Q&A With Caitlin Rother
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Q&A With Caitlin Rother
This week’s Q&A is with investigative reporter and New York Times Bestselling author of true crime. Caitlin has written and co-written over 14 books. Some of Caitlin’s titles are Death On Ocean Boulevard, Hunting Charles Manson, Secrets Lies And Shoe Laces, Lost Girls, Then No One Can Have Her, & coming soon Down To The Bone: A Missing Family’s Murder and The Elusive Quest For Justice. What’s also impressive is Caitlin has appeared 250 times on TV, radio, and podcasts as a true crime expert.
Q: So what drew you into writing true crime?
A: I started reading true crime stories in New York magazine when I was a young reporter, working in Western Massachusetts, and I also read crime novels. I joined a writing workshop and wrote a mystery novel, but after years of not being able to find a publisher, I decided to try a nonfiction crime book instead. Meanwhile, I’d been writing news-feature stories about murders and other human interest stories at The San Diego Union-Tribune, where I developed a specialty for a “bizarre deaths” beat, which ranged from cults, odd suicides, to organ donation and murder. That led me to cover the Kristin Rossum murder case, but more from an angle of governmental wrongdoing and negligence, as a side angle to the court reporter, who covered the legal aspects. Eventually, I took on those stories as well and covered the trial, which resulted in my first book, POISONED LOVE. I took six months off my job, unpaid, to write that book, and then I was hooked. It’s my bestselling book to date. I quit the news biz in 2006 to write my next book, then churned them out as fast as I could, about one a year. My body couldn’t keep up that pace, though, so I’ve had to slow down. Cases, especially death penalty cases, often need time to brew, so my last two projects took nine to twelve years to finish. I go very deep into the research and it can take time to get the materials that I need, and also for a case to go to trial. My neck and back (and mind) also need a rest in between.
Q: What was being an investigative reporter like? It sounds so exciting and probably dangerous.
A: I could write an entire book about all the adventures I’ve had while investigating people who are trying to hide their activities or misbehavior from the public, and exposing them in print. I’ve been threatened, harassed, and been subjected to lies, and personal and professional insults. But I’ve always felt I had a calling to be a journalist. I’ve been compelled to find out and to tell the truth ever since I was a child. My kindergarten teacher wrote a letter to my parents saying, “Caitlin is the most cynical five-year-old I’ve ever met.” I’ve also been told I’m “honest to a fault,” in fact, so I guess I’m in the right business, because I’ve developed a reputation for having integrity as well as being accurate and fair. It’s hard work and can get uncomfortable and scary sometimes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I enjoy learning about people and figuring out why they did what they did. Investigating a story or a case is like putting a puzzle together and I enjoy it as much or more than writing it up into a book. To do that, I’ve done interviews while locked in a cage with one three-time killer on death row, and sitting across a lunch table from a two-time killer and rapist. I try to recreate the wonder and the discoveries I’ve made for the reader in page-turning, suspenseful true crime books that read like novels, but they are all true. My latest is Death on Ocean Boulevard: Inside the Coronado Mansion Case, which is about the mysterious death of Rebecca Zahau, who was found hanging naked, bound and gagged in the rear courtyard of the Spreckels Mansion in Coronado, California. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSD) ruled it a suicide, but her family, and a civil jury, said it was murder and blamed her boyfriend’s brother, Adam Shacknai. He says he’s innocent and has never been arrested or charged.
Here’s a link to the Amazon page if you’re interested in reading the book:
Or contact me through my website, https://caitlinrother.com if you’d like to purchase a signed copy of this or any of my other books.
Q: Would you mind sharing what your new book Down To The Bone: A Missing Family’s Murder and The Elusive Quest For Justice is about and when it’ll be released?
A: This book is about Joseph and Summer McStay and their two boys, Gianni and Joey Jr., who went missing from their new house in Fallbrook, California. Their disappearance was investigated as a missing person’s case for about three years, before the SDSD gave up and decided they went voluntarily to Mexico. About eight months later, their skeletal remains were found in two shallow graves about 100 miles away in the desert of San Bernardino County. Now that it was a known homicide, a new sheriff’s department investigated it as a murder and soon determined that Joseph’s business partner, Chase Merritt, killed the family with a sledgehammer. Prosecutors claim that Joseph figured out that Merritt, who had a prison record for receiving stolen goods and burglary, was forging checks and stealing from him, so he fired him. They claim that Merritt killed Joseph so he didn’t have to return to prison, then killed his family because they could identify him. His defense attorneys claimed that another business associate was to blame and that Merritt was investigated and prosecuted out of confirmation bias. Merritt, who claims innocence, was convicted and is now on death row. The book will be released by Citadel Press in February 2024, and will go on sale in late January.
Q: What advice do you give to anyone wanting to have a career in investigative reporting and being a true crime author?
A: Be honest, conduct yourself with integrity, and work hard to learn research skills and to earn people’s trust. The research portion is constantly evolving as laws and access change; the internet is helpful but only to a point due to paywalls, agencies that destroy records after a certain point, laws that keep investigations hidden from public view, and new privacy protections for criminals. You also need to work on your writing craft, which requires reading a lot of books, taking classes or workshops to develop those skills, sitting your butt in a chair to get your story on paper, then rewrite it until it’s done, which sometimes never happens. Also, be prepared to spend a lot of time alone, working, and often times for not a lot of pay. None of this comes easy. Writing books is hard and it requires a lot of patience, determination, and rebounding from rejection. I worked in newspapers for 19 years before I quit to write books, and before that, it took me 15 years to get my first book published. It took me 17 years to get my first novel published, Naked Addiction, and it was my third book, even though I wrote it first. I can’t tell you how many times I had to rewrite it. But I’ve stuck with it, because it’s what I do, and I just finished book #15.
Q: What crimes would you like to cover in future true crime books?
A: Right now I’m recovering from my latest deadline on the McStay book, one of the toughest books I’ve ever written for a variety of reasons. Once I rest up, I’m planning to get back to work on my second novel, which I’ve rewritten numerous times and is still not done. So, I’m not sure yet. I’ve been buried with my last two projects for so long, and also on one that I worked on for seven months and then fell through, so I haven’t had the bandwidth to find another case yet. But they often find me, so I’m not worried about it. I’m also interested in moving more into TV/films, possibly doing a podcast, and learning screenwriting. Death on Ocean Boulevard has been optioned and is under development for a limited TV series by Untitled Entertainment, and as an executive producer on that project, I’m hoping to be busy with that this year.
Q: What was it like being interviewed on shows and stations such as 20/20 and The Oxygen Network?
A: At first, I was very shy and scared, but now, after doing 250 interviews, I’ve learned to just talk to the producer and forget the camera is there. It’s pretty fun, actually. I just need to prepare in advance and make sure I know my material, which usually involves re-reading my own book on the topic, and get my hair and makeup ready. I also try to ensure that the interviewer is prepared as well, so it doesn’t drag on for hours, which has happened in the past. I quite enjoy it, especially when the questions are different and creative.
Q: What true crime podcasts have you appeared on? The readers of my blog and I would love to listen to them.
A: There are too many to count, but many of them are on my website if you guys want to watch. I’ve got a bunch of links on my virtual tour calendar from Death on Ocean Boulevard (some of the interviews are wide-ranging and we talk about writing, researching, or other cases I’ve written about, so they aren’t ONLY about that one book).
Virtual tour calendar: https://www.caitlinrother.com/post/virtual-book-tour-calendar-for-death-on-ocean-boulevard-inside-the-coronado-mansion-case
More TV/podcasts: https://www.caitlinrother.com/tv-radio-speaking
Q: Since you’ve written true crime for a long time, would you ever want to delve into writing crime fiction or mystery thrillers?
A: As I mentioned above, I do already have one novel out and it’s a mystery/thriller titled, Naked Addiction. It’s about sex, drugs and murder in La Jolla, California, where I grew up. I’m working on a second novel now, which is also set in La Jolla.