaches, and everyone around me is having fun, going on vacation, enjoying holidays, planting flowers and going out to eat — and I have to stay chained to my computer. Trials get boring in parts, oak courtroom benches get harder and harder, and if the courtroom is too warm after lunch, it's difficult to stay awake!
And approaching those who have lost loved ones, or who have been witness to murder or preparations for murder is challenging. I don't want to hurt them any more than they have been hurt. I don't want to reopen old emotional wounds. And, frankly, sometimes the District Attorneys and Detectives are kind of scary at first. Almost always, we become friends — and that's the best part. It's also wonderful to see a new book in print. I never get over that thrill. I truly enjoy book signings, and meeting my readers. I often think that I have the best career in the world, and about how lucky I am.
How has your popularity helped and hurt you?
Ann: I think it's only helped me. I start my days reading really nice comments in my email. How many people can say that? I don't mind being approached in restaurants and stores; I'm not popular enough to be mobbed. When I'm starting a new book, it helps if people have heard of me or have read my books. When I first published The Stranger Beside Me in 1980, I often sat at a table in bookstores for a couple of hours without selling one book. It was like my days as a wallflower in junior high school and high school when nobody asked me to dance. Humiliating. I'll take "popular" any time, and I will happily sign books until my hand hurts and my neck gets creaky. I am so happy to see people who enjoy reading my books.
I’m going to excerpt this part below because I think it says a lot not just about this story but all murders.
"Jennifer Corbin's secrets would be opened up for the world to see, but inevitably Bart Corbin's own private life would also be held up to the light – all of his secrets, his misdeeds, his past and his present. That's what a murder investigation was, is, and has to be – an ongoing invasion of privacy, not just for the victim and the suspect, but for those who worry about friends on both sides of a case, strangers who have some kind of connection, and witnesses. The net spreads out and they are all caught up in it, their private thoughts and actions explored relentlessly.
It's the only way a death investigation can proceed. When a life is stolen prematurely, truth is the one path to justice."
People who lose someone they love to murder suffer so much. They never really find "closure," although others like to think they come to a place where they go back to normal. And they face such tight scrutiny that it makes their losses even more painful. Police investigators have to ask personal questions and even look into secret places like diaries, journals, letters, and extra-marital affairs. A murder victim has no privacy, and that seems somehow unfair to me. But it's necessary, too, if the victim is to be avenged, and the killer is to be convicted and locked away from society. In my research, I often find out things that would be embarrassing for the victim and her (his) family, and I choose not to include that information in my books. They would not make the books that much more interesting; it's not worth the hurt it might cause.
What is the biggest misconception about you?
I don't think it exists so much anymore, but in the beginning I ran into people who expected me to be a tough, news hen who was not touched or saddened about what I wrote about. And I'm just the opposite. Sometimes people write me mean letters saying I'm just writing what I do to make money — and why don't I share my "great wealth" with victims and their families? The fact is that I have shared my profits with many, many victims — particularly children who survive — for 20 years. I have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to them over the years, and I support victims' groups and battered women's shelters financially whenever I am able. I just don't care to talk about it.
Do some of the criminals in your books, especially serial killers, ever try to contact you?
Ann: No, not really. Bundy wrote to me, but then we were friends, so I have about 30-40 witty letters from him, and a few where he was depressed and angry. Most of them have moved on without contacting me. A few have sued me from prison — which surprises some people — but anyone can attempt to sue anyone, even if they are bringing suit from prison, saying their reputations have been damaged. Two convicted killers threatened my life, and I heard about that from inside sources. A lot of convicts write to me, but I can't answer back. I'd prefer not to have my personal information circulated in prisons, although my books are quite popular there. Most of my prison mail is from men who want me to investigate their cases and prove them innocent. I am not in a position to do that — I'm not an investigator.
Oh that reminds me of another misconception about me. A lot of people picture me as Jessica Fletcher, Angela Lansbury's character in "Murder She Wrote." I don't solve murders the way she did. I often wondered how she ever found time to write!
Lastly what are you working on next?
Ann: I spent today — Sunday before the 4th of July — working on my next book: Smoke Mirrors and Murder: Ann Rule's True Crime Files #12. It will be published at Christmas time by Pocket Books. And I'm looking for the subject of my next hard cover book for Free Press/Simon & Schuster. I have a half dozen cases in mind.
Thanks again to Ms. Rule and Ms. Amon.