Author of recently release title MANIAC: The Bath School Disaster and the Birth of the Modern Mass Killer
I am excited for the next interview in my interview series. This week, we have author Harold Schechter. Harold is an American true crime writer who specializes in serial killers. He attended the State University of New York in Buffalo where his PhD director was Leslie Fiedler. He is professor of American literature and popular culture at Queens College of the City University of New York. Schechter is married to poet Kimiko Hahn. He has two daughters from a previous marriage: the writer Lauren Oliver and professor of philosophy Elizabeth Schechter.
Harold has written more than 40 books, more than a dozen of those being true crime, so he brings a wealth of knowledge. You can visit Harold’s website at https://haroldschechter.com/. And you should certainly check out MANIAC and Harold’s other books here https://www.amazon.com/Maniac-School-Disaster-Modern-Killer/dp/1542025311.
Without any further ado, let’s get started.
Chad Rhoad: How did you decide this was the story you wanted to tell? What drove you to select this story?
Harold Schechter: I’ve long been interested in historical crimes that were media sensations at the time of their commission but quickly faded from public memory. A number of years ago, I wrote a book that recounted a bunch of these cases, PSYCHO USA: FAMOUS AMERICAN KILLERS YOU NEVER HEARD OF. The Bath School Disaster was one of them. I’ve since expanded a few of the entries included in that collection into full-scale books. MANIAC is the latest.
CR: I hear from so many authors that ideas for one book come through research of another. That’s a good tip to have writers pay close attention to all their research. Speaking of research, this book is extensively researched. What did your research process look like? How did that inform the story as it progressed?
HS: My research process is fundamentally the same for all my books. Before I start writing, I spend several months gathering as much primary source material as possible: newspaper articles, court records, psychological documents (when available), etc. I generally hire a professional genealogical researcher to see if there are people I can interview–relatives of the perpetrator and/or the victims, for example. I always visit the site where the crime occurred and conduct research in the local historical societies. Once I start writing I inevitably discover other topics I need to look into. Obviously the internet has been a boon–I don’t have to spend months in libraries Xeroxing old newspaper stories from microfilm–though, even now, much hasn’t been digitalized.
CR: As a former journalist and someone who worked in research in the military, I can attest to the wonders of digitized archives. Such a great thing for writers. In the midst of all that research on true crime topics, I imagine it can get emotional. How do you compartmentalize the horrible nature of the crime as you go through the research and writing?
HS: Some of my earliest true crime books–particularly my second, DERANGED, about the 1920s-30s cannibal pedophile Albert Fish–were difficult to write. By now, however, after thirty years of doing this, while not inured to the tragedies I deal with, I am able to maintain more emotional distance. I liken my experience to that of medical students who are often horrified when confronted with their first cadavers but after a while are eating their lunch while conducting their dissections.
CR: That makes a lot of sense. I’m always interested in how writers deal with heavy topics. On that note, what kind of feedback did you get from locals as you worked on this project?
HS: My invariable experience has been that the local people who contribute to my research are wonderfully generous and eager to assist. People at the Bath town hall and at the Michigan Historical History in Lansing couldn’t have been more helpful.
CR: In my experience as an editor, I’ve always found that locals are generally helpful to writers in these situations. It’s nice to see that has been your experience as well. This crime was pretty unique for its time. How do you think this particular crime has influenced similar crimes since, and what kind of effect does this have on the community?
HS: One of the points I make in the book is that the Bath School Disaster had no influence of subsequent crimes largely because it was so quickly relegated to obscurity. It remains (thank God) unique in the annals of U.S. crime.
CR: That’s very interesting. When I read the book, I imagined this would have been a huge story, so I was really intrigued in the historical placement aspect of the crime. That was a great read. Given the gravity of the story, what do you feel the author’s responsibilities are in terms of the content and presentation?
HS: I think the author’s main responsibility is to be as accurate and non-sensationalistic as possible: to let the horrors of the story speak for themselves. And also to create a compelling narrative out of the hundreds of pages of dry documents assembled in the course of his/her research.
CR: That’s great to hear. That is something I’ve focused on when editing with authors. You have to pour through so much material, and much of it is dry, as you say. It is so important to turn that into a compelling narrative. You’ve published several books at this point. With all that experience, what surprised you most about the publishing industry and/or process?
HS: Actually I’ve published more than a dozen true crime books (and about thirty more on other subjects) over the last forty years. I suppose what surprised me most, until I got used to it, is how little some publishers do to promote the books they’ve spent money acquiring.
CR: I think that’s a great thing for other writers to hear. There are publishers that do not promote as much or they lean on an author to promote more than other publishers. It’s good for writers to hear that they will need to focus on doing a lot of promotion, regardless of the level of engagement from your publisher.
Last question, what advice would you give to first-time true crime writers just embarking on the task?
HS: My first bit of advice is to read as many first-rate true crime books as possible, beginning with Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD, to see how the masters of the form do it. Keep in mind that, though it seems odd to describe it in this way, true crime is a form of entertainment. You need to find a story that will sustain a whole book and that contains the kinds of elements– in terms of character, plot, etc.–that all forms of narrative entertainment depend on. You also need to make sure that there’s enough research material–court transcripts, for example–that will allow you to produce a book. Don’t sensationalize, don’t add novelistic flourishes. Stick rigorously to the documented facts but find a way to transform them into a compelling read.
CR: That is really great advice, Harold. For someone who has as much experience in this genre and publishing in general, I think it’s important for potential authors to hear this. This is a very distilled way to explain how to take on a seemingly daunting task.
Harold, you have been generous with your time and offered some honest and genuine answers. I think readers and potential authors can gain a lot from this. I thank you so much for your time, and I wish you the best of luck with MANIAC.
For those interested in MANIAC, you can find it on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Maniac-School-Disaster-Modern-Killer/dp/1542025311.
You can also learn more about all of Harold’s books and his career at http://www.haroldschechter.com. Please check out the site to see more of Harold’s great work.