While the City Slept will almost certainly be one of the best books I'll read this year. But I worked with its author, Eli Sanders, for almost ten years at The Stranger, and so there's too much of a conflict of interest for me to review it. (We published Martin McClellan's great review of the book yesterday; you should read it.) Instead, I met with Eli on Saturday, January 23rd for an interview about the process of writing While the City Slept, the structure of the book, the benefits of taking your time to tell a story, and what Seattleites can do to fix our broken mental health care system. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.
I really like the book.
Which you know, it's always a little tense when somebody you know writes a book. But I very much enjoyed it. One of the fears that I have with articles that are expanded into book form is that there's not enough material to fill a book, or that it's going to feel like a padded-up version of the article. I know that's something that you were consciously aware of when you were going in to write it. It's structured like a book. It's not a blown-up version of the article, or the articles. It's full of additional information and told in a different way. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your thoughts on the transition from the article to a finished, published product.
I didn't want at all to do some sort of book-length version of the one article that people had read. I actually worry that people will hear about the book and think it is just a book-length version of that article.
So that's not what this is and it wasn't my intent. I didn't know going in exactly what I would find and what I would create. The idea was to learn a lot more about the paths of all three of the people whose lives intersected that night. Even after having written the piece about Jennifer's testimony and even having written a short feature in 2009 about Isaiah Kalebu's path in the many months before the crime, there was a lot that I didn't know.
I saw this as an opportunity to find out what I didn't know and also to do something that I had never gotten to do with crime writing before — even with this crime, which I had written a fair amount about. And that was really get into it at a length and over a period of time. I thought maybe I could do something that was more worthwhile. I felt with other stories that I've done in the past, particularly some of the very first stories I ever wrote in Seattle, which were just, like, police blotter items for the Seattle Times when I was just an intern and learning how to do this. It never felt satisfying with respect to crime writing, and I always felt like I just barely scratched the surface of what was going on and wasn't really providing much useful intensive insight.
I was curious before it came out what the classification of the book would be. On the advance reader copy, the publisher suggested to shelve it under “social sciences.” I was wondering if this is something you talked about with the publisher? I think the book's going wind up in the true crime section of most bookstores, so I was wondering how you felt about that.
I left that to them; I actually didn't even know what category they would put it in. We had a very brief conversation once. I knew that my editor was thinking about where to put it. I kind of personally liked that it was not easy to slot into one of those categories and say, "This is that thing that I've seen over and over again." I know it's not completely new, but it’s different relative to what is out there — the bulk of what's out there — when it comes to true crime.
I know you interviewed Ann Rule when you were at the Seattle Times, and she’s kind of a central figure in true crime, both nationally and locally. Do you have any thoughts on true crime as a genre?
I enjoyed meeting Ann Rule. I respect her body of work and what she did. Also, having sat with just one crime for years now as a writer, I respect the hell out of her ability to sit with multiple crimes over many years. That's not easy.
When I think about typical true crime writing — so leave Ann Rule aside, because I actually think she did try to move the bounds of the genre a bit. She certainly moved it in terms of whether a woman could write about crime — I think that there is true crime writing that exists really just to scare people. It presents a one-dimensional villain who appears out of nowhere and does something and disappears and by the end of the book is caught. The book leaves you with this kind of abstract fear that you have nothing to do with: this is going to happen to you sometime. There's obviously something exciting about experiencing that fear because people buy true crime books.
I may not know what the hell I'm talking about in terms of the motivation of true crime readers. I may be way over-simplifying what's drawing people to the genre, or to those types of books within the genre. Anyway, that is what I had in mind as what I didn't want to to do.
One of the things that sort of did put Ann Rule apart was that she did a lot more research than I think a lot of true crime writers do. You did a ton of research when you were writing the articles and you did even more research for the book. How much reading did you do? How much of the time writing the book was spent in research?
A huge amount of it was reading transcripts because it's a very long court transcript since the trial stretched over — well, the court proceeding stretched over two years because [Kalebu] was arrested in the fall of 2009 and the trial was not until the summer of 2011. There was a lot to read on that score, although I was present for a lot of the trial as well and had my personal memory of that.
Then there were a lot of court records that I had the time, once I was working on the book, to go back and dig through. There was a lot of reading court records as well. Then there was a lot of talking to people and a bit of traveling to St. Louis to meet Teresa's family and to see where she grew up. Then traveling around the Puget Sound area.
Did you encounter anything in the research that made you rethink your approach when you were writing about it in your article's perspective?
I certainly feel like the article that I wrote about Isaiah Kalebu's trajectory in August, September of 2009, I look back at that now and I wouldn't have taken that approach if I had known everything that I know now.
What specifically about the approach?
I think I didn't see a big enough picture. I do think that article identified some problems. It identified a theme that continues in this book, which is that there were cracks that he slipped through, but I don't think I saw the cracks very clearly in that article.
Also, I think I can explain it best this way: when I called Isaiah's half-sister, Deborah, to begin trying to talk to her for this story, our first conversation was her bringing up that article, which had a headline that was, "The Mind of Kalebu." She wasn't happy with me, and that was years after that article had run. She said, "How do you know the mind of Kalebu? You don't know anything."
She was right. Compared to what she knew, I didn't know anything. Compared to what I know now, I didn't know anything. I did not know the mind of Kalebu. I don't think I do now. This whole experience has made me even more aware that no one can really know, fully, another person's mind. I was aware of that before, but not quite as deeply. Her upset is also another indicator of what that article just couldn't do at the time and what I hope to do more with this book, which is provide a fuller portrait of his path and his life. Deborah, when she was willing to talk to me, has helped me paint the portrait.
In “The Bravest Woman in Seattle”, you don't name Teresa Butz's partner, which is pretty standard operating procedure. In the book you do. You've developed at this point a pretty long relationship with Jennifer Hopper. I was wondering if you could share what you're willing to share about the facets of privacy and dignity at play here? You handled them really masterfully and I think that's something that doesn't get a lot of attention because it's such a touchy issue. It’s something that a lot of journalists get wrong. Is there anything you think journalists can learn from this approach?
One of the key elements, really both for Deborah, since we were just talking about Deborah, and for Jennifer and for everyone who I talked to in this story — and for me — was time. I had so much more time than I've ever had to work on anything.
When you have the luxury of time, you can have an encounter like I had with Deborah where one day, the conversation isn't good. She's telling me something I need to hear about her anger. We can sit with that and then I can try to talk to her again in a week, or a month. Similarly with Jennifer, the ability for us to have an unhurried series of conversations about this over many years has really contributed to what you're saying is a very productive relationship and for me, unique. It doesn’t necessarily apply to other journalists. It's a hard thing to [tell other journalists to] take more time, because this business doesn't generally allow us to have it, but that has been one of the great helps to me.
With Jennifer and what you were calling that combination of privacy and dignity, she has really led the way on that. It's, again, been good to be able to just sit back and let her do that and not feel — when you're talking about advice to other people, I don't know, I don't love giving out advice, but I think errors in this realm get made when people are rushing or feeling such pressure to produce something that they do things that aren't respecting privacy.
Jennifer, you might remember, wrote a piece after the piece that I wrote about her testimony where she decided to come forward and reveal her name. She led the way on that and basically signaled when she was ready to have her name out there, very clearly. Then, in our conversations, I feel very fortunate and also quite in awe of her willingness to just be open, continually, over many years with me as I was trying to learn more about her life. We didn't have to sit there and talk about the crime because she had already talked about it and I had already written about it, so there wasn't a lot that we needed to discuss in terms of the particular details of that night. I was grateful for that, personally.
We spent a lot of time talking about Teresa and about Jennifer and about their relationship. It was a huge help to me in building the portraits of Jennifer and Teresa that I try to present in the book.
One of the more surprising aspect of the book to me was when you recount Teresa's experience with a DUI. I was wondering if you struggled with including that in the book or if it was something that you didn't have a problem with?
Do you mind if I ask why it was surprising?
No. I think maybe, there's this whole tendency not to speak ill of the dead. I think that within the context of a true crime book, there are very few authors — like Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song and a few others like that — who go so in-depth into people's backgrounds. I think that in a more traditional book like this there would have been, if it were the mass market paperback you’d find in a supermarket, the writer probably would have left the DUI out because it would have interfered with the narrative of…
Of a purely perfect...
Yeah. People like their victims to be innocent. The two words go together.
The reason I paused is because I was going to use the word “innocent” and I switched it to “perfect” because Teresa was innocent in terms of she didn't deserve this in the slightest. Her DUI has no connection to that.
Oh, no! You certainly don't make it seem like that.
Right, but she is not perfect. No one in this book is perfect and it's part of what I love about Teresa, and in talking to people, [it’s] what they loved about Teresa. She was a wonderfully, heart-on-her-sleeve, flaws-out-in-the-open human. It would have been wrong to sketch a portrait of her as an image of perfection. No one thought that, least of all Teresa.
But her great qualities were so great. There's a way in which you can also, I hope, see them more clearly when they're combined with the less perfect qualities that we all have. The imperfections provide a kind of relief, or a contrast, say, that allows you to see more clearly the wonderful warmth and energy and enthusiasm and perseverance and willingness to self-reflect and change as much as she could that Teresa had, that she carried with her.
No one in Teresa's life who I talked to tried to hide that she struggled at times with her drinking. No one saw that as an eternal condemnation or something like that. It was just Teresa. It was just a part of her. Her willingness to struggle with it and talk to people about it — when she met Jen, it was one of the first things that she brought up, the DUI. She brought it up to say, "That was a me that I didn't like as much and I'm working on being a better me."
I don't know. I felt like it was a part of who she was — and also in the DUI you see Teresa. She's wearing these two inch high-heeled boots that the officer remarks on. She's just been at R Place with some friends. She's driving from the center of Capitol Hill where she can have her really exciting gay life to where she was living at the time, which was Renton, which connects to the economic realities that she struggled with.
So, I included it because I thought it was a part of her and not to me an all-damning part of her. It was just illuminating in multiple ways, and a part of her stories that she didn't hide from other people and that other people didn't hide from me. I didn't go around and find this and then present it to other people. I had heard about it, so I went and looked to confirm it.
Also, people can't always place things chronologically in their memory. "It happened sometime. It was kind of before this. In this year maybe." I needed to get the record to figure out exactly when it happened. Then the record itself had details that were just so Teresa. She's sitting at a Denny's waiting for her friend to pick her up afterward.
I don't know. Maybe you can tell as I'm talking about this: I'm fond of her.
Yeah. You said, "What I love about Teresa,” which was telling, I think.
I see reasons to be fond of her in that interaction. I like her. She's not perfect. So what?
There’s a device you use throughout the book, a macro to micro effect that you use. In the opening of the book you start out with a wide-angle view of all of Seattle and then you slowly close in on the subject. In the opening of the book it's the aftermath of the crime, which almost feels to me as a reader like it's being viewed from the sky or like a tilt-shift photograph.
This happens through the book. You talk about the fault under Seattle at the opening of another chapter, and things like that. I got a sense of acclimation from it, as though you were preparing the reader for what you were about to talk about. It also opens the scope of the story and I think it exposes some randomness to the equation. I was wondering if you could talk about the decision to include this effect in the book and to return to it again and again.
As I was traveling around to see various places that were important in the chronology of this book, I was driving around the Puget Sound basin. I took in the landscape. I took in the geography and then I got more curious about some of the geological history. I guess I ended up in a conversation with it and tried to bring some of that into the work.
Yeah. It's a very Seattle-y book, and I mean that as a compliment, in that you get to talk about parts of the city that you don't see as often. Especially I think the gay and lesbian lifestyle – you know, going to R Place and other things like that. It was just before gay marriage was made legal, and all the changes that brought on. The whole book feels very much a portrait of a very particular place at very particular time.
If it's not too indulgent, just to even broaden that portrait, my hope is that it's also a portrait of a particular time in the sense of the wake of the financial crisis. The beginning of the Great Recession. The impacts of decisions that were made in that moment and also many years before that moment, and the areas where Isaiah and his family lived, grew as a family. I personally have not seen a lot of writing about those places and those aspects of the city.
Is Isaiah the only natural-born Seattleite in the book?
Of Jennifer, Teresa, and Isaiah?
He's the only one who was born here in Seattle. Jennifer was born outside of Santa Fe. Actually, in Santa Fe, or spent early years right outside of Santa Fe in a small town with a really wonderful name that I can't remember right now. Teresa was born and raised in St. Louis.
Right. Yeah. Which I think also helps to make the story even more of a Seattle story, when the native Seattleites are outnumbered.
Moving on, do you think in general that it's ever possible for a non-fiction writer to be too compassionate for the subject?
I'm sure it is.
Did you worry about that? You're not in the book — you’re not a character in the book, which is admirable. I very much appreciate it. You've been intertwined within these people’s lives for so long. You're a very thoughtful person so you must have at some point started considering your connection to the story.
I'm sure it's possible to be too compassionate. I hope that I've remained clear-eyed in this book while at the same time extending deserved compassion. There are other pitfalls that a writer can fall into. A writer can be too much of a hard-ass. You know what I mean? A writer can lack compassion. A writer can just be mean. A writer could not be open to hearing things that they should hear. I try to avoid as much as I can — and I'm human — pitfalls like that. I think this is a situation that deserves a compassionate view. It's a tragedy. Everyone in it is touched by some source of pain. I tried to hear that.
There’s been a recurring theme in your work. It's sort of culminating in this book where you talk about the way our public health system has failed the mentally ill. You wrote a very good story for The Stranger years ago about a man who was randomly killed by another man with a hatchet, which — what? You made a face.
Yeah. Earlier when I was saying that I've written about a lot of crimes in Seattle — it's just how my career has ended up unfolding. — beginning with very short police blotter stuff, then more recently the crime story that you're talking about. The face was because I include that piece in the number of pieces that I feel like I got to write something but I didn't get to write this. I dipped in, then I dipped out.
It’s something that you clearly spent a lot of time thinking about. I think one of the great parts of this book is that you do the full portrait of America’s failing mental health system that I feel like you've been nosing around for a long time and haven't had the time and resources to go into. I think readers are going to want to come away wanting to do something to fix the broken system.
You talk a little bit about this in the book, but are there any signs of change or of hope with this subject? Are there any politicians making a difference? If a reader reads your book and wants to do something, where should they direct their resources?
First of all, the challenges here in Washington state are just a microcosm of the challenges that exist all over the country. We're probably talking mostly to people who live here in Washington or here in Seattle, so I'll talk about what's going on in Washington. As I try to show in the book, this state — particularly in the wake of the Great Recession, but over many many years — has slashed and slashed our social safety net. That includes our court system and our public mental health system. Both of these systems remain underfunded. Though you were asking about reasons for optimism; some of that funding has begun to come back.
People in need of help are subject to the cyclical winds of our budget crises in the state: why should that be? It shouldn't be. If people want one larger-picture thing to do, it is to not stand back and accept cuts to essential programs at a time of financial crisis or panic.
More broadly, [we need] to reform our state's revenue structure so that it doesn't gyrate as wildly and give people excuses or false senses of urgency about cutting back on mental health funding, for example.
In terms of even more specific things, a lot of these decisions go back to the state, so elect state leaders who care about public services. Let your state leaders know when you feel that public services are in danger. Even saying that, I know that it sounds boring to a lot of ears. I worry that that's the case. Fight that sense of, "this is too complex or too big to get involved in."
People need to stand up for basic services for their neighbors and for themselves. That means basic health care and robust mental health care for people who don't have money to get that care independently, without state help. There are specific policies that can be changed — aws that could be tightened or enacted — but I really think that if people can be more focused on the tremendous harm that's done by cutting back on essential services, essential social goods, and the value of investing in prevention, that would do more good over the long term than any specific thing I could point to right now.
I try to show in the book how much we have spent as taxpayers to pay for the consequences of this one crime. Of course, the impacts of this crime are not calculable on a money ledger, but voters are constantly bombarded with messages that they should make decisions based on the money ledger, on their feelings about taxes and so on. Who's going to save them money?
So, all right. Here's a way to save taxpayers money. Invest in the front end on promoting healthier lives for everyone in our community and reduce on the back end the tremendous cost and harms associated with our failure to invest in prevention.
We just did that, by the way, in King County. We just approved Dow Constantine's Best Starts for Kids measure. All of the arguments that he made in that push we could be making at the state level and we should be making more at the state level. I wish that voters around the state would respond the way voters in King County responded to Best Starts for Kids.
The choice to put the description of the crime towards the end of the story I think was kind of interesting in that it could have resulted in a lurid tone, or the sense that the crime was the climax of the book. You avoided both those pitfalls. The original article was structured like that too, so was the book always structured that way? I was wondering if you could talk maybe about the original decision, and whether it automatically translated to the book?
The way the crime is described in the original story that you're mentioning and now in the book, is through Jennifer's voice. She told this story before I ever told it. Really she is still the one telling it. I think that there's something that feels right to me about that structure. I wanted to preserve that in this book-length narrative. In terms of where to place her description of what happened that night, my instinct would be that it would seem lurid to have that happen at the beginning.
To me, that was not what I was doing. This book is — I’m not focused on telling you more details of the crime than I've already shared. I'm not focused on telling more details than a reader needs to know to have a sense of the horror of the crime. What I'm focused on is trying to show what was lost and show people, as best I can, with all my limitations, who it was, who the people are that collided in that moment and what the precipitating factors may have been and what the enduring consequences have been. Hopefully there are things to learn in that — just from Jennifer's grace and ability to get to a place of forgiveness afterward. I think personally there's been a lot to learn in that for me.
While you working on the book, you were the interim news editor at The Stranger. Right? You were working as the news editor, even though that wasn’t your title.
Right. I was an associate editor doing the news editor's job and some other jobs.
Yesterday was your last day doing the news editor job. Starting next month you're going back to feature writing in a part-time position. You haven't published very much under your byline while you were working on this book. Are you excited to get back to writing? You've talked about the short-term writing and the long-term writing— are you a little nervous about getting back into short-term writing?
Not at the moment. I'm excited to do some shorter projects, very honestly. I'll also be continuing to do Blabbermouth, the week-in-review podcast that I've been doing for The Stranger, which is also fun. It's not writing, but talking.
I'm excited about writing again, period. It's a weird thing to say, “writing again,” because I have been working on this big piece of writing — but writing other things again. If it's shorter, that's okay with me.
I do think I will want to do longer work in the future. Maybe the near future. I'm drawn to it, but I miss the quick fix of the short story that gets out there and you get something from it. I was going to say, "We are such junkies for that," but I don't know. I realized in stepping away from it how addicting, in a way, that immediacy of the feedback in blogging or in weekly writing is. I really went through a kind of withdrawal when I wasn't doing that. So yeah, I'm ready for it.
Are you under pressure from your publisher to produce another book? You can blink three times if you're not allowed to talk about it.
I hope that people would be interested in me doing another book, but the bigger thing is whether I am.
I don't know what it will be yet, but I would like to. Yeah. I would like to work on another book.