Interview with Stephanie Kane

Stephanie Kane tells the true story of the murder of her mother-in-law, Betty Frye, who was beaten to death in her garage by her husband. We hope you enjoy this interview as much as we did and check out her newest book release, True Crime Redux.

TSM: Tell us about your newly released book, True Crime Redux.

SK: True Crime Redux is about a murder I was involved in as a college sophomore. My mother-in-law, Betty Frye, was beaten to death in her garage two weeks before I was going to marry her son. I was one of the last people to speak to Betty that morning and also one of the first to see her killer a few hours later before her body was discovered. So, you know, I didn’t start writing till about 20 years later, but really, that day made me a writer.

TSM: How has your former work as a criminal defense attorney influenced your writing?

SK: It helped me understand the dynamics of a trial, the defensive playbook, and some of the prosecution’s strategies because I became a witness in the case. I was sort of in the crazy hell of knowing what was happening but being constrained by the discipline of being a witness, which means you’re not an advocate. You’re just there to tell the truth to the fullest extent. It is kind of a crazy position of knowing what they were trying to do and my limitations, second-guessing questions, and second-guessing myself. I think most witnesses don’t go through that. But hold on knowing what’s coming at them and what they can and can’t do anyway, but to answer your question directly. The experience of practicing law has helped me as a writer in many ways because it’s an analytical discipline. You learn to research and question things. Suppose you have any experience in dealing with other human beings. In that case, you learn how to interview them and how to ferret out facts. So all those things help you write mysteries, and in this particular case, I personally participated in it. 

TSM: What were the most challenging obstacles you faced during the writing process?

SK: In terms of this particular book, True Crime Redux is the eighth book that I’ve written, so I had much experience understanding dramatic structure, character arcs, etc. But because I was so close to it, it posed certain unique challenges, such as what to put in, what to leave out, what was personal to me, but what might not be something a reader had to be burdened with. So there are all those sorts of challenges. But the biggest challenge was finding the right format to write it in. The first book I wrote, which was published by Bantam in 2001, was called Quiet Time, a fictionalized version of the murder. And that was pure genre fiction. I wrote it that way because I didn’t have the facts at the time to write it as the true crime that True Crime Redux ended up being. So I didn’t get those facts until, in a strange twist of fate, the cold case into Betty’s murder was opened. That’s how I became a witness because I became a witness in the cold case. Once the cold case was over, I tried to write it as a true crime. After all, I finally had all the facts because I got the files from the 1973 murder in the cold case. I could interview witnesses myself and piece it together for my own purposes. So, I had a wealth of facts. And I first tried to write it as a traditional, true crime. And I took myself out of it and just wrote it as a straightforward crime. However, I never found a publisher because taking myself out of it took the real human interest out of the story. So, I had to go back and put myself back into it. I had never written in the first person or any memoir at all. So that was a challenge. I learned how to limit my voice and get down to the nitty gritty but, at the same time, not overdo it. I struggled with that. 

TSM: How long did your research take before you felt it was enough to be able to write?

SK: As a lawyer doing legal research, I learned that you research until you get to sort of Ground Zero. And Ground Zero is where you keep getting the same result. You know, you come at it from all these different directions. And you figure that you finally hit some rock bottom truth when everything comes down to the same thing. And so that’s not the same thing when you’re dealing with interviewing witnesses or other human beings because they all have different perceptions. So, when I was researching True Crime Redux, I started out with 1000s of pages of police reports, witness interviews, crime photos, audio tapes, transcripts of audio tapes, and transcripts of hearings, all of which when I wrote Quiet Time that I would have given my right arm for. I just had a ton of facts. But I still had questions, which were the sort of human questions: why and how. So, I flew to Arizona and interviewed the cop who had led the murder investigation in 1973 and interviewed him. He told me things that weren’t even on the record. He remembered the case very well. I also interviewed the prosecutor, the cold case cops, and family members. In this case, the killer was my father-in-law, who beat his wife to death on the eve of his sons and my wedding. We were married for nine years, so I had good access to some family members on both sides who filled in many blanks about the family history. I just kept going until I couldn’t think of any more questions.

I also consulted forensic experts because I wanted to understand statements made at the time of the crime. And so I got a fantastic forensic statement analyst named Wendell Rudacille, who reviewed my father-in-law’s statement that he made the day of the crime. And he had written a wonderful book about analyzing forensic statements for deception. And so I became conversant in many ancillary parts of this crime to pull it all together. The last person I interviewed was Howard Morton, who had founded an advocacy group for cold case victims and their families. He filled me in on the whole experience of cold cases and what it means to the survivors, and that, for my own personal purposes, really started pulling many things together. So, the rock bottom for me in researching this book, in this case, was understanding where I fit into this case. I knew I had gone as far as I needed to go to tell the story as honestly and fairly as possible.

In addition to that, I am a writer and somewhat participated in the story of the crime. I bent over backward to be as hard on myself as I was on any of the other participants. Because it’s a dicey thing when you’re writing a book about some people who are still alive, and it’s a violent crime. And I don’t think of it in terms of blame. Still, accountability is widespread, and if you’re going to write that kind of a book, it’s very important for your own integrity as a writer and for your readers and for the integrity of the book to be honest about your involvement in it, however flattering or unflattering that might be. And that’s what I tried to do.

TSM: Opposite to the previous question, what were the most enjoyable moments during the writing process?

Since I’d never written in the first person, I was amazed at how much easier it was to tell the story in the first person voice. Attempting to tell it in the third person didn’t work; it was like wearing a heavy overcoat through the whole process. Once I allowed myself to tell it in the first person, which flowed in a way that had never flown before. And I resisted that because I didn’t want the story to be about me, but it was really important to tell it in my voice.

TSM: Is there any advice you would like to tell aspiring authors you wished you knew when you started as a writer?

SK: This isn’t something I wish I’d known, but I have two counterintuitive pieces of advice. I don’t see this often when people are asked this question, but I truly believe this. The first thing is that you have to write for yourself. The second thing is that you need to invest more in the process of writing than in the result, like writing a best seller or in your identity as a writer. Because, first of all, the market is fickle. You know, what’s hot today won’t be tomorrow. And what works for one writer may not work for you. But if you invest in writing the best book, each book will be better every time. And if you have, it really doesn’t get better than that. So my advice again is to write for yourself and invest in the process.

TSM: Are there any upcoming projects you’re excited to work on?

SK: Well, having told the story that made me want to write in the first place, I’m returning to the beginning, trying to learn and experiment with the short story form. One of the influences on me growing up was short stories. I grew up with Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Hour and read a ton of science fiction. And that short form imbued me with a sense of dramatic structure and the need to end with a bang. So when I say I’m going back to the beginning, I’m excited about trying to learn and experiment with the short story form. I’m going to stick to the crime genre. But short stories are a completely different animal from novels, and I like the learning curve.

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