True Crime Writer, Suzy Spencer

Happy Tuesday, folks!  Today I am pleased to have Suzy Spencer on the blog.  I met Suzy Spencer when she was a featured speaker at the DFW Writers' Conference a few months ago.  It was a Sunday morning and she was talking about SEX!  So, you know me, I was curious.  But, that's not why I've invited her on the Death Writer Blog.  Although her latest book is a memoir about investigating the fringes of American sexuality, she began as a true crime writer.

And here she is!

DW:  Initially, what made you interested in writing about true crime?

Suzy Spencer:  I fell into writing true crime. In 1996 a writer/friend came to me and said there’s a really interesting murder that YOU have to write about. When I asked her – and kept asking her – why I had to write about it and why she shouldn’t write it, she never answered. She just kept repeating YOU have to write it.

I did a bit of research on the murder. It was interesting – a rich young lesbian who ruled the downtown Austin gay club scene was murdered by the handsome, drug-dealing boyfriend of her beautiful cheerleader girlfriend. I sent a letter to an editor I knew – who had turned down all my previous work – and mentioned the murder. Unknown to me, she sent my letter to her editor-in-chief, and six months later I had my first book deal – after years of trying and failing.

At that point, I’d never read a true crime book in my life. But I do think my friend was right. I had to write that book – Wasted. It and, more importantly, its murder victim Regina Hartwell have stayed in my soul for 16 years.

Regina always wanted to be famous, and I hope that in some way I’ve given her her 15 minutes of fame. Because of Wasted, Regina has been written about in gay publications from coast to coast and featured on two TV shows on the Investigation Discovery network – “Deadly Sins” and “Scorned.”

DW:  What was the most difficult aspect of writing about death?

Suzy Spencer:  Holding the grief and the agony of the family and friends of the murdered … and the grief and the agony of the family and friends of the murderer. People realize and understand that the family and friends of the murder victim are grief-stricken and their lives are irrevocably changed, but they don’t always understand is that the same thing happens to the family and friends of the killer.

For example, in my book Wages of Sin, which is about a young woman who was reared devout Southern Baptist, became a stripper, then a killer, her best friend was so devastated when she realized what her childhood friend had done that her life fell apart – a life that she’d worked hard to improve after coming from tragic circumstances. She couldn’t cope. She couldn’t work. She couldn’t study. She had to drop out of school. When I met her and interviewed her, she was still trying to understand and accept that her best friend was a killer and trying to get herself and her life back together, because she had a child she needed to protect and role model.

DW:  What surprised you most about writing true crime?

Suzy Spencer:  Oh, gosh, so much surprised me and still surprises me. I think when I started writing true crime I thought I’d just be a reporter telling a story. I had no comprehension that I would be holding people’s grief in my metaphorical hands, sitting with them and listening to their pain and anger, and trying to convey that in a book. I certainly didn’t realize how my work would make so many people angry – from judges to attorneys to parents and friends.

But from an everyday citizen point of view, I guess I wanted to believe everything in the world of true crime is black and white – someone murders someone, their guilt is black and white, the trial is black and white, the punishment is black and white.

I’ve learned that that’s not reality. When writing true crime, there are so many truths and rarely is one black and white. There is the family of the murder victim’s truth. There is the friends’ of the murder victim’s truth, which frequently is different from that of the family’s. There is the truth of the murderer’s family and friends. There is the prosecution’s truth, which may or may not be the whole truth. There is the defense’s truth, which rarely is the whole truth, but sometimes contains a lot of truths that the prosecution says are lies. There is the judge’s truth, which may be biased by personal prejudices and relationships. And there is the jury’s truth, which is determined by the hearing of incomplete “truths.”

As a reporter, I have to listen and respect each person’s truth, and then try to figure out what the facts are. And unfortunately, the facts aren’t black and white.

DW:  In your latest book, Secret Sex Lives, you mentioned the need to laugh. What aspect of writing these books took its toll on you?

Suzy Spencer:  Oh, gosh, there are so many things. The grief, the agony that I mentioned above. It’s hard to sit for hours with sources as they weep and not feel and share their pain. The responsibility – to the victims and their families and friends – to handle their stories with sensitivity and respect while telling the truth, which they may not know and maybe shouldn’t know. And then there are the physical, tangible aspects – holding in my hands murder victim Regina Hartwell’s blood, tissue, and retainer with her teeth still in it; holding and smelling her burned clothing; studying her detailed autopsy report and graphic autopsy photos; then staring at photos of her as a child and hearing the stories of her tragic young life. None of that ever leaves you. And I went through similar experiences for all four of my true crime books. After a while, that wears on one. Or at least it wore on me.

DW:  Do you think you'll ever go back to writing true crime?

Suzy Spencer:  I don’t plan on it.