The Stranger Beside Her


Some books you read because you’re interested in them. Some books you read because your bookclub prescribes them. And some books you read because both elements happily collide.

That was the case with crime writer Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, the multimillion-copy-selling book about serial killer Ted Bundy.

Truth be told, my knowledge of Bundy was limited—I wasn’t even certain on which continent he committed his crimes—so I embarked on The Stranger Beside Me with a relatively blank and open mind.

The Stranger Beside Me has an eerily unique perspective: author Rule, a cop turned crime writer, used to volunteer alongside Bundy at a suicide prevention line. Despite nearly two decades’ age difference, the two were firm friends—and friends long before Bundy became infamous. Rule had actually obtained a book contract to write about the mysterious serial killer plaguing her hometown who was, then unbeknownst to her, her friend Bundy.

The book sees Rule grapple with her dual roles as objective writer and subjective friend as she tries to determine if the person she knows could be capable of such heinous crimes. Crimes that involved—it was later determined—using guises of broken limbs to lure unsuspecting women into his car so he could rape, strangle, and brutally bash them. Crimes that often involved the victims’ bodies not being found for a very long time—if at all.

Charismatic and apparently caring, Bundy would walk Rule to her car at the end of her helpline shift and urge her to be careful as she headed home. In contrast, her detective friends would joke that they’d call 911 if she got mugged on her way out of the police station she’d visited for a story in the middle of the night.

And so goes Rule’s and Bundy’s relationship and Rule’s book: a nuanced insight into Bundy’s capacity to be both personable and a psychopath, and a reminder that all of us are capable of both great good and great evil.

The crimes detailed in The Stranger Beside Me are shocking and continue to stay with me—including one incident I won’t spoil but that suffice to say makes me afraid to go to the bathroom in the dark in the middle of the night.

And so they should be—Bundy’s crimes shouldn’t be sensationalised or excused.

But Rule also includes a solid amount of levity to give readers brief reprieves from the terrifying crimes. One year, for instance, Rule sent Bundy two birthday cards because, as she notes, Hallmark doesn’t issue cards that say both ‘happy birthday’ and ‘happy arraignment’.

And after Bundy escaped from incarceration just after one of his lawyers finished making arguments for why the death penalty should be off the table for Bundy, that lawyer wryly commented: ‘That’s the poorest show of faith in this argument that I’ve seen yet.’

Still, Rule is sensitive to Bundy’s victims and their families—is conscious that the flip side to his sensational, fascinating crimes are people and families whose lives have been irreparably shattered.

As she writes: ‘Because Ted murdered so many, many women, he did more than rob them of their lives. He robbed them of their specialness too. It is too easy, and too expedient, to present them as a list of names … All those bright, pretty, beloved young women became, of necessity, “Bundy victims”. And only Ted stayed in the spotlight.’

Bundy at one stage refers to himself as having a ‘disposition made of duck feathers’—indeed, the thing that’s striking about Bundy is his Teflon-like characteristics. If this book showed me anything, it’s that it’s astonishing just how little evidence police truly had on him and how few charges actually stuck.

Likewise, that Bundy had an astonishingly misplaced confidence in his own legal knowledge. He had just two years of law school under his belt, but often tried self-representing and, as a minimum, instructing lawyers on what and how they should argue his case. He fired so many lawyers during the various legal proceedings I found it difficult to keep up with who was who.

But when he expressed his frustration at his ‘inept’ representation, the judge commented mildly that all the lawyers had passed law school and the bar exam and that submitting to his instructions might be akin to submitting to surgery at the hands of someone who had just a year and a half of medical school study to their name.

Fortunately, some (however small) good came from Bundy’s crimes, not least the establishment of Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VI-CAP), a centralised database that ensures law enforcement professionals share information and serial killers like Bundy (and the Golden State Killer I’ve written about previously) aren’t so easily able to operate in anonymity through isolation.

The book’s blurb states that Rule is the world’s number one crime writer, however such a thing is determined. While I can’t confess to have read any of her other books, of which there appear to be many, and while I think her unique relationship to Bundy is what sets this book apart from similar biographies or crime books, I will attest to its veracity: If there’s one Bundy book worth reading, it’s Rule’s.

What Is It? Genre Part II

Hopefully you enjoyed What Is It? Genre Part I, it’s now time to delve a little deeper.

Let’s take a look at the differences between: biography, autobiography and memoir? Often confusing, are they all the same?

A biography is the life story of a person written by someone else.

An autobiography is the life story of a person written by themselves.

A memoir is a collection of memories from a person’s life, told in the first person. It’s different from an autobiography, because it does not tell the entire life story.

Now that we’ve got that straight, what is the difference between an authorised or unauthorised biography?  An authorised biography is a biography written about a person with the subject or family’s permission.

An unauthorised biography is just that.  A biography that has no approval from the subject, which naturally means the subject has not contributed information or personal material to the biography.  A well known unauthorised biography is Oprah: A Biography by Kitty Kelley.

Just when you thought that was the end, I bring you fictional autobiography.  Essentially, it’s when an author creates a fictional character and writes a book as if it were a first person autobiography.  Sound confusing? A popular example of a fictional autobiography is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This also brings us to the controversy of autobiographical fiction.  This is when an author will write a book and claim it is their autobiography, although it contains falsehoods and may not be true at all.  A great example of this is A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, originally sold as a memoir but later found to contain much fiction.

Many readers will suspend disbelief in order to enjoy a good fantasy or fairytale, but if an autobiography is found to contain false claims or fiction, is it any less enjoyable?  I like to know what I’m reading beforehand and resent it if I find out later that a book was not all I thought it was.  What about you?

Let’s look at a few more genres before I close off this What Is It? article on genre.

The Hunter by Julia Leigh is an example of Tasmanian gothic literature

Gothic literature is very popular and includes such novels as Dracula by Bram Stoker and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  Gothic novels contain some of the following elements: horror, secrets, romance, madness, death, ghosts, supernatural and gothic architecture including haunted houses and castles.  Characters in a gothic novel will often include: women in distress, tyrannical males, maniacs, heroes, magicians, angels, ghosts and much more.

Gothic horror or gothic literature is a great genre, but what about Tasmanian gothic literature?  Yes, you read right, there are a number of novels now classified as Tasmanian gothic literature and if this tickles your fancy, you may want to check some of them out: The Roving Party by Rohan WilsonThe Hunter by Julia Leigh and Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan.

Whatever your reading tastes may be, you are bound to enjoy some genres more than others and at some point in your reading life, continue to read from your favourites.  Just remember to keep exploring and venturing into new reading territories because you never know what you’ll find.

Review – Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett

9780060572150After reading Ann Patchett’s This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage I had to go back and read this book. Firstly because I learnt Ann writes non fiction just as beautifully as she does her fiction and secondly she talks in the book about a controversy surrounding Truth & Beauty.

In 2006, Clemson University assigned Truth & Beauty to the freshman class and Ann was invited to give the Convocation Address. However one parent deemed the book inappropriate, the media got involved and mass ignorance ensued. Ann details the events in ‘“The Love Between the Two Women Is Not Normal”’ in her frank and forthright style, her humour keeping you from boiling with outrage. After reading the book the whole incident seems even more ridiculous and also I sense more hurtful that Ann let on in her piece.

Truth & Beauty is the story of Ann’s friendship with Lucy Grealy. Lucy had a highly aggressive form of cancer when she was a child which left her with a badly disfigured jaw. Lucy had numerous operations throughout her life to try and correct and/or alleviate her disfigurement.

Lucy’s whole life was (rightly and wrongly) dominated by her face. It defined how people treated her and it defined how she saw herself. It was a part of who she was and shaped her as a person, good and bad. It was also a burden that became impossible for her to bear but her friends were always there to help pull her through.

Ann met Lucy at college but they became friends when they both attended the Iowa Writers Workshop together. Their lives and careers became entwined from that day forward. Ann writes about her friendship with Lucy warts and all. The good times and the bad. The times when Lucy was on top of the world and vice versa. How they supported each other through thick and thin and all the difficulties any friendship faces along the way.

Ann tells the story of her friendship with Lucy with clarity and emotion, with honesty and understanding. Heart breaking and gut wrenching. Truth and beauty. Ann Patchett at her best.

Buy the book here…

Scandalands (maybe) No 1 – but was it worth it?

The low-down on “Vile Kyle” has proved to be good reading material, reports  His new biography, with its wonderfully pun-y title of Scandalands, has apparently hit the top of the non-fiction bestsellers’ list after just a week on the shelves.

Written by his former producer Bruno Bouchet, the book reportedly covers “everything from his wild sex parties to low self-esteem” and has sold over two thousand copies since its release on October 23rd, “making it No.1 on the Australian non-fiction list.”

I‘m a bit curious as to what bestseller’s list they are talking about as the Neilsen Bookscan has the recently released Guinness Book of Records in the no 1 spot and the article doesn’t mention what list they are referring too. The only quote from the bookselling end is an unnamed publishing source stating, “It’s a really good result” which could be a quote about anything from Scandalands‘s bestseller status to getting through reading it without hurling it at a wall.

(I’m also unconvinced that anything with a Sandilands stamp of approval fits in the category of non-fiction, but you could make the same argument for most authorised biographies, and plenty of the non-authorised ones too.)

The biography of the self-described “most hated man in Australia” (even when it comes to coming last, it appears that Kyle Sandilands thinks he has to come first) sold 2,518 copies since it was released, which was reportedly enough to put him in at number one.

Which seems to be a surprisingly reasonable number for a bestseller. So, if you fancy being a bestselling author, does this mean that all you have to do is pen a tell-all memoir guaranteed to peeve everyone you’ve ever met, so you can afford a solid-gold yacht from the advance? All the better to live on before the book comes out, when you’ll be able to sail away from your former friends.

Sadly, almost definitely not. Don’t pick up your pen and get scribbling salaciously ala Sandialands because, as a recent piece in Crikey  explains, you’ll be lucky to cover the cost of the lawyer’s fees with your advance.

Most fiction authors receive $1000 or $2000 in advance for their books if published by smaller publishers, and then 8-10% of physical book sales after you have “earned out” that advance. …

“There are some [Australian] authors that get over a million dollars,” Ben Ball, publisher at Penguin Australia, told Crikey. ”If you look at the top-selling authors from last year in this country — Matthew Reilly, Di Morrissey — they would get very healthy advances.”

But for the less famous, that sum is likely to be considerably smaller. Non-fiction books normally gain a bigger advance than fiction , but it’s still not in the private yacht territory. Fiona Inglis, managing director of literary agency Curtis Brown, explains in the same Crikey article: “I don’t think any publisher would pay a million bucks unless someone had sales of 250,00 copies every time they put pen to paper,” she said, calling a $100,000 advance “very healthy” for well-known Aussie writers.

Perhaps losing friends and alienating your way to the top of the bestsellers’ list isn’t worth the money your will get. Unless, like Kyle, you done it already.

Mid-month round-up – the larger than life edition

This month I have mainly been reading the biographies of people who have become legends in their own lifetime, through talent, accident or sheer bloody-minded willpower.

Larger than life Shatner Rules by William Shatner

William Shatner is not a man for false – or indeed any – modesty. In fact, William Shatner isn’t a man at all but is, in many ways, the biggest character Bill has ever played. This is not a biography of Bill but the story of how he became William Shatner, a character larger than life and twenty times as confident.

Shatner Rules is his guide to becoming William Shatner, or at least taking on enough of the lessons he has learned to become usefully Shatneresque when you’re in need of a bit of a boost. It’s filled with comedy and glorious hyperbole; its blurb states it will give you “a look at the man, the myth, and the magic that is William Shatner”. It could have been tedious but Shatner carries it off with enough self-depreciation to stay engaging and enjoys poking fun at his over-the-top image (along with his former co-stars, Facebook and most of Canada). The book isn’t a biography but a guide, filled with lessons learned and “rules” to apply to pick up a touch of Shatner’s positivity and magnetism.

It certainly worked in my case. I bought the book as I was heading in for day surgery and needed something entertaining enough to distract from the pain but light enough to be readable when I was off my head on leftover anesthetic. Shatner Rules did the job perfectly and had the bonus effect of making friends with every single person I met that day in the hospital as they all stopped to ask if it was good. Doctors, nurses, co-patients and some bloke on the train – it appears that interest in Shatner is the great uniter.

Look, I’m not saying you could definitely use this book to make friends and attract people while feeling less than stellar but who couldn’t do with a touch of the Shatneresque occasionally?

And twice as loud Life by Keith Richards

The blurb has a scrawl from Keith, written in red: “This is the life. Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten anything.”

It might seem like an unbelievable boast from a man renowned for embodying all the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle. Denis Leary once quipped, “Keith Richards says that kids should not do drugs. Keith, we can’t do any more drugs because you already did them all, alright? There’s none left! We have to wait ’til you die and smoke your ashes!”

And while Keith’s biography backs up that point, with plenty of hair-raising drug busts and close shaves, his memory is as clear and complex as one of his solos. It’s not a love of drugs and hazy excess that comes through – it’s the love of music and the freedom to play it as he chooses. Keith chronicles his love affair with music in all the forms it took; from listening obsessively to the radio as a teenager to slumming it in a squat with struggling start-up band to the Stones and his solo work. Keith’s diaries and letters occasionally do the leg-work in remembering, as do numerous asides from partners in crime over the years, but it’s mainly Keith’s unique voice taking you though his life as he experienced it. And what a life it is.

A legend in the making –  The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

‘I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.’

This one is a bit of a cheat but Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of The Wind is, while not an actual biography, a fictional take on writing up the biography of a legend, according to the author, Patrick Rothfuss.

“In some ways it’s the simplest story possible: it’s the story of a man’s life. It’s the myth of the Hero seen from backstage. It’s about the exploration and revelation of a world, but it’s also about Kvothe’s desire to uncover the truth hidden underneath the stories in his world. The story is a lot of things, I guess. As you can tell, I’m not very good at describing it. I always tell people, “If I could sum it up in 50 words, I wouldn’t have needed to write a whole novel about it.””

I’m glad he did, and even better that he plans a series of novels as Rothfuss is an excellent story-teller. The Name of The Wind is the first book in a trilogy, the Kingkiller Chronicles, and an excellent coming of age story in the fantasy writers such as Robin Hobb.