Ann Rule rules. Her latest true-crime book, Empty Promises, is the best-selling non-fiction paperback book in the land. Some 13 million of her books are in print in paperback, with another seven million in hardback. Two of her books have been made into television miniseries, including The Stranger Beside Me, about serial killer Ted Bundy, with whom she worked at a rape crisis hotline. She has lectured to law enforcement professionals and testified as the U.S. Department of Justice set up its Violent Crime Apprehension Program.
Not bad for a coach's kid from Michigan whose childhood ambition was to catch the bad guys.
“My grandpa was a sheriff in a little Michigan town,” she said in a telephone interview from her home near Seattle, in her first newspaper interview in a year. “I would literally go to jail to visit my grandparents. It was a mom-and-pop jail. They lived there, and the office was in the front and the jail was in the back. I was allowed to hang out in the office. It just fascinated me.
“I also passed the food trays in the slots to the prisoners. I was always fascinated with how did people get that way? Why would anyone want to be a criminal?
“That still drives me - how did this person become a criminal?”
That need to know prompted her to become a police officer in Seattle, a job she held for 18 months before she failed a vision test (“I couldn't see the big E. I couldn't see the wall behind the big E.”)
She got married, had four children, then saw her marriage crumble and her husband die, leaving her with the children. “They were little enough that I didn't want to have to leave them and take an honest job, so I turned to writing. I could do it at home.”
She still does. We spoke to Ann Rule by telephone a week after the release of Empty Promises, before it had climbed to the No. 1 spot on the bestseller list. Sitting in the house she once promised herself she would buy “if I ever make any money,” she looked out on a scene utterly unlike that in Ann Arbor, where she grew up: “Where I'm sitting now, I can't see any land at all, and the Olympic mountains are across the water. It's very beneficent surroundings.”
Q: How would you describe yourself?
A: I'm really a writer and a mother. I'm a very sensitive, non-threatening, friendly woman with a great deal of empathy. And I know what I'm talking about.
Q: Tell me about your early writing career.
A: I wrote five years and didn't sell anything, [so] I did door-to-door public surveys. Then I sold something to the Seattle Times Sunday magazine for $35. It was the biggest thrill of my life - that someone would pay me for my writing.
Over the next couple of years, I sold about 10 pieces to them and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Then I sold a `true confession.' I got $200. My greatest story was `I had to have an unspeakable operation to be a real woman.' I used to go to my gynecologist and say, `what operation could a women have?' He threw up his hands and said, do a piece on a woman born without a vagina. I got $250.
One day, I saw my customer. She was ahead of me in the grocery store line. She got a six-pack, two pounds of chocolate-covered cherries - and my magazine. Her hair was in curlers and she was wearing bedroom slippers. It was all I could do not to throw my arms around her. I felt a little glimpse of fame.
In the mid '70s, I became the northwest correspondent for True Detective Magazine. This was a steady living, where you were guaranteed $200 a story and $12.50 a photo. The pay wasn't very good, but if I sent a story on Monday, I could count on having money the next Monday for groceries.
Then I was doing two stories a week, then three or four stories per issue. I had to have a pseudonym, because they told me that a female wasn't expected to know anything about police work or how detectives solved crimes, and their readers wouldn't accept a female. So I became Andy Stack. As Andy, I wrote 1,400 true crime stories. It was a great training ground for what was to come.
Q: How do you approach doing a book? Do you have a checklist, or a formula?
A: I start by jumping into the story at some place that is so interesting that a reader browsing in a bookstore thinks, `I have to know how this happened.'
I go back as far as I can in the lives of the victims and the killers, then I'm back to the point where I start the book. Like Silas Marner. So far, that formula works. Start in the middle, go back to the beginning, and then go forward.
I go to the places where everything happened, so I can impart sight, sound, and smell for my readers and they will feel like they are there.
Q: How do you get such access to the people involved?
A: This is the hardest part of what I do. Every time I start a book, I think I'll never find out enough, no one will tell me anything.
By going to the trial, it's like seeing a play. People like the victim's family know that I care enough about what's going on to show up every day.
I go to the D.A. and say, `I'm not going to talk to your witnesses before this is adjudicated.' I sort of get to know the families, we talk about everything but the case. I've never had trouble to get people to talk to me. I want to give the victim a voice. They know I care.
And I find out they've read my books. The book I'm working on now is about a case in San Antonio. This is the first book I've done at the request of the victim. It gives me chills. Sheila Bellush, she had quadruplets by in vitro. Her first husband was a multi-millionaire who lived in San Antonio, Allen Blackthorne. He didn't love her. Like many of the men I write about, he was one the one who would decide when it would end. She was murdered in Sarasota.
When she divorced him, she told her sister, `If anything ever happens to me, I want it investigated.' And then she laughed and said, `I want Ann Rule to write the book.' Her sister found me.
This was incredible. This victim asked for me 10 years before she died. I have a tremendous responsibility to tell the story as best as I can.
Q: How often do you find yourself shaking your head and wanting to rewrite history?
A: I think with every book. If I could only reach back in time and say, `Can't you see? Get out of there!'
With Ann Marie Fahey (the victim in And Never Let Her Go), I wanted to shake her and say, `Run! Now!' But it was too late. She was already gone.
Q: What about the Sherer case in Empty Promises made you say, `That's one I want to do.'?
A: Marilyn Brenneman, the prosecutor, a is a good friend of mine. She's so feisty.”
(The crime involved a young woman, Jami Sherer, who had disappeared. Although her body was never found, prosecutors spent months building a case against her husband, Steve.)
“Marilyn called me in January and said, `We've got him.' I went to the trial. This guy is the most despicable I've seen in a long time. Sitting there every day with the two families, ... I just really wanted to write the stories.
I asked myself, `Can I take the readers' prejudices against this women who did use cocaine and did do kinky sex, can I show who she really was?'
Victims aren't always ... pure, and killers aren't all bad. It was quite a challenge.
Q: Which writers do you admire, in your genre and overall?
A: In my genre, I think the other best true crime writer - this is the only way in which I'm competitive - is Jerry Bledsoe (Bitter Blood; Blood Games). I like Kathryn Casey in Texas. She did A Warrant to Kill and The Rapist's Wife.
Gregg Olsen, he's pretty good. He's done about six books. I think he could go someplace. I still hearken to Tommy Thompson (Blood and Money) and [Truman] Capote (In Cold Blood).
Q: And out of your genre?
A: Ann Tyler! I go as far away as I can. And Wally Lamb. And I don't read true crime at night. When you write about it all day, you sure don't want to read about it at night. ... And I faithfully read The (National) Enquirer and The Star every Friday. It clears the mind.
Q: What about scary fiction, a la Stephen King?
A: Nope. I've read some of the early ones, and I quit halfway through Christine because it was too scary.
John Saul is a friend of mine, and he writes horror. It scares me that people have these things in their minds. Who's putting these terrible thoughts in their minds?
Q: And to take a cue from Oprah, what's one thing you know for sure?
A: I think that I was meant to do what I'm doing in my life. Everything fell into place with such synchronicity, I know that I'm following the path I should.