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MB Q&A: Sebastian Junger, A Death in Belmont
Journalist and author Sebastian Junger on his latest book examining the unsolved Boston Strangler mystery, and its brush with his own family- June 26, 2006
Come see Sebastian Junger and others talk about their transition from writing articles to books in mediabistro's June 28 panel discussion, "From Journo to Big Book."
For nearly two years in the early 1960s, Boston lived in fear of a serial killer dubbed the Boston Strangler—so named for his habit of garroting his female victims with their undergarments after he'd sexually brutalized them. At the same time, then-infant Sebastian Junger's parents commissioned the addition of an art studio to their suburban Boston property. Staying home with her new baby, Mrs. Junger oversaw the construction, much of which was done by Al DeSalvo, the man who would later confess—and then recant—to being the Boston Strangler.
A Death in Belmont is Junger's investigation into the unsolved mystery surrounding the Strangler. In his book's opening, an older woman lies raped and strangled in her home—all signs that the Strangler has struck again. Within 24 hours, a black man named Roy Smith who'd cleaned the dead woman's house is arrested and charged with her murder. After Smith gets convicted by an all-white jury, more women are raped and strangled around Boston, yet Smith's proclamations go unheeded. Junger leads the reader through evidence and circumstance that asks: Did Roy Smith go to jail simply because he was a black man in wrong place at the wrong time? Or did his petty criminal behavior escalate to a dark, heinous murder? Was Al DeSalvo, a convicted rapist, really the Boston Strangler? And if so, did Junger's own mother somehow skirt a violent death at the hands of a serial killer?
mediabistro: What motivated you to turn this story—which no doubt has been told many times in your family—into a book?
Junger: I don't remember any of it [happening] because I was too young, but I thought the story was interesting. It was 40 years ago, and I assumed that a lot of the people involved were starting to die.
I came to this project not really knowing anything about the Boston Strangler. It was important for me to be objective, and separate myth from reality. Initially, I wanted to exonerate the black guy and then, very quickly, I realized I couldn't do that. In fact, he might possibly be guilty. I had to make ambiguity interesting because, ultimately, the truth is ambiguous and there is no way to know what happened.
mediabistro: How did you approach the research; where did you begin?
Junger: I went to the library and looked at old news articles about the case. From there, the research goes off into a million different directions. I started tracking down old witnesses, and trying to understand criminal law.
mediabistro: What about getting the court transcripts?
Junger: They were hard to get. I think they had to be xeroxed by hand, so someone did me a big favor. I don't know who it was, but I eventually got [the transcripts]. They knew who I was, and I think someone must have liked The Perfect Storm because they did me a huge favor.
But, if an aspect of my researched was stalled, I just switched to another. So while I waiting for documents to come through and for people to turn up, I pushed ahead on many fronts at the same time.
mediabistro: Was there a method to your reporting?
Junger: You just track down everyone you possibly can and every document that could possibly be useful. There were so many things to pursue that I didn't try to pursue everything at once. I blocked out the areas of knowledge I needed to have and then I pursued those. I also hired a researcher to help me.
mediabistro: When did you decide you'd finished your research?
Junger: I didn't—I was simultaneously writing and reporting up until the end. I never closed myself off to the possibility of doing more research or getting more information.
mediabistro: How long did you conduct research before you began writing?
Junger: I started in 1999, and got enough for a book proposal. From 2003 to 2005, I was writing and reporting.
mediabistro: When investigating this story, what aspects of it made you the angriest?
Junger: I was disappointed in Roy. He did things that pointed to his guilt. Pardon the pun, but if Roy's story were more black-and-white, it would have been easier, and probably less interesting. I felt like at first I was out to exonerate him, and then I found out that he did some very bad things in his life that disappointed me. I thought I was trying to help him and he was making that job harder for me. He did some suspicious things that day, and I kept getting disappointed in him. Then I gave up having any investment in him.
I realized you can't be rooting for one team when you're a journalist—you have to be totally impartial. I really shouldn't care about the outcome of whether he's guilty or innocent. And in the end I really didn't, because I had very serious doubts about his innocence.
mediabistro: The book has a lot of detailed information—probably constituting just a fraction of your reporting. How did you decide what would go into the book and what wouldn't?
Junger: Information has to be accurate, and the way you assemble it has to have veracity. You can assemble true facts in a way that is actually misleading, and you have to be very careful about that. I actually showed my book to a lot of people in the criminal justice system in Massachusetts, some of whom had also had read the trial transcripts. That was my attempt to make sure it had veracity, as well as being accurate.
Then, you take those things that you have, those building blocks, and you try to build something that has some narrative structure and some narrative tension, with an ear for what it's like to be a reader. You want to inform [readers] and not bore them, and you have to be very sensitive as to when you cross that line.
|"Information has to be accurate, and the way you assemble it has to have veracity. You can assemble true facts in a way that is actually misleading, and you have to be very careful about that."|
mediabistro: Was there anything that your editor or other readers advised you to cut but you kept in the book anyway?
Junger: The mechanics of criminal law. My agent was pretty skeptical about including the legal stuff, but I had to put it in there. It's like meteorology in The Perfect Storm. I tried to boil it down to basic, layman's terms. One reviewer said it was like a high school civics class but then, a defense lawyer told me that my explanation was better than some judges' instructions to jurors. You can't please everyone.
mediabistro: Why do you think A Death in Belmont was an important story to tell?
Junger: The justice system is always important in any country. It [the 1960's] was an era in America of terrible social upheaval and racial conflict, and I was curious about it. You don't have to always think it's important to feel it's worth doing. It doesn't necessarily have to have a wider importance—it might—but you can't know that until the book comes out.
mediabistro: Tackling race, class, and injustice is quite an undertaking. If you didn't have some personal attachment to this story, would you have been the right person for this job?
Junger: Yes. I wasn't that close to it; if I had been, it would have clouded my vision and reporting. It was a story that I'd heard, but I had no memory of it. In a sense I could have been any reporter.
I feel that journalism is the same set of rules and standards and objectives, whether you're writing a memoir—which is just journalism about yourself—or war reporting, or writing about a criminal trial. It's all the same process, and you just apply it to whatever subject you're working on. It doesn't really matter if you know about something. If you know about something that you have strong emotions about, that's different. I didn't have strong emotions about this story at all.
mediabistro: The style of your writing in A Death in Belmont is part history lesson, part magazine feature, part novel. Was there a conscious decision on your part to write it like that?
Junger: Yes and no. A good paragraph is a good paragraph. You have to go back and forth. Too much drama is shallow, and too much history can be boring. Powerful journalistic writing simply uses facts in the same dramatic way that novelists use fiction. Dramatic structure is dramatic structure, and whether you build it out of verified facts or things that you think of, it's the same. The plot can follow the rise and fall of dramatic action in nonfiction, too
If you want people to read your journalism, you have to give some thought to how you're going to assemble all these facts. But, you can assemble them artfully and compellingly, and that's the job of someone who wants the public to read his work.
mediabistro: Personally, who do you think was the Boston Strangler?
Junger: I don't know or I would have said in the book. Gut feeling can't be relied on—you need logic and fact. The Goldberg family feels that Roy Smith did it. Roy Smith's family feels that he didn't do it. Their feelings are totally understandable, but they're not more reliable than the facts are—they don't illuminate the truth at all. It just reflects the reality of their situation, which is that both families lost somebody in one way or another, and their feelings about who did what reflects that.
mediabistro: Will we ever know who the Boston Strangler was?
Junger: All the evidence in the Roy Smith case has been destroyed. The state of Massachusetts has the stuff to test against Al De Salvo, but they don't seem interested in doing it. Without that test, it will never be proved definitively if he was or wasn't the Boston Strangler.
Want to hear from other journalists who've made the move to writing books? Come to mediabistro's June 28 panel discussion, From Journo to Big Book: How Five Journalists Became Authors, featuring The Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger, Vanity Fair's David Margolick, and more.
Heather Marie Graham writes magazine and Web features that run the topical gamut, on top of being an associate editor at EverydayHealth.com. This is her first piece for mediabistro.
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