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Wednesdays with Writers: Bestselling author and award-winning journalist Robert Kolker talks about the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK), the evolution of sex work, how our justice system isn’t always fighting, his forthcoming book, and more in his true-crime narrative LOST GIRLS

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By Leslie Lindsay 

A PUBLISHERS WEEKLY top ten book of 2013 about an infamous Long Island serial killer (LISK).

Lost Girls cover
Award-winning investigative reporter, Robert Kolker delves into the LOST GIRLS like someone writing fiction. LOST GIRLS (Harper, 2013) is  deeply researched and backstories of all the girls (who worked as on-line escorts) are explored. For this, I found the writing very compelling and humanizing. Kolker goes back, way back, to the origins of these girls’ lives, namely foster care and other challenging situations. We see how easy it might be to fall into the throes of prostitution: drugs, drama, death, dollars…it seems like an easy way to make a buck.

That would be the first quarter or so of the book. The next half or so is about how these girls–Melissa, Maureen, Megan, Amber, Shannan go missing, end up dead. Is there a serial killer on the loose? Is it just coincidence that their bodies all wash up on the same Oak Beach shore, could it be that death is the fate of sex workers? It’s hard to say. Kolker does an exceptional job of giving a clear and unbiased portrait of each girls’ family. 

And then we dive into the forensics of the matter. There are some ‘whodunit’ moments and cast of suspects, but no one seems to be talking.

Please join  me in welcoming Bob Kolker to the blog couch as we chat about this deeply researched, yet completely unsettling, true crime tale.

Leslie Lindsay: Bob, it’s great to have you. I know LOST GIRLS is a work of nonfiction about five women connected by the same criminal investigation—a suspected serial killer (or killers) operating in Long Island from about 1996 until about 2010. What struck you about this case that you had to dive in? Is it your geographic proximity, being in Brooklyn, or something else?

Bob Kolker: Thanks, Leslie—I’m glad to have the chance to talk about LOST GIRLS.

I first learned about the five women in LOST GIRLS while covering the case of the Long Island serial killer for New York magazine in early 2011, shortly after the first four bodies were discovered along a desolate stretch of highway near the southern coast. By then, people who followed the headlines knew that the five women all connected by this case were oddly similar: petite, in their twenties, and working as escorts online. But when I started to learn more about these women’s lives, and I saw that everything that society might commonly assume about them was wrong. They weren’t social outcasts. They stayed in close touch with their families—their mothers and sisters, and, in some cases, ex-husbands and children. What they had in common, I discovered, was that they all came from parts of the country the media overlooks—poor, struggling areas where becoming a prostitute might not have been the most desirable path, yet somehow has become a valid, almost normal option. 

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What started as reporting on crime and murder became also about misogyny and class, and the shocking differences in how our criminal justice system treats the rich and poor. While I hoped the book would maintain visibility for the case, I also hoped the LOST GIRLS would help explain why these women where more than just what the media was painting them as. I wanted to find out why they felt they had to work in the shadows to survive—and to explain how the shadows sadly became the perfect place for a killer to find them.

L.L.: LOST GIRLS is such an intricate web of drugs, death, drama, and yet you find a way for readers to ‘get to know’ these girls, their families of origin, and little quirks about them. Can you tell us what your research process was like?

Bob Kolker: I’m very lucky to have had spent 17 years as a writer of feature and cover stories at New York magazine, where I got a lot of experiencing interviewing vulnerable sources for articles involving a variety of sensitive issues, including sexual abuse, the loss of family members on 9/11, and the police shooting of Sean BellIn each case, I do what I can to be sensitive and even empathetic in my reporting, while retaining the impartiality and distance that is required for responsible storytelling. That’s a challenging line to walk, but I’m grateful to have a lot of experience walking that line.

When I approached the women’s families about a book, I made it clear that I considered it my responsibility to move beyond the headlines and present complete portraits of each woman. I spent a lot of time in the hometowns of each woman, speaking to friends and relatives alike.  I kept coming back to the families in order to demonstrate that I wasn’t just doing a quick take on their lives, but really wanted to take their stories seriously.  It took a lot of time, but I’m very grateful to all of the families for their candor and trust.

“[Lost Girls‘s] sense of mastery carries over into Mr. Kolker’s lean but ductile prose. Reading this true-crime book, you’re reminded of the observation that easy reading is hard writing.
                                                                       – Dwight Garner, The New York Times

L.L.: We should back up a little and say, the women all involved were sex workers. In the late-1990s and early 2000s, the industry shifted a bit with the introduction of the Internet. Now prostitutes/call girls/escorts could lure johns anonymously through on-line ads on Craigslist and also Backpage. Since LOST GIRLS was published in 2013, how do you see that Internet sex world evolving? And do you believe the investigation would have been handled differently if the women weren’t sex workers?

Bob Kolker: You’re totally right that the Internet has revolutionized sex work. There’s no need to walk down a dark street anymore to be a sex worker, or to have a pimp, or to work for an escort service that takes most of your earnings. You don’t ever have to leave your own house. And so more women who lead more or less normal lives are often drawn into it because it promises an economic freedom they feel is unavailable to them otherwise. All five women I wrote about grew up in families where, in the social sense, prostitution was not seen as a move up. And yet for each of them, the decision felt like an entrepreneurial one: Rather than surrender their financial fate to a minimum-wage job with no benefits and no future, they decided to go into business for themselves.

Since LOST GIRLS was published, the sex work conversation has gone mainstream, with cover stories about legalizing prostitution in the New York Times Magazine and New York magazine.  I’ve seen the coverage of serial-killer cases skew more toward treating the victims as real people and not stock characters in some police procedural. And the inequities of the criminal justice system are getting a lot more attention now, from media outlets like The Marshall Project. If LOST GIRLS played some part in that, I’m of course very happy.

But to answer your question: Yes. I absolutely believe that if these women came from a different social strata, the police would have taken their disappearances more seriously and worked to find them and solve their murders more aggressively. That aspect of the mystery is, at least to me, not unsolved. It’s crystal clear.LostGirls_AF

L.L.:  There are new developments in the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) case. In 2016, Shannan Gilbert’s younger sister killed her mother in cold-blood, it appears. The sister was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and pleaded insanity. Shannan was believed to be bipolar. Does mental illness factor in to this case at all?

Bob Kolker: I continue to follow the case closely, and while there are still no suspects, there’s always something new happening. I didn’t think I could be shocked anymore, but I certainly was brought low by Mari Gilbert’s [Shannan’s mother] murder. Mari is a major character in LOST GIRLS, which of course reflects how large she loomed in real life. She had worked so hard to get justice for her daughter Shannan, and for the police to treat all of the victims with respect and dignity. That her mentally ill daughter Sarra ended up killing her while experiencing delusions seems worse than unfair. Many have suggested that mental illness was something that Sarra shared with Shannan. I’m concerned that might be too pat an explanation for why Shannan disappeared: Just saying Shannan was crazy lets a lot of culpable people off the hook.

I’m also paying special attention to the case of James Burke, the police official in Suffolk County who was jailed recently after rising up to the department’s top spot, even though it was widely known just how jaw-droppingly corrupt he was. It seems clear that Burke worked to keep the FBI away from the LISK case, presumably because the feds were investigating him for various abuses and he didn’t want them anywhere near him. Imagine if the FBI had been able to help earlier. Maybe we’d have a suspect by now. There’s no telling what effect the corruption of the Suffolk County justice system had on this case.download (54)L.L.: There’s also the mystery of Dr. Peter Hackett, and his involvement in Shannan’s disappearance. According to the investigation, Shannan knocked in his beach cottage door demanding help. He denies this. But then he’s also called her mother offering condolences. It seems he’s hiding something. He’s since moved from Long Island and is living in Florida. It seems to me that the authorities would have their guy if bodies stopped piling up on Oak Beach now that he’s not there. But perhaps it’s not that simple?

Bob Kolker:  The police never seemed to take Hackett serious as a suspect, but he certainly seems to be at the center of the events at Oak Beach on the night of Shannan Gilbert’s disappearance. I have an exclusive interview with Hackett in LOST GIRLS, and you can see in our conversation how he seems to dissemble even when asked the simplest, most verifiable questions. I am convinced that Hackett and other neighbors at Oak Beach are hiding something important about what happened to Shannan that night. I think we’d have much to learn from what they know.

As for the overall serial killer case, I’m as astonished as anyone that the police don’t have stronger leads, though that may well be because no one took these women’s disappearances seriously when they first vanished. I’m concerned that this might be a case that’s resolved five or ten or fifteen years later after someone confesses. That seems to happen a lot in serial killer cases. But it’s terrible that the perpetrator is still out there. I hope for an arrest as soon as possible. And I also hope for a greater understanding of what made these women so vulnerable to a predator. Their case is still very much alive, and readers can keep that in mind as they sift through all the clues themselves in LOST GIRLS.

L.L.: I could ask questions all day about the case, but I want to know more about your next book, HIDDEN VALLEY ROAD about a mid-century family who has a virulent string of schizophrenia in their family. How did you stumble across this find and what message do you hope to impart?

Bob Kolker: I’ve been very privileged to be interviewing a large family about everything they went through as mental illness tore through their lives at a moment when even less was known about mental illness than is known now. This family’s case was significant enough to be studied by NIH, but no one has told their story before. Along the way, I’ll also be telling the broader story of science’s search for the causes of schizophrenia. I hope this book does a little of what LOST GIRLS did, which is to offer readers a pathway into a world not quite like their own.

L.L.: What’s obsessing you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.

Bob Kolker:  My family just adopted a puppy. We did it kind of on impulse, which is very unlike us. None of us have had a dog before, either, so we’re freaking out and delighted all at the same time (shhh, it’s nap time).   On the literary side, I’ve loved Megan Abbott’s YOU WILL KNOW ME and Adam Sternbergh’s THE BLINDS.

L.L.: Bob, it’s been a pleasure. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? What you had for breakfast, what’s on your wish list this holiday season, your favorite book, or something else?

Bob Kolker: Once I stop researching my current book, I can’t wait to read KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON by David Grann.

 

For more information about the book, to connect with Bob via social media, or to purchase a copy of LOST GIRLS, please see:

KolkerAuthorPhoto.jpgABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Kolker is the New York Times bestselling author of Lost Girls, named one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books and one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Top Ten Books of 2013. As a journalist, his work has appeared in New York magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, GQ, Oprah, and Men’s Journal. He is a National Magazine Award finalist and a recipient of the Harry Frank Guggenheim 2011 Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, here:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of R. Kolker and used with permission. PEOPLE magazine image retrieved from author’s website, girls in case retrieved from Boston Globe books in a row from Amazon, ‘reading is my superpower’ from L.Lindsay’s personal archives, all on 11.18.17] 

 

Writers on Wednesdays: How five women intersect in this gorgeously told debut, Ella Joy Olsen talks about being inspired by her hundred-year old bungalow in ROOT, PETAL, THORN, the permanence of place, family lore, & how reading is definitely a perk to being an author

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By Leslie Lindsay 

What an amazing read! Five fascinating women. The same historic home. One hundred years. Interconnected stories of love, courage, and heartbreak. root, petal, thorn COMP

When I first read this description of ROOT, PETAL, THORN (Kensington Publishing, August 30, 2016), I fell in love.  The first home my husband and I owned was a two-story stucco built in 1920. The front was flanked with a charming three-season porch, a maple tree, oodles of peonies, hydrangeas, and more charm inside: wood floors throughout, fireplace, claw foot tub, and small built-ins. I often wondered what families had inhabited the house before us. Obviously, we knew who we purchased from: a childless artist couple, their impressive art lining the plaster walls. Once, we met a little girl dressed up as a fairy princess on Halloween, who rang our doorbell and boldly told us, “I was born at this house.” And we knew who built the house: a minister and his family. Apparently, it was on the grounds of the church, the church long gone, ironically.

And then ROOT, PETAL, THORN came along. Immediately, I knew I had to read it. Ella Joy Olsen writes beautifully, tracing the lives of Emmeline, Cora, Bitsy, Lainey, Eris, and Ivy through tumultuous times, from two World Wars (the first inhabitant of the house is Emmeline, 1913), the Great Depression, Korean war, Vietnam war, and ‘present-day.’ Set in Salt Lake City, Utah, ROOT, PETAL, THORN is different than the history of my Northfield, Minnesota home, but ultimately it’s about the permanence of place and the impermanence of people.

So grab your coffee, or bubbly late-summer beverage and join me with Ella Joy Olsen as she chats about her inspiration and the story behind ROOT, PETAL, THORN. 

Leslie Lindsay:  Stephen King tells us its bad form to ask a writer what inspired them to write a particular story; that it’s akin to asking what you ate for dinner last night or where your children were conceived. But I’m going to do it, anyway. What were your inspirations behind ROOT, PETAL, THORN? And feel free to tell us what you had for dinner, too.

Ella Joy Olsen: I actually love this question because you could say ROOT, PETAL, THORN is the book of my heart. I think most authors would agree the first book written lingers in the author’s mind the longest. That doesn’t mean it will be their best book (or even the first published) but it’s the one dreamed about well before the nitty-gritty process of putting words on paper. And so it was with me.

My inspiration came from two places. First, my home: I live in a hundred-year-old bungalow very similar to the one in the story. My husband and I have spent years remodeling, fixing things, making it ours, but as we worked we found crazy things: a trapdoor at the bottom of a closet leading to a tiny dirt-floor enclosure (where we discovered a single button-down shoe). We think it was the laundry chute that was boarded up when the basement was remodeled, but who knows?  There were other odd discoveries, all of which I won’t list here, but many found their way into the book. I don’t know who left these items (or improvements) behind, or why, but I love to imagine.

The second inspiration: My across-the-street neighbor, George. He lived on my street for fifty years helping the neighborhood evolve, watching his children grow. He went from young man, to old man, to gone – all in the same house. When he died, I was newish to the neighborhood and had my own young children. I couldn’t imagine the passage of so much time under one roof. Now I’ve lived nearly twenty years in my home. I figured it was time to tell the story.george

Regarding dinner, thanks for asking (giggle). Last night I grilled pizza and my husband and I shared a bottle of wine. Two of the three kids were home, which made it delightful!

L.L.: ROOT, PETAL, THORN is told from the perspective of five different women, their stories bound by a common ground: the house. But there’s more, too. It’s about being a woman in uncertain times, about history, and the bittersweet passage of time (we’ll get to that later), but I’m curious to know if there was a particular character who ‘revealed’ herself to you first? One you felt a particular kinship with, and if there was one that provided more of a challenge for you?

Ella Joy Olsen: For anyone who has already read the book this answer will be a surprise. Most readers think the modern day character, Ivy, is based on me. She’s the one researching and imaging the other women, after all. But she was actually a late addition. I’d written all of the other stories (in rough form) and handed them to a couple of beta readers who said they weren’t sure what the book was supposed to be – A short story compilation? A disjointed novel? I knew I needed a character to entwine the stories into a cohesive narrative. So I created Ivy (and now you know the meaning behind her twisty name). Once I wrote her, I realized how closely her story mirrored many of my own experiences, but not until she was fully written.

Emmeline came to me first. Probably because I’m such a fan of historical fiction and I love the history of my hometown. My great-grandma wrote several essays detailing events in her life. They are a treasure trove of family lore. I incorporated many details from her experiences into Emmeline’s story.  Lainey was the hardest (more on that later).

L.L.: The house on Downington Avenue stands sentry to a world spanning 1913 through ‘present-day,’ roughly one-hundred years. It covers a lot of ground (the house and the story). But what I’m really getting at is the permanence of place and the impermanence of people; that structure stays, but people go. Can you talk to that, please? ry

Ella Joy Olsen: I love that you asked about this! Permanence of place and impermanence of people is at the heart of ROOT, PETAL, THORN. It is the very nature of home for all of us. Think about the time spent in one comfortable spot, the only place you can truly let it all hang out. Think about the money and careful detail incorporated into remodeling, painting, decorating – an expression of self. In the novel, the house on Downington Avenue is an anchor and an oasis for each of the women. But like the characters in the novel, no matter how much we adore our homes – at some point, for one reason or another – eventually we all must move on.

I want to add a few more thoughts (slightly off topic) in response to this question. Like many, I’m crazy about the typical historical sites like the Acropolis or the Empire State Building, places with a traceable past. But more often, I find myself considering the garret where we stayed in Paris rather than the Notre Dame cathedral. I like to ponder the less noteworthy places. Maybe it’s because I get to imagine the history of those locations rather than reading the facts. I seek out places or things that give me only a tiny glimpse of the past – forgotten barns surrounded by weeds, amusement parks which had their heyday decades -261cc9cc7fac1ae3earlier, historic houses with mismatched additions and rusted clothes lines, a crumbling grand hotel on the corner of a busy intersection. Who created these places? How did they evolve into their current state? What were the stories of the people who frequented them?

L.L.: And so, the passage of time. I tend to look back on memories, well…fondly. I still think of that old house in Minnesota and wonder who is living there now, and our very early beginnings as husband and wife. But there were hard times there, too. We were miles away from family, from the life we knew in Missouri, and I felt like my work at the time wasn’t my true calling. Are you the type of person who looks back on your life, or do you look forward to things with giddy anticipation, and does it really matter?

Ella Joy Olsen: Again a very telling question. Leslie, you’re super intuitive because this is currently a hot button at my house. My impulses are in opposition to each other on this point. I anticipate grieving over my college-bound son’s empty room (looking back) so much that on several occasions I’ve shopped for office furniture to fill the void (desperately looking forward). My husband insists I’m hiding my heartbreak with an unnecessary purchase, which is true. So I won’t turn my son’s room into my office because I ache for him to come home, but still, his echoing room…how can I bear it?

On that same point, I’ve already informed my husband we’re moving from my beloved bungalow (inspiration for Root, Petal, Thorn) just as soon as all the kids are in college. It would seem I lack sentimentality based on these hasty retreats, when I’m actually overwhelmed by it. So to answer your question, I must look forward with giddy anticipation to avoid being swallowed by the bittersweet passage of time.

L.L.: But part of my life wasn’t always so rosy. My mother, like your character, Lainey suffered from a myriad of mental health issues, among them, bipolar disorder. I have to applaud your accurate portrayal and sensitivity to this stigma. I can only imagine what it must have been like in the 1960s, when the character of Lainey inhabited the house. Can you share your research and why you chose this particular issue to highlight?

Ella Joy Olsen: Lainey was the last of the historic characters I explored. I could see her but I didn’t know her story. I’d already written characters intensely affected by world events and I wanted to write a character whose life was more affected by personal circumstance. Originally, Lainey was in an abusive relationship but I found I was spending too much time on her husband. I needed something different. Personally, I’ve had several bouts of depression and found an invisible illness so much more difficult to deal with than one where you can point to a wound and say, “See? This is why I feel yucky.” Through Lainey, I wanted to express the double edged sword of mental illness.

Regarding research, I read several non-fiction accounts, but most importantly, my sister-in-law suffers from bipolar and I’ve seen the effects on her life. She has a very supportive relationship with her daughter and she was nice enough to talk with me about some of the emotions, medications, and trials she’s experienced throughout her life. Thanks Linda!

L.L.: Still, ROOT, PETAL, THORN is about grief and the bittersweet connection to people, place, and time. Ivy is dealing with the recent accidental death of her husband, Eris is fraught with sending her son off to war, and Emmeline can’t decide who to marry, or why to marry…was this your intention all along, to create a sort of vignette of grief?

Ella Joy Olsen: I would say it wasn’t my original intention to write a vignette of grief, but I firmly believe in the sentiment expressed in the novel – the one Ivy uses to help her move beyond the death of her husband – that “everyone has a little sad in their story.” People seek out different reassurances when life throws lemons. Many turn to a higher power to 635898753504476015-1619945331_grief-angelexplain the unfair things. I started writing this novel a couple of years after my sister died (she was overcome by carbon monoxide in a freak boating accident). Writing the stories of these five women was, in retrospect, part of my grieving process. Originally, I simply wanted to challenge myself to write a book – but ROOT, PETAL, THORN is what emerged.

My sister’s death is still a turning point in my life (and in the lives of my family), but over the years I’ve come to realize there are an awful lot of people out there, going about their business, harboring a secret grief. So, yes, there is a little sad in every story. Learning this certain truth made me a more empathetic person. Understanding it confirmed that despite heartache, joy returns and life is worth living.

L.L.: Switching gears a bit, what’s keeping you awake lately? What has your attention?

Ella Joy Olsen: Launching ROOT, PETAL, THORN has taken most of my attention and has at times kept me awake – which is good, because as I mentioned, my oldest moved away for college in the middle of August. For the first time in eighteen years he’s not shuffling up the stairs for breakfast before school. His absence would kill me (or keep me continually awake) if I thought on it for too long, so I’m forcing attention on book launch details! And there are a bunch of details.

L.L.: What are your must-read fall books?

Ella Joy Olsen: One of the best parts of being an author is mingling in a community of other authors. They understand the journey and are so generous with their help and encouragement! I have many new favorite authors (and friends)! I try to read several of their books each month so I can support my “co-workers” and so I can recommend their books widely. Truly, this is a huge perk of my job! There are tons of debuts I’m excited about but I don’t want to leave anyone out, so I’ll mention a couple of books that have been sitting on my nightstand that I fully intend to finish before Christmas: DEAD WAKE by Erik Larson and FURIOUSLY HAPPY by Jenny Lawson.

L.L.: What questions should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Ella Joy Olsen: People always ask me if I’m writing another book. I’m in the thick of it, so I’ll reveal. The title is Where the Sweet Bird Sings and it will publish about this time next year. It’s a companion (not a sequel) to ROOT, PETAL, THORN and is told by Emmeline’s great-granddaughter. download (11)

Here’s the teaser: Though she has a loving husband, Emma Hazelton is adrift, struggling to rebuild her life after a tragedy. But one day, a simple question and an old black-and-white photograph prompt her to untangle the branches of her family tree, where she discovers a legacy of secrets. What connects us to one another? Is it shared history? Is it ancestry?  Or is it love?

L.L.: Ella, it’s been a joy connecting with you and sharing ROOT, PETAL, THORN. I just loved it!

Ella Joy Olsen: Leslie, thank you so much for talking to me about my book. I love your interviews and feel honored to be among the fantastic authors you’ve featured!

For more information, or to connect with Ella on social media, please see:

biophoto1.3.jpgAbout the Author: Ella Joy Olsen was born, raised, and currently resides in Salt Lake City, Utah – a charming town tucked against the massive Rocky Mountains. Most at home in the world of the written word, Ella spent nearly a decade on the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library System (and four decades browsing the stacks). She is the mom of three kids ranging from pre-teen to edge-of-the-nest teen, the mama of two dogs, and the wife of one patient husband.

Though she’s crazy about words, Ella is also practical, so she graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in Finance. After years spent typing boring stuff, Ella eagerly gave up her corner cubicle and started writing fiction. She has also lived in Seattle, Washington & Savannah, Georgia.

She is a member of Tall Poppy Writers and Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association.

ROOT, PETAL, THORN (September 2016, Kensington) is her debut novel. And coming in September 2017-WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.  [Special thanks to Kensington Press. Author and cover image provided by the author and used with permission, as well as the image of neighbor George and rose bush(es). Grieving angel retrieved from, mossy tree from, Alabama’s Shelby Hotel from, all on 7.20.16].