August 2006

Emily Cook


An Interview with Terri Jentz

It was a blinding hot morning in Southern California, early on a Sunday to be functioning, no less squinting into a cup of coffee and leaning into the ear piece of my phone as I tried to decipher the words left on my voicemail. Once, twice, three times I pressed “replay” to hear the message again -- sure enough, author Terri Jentz was describing a quiet place to meet for lunch, and there was no hint of irony in her voice as she first pronounced and then spelled out the name of the restaurant. “A-shay,” she said. “Spelled A-X-E.”

I didn’t know if it was a twisted joke or yet another one of the macabre coincidences that Jentz describes at some length in her book, but at noon sharp the woman who was attacked and left for dead in 1977 at a state park in Oregon by a man with an axe met me at “Axe” -- a trendy organic whole-food type café decorated with neutral colors and spare blunt lines. Over buckwheat soba noodles and chicken salad we spent a better part of the afternoon talking about her book, Strange Piece of Paradise: A Return to the American West to Investigate My Attempted Murder -- And Solve the Mystery of Myself (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the investigation she undertook to find her attacker, and the uncanny occurrences that have risen up since the book’s publication this past May.

Terri Jentz reminded me immediately of Jane Fonda, circa Klute or On Golden Pond -- odd to say, but there it is. Something about her tall, lean stature, the inflection in her voice, the striking looks -- and the sheer intensity that shone from her brown eyes.

A note on style and characters: In following along with Jentz’s own style in the book, I use pseudonyms when referring to both the alleged perpetrator, “Dirk Duran” (as Jentz says in her book’s acknowledgements, “I do not want to feed into the cult of celebrity granted by this culture to charismatic victims”), and when referring to Jentz’s traveling companion in 1977 -- “Shayna Weiss,” who has no memory of the attack and wants to keep it that way.

In order to start your own investigation in the early nineties, you drove up to Oregon and basically started knocking on doors. I am wondering how you approached people with such a startling line of questioning?

How I did back then? Well, it would be knocking on the door, Hi, so and so. Often I would begin with apologies, “This is kind of odd, but, I don’t know if you remember back to 1977? Remember that Cline Falls incident, where the girls got, you know, hacked apart while they were camping…? Well I was one of those girls.”

The key was, I had to win somebody quickly. I had to look as forthright as possible and as open as possible. In fact, in that day I wore my hair just likes yours -- your hair is way off your face -- and I never wore glasses, so people could really see into my eyes, see my whole face, so they could tell if I was lying or not. And I was very clear of what my mission was, always. Well, people can feel that. It’s an instinct.

On your first trip to Oregon you brought along a couple of friends, and -- strikingly, I thought -- a videotape to record your experiences. It seemed to me to be such a sign of the times -- you first went back in the early 1990s, the days of MTV’s Real World debut, before reality television had taken over but exactly when a lot of artists on the fringes were really documenting and exploring with video cameras. Did you videotape the entire thing?

That’s a good point -- I think probably that was a sign of that time, the idea that I would make my own documentary. But it also became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to. I couldn’t think straight with a video camera going. Even a camera I stopped carrying after a while. Any kind of recording device -- I had an audio recording device, which I did rely on, but any time I got behind a framing device, I found it covered me up from my wide-eyed...

Right, it separated you. People get a little bit nervous when you have...

Oh believe me, when I interviewed Ruby, the ex-wife -- if I had had a camera in her house I would have gotten nowhere, fast. She was so insecure about how her looks had turned out -- she was a very beautiful woman but had put on a bit of weight. People can have sensitivities that you would just not know about. Why clutter it up with that!

I have to say that when I started reading your book I was shocked by the reaction I got when I told people what I was reading. Some people were angry with me if I told them about it: “Why are you bringing up this morbid subject? Why are you ruining my day by telling me about this?” Some people just could not stomach it. Of course in your book you describe the various reactions you have gotten over the years when you tell your own story. Have you found that people are react similarly when you are out on book tour?

Not to me personally, but I am getting feedback from people who tell me they have read my book and try to recommend it to others, and people say “That sounds depressing.” But my book is written in a way that doesn’t make people depressed -- it doesn’t bring those emotions on. I think it makes people feel emotion, which is what I think we want from a work of art. At first blush, “Axe attack,” people just go into that place, and the media had played that up.

So, I think that I’ve got to somehow figure out how to talk to the media in a way that doesn’t just answer their questions.

The old politician’s trick -- say what you want to say, regardless of their question.

It is very hard when you have four minutes on the radio, and an aggressive radio host who says “Take us through that night, Terri,” and it’s always, “well, it was 1977, and I was camping, 11:30 at night, and I woke up with a truck on my chest.” They all want that, so once you start out with that you have a certain number of listeners who are like, click.

I ran into a guy down in Washington DC when I was there for BEA [Book Expo America] who had started to read your book but put it down after the first few pages. He said he likes a clean narrative -- he went off on this whole tangent, that the perfect book is 220 pages, that you have to try to avoid bogging a book down with too many details. Of course, other writers may be the harshest critics. But I appreciated all of the details. Also, I can’t imagine your particular book without them -- even if some of the details were hard to read. You unturned every stone, followed every lead -- there is a lot of repetition, but you build on it. You said the book was like three times as long, five times as long? It was published at 542 pages.

Well, I was trying to uncover the crime that was committed by this particular individual, and any real trial would include fifty times more detail. The worst criticism would have been: you didn’t do your best to do your reporting, you didn’t get this or that, you didn’t even do your legwork when in fact I had done it but didn’t put it in the book because people want...

220 pages!

Yeah, right! And then, too, I was trying to do interviewing as well, and when you combine the two you get a very long book -- or you are going to shortchange something. Somebody wrote on -- she gave me five stars but said, “I could have done without some of these details and conversations” -- but from the journalistic perspective, that’s sort-of a no-no, because the minute you start putting things in your own words you have the potential to twist their reality, and I needed to prove that this was the intention of this person, to say this. This corroborates what this other person said. If you were a prosecutor you would need to have those stories line up so that you could get a conviction, and if I summarized in my own words it would be very suspect.

Especially when you are doing something as serious as fingering the person who attacked you...

Fingering him! He is all over the news. I mean, Anderson Cooper, just the other night? Repeating his name, punching out the D’s. They’re all doing it because of my research. I mean, I’m a good liberal! I don’t want to get the wrong guy. I have no zealous prosecutor, you know? I don’t believe in falsely accusing, and as it is, I think people find me -- well, like the one reviewer at the L.A. Times found me a bit over-zealous in my prosecutorial zeal!

Really? After all of the evidence that you gathered, all the corroborated stories?

But, the guy is bad, for sure. I’m not going to nail him for my crime if I don’t think he didn’t do it. It goes against every bone in my body, every cell, so when I continually get this “too many details, too many details” it makes me feel that I could not have won [with the critics], because I cut out so many details, and it is highly detailed work. I never thought of it that way, but I was trying to uphold very high journalistic standards.

Your book has gotten a lot of media attention -- the Mary Roach review in the New York Times got the front page of the book review. Is it gratifying?

Yeah, it is, because nobody has questioned my journalism -- no big muckety-muck journalist has questioned it. I sent the Oregonian reporter all the background documents -- if anyone could question it, it would be somebody in Oregon -- but he is absolutely my fan. The only person -- this is very funny -- who has ever questioned a detail of mine was the guy who told me about the bike trip in the college dining room. He really objected to being called a nerd. “And by the way, I wasn’t a tri-athlete, and by the way, I went from East to West, not West to East.” That’s it!

You must have agonized over all of this…

Agonized, agonized! You can’t believe the amount of torture. I took everything so seriously, so ethically -- and then to be criticized for the level of detail, in this era of James Frey!

I want to talk about some of the details in the book. I was especially struck by the descriptions of the attack that happened the day after yours -- when Dirk Duran found his girlfriend, Janey [also a pseudonym], at work and tried to drown her in the pond. Only a couple of people tried to help -- two fourteen-year-old girls, in fact. All the other kids were scared and tried to get away.

I am so glad you said that -- that is one of the most poignant stories, I have shivers for those girls even just thinking of them -- the little girl with the rock, the sisters…

That scene is so vivid in my mind -- I picture it like a movie, more terrifying then almost anything else, all of the kids piled into the car trying to get away from a crazy Dirk Duran. And towards the end of the book you finally track down Linda Shepard, the foreman in charge of Janey and the other teen workers.

Some people thought that by putting the interview with the field boss at the end of the book I was visiting old material, but it was chronologically true that I did not track her down till two years later. What was utterly fascinating to me was that she was able, from an adult perspective, to describe that level of terror. I had to go home, I could not work any more that day. To me that was metaphysical proof of his guilt. How many kids fit that description, in that town of 4,000? [Who else] could have reached that level of transgression within a twelve-hour period of time? And she said he looked like he just stepped out of the shower -- creased jeans, she said. Shirt tucked in! She didn’t know this guy, hadn’t seen him before or since!

It is amazing that nearly everyone you interviewed echoed your distinct memory -- you described your attacker as an “attractive cowboy,” really “meticulous,” in a journal entry shortly after you left Oregon in 1977, and time after time people described Dirk Duran in the same way. It must have been very hard for you to use your own words after a while.

Yes, to keep it clear. Of course, his ex-wife -- all I do is mention the tucked in shirt and without even a pause she is telling me how he did it. The long-johns -- I had remembered this detail, about the smoothness, and thought it had to be a type of garter belt or something, some trick that would help maintain all that smoothness. It had to be the long johns!

When you finally realized that he had used a boy-scout axe… and the image of your hands holding the blade, stopping him just above your heart.

The gentleness.

The gentleness! And to later discover that he was measuring you! He wasn’t being slow, or thoughtful, but he was aiming as on a chopping block.

My editor is responsible for getting me to close that up and even for getting me to see it. I think I was still a bit in denial about it, and Eric [Chinski] kept saying, “Are you going to question your description of this?”

Getting back to the boy’s axe…

That is one of the things that I buried a little bit for the subtle readers. I don’t want to be the oracle of the obvious. I put it at the top of the next chapter before I describe the wound that it made, but if you read that little paragraph, you realize that it had to be a boy’s axe, because a hatchet is a one handed tool -- you can’t use two hands on a hatchet -- so it wasn’t a full length axe, and everybody knew it wasn’t. I knew it wasn’t. A lot of people described it as a hatchet, but the proof was in the definition.

Of course, that leads me to the police department. I am still baffled by the ineptness of that police department.

One of my friends said that the great thing for her about the book is that all of the women figured it out, and all of the girls. All of these withering men going around -- they either can’t deal with it, they can’t remember it, and meanwhile all of the girlfriends with the memories, all the ones with the clues -- the ex-girlfriends, the ex-wives…

Like Janey, the ex-girlfriend, who went down to the crime scene and identified the tire tracks.

She told Prime Time just a month ago that he was the axe man. “I saw those tire tracks!”

I thought it was going to be really hard to read about what actually happened that night to you and Shayna -- and it was -- but I found it harder to read what Dirk Duran has done to other women, especially his ex-wife.

All of that was very hard -- with all of those women, especially with her, and I just became desperately attached to her, and wanted to help her. Her son just committed suicide, about a month ago...

Oh, no! That young boy -- that was very hard to read about.

There was twenty times more horror than what I put in this book. It was like a chamber of horrors. I mean, even in the last minute I took out something. Dirk Duran had suffocated this kitten in front of his stepson on Christmas morning -- his favorite kitten. The FSG lawyer read that and said, you know, I realize that it is all so horrible that he did this to women, but to tell you the truth, emotionally, that was the hardest thing for me to handle. And I understand that, because I am that way about animals. When it comes to animal cruelty, I go into denial, I can’t get them out of my mind. I understand it. So I took that bit out at the last minute because I thought: You know what, this one detail about Fluffy the kitten on Christmas morning will get people to put the book down right there. And then, this boy just committed suicide a month ago.

Was the cat really named Fluffy?

Yes, its name was Fluffy.

Oh, God.

I know.

I actually assumed the opposite -- I assumed that you cut out details that seemed perhaps mundane or ordinary in place of details that were shocking, or better described what Dirk Duran was capable of.

No! No. I mean, I took out two rapes. It was too much! And you know, when they’re bad, they’re really bad. When I worked for the hotline in L.A. I was hearing stories that were even worse, regularly.

How long were Dirk Duran and Ruby married?

Five years or so.

I heard that Dirk Duran was recently in jail and by some fluke was let out the day before your book tour. Is the story I have heard correct: that he was in jail awaiting trial because he beat up some guy in a bar parking lot, and the victim died before the trial began? The guy who was pressing charges died mysteriously?

He beat up this terminally ill guy with a cane in the guy’s apartment, not a parking lot. The victim died from his terminal illness, not mysteriously. And the DA dropped charges because his key witness was gone. And [Dirk Duran] was released a day before my appearance in Sisters, Oregon.

So, you had to have security guards at your readings?

I had three deputy sheriff’s and one retired member of the state police protecting us, not security guards. Local law enforcement, in other words.

Now I am getting surreptitious e-mails from neighbors of where he is living, warning me that he might hurt somebody else. Relying on me to be the protector who is going to alert other members of the community. I am an intermediary now. But I am passing on those emails and getting them to the right people.

[update from Terri Jentz, 8/7/06: This story has evolved. A couple of weeks ago, “Dirk Duran” was indicted by a grand jury in Deschutes County for assault on a peace officer (a Class C person felony in Oregon), 2 counts of resist arrest and criminal trespass. This incident happened in the neighborhood where he was living -- so his neighbors were right to be worried.]

Are you still in touch with the police department?

Yes, but a lot of them have retired now. Every time I’ve done one of these [events] in Oregon there is somebody from Redmond who is talking about their memories of Dirk Duran.

You told a story about a girl, new to town...?

Yeah, she moved to town, she was eleven years old, the new kid on the block, and Dirk Duran knocked her to the ground, knocked all the air out of her… she was terrified of him. People were saying lots of that sort of stuff at both of my readings, and they are still saying it. It’s all the same stuff still.

He’s like the devil incarnate or something -- he’s always getting off.

When he got out of jail, my friend said: what is he, some kind of avatar of evil?

How did seeing him in person color your image of that so-called perfect immaculate torso?

It didn’t color it. You know, when I first saw him, I found him extremely handsome. There’s just no question about it. At least by my standards of beauty, he is astonishing looking. Everybody thought that way when he was in his twenties. But even in his thirties I would... I mean, I’m gay, and I would look at him and wow, what an incredibly beautiful man. And so that validates my first impression: attractive. That’s never really changed. Now he’s put on weight and he’s ugly as hell. When I saw his expression change, I could see that he could turn. Like, what was in him would come out. It was hideous. That was a sight to see. And since that experience I have never been able to think him attractive since.

I’ve never actually seen a picture of him in his twenties, but his looks were legendary at that time. He had very dark hair, and bright blue eyes and this meticulous body. Now he’s gained weight, but even in his thirties he had the broad shoulder, the narrow waist -- just the classic body type that is considered by our culture attractive.

But also the way he dressed…

My idea of “meticulous” never changed, not through the '90s, though I have a feeling it has changed by now. It looks as though he’s lost his teeth. 

Good. Because it sounds like he had no trouble picking up new girlfriends.

He’s lost his allure, and they won’t go for him anymore in the same way. And that’s a blessing, that’s an absolute blessing. Now he’s [preying] on weak men. Brain damaged, terminally ill. Like a cancer cell, he goes for the point of low immune system. He metastasizes. Colonizes.

Are his parents still alive?

His father died. His mother is still alive. When he beat up this last guy? This is a ghoulish bit of information. She wrote to the judge -- the letter was in the court records -- she wrote to the judge begging for leniency saying that she knows in her heart that [her son] would never have done that. That in the course of this [struggle] Dirk Duran got blood all over him, and she should be pressing charges on his behalf because now he has been exposed to HIV.

I’d like to ask you about Shayna. You describe your friendship as being quite intense -- the kind of quick infatuation common to summer camp, or, in this case, college. And I think you had an intense love for her. Of course, there was something particularly heartbreaking about the way your friendship ended, and especially the fact that Shayna never did -- still does not -- want to hear about that night. In your acknowledgments, you write that each day you sat down to write, you would try to write more honestly than you did the day before. When I read that, I thought back to the scene you described after the attack -- you were cradling Shayna’s head in your arms, and you knelt over and kissed her. Of course, that kiss saved her life, because it was then that you realized how close she was to death -- the icy chill -- and were propelled into action.

That thermal knowledge…

Was that hard for you to write?

Obviously, because the first time I wrote it my editor missed it all together. He read the manuscript really thoroughly, but...

You didn’t know how to bring it to the front?

No. So I really had to march on my emotions to be truthful. To write both that, and then the scene -- one of the hardest scenes to write parts of was where I said “I couldn’t have saved you if I hadn’t cared so much.” I cut that off, and I didn’t take a note on that [memory]...

The letter that you later sent to Shayna?

Yeah, and I remembered that I’d said that, and it was too painful to even take the notes. So that was very, very hard to write.  Also when you think about the real life Shayna, and her family, being able to read this book, should they choose to read it… they’re out there. That kind of exposure was a bit embarrassing. But, for the sake of authenticity, I think people really react to the book because of the authenticity. If I had been disassembling at all, they would have picked it up.

You still have heard nothing from her?


There are obviously loose ends that did not get tied up with Shayna -- there is still a missing sense of closure.

But, you know what’s so great about this? This is something that has just been gelling in my mind. I am so happy that she has stayed her course in not hearing this story. That makes me respect her a great deal. This is what she needs to do for herself. Do you know what kind of discipline that would take? When the story is out there? Isn’t that an example of an incredibly willful person who is determined to do things her way?

I do sort-of admire it.

I really admire it. I would almost be disappointed if she did read the book. Isn’t it such proof of how past behavior is predictive of future behavior? So, she still won’t hear the story, Dirk Duran is still threatening people’s lives, and I’m still investigating.

I feel she must have buried something very deep inside -- to have no memory of this type of incident? That seems almost impossible to me. But perhaps some things are best left buried in a person’s subconscious, depending on the kind of person you are.

It occurred to me that part of the horror for her might be that she did have a memory -- she did have consciousness -- and it was that period of time when I was underneath the truck -- what that must have been for her -- she was perfectly whole and now I’m under the truck. That degree of horror and terror, and, “it’s going to be me next.”

She knew I was under the truck. The wheels.  And then the blow wiped out that memory, but I think that on some soul-level it is still absolutely there.

 That’s exactly what I keep thinking about.

And think of how helpless she would have been? There was no way she was going to get me back out from under that truck. I mean, in the way that I helped save her life -- she wouldn’t have been able to help save mine. So, sure, there’s a certain impotence about that. I mean, that’s a horrible thing -- not to be able to save your friend, or yourself. Whereas I was able to save her and myself. So I get the feeling of potency. And I do know from studying a lot about trauma and victimization that if you are incapable of acting, shame always accompanies -- like in classic rape victims, when you have been overpowered and you’re not able to act? Shame always accompanies that. It’s a loss of dignity.

That is a theme that certainly runs through your interactions with many people in this book. For instance, Ruby, the ex-wife. She avoids telling you that her husband talked about the actual incident at Cline Falls, yet she seems to tell you everything else. And a lot of his friends avoid telling you what they have heard...

Even Janey.

Even Janey! She tells you that everything was..

She tells me that they were getting along hunky-dory that night! And her friend tells me, no, they were fighting.

You know what was interesting? When I gave my reading in Central Oregon, I read that attack chapter, and [Janey] was standing right in front of me, within my eye line. I kept looking at her, and she was wincing as I was going through that, as though she was bodily feeling what I was describing. Of course, she did feel the same thing the very next day. It was almost like a parallel fate.

It was a parallel fate.

It was distracting to watch her.

Your conversations with the nurses must have been very cathartic, in a way. Reading the descriptions of your behavior in the hospital directly after the attack was hard for me to read, probably because I identified with it. For instance, the nurse reports say that you were really pushy. I got really angry when I read that. How dare they call her pushy! After everything she has been through!

I was obnoxious. My mother was horrified at how I behaved. To tell you the truth, my editor and agent had me pull back a little bit from my depiction of myself. I was less likeable in the early drafts. I was trying to be honest about my behavior, but, I was a cocky little brat!

When you are that age, you feel so much distance between people who are just a few years older or younger than you, but you and Shayna were nearly the same age as the nurses who tended to you, right?

Four years. They were four years older. And those three that nursed me are now calling me and e-mailing me. They are surrounding me with this protective shield. They call me up after watching me on T.V. and say, “Breathe, Terri! You’ve got to breathe more!”

They’re still nursing you! After almost thirty years -- that’s incredible. Of course, throughout your book you are also talking about larger issues of violence.

It was very important to me to make this a story about the larger issue of violence against women. That required doing what to some seems like digression -- to keep Valerie in mind all the time, and Kate Turner, and Andrea Tolentino, because I think it is so easy to say: oh, this is one person’s fate. How about the dead ones? The dead girl? The dead women? Part of my essential learning was really thinking about these dead ones, the ones who didn’t make it. Unlike me and Shayna.

You were so close.

We were so close. We should have been dead. The truth is that mostly they are dead. So I had to have that constant echo of the worst -- the worst, the worst, the worst. Because otherwise it seems untruthful to what is really going on in the world. So I know that is a bitter pill for a lot of people to swallow -- like what happened to Valerie, for example...

That was very hard for me to read. Like the image of Bob and Dee Dee Kouns on their stakeout? [note: Dee Dee Kouns, whose daughter was brutally murdered in 1980, and her now- late husband, Bob Kouns, founders of “Crime Victims Unite,” helped Jentz with her investigation]

Watching their daughter’s body? Dressed as homeless? It was incredible.

One of the reasons that made it so important for me to put their story in is that I know from my consciousness that Valerie’s fate was running underneath the surface the whole time I was doing this. It really became a larger issue for me. It wasn’t just about me. I needed to be constantly reminded of the bedrock evil. It was so easy for me to make Dirk Duran into the handsome torso and all that -- you can actually take that to a lighter level. So, I had to bring that dimensionality in. Also, [the Kounses] helped me. I would never have gotten where I got in that investigation without them. To make them into real characters, where you really feel their pain, what their motivation was, you had to know what happened to Valerie. It became a tricky thing. There again, like with all the facts of my story perhaps weighing down the narrative -- I may have weighed down my book with these other women, but then there’s the dimensionality of it. Ultimately, I think the book will last longer because of it.

You really do outline the way our society has dealt with and reacted to crimes against women, through the eighties and nineties especially.

You’re a San Francisco girl. Check out the 1980 newspapers. They were clearing [solving] 32% of homicides in San Francisco in the 1980s.

I remember that. I remember being terrified of the Night Stalker as a little kid. Running around with a friend screaming “The night stalker is going to get us!” He was our boogey-man.

Well, you should have been. I actually met a woman whose sister was nearly murdered by the Night Stalker.

But you specifically go into pretty heavy detail about Valerie, Bob and Dee Dee Kouns’s daughter.

The other thing of it is the regionality. I really wanted the California connection, because otherwise it is very easy to say, “Oh, that’s just Twin Peaks land in the Pacific Northwest, there are a bunch of nut jobs up there, but here where we live, in San Francisco, everything is sunny and fine, we’re all very, like, hip and liberal, and everything is great.” Well, hey, guess what happened to this San Francisco State student, out minding her own business? She literally lived down the block from that that great little coffee place right across from the park in North Beach. It’s like the hippest, coolest neighborhood that anyone would want to live in. And she gets blamed by the media for being in some rich area. She was the hippest thing going. Anyone would have wanted that lifestyle in 1980, you know what I mean?

Do you feel a little lucky -- well, lucky really is the wrong word, but there is something to be said for the fact that you did not go through trial back in 1977 or 1978, because of the way the media would have treated both you and Shayna. You say as much in the book.

Oh, it would have been horrible. It would have been a real education. And he would have gotten out in two years. But, but! He would have been labeled as a murderer. And that would have kept a certain number of people away from him, and that would have saved some lives, in a way -- some psychological lives, anyway. That was a dismal era.

I read an interview with Joan Didion recently -- a Paris Review interview, actually, from 1977 -- and she talked about writing as being a hostile act. Trying to impose your ideas on somebody else. Do you think of your writing in that way?

No. I have never thought of it as being hostility. I was really looking to give people something they don’t ordinarily read -- a glimpse of something, not just the horror but also the deep-seated emotions. I think writing is aggressive, but in a positive way. Positive aggression, not hostility.

I also noticed that everybody wants to compare your book to another -- Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song -- but nothing really fits to me.

Initially when those analogies were made, I started to get concerned about it. I thought, that is the very thing that is going to get people not to read it -- the In Cold Blood connection -- because it is so not that. But naturally what you want is the classic aspect. You are hoping people will say: this will last as long as In Cold Blood. And then, of course, I really take issue with The Executioner’s Song, although I like it and think of it as a classic. But Norman Mailer even admits in his final note that he changed Gary Gilmore’s letters to make them more literary.

Which is the opposite of what you did.

The opposite. Actually, both of those writers took great liberties with the facts in order to make them into streamline novels, that form of so-called journalism, “new journalism.” I very intentionally like narratives that have the ragged ends. It’s meant to show the authenticity. Not to mention the fact that Truman Capote’s original assignment was to see how this violent crime affected this community. He fell in love with Perry and never even did that!

One of my reviewers -- it was a good review, but she said something like “of course, she does not have the elegant distance of Truman Capote, and how could it? She wrote it  from her perspective.” And I am thinking -- how could it, and why should it? Isn’t that what memoir is? You show your derangements and your obsessions? You don’t have an elegant distance because if you were to have an elegant distance it would be untruthful, wouldn’t it?

It makes you wonder what people want.

I think we haven’t gotten clear what it is exactly that we want out of our genres. We want it to be authentic and not like James Frey and yet we want it to be James Frey. We want it to be pure journalism and factual and yet we want it to be Truman Capote. We want facts to be changing so that they can be streamlined into a narrative. Sebastian Junger has drawn a lot of fire -- and I think probably rightly so -- for putting his story into a very clean narrative. Well, guess what? He’s on the bestseller list, and I’m not! He’s Sebastian Junger, of course, and I’m not, but still!

This is always the question in publishing: will the brilliant debut be followed up by a second book that is equally good -- or better? I also cannot help but wonder what else you could possibly write about. This particular topic, quest, whatever you want to call it, must really preoccupy your life.

That’s not a problem. I think that I got so much out of this, and I have so many other obsessions. There will be no problems transferring that to the next thing.

Do you still have nightmares?

I don’t think I have any more than the normal person. There are triggers -- sometimes I get very fearful. Who knows what causes it. But not nightmares, per se.

Yet, you must still be haunted by what happened to you to a certain degree.

Prozac helps.