Mad, bad and dangerous to know – Q&A with Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Q&A. Sisters in Crime Australia national co-convenor, Robyn Walton,spoke to Laura Elizabeth Woollett about The Love of a Bad Man (Scribe, Melbourne and London, 2016), her collection of twelve short pieces recreating real-life crimes from recent history. In each one a woman gives her account of becoming deeply involved with a man drawn to vicious activities, most often rape and murder.

Hi Laura (may I call you that?). Is there anything you’d like to tell us at the outset about your book?

That’s my name! I think you’ve summed up the concept of the collection wonderfully, so let’s get started…

The love of a bad man coverYou concluded a piece you wrote for the University of Edinburgh’s Dangerous Women Project by positing a “what if”. What if, as a teenager, you’d been attracted to a modern-day Raskolnikov (the killer in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment)? You say it would not have been so much “would I have followed?” as “how far?”. Do you think it’s common for girls and women to be susceptible to the appeal of “bad” men?  

Girls more so than women, I’d say. Emma Cline puts it excellently in her novel The Girls: “So much of desire, at that age, was a wilful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love.” I can personally relate to this, in that my teenage crushes were generally less about the person and more about the state of ‘crushing’; of projecting my yearning somewhere outside myself, seeing what I wanted to see in someone else, and seeing myself reflected in that way. It’s easy to see how that kind of yearning can attach itself to ‘badness’, and be more willing to overlook it.

Women tend to have more history than girls, so I think their susceptibility to bad men varies a lot, and will often be more dependent on a particular woman’s past, life experiences, etc. At twenty-six, I certainly see a great difference in the way I think about men and love than when I was sixteen. I would classify myself nowadays as less susceptible – largely because my sense of self is more secure, less hungry for outside confirmation.

Darkness, sex and death add up to seductive subject matter for many YA and adult readers. You’re leading us, your readers, into accounts of criminal activity which happened in our mundane Western societies but could be read as containing alarmingly ‘gothic’ compulsions and scenarios. How would you respond to the proposition that you’re playing the seducer and we’re willingly letting ourselves be cast as the tantalised, female-gendered half of the duo?

I’ve never been called a ‘seducer’ before, but sure, I’ll take it! I guess it’s always a writer’s job, on some level, to seduce the reader, to tantalise. With first-person, ‘unreliable narrator’ stories, I think this is especially true. Nabokov’s Lolita is perhaps the most famous example of this, and an early inspiration of mine. I wanted these women’s voices to convince, firstly as realistic voices, and secondly as captivating voices, the kind of voices that readers might feel compelled to spend more time with. This certainly involved a level of authorial manipulation, or ‘seduction’.

The lines of verse you position right after your book’s contents page are from “The Daemon Lover”, an old Scottish ballad in which a man (perhaps the Devil) returns to his former lover and entices her away. When the woman enquires about the low, dark hills she sees, the man replies: “Those are the hills of hell, my love,/Where you and I must go.” You’re warning us there is difficult terrain ahead? The mythopoetic, the psychosexual, perverted spirituality …?

I first came across those lines in Joan Baez’s version of the ballad (titled “The House Carpenter”). There’s something so poignant about the way she sings them; though they’re spoken by ‘The Daemon’, she imbues them with this bittersweet sense of resignation, so you can feel what the woman, his lover, is feeling too. This seemed emblematic of the collection, as a whole. The lines also reminded me a little of the “for better or for worse” of traditional wedding vows, and the way ‘going through hell together’ may be seen as the ultimate test of love.

For your portrayal of Western Australian woman Catherine Birnie one resource you’ve drawn on is Ruth Wykes’ non-fiction study Don’t Ever Call Me Helpless: Australia’s Worst Female Serial Killer (2013). Also, you grew up in WA. Can you give us a sense of how you blended your research, your own local knowledge and your imaginative extrapolations to produce the “Cathy” piece?

I’ve grown quite accustomed to writing about places I don’t know first-hand, so it was bizarre having Perth, my hometown, as a setting. In some ways, it gave me a step up – I knew the names of suburbs, the way the landscape looks, the vernacular. My sister (also named “Kathy”!) lives about five minutes away from the house where David and Catherine Birnie committed their crimes, so I got her to drive me there while I was visiting. Overall, though, I don’t think ‘Cathy’ is any more or less convincing than my stories set in small-town America, for example. Ruth Wykes’ Don’t Ever Call Me Helpless was my main resource for delving into the psychology of Catherine Birnie, so served a similar purpose to books like One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley by Carol Ann Lee. Whereas I also used those books for historical and geographical context, however, I had my own (and my parents’) experiences of Perth to draw on with ‘Cathy’.

Many crime writing devotees will have encountered a non-fiction account of the Moors Murders or one of the novels based on those killings, Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution for instance. I understand you learned about the exploits of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley by way of Morrissey lyrics?

Indeed, I did. I was about sixteen at the time and just starting to get into ‘decent’ music (i.e., not Delta Goodrem or Ministry of Sound: the 2006 Annual), and interested in the meanings behind song lyrics. The Smiths’ song “Suffer Little Children” references the Moors Murderers explicitly, with lyrics like, “Whatever he has done/I have done” (Myra Hindley’s famous words during interrogation). I read up on the case online from there, and that fascination stuck with me. So, thank you, Morrissey – for this and many other things.

In most cases you have your protagonist telling just a part of the story of her time with a man who was bad, dangerous to know and possibly mad too. However, Eva Braun recounts highlights of her experience from the day she meets Adolf Hitler through the 12 years of their relationship to the time of the couple’s suicide pact. What were your considerations as you decided what to include and at which points to begin and end this narrative?

This was one of the first stories that I wrote and one that flowed quite naturally, and quite quickly. I wish that happened more often. Although it’s told in present tense, it’s a kind of omniscient present tense that’s unique to this story. While writing, I had the idea of Eva narrating from some distant, not-quite-physical place – the afterlife maybe, or a psychologist’s couch. The moments that presented themselves weren’t so much chosen as accumulated from the research I’d done, which included watching Eva Braun’s home movies. I think having so much archival, visual material available made her story especially vivid to me, and each ‘moment’ kind of gave rise to the next in a dreamy, recollective way.

As imprisoned Canadian criminal Karla Homolka tells it, she was under Paul Bernardo’s spell for five years, he was a wife batterer, and it was him who was chiefly responsible for those abductions, rapes and murders. Can we commend Karla for scheming to get out of gaol?

Karla Homolka: such a fascinating case. She was a highly intelligent woman (she supposedly had an IQ of 134), yet aspired to a cookie-cutter ‘rich housewife’ sort of lifestyle. She was also very good at playing the ‘dumb blonde’, when she needed to. Though Paul Bernardo was violent with her, and was a sexual sadist, video evidence showed Homolka to be more involved with his crimes than originally thought. This evidence only came out after she secured a lighter prison sentence (twelve years) in exchange for testifying against Bernardo. Her manipulation of the system does show what could be thought of as an impressive instinct for self-preservation, a Gone Girl-esque level of ruthlessness. Intellectually, I find this quite admirable; morally…well, it’s definitely questionable.

Typically, the women you deal with have left their parents and siblings behind. The infatuated relationships they enter have a cult quality in that the girl-woman feels compelled to shun her former life. In the cases of the Charles Manson Family and the Peoples Temple/Jonestown, women stayed on in full-blown cults that countenanced killing “enemies”. Your comments?

Selfhood is often a burden. The lives we’re born into or find ourselves living can be millstones that we long to cast off. I think there’s something attractive about the notion of subsuming oneself in another – whether a lover, a religion, a cause – and devoting oneself completely, redefining oneself through one’s devotion. It’s a way of finding meaning and having it confirmed by an outside power, and a way of not having to navigate the self alone. Many of the women in this collection long to escape themselves or their lives in some way or another, and I think this is a relatable impulse.

Much was made of the fatness of Martha Seabrook Beck, who left behind her two children to team up with a Lonely Hearts swindler and killer. Women complicit in killing are commonly seen as hardened, hyper-sexed and monstrous or, alternatively, as leaky emotional messes. Female criminals who have not had children tend to be represented as unnatural. Does our focus on women’s bodies distort our thinking about crime?   

Women’s bodies in general tend to be focused on and commented on more than men’s. I think it partly goes back to all those pseudoscientific notions about men being ‘visual creatures’ and women being ‘objects of beauty’. I did find that, online and in the media, conventionally attractive women like Karla Homolka and Veronica Compton were discussed in different language from women like Martha Beck and Wanda Barzee; the kinky femme fatale vs. the desperate hag. As women, we’re often tied to and defined by our bodies in ways men aren’t necessarily, and representations of criminal women demonstrate this quite explicitly.

You show us Bonnie and Clyde through the eyes of Blanche Caldwell who, with her husband Buck Barrow (Clyde’s brother), joined in on that infamous crime spree. Blanche turned down chances to opt out. Was it true love causing her to stay with Buck?

Of all the ‘bad men’ in the book, Buck Barrow is probably the only one I wouldn’t classify as having psychopathic tendencies. He struck me as more of a harmless ne’er-do-well: reckless and occasionally self-serving, for sure, but essentially warm-hearted. I do think there was true love between him and Blanche. I see this story as somewhat atypical of the collection, in this sense, and less dark than those that come later (though it deals with many of the same themes).

There have been several screen representations of the Hillside Stranglers, two male cousins who raped and murdered about ten women, leaving their bodies in the Hollywood Hills. Veronica Compton’s attempt to commit a copycat killing was an epic fail in the practical sense. But did she learn from the episode?

Interestingly, after being imprisoned for the attempted copycat killing, Veronica Compton began a correspondence with another convicted serial killer, Doug Clark. He was known as the Sunset Strip Killer and, together with his girlfriend, Carol Bundy, targeted young women in the same year that Compton attempted the copycat killing. Allegedly, the relationship was short-lived and, allegedly, he misled Compton about his identity and used their correspondence for publicity purposes. In any case, Compton expresses regret over both relationships in Jennifer Furio’s Letters From Prison: Voices of Women Murderers (2001), wherein she discusses her crime, her incarceration, and the ways she has changed and healed over the years. I like to believe she is genuine.

The “Jan” story ends ominously with Jan’s torture-loving husband Cam doing some carpentry in their basement. After I read the potted biography of Janice at the end of your book, I realised Cam was making preparations for what would become a notorious event in the US: a young woman was held captive for seven years, spending much of that period in a coffin-like box and frequently subjected to torture. Why did you take this oblique approach?

My primary source for ‘Jan’ was The Perfect Victim by Christine McGuire and Carla Norton, which details the seven-year captivity of Colleen Stan, and the subsequent prosecution of Cameron Hooker. It’s a 400-page book, yet only a handful of pages are devoted to Janice and Cameron’s relationship prior to the kidnapping of Colleen Stan. Reading about the sustained abuse and dehumanisation of an individual over a period of years was more harrowing, in some ways, than reading about serial murders, since there was an added element of calculation and psychological control. I decided to focus on Jan’s relationship with Cam before the kidnapping, as it was easier to approach her character sympathetically by exploring the ways that she was a victim herself. As well as this, this approach seemed less sensationalistic, which was a concern of mine while writing these stories.

The “Wanda” storyline is comparable except that in this case there is deluded religious faith. The self-styled Immanuel sets out to accrue seven new young wives. His middle-aged wife Hephzibah (formerly Wanda) obediently stands guard while he abuses their first captive. Wanda tells her story in pious terms. How did you go about developing her voice?           

One of my main resources for developing Wanda Barzee’s voice was a series of court transcripts published by the Deseret News. Even while describing the most secular of events, she speaks in biblical terms; “bequeath” instead of “give”, “go forth” instead of “go”. The Mormon faith was part of Barzee’s life for decades before she met Brian David Mitchell (aka ‘Immanuel’), and followed him into fundamentalism. Religion seemed to be Barzee’s way of interpreting the world and, ultimately, justifying her actions. Her language reflects this, and is quite striking, for this reason.

As the author who channelled all of these women’s voices, thoughts and feelings, how did you feel after you’d finalised your manuscript?

Though I was always aware of the overarching theme of the collection, I researched and composed each story separately. One of the most satisfying things about having a final manuscript is seeing these familiar stories side-by-side, and seeing how they contrast with one another. In particular, it’s encouraging to see (and to hear from readers) that the different voices are convincing as different voices. That was my aim, of course, but it wasn’t always easy to judge during the writing process!

Thanks for your answers.