In this episode, we are joined by award-winning true crime writer Kerrie Droban to discuss her latest release, Aurora, and to hear more about her amazing writing career! Kerrie’s experience as a criminal and family attorney has heavily influenced her career in writing true crime narratives, and she is an expert in criminal pathology and motorcycle gangs who has written many books on the subjects.
We heard about Kerrie’s journey from poetry to law to true crime writing, how reading (and even writing) true crime can aid in your fiction writing, how she ended up entering law school, how her creative interests aided her law career (and how her law career aided her writing), advice for aspiring true crime writers, and more!
Content note: Kerrie’s books discuss real crimes and the disturbing content involved in said crimes, such as gun violence and mass shootings. While we are mostly focusing on Kerrie’s writing career and writing advice she has to offer in this episode, please be aware of that this content is discussed and may be upsetting for some listeners. Please listen with awareness of this subject matter.
In this episode:
- We ask Kerrie about her writing career – how she went from poet to attorney to true crime author, and how she got involved in writing her first true crime title
- She discusses her path to becoming an attorney, and what led her to applying to law school
- She also talks about how she wrote two novels in the romantic suspense genre before writing true crime, inspired by her experience attending a romance writers’ conference with her neighbour, a romance author
- We hear about her recent release, Aurora, written with Dr. Lynne Fenton, and how Kerrie was approached to write the story, and how that process played out
- She details some of the writing techniques she employs to write her narratives, and we ask her how she researches – and what she uses from that research
- Kerrie gives us some insight into her writing schedule, and offers some advice for authors regarding finding time to write
- She talks about the response to Aurora, and the importance of not becoming desensitized to violent crimes and of giving voice to the survivors of such events
- Kerrie also offers some great advice to writers of fictional crime novels, mysteries, and thrillers
- And much more!
Mentioned in this episode:
The Firm by John Grisham
The Last Chicago Boss by Kerrie Droban and Peter ‘Big Pete’ James
Kerrie Droban is an award-winning author and criminal & family attorney residing in Arizona. With numerous appearances and interviews on national television and radio shows, she has established herself as an expert on the pathology of the criminal mind, motorcycle gangs, and a mentor to new and aspiring true crime writers.
Kerrie received a Masters degree from The Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, and a Masters of Fine Arts and Juris Doctorate from the University of Arizona.
She has been a keynote speaker at gang task force conferences and a national speaker at various writing conferences across the country. She has also appeared on national television on CNBC’s “American Greed: A Widow’s Web,” A&E’s “Gangland: Behind Enemy Lines,” the American Heroes Channel’s “Codes and Conspiracies,” “Investigation ID,” and the Discovery Channel’s “Deadly Devotion.”
Transcription by www.speechpad.com
Laura: Hey, writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Laura, author and engagement manager.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel, the promotion specialist for KWL.
Laura: This week, we talked to author, Kerrie Droban. Kerrie is an award-winning author and criminal and family attorney residing in Arizona. With numerous appearances and interviews on national television and radio shows, she has established herself as an expert on the pathology of the criminal mind, motorcycle gangs, and a mentor to new and aspiring true crime writers. Her latest book, “Aurora,” was released this past July.
Rachel: We had such an interesting conversation with Kerrie. We talked a lot about her journey from aspiring poet to criminal defense attorney to true crime writer. And we really dug into the writing process of “Aurora” and the structure of the book, the research that went into it. And we also touched on what makes good true crime writing and how fiction writers can utilize the same things that true crime writers do. Before we start this interview, I do just wanna let our listeners know a huge content warning on this episode. We do talk a lot about gun violence, mass shootings, and mental health. So, if that is not something you are comfortable listening to, I would recommend pausing and waiting until our next episode. But if you are interested in true crime and learning how to write about true crime, I highly recommend listening. And with that, here is our chat with Kerrie. We are joined today by true crime author, Kerrie Droban. Kerrie, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kerrie: Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure.
Rachel: Can you kind of kick things off by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Kerrie: Well, I am an author, true crime author, and also a criminal defense attorney. So, that’s where I get all my fascination with the criminal pathology. It’s a good marriage of the two. I’ve been writing for really most of my life, but I started in poetry and got it. I know it’s a very strange unorthodox way of getting into true crime, but I did. I studied for many years as a poet and wanted to write poetry until I discovered that you really are a starving artist when you’re a poet. So, I was not gonna stay as a poet. And I wound up writing true crime after I became a lawyer and I was approached to write my very first true crime book by undercover operatives who were involved in a pretty dangerous undercover case involving the Hell’s Angels. So, that’s how my career really started and how I launched into this whole ordeal. And I knew nothing about it when I began. I didn’t know how to even write true crime. I didn’t have a journalist background. So, it was an interesting journey and it definitely had a lot of rewards and pitfalls.
Rachel: So, I’m really curious about this start in poetry. What sparked that kind of creative bug in you?
Kerrie: I was a senior in college and I actually… I mean, talk about a really roundabout way. I actually had started as a theater major. So, also a very difficult career choice, but I wound up starting to write poetry my last semester as a senior in college. And I had a professor at the time who was teaching poetry. And he said, “You know, you could go on and really hone this craft and, you know, go into graduate school and really, like… So, it sort of like evolved from there where I just kept writing poetry. I had no concept or idea of how I was gonna support myself. I just kept writing poetry and thinking, “Okay. This is what you do. You keep going to school.” So, I figured as long as I could stay in school, I didn’t have to worry about what happened after. So, I just, you know, stayed for as long as I could, did three more years studying poetry and loving it. And, yeah. And I guess I really did hone my craft. And a lot of my writing now reflects a lot of that early practice as a poet. So, it wasn’t for naught.
Rachel: And then what kind of made the shift from poetry into law? Because those are two very different sides of the brain that you’re using there.
Kerrie: Nobody in my family was a lawyer. I didn’t really have any guideposts. I was trying to be… I was actually wanting to be an adjunct professor of poetry. So, that was, you know, the logical route. You go to poetry for so many years and now you wanna teach it. But the recession hit and there were no jobs for anyone. There were no jobs for poets and no jobs for adjunct professors, and so I really was sort of rethinking my whole life and thinking, “How am I gonna do this? I have to support myself. I don’t wanna be a starving artist. It’s really no fun to be really poor.” And I was tired of eating bagels and popcorn, which was my diet. And I’m living proof you can live on that for quite a while and be okay. Yeah.
And so my law school endeavor was kind of interesting too because the moment I decided to apply to law school, it was really two weeks before the final applications were due. So, there really wasn’t time to apply to a whole bunch of different schools. I could really only apply to one school. And my initial thought before applying to law school was I will be a court reporter because I thought I could do that. I’m a good typist. I could, like, whip up something really quickly. It would be a steady income. Never even crossed my mind that I could be a lawyer. So, when I decided to be a lawyer, I was reading John Grisham’s book, “The Firm,” and I thought, “I could do that.” It’s very roundabout, serendipitous way of getting in law school, but I had no money. I mean, I was really starving. I did not have the money to even take the LSATs or to apply for the application fee. The application fee was like $35. I didn’t even have the money for that.
So, I went to the dean or, I guess, the admin person over at the law school and I said, “I really wanna apply to law school, but I don’t have the fee for this. So, can you, like, waive the fee?” So, yeah. They waived the fee. And that’s how… I mean, it was complete luck that I wound up, I think, in law school. And it seemed to be a really good fit because I wound up going immediately into criminal law. And criminal law is all trial work. It’s telling a story. It’s being before a jury. And so it was the acting part of me that really loved law. And you can weave a story, even with a bad set of facts, you can still weave a story. And so that’s really how that sort of fit into the later version of storytelling.
Rachel: I think that’s really interesting too because we interview quite a few writers on this podcast, obviously. And there’s a lot of crossover between authors and lawyers and, I think, especially because of that storytelling element that is required especially in any sort of law that you’re practicing in court.
Kerrie: Yeah, it is. I mean, you can’t change the facts, but you can definitely spin them. And I started out as a prosecutor. And what I did not like about prosecution was that it was so much more policy-driven. And I didn’t have a lot of discretion, and so my storytelling was very limited and it was very couched. And the objective, the end game was very different. And so I wound up going from prosecution to defense. And when I became a defense lawyer, that’s when it became interesting to me because now I was really delving into pathology and why people do the things they do and being able to talk to the people. And so it was employing a lot of different skill sets. So, it was the interviewing, the negotiating, you know, dealing with people who are not always rational and trying to figure out how you can, you know, get them to the table to actually at least pretend that they’re gonna be rational for a few minutes.
And then I got into the capital world. So, death penalty work really was an incredible foundation for a true crime. Of course, at the time that I got into death penalty work, I was not a true crime writer. So, it’s very interesting how it all sort of wove into this fabric of who I am today, but it was not planned and it certainly was not a straight path. It was very circuitous. I mean, I would never wanna be a guidance counselor and tell somebody like this, you know, “Just follow your heart. Do what your passion is. Maybe you’ll make some money at the end of the day.”
Well, and I should add a PS to this too because before I got into true crime, I actually wrote a novel. I wrote two novels and they were in the romance suspense genre. So, my very, very first foray into novel writing was in romantic suspense because my neighbor was a romance writer and she took me to a romance conference. And when I was at the romance conference, I thought, “Wow. I mean, I could do this. I could write one of these. I like romance.” And so it’s so funny because the polar opposites, right? Going from love and relationships to death and murder. But, yeah, it was interesting. It was a great, great groundwork for the future of what I was gonna write because I learned how to write from different points of view and I learned how to get into people’s heads. And so that’s really the true crime that I write now. It’s almost a hybrid of memoir and true crime. So, it was a good foundation.
Laura: And can you tell us a little bit about your latest release, “Aurora?”
Kerrie: Yeah. So, “Aurora,” it chronicles the true story of the only known treating psychiatrist of a mass murderer. And this dealt with the mass shooting at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater, which claimed the lives of 12 people, wounded 72 others. And at the time was the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Of course, now it has surpassed that, but at the time that’s what it was. And I was actually approached to write this story. I didn’t know any of the players. And when I got the story, it was such an intriguing book and such an intriguing story because it really was about two people. It was about Dr. Fenton’s journey and what it was like to treat a mass shooter in the weeks and the days before he actually carried out the massacre, because we don’t really have insight into that in any other way. And so it was very fascinating for me to be able to talk to her and find out what happened to her, like, what she knew about, you know, James Holmes at the time, what she learned and how her life was destroyed by him.
And on the flip side, it was an opportunity to really get into the head of James Holmes. What is it like? I mean, here’s a mass shooter whose goal was to deliberately survive his shooting so that people could study his brain. And so it was really kind of extraordinary. I mean, I had thousands and thousands of records to go through, but he had also given 24 hours of recorded interviews. And so you can really gain such insight. It was like being in a, you know, bird’s eye seat of what it was like for him and how his whole process was. And the whole thesis of the book was that the doctor believed he was evil, not mentally ill. And so that was also really fascinating to explore. And my background as a capital lawyer was really brought into play because I thought I can really identify with his lawyers who have to defend him and I can also identify with what is it like to be given mountains of evidence like this? Is this guy insane? Is he evil? And what does that look like? So, it was a really fascinating journey for me.
Rachel: So, once you were approached by someone to write this book, what was the writing process then like for you?
Kerrie: The writing process was very intense. So, I was still a full-time lawyer the time that I got this book. And I think it was one of those things where ignorance is bliss. I don’t think I really understood the ramifications of what was gonna happen when I was writing this book, but it took four years to write it and several… I mean, usually, when I write a book, I’m usually, like, carving out, okay, six months of research, six months of writing. This book was very different because I had to gain the trust of Dr. Fenton. I had to interview her, get to know her. I traveled to her place where she’s at now to interview her and get to know her friends and try to get some insight into who she was. And that took time. And every one of my books, it takes time to build that rapport. But it was an interesting process because not only was I interviewing a woman who, you know, brilliant, super, like, top percent of her profession, psychiatrist, and I had to learn the language of it. What does it mean? It’s like learning a whole new process. How do I get into her head and be her and know all of this information and get it right because, God forbid, I don’t wanna, you know, say something that makes her look like less intelligent than she is?
So, it was a very interesting process. She and I became very good friends. We’re still friends now, but during the writing of it, I became aware in many respects of how similar we were just in the way that we were feeling about things. Not that I’ve ever been outed by somebody the way she has, but just the idea of what she went through, where she had to live in undercover, she had to go into hiding, she had to have a new identity. She received death threats and what that was like. And so a lot of the book was the trial. And so I really related to that part too. I already knew that language. I knew what it was like for her to go through mock trials and depositions and what was it like for her to testify and have snipers on the rooftop.
So, it was just an extraordinary process. But I will say what I was not prepared for in writing that book was the trauma, the ripple effect of that trauma. So, not only was I experiencing it through her eyes, I was in James Holmes’s head, his mindset, like, what was he thinking? This diabolical. Really, like, I call him the American psycho. He really was that dangerous and scary and brilliant. And so to be into those two heads was something. But then to do the trial scenes where I’m hearing from the survivors and from the first responders and from, you know, reading up on what happened to the lawyers in the case, I really started to feel like this is almost like life-imitating art because I’m now traumatized. I’m now living this and writing it. And there were times where I would have to walk away from the computer because I was crying. I was that moved and that distraught by what this person had done. And it was the first time where I couldn’t really take a backseat as the writer. I was actually in it and living it and feeling what they were feeling. And it made me realize the power of her story and the reason that she really needed to come out of hiding in order to tell it, because it really tells the story of how whole communities are impacted by this kind of trauma. And it became very, very real. And so I think it really took a long time for me to come out of that fog.
Rachel: And when it comes to, like, all of those deep emotions that you’re feeling, how much pressure did you feel to convey those emotions on the page? And how much did you decide to hold back so as to not share too much with the reader?
Kerrie: That was an interesting dance because I really felt like I had a good sense of who Dr. Fenton was. And she’s a very private person, very reserved, like I said, very intelligent, and still a practicing psychiatrist. And so I really had a careful dance there because I didn’t wanna reveal very personal, very emotional things that would then later impact her ability to practice and be this sort of neutral listener. Right? It’s a listening profession where, you know, the patient is not supposed to know a whole lot about you for the very reason that you’re giving them space. You’re giving them that space that they need to come to you with their problems. So, it was really interesting and a fine line there because I was mindful of that, but I was also mindful of the fact that I’m telling a story. And I want people, and I think she wanted people to know what she experienced and what she was feeling and all of that trauma and fear and living in that sort of… She had a gag order on her for three years, so she couldn’t even defend herself.
Like, what is it like to have the whole world hate you, to have death threats, you know, to not be able to go back to your house to even feed your cats, you know, because the media has descended on the house? And so I tried. The first time I wrote this, I tried writing in third person. And it wasn’t working in third person because it wasn’t immediate. People were not getting that feeling and they were not in that space with her. And so then I had to flip it and rewrite it and I wrote it in first person. And so it was a monumental task because in first person, you’re in deep point of view and you want the reader to feel everything that the person is feeling. And so I had to go 100% into it and really kind of lay her out there. And it was a hard decision, but I don’t think that it would have been possible had I not really established that kind of rapport with her and that kind of trust to the point where we were friends and she trusted me to capture her authentically.
And I’m happy to say that I think she’s very happy with the way that the book came out because that was my goal is to, “Let’s tell a gripping, very important story. Let’s tell it the right way. Let’s tell it to where you are, your most authentic self because this is now your voice and your chance to say something about what happened.” And so it really was a struggle. And I think that I have had that in a few of my books where it’s, how deep do I go? But I have found that it’s almost impossible to write a book and have it resonate that way, like, have it really be that person’s story if you’re not gonna go really deep point of view. And so that was a decision I made, but, man, it was a lot of rewriting.
Rachel: I actually wanted to ask you a bit about the POV of the book because it’s almost structured like it’s a dual POV story and you’re kind of, like you mentioned, in Dr. Fenton’s head, but also there’s the James Holmes of it all. How did that structure come about? Was it a lot of rewriting or did you know off the bat you kind of wanted to swap between the two?
Kerrie: I think I knew right away that I was gonna have to swap between the two because it was a very important story piece because it really is two stories. I mean, Dr. Fenton’s story was what did she know? What did she know about Holmes in the six sessions that she was with him? And the whole point is, is that psychiatrists only know as much as their client reveals. And that was her whole point is that she didn’t know what Holmes was doing. So, the whole time she’s seeing him in these six sessions, James Holmes is amassing an arsenal and he’s doing it off stage, and so there’s no way to really have that in first person point of view because she didn’t know. And that is her whole position, her defense, like, the whole reason that she couldn’t put a 72-hour mental health hold on him. I mean, she tried everything in her power, in the knowledge that she had to stop him, but she didn’t know about these things over here that Holmes was doing. So, it was a very obvious structural choice for me from the beginning.
The other choice that I made was to open each one of Holmes… Well, two things. I used time in the book as a ticking time bomb because time was very important. It was all of these events were happening in a very short period of time. She was seeing him in the six sessions, so all of that was very well detailed in her notes, but it was very brief. And then the time, the countdown for how he was amassing all of these ballistic gears, these weapons, this ammunition, how he was amassing all of that in the timeframe that he did in order to have the countdown because he had a specific date. He actually had a calendar, which he put a pin on it said July 20th. And so that was the choice I used. It’s a suspense technique, but it definitely worked in this book, I think, because it just showed, it heightened the urgency of it, it heightened the urgency from Dr. Fenton’s perspective, and it also heightened the urgency from James Holmes. And so I thought that was an interesting device to use.
The other thing that I used for Holmes was to open each one of his POVs with a quote from the Joker. So, each one of those quotes is sort of twofold. It’s meant to not only show that he had targeted the premiere of “The Dark Knight,” and he had targeted for very specific reasons. One was he believed he would have mass casualties because a lot of people would be going to see that premiere. Two, he also believed that it was very likely that children would not be in attendance. He was wrong about that, but that’s what he believed. And so it was a very specific and targeted thing. The other thing about the Joker is it’s very controversial because there’s not a whole lot of information out there as to whether or not he identified with the Joker or not, but there’s certainly some indication that he did.
I mean, he bought a mask. He would rewind several, I guess, trailers or clips of previous movies with the Joker in it. So, there’s definitely hints of that. And I think that the Joker’s quotes really served to advance Holmes’s point of view because it was sort of echoing what Holmes was doing. So, all of that was very strategic and it really went into the structure. And I think that the really challenging thing for any true crime book, any memoir, really, is structure. How are you gonna tell the story? Because you can tell it in so many different ways, but how are you gonna get the most impact with the story? And I had never done that before. I’d never written in two points of view, but it seemed to really work for this story. And that’s how you get all that information that Fenton wouldn’t have known. A good device.
Laura: You mentioned that a lot of research went into the book. How did you decide what was vital to include? Because you had so much different information from Holmes, especially. So, how do you pick and choose?
Kerrie: Well, it’s very challenging at first because there isn’t a roadmap as to what is important and what isn’t important. Because I have the structure, I knew that most of the information, like for Dr. Fenton’s point of view, was gonna be through interviews. So, I had her notes and I had the notebook. So, I knew the notebook was gonna be very important because that was gonna give me Holmes’s point of view and it was also gonna give me maybe what happened during their sessions. So, I started with that. Then I started with transcripts because the trial was really important. I could get a big overview of everything in that trial.
But one of the things that I realized very quickly on when I had over 75,000 pages of records, not including audio and other things, is I got a separate computer. And I would have three computers on my desk. I’ve never done this before either for a book, but this one seemed to really dictate it. And I thought, okay, I’ve had death penalty cases that are, you know, 20-plus banker boxes full. And as a death penalty lawyer, I was always looking for the story in the box. Right? I mean, prosecutors look for the evidence in the box. I always looked for the story in the box. So, it was a very similar sort of process, except that now everything was electronic. And the only way that I could do this was to have three computers because I had to keep switching screens. And my computers that had the research on them had the internet. My computer that had the book on it was just the book. Because what I found is, you know, in my downtime, when I’m having trouble with the book, I would start Googling and going on the internet and wasting a whole bunch of time and going down bunny trails.
So, I really had to be very organized in how I did this because I also had… I mean, I had probably one of the longest deadlines I’ve ever had with writing, which was great, but it’s very unusual. I had four years. I had four years because the publisher had planned to release this book on the anniversary of. And because I was still a working lawyer, I thought, “Oh, I’ve got four years to do this. This ought to be a piece of cake.” Right? It wasn’t. I literally was researching and writing right up to the deadline of the book, which was very surprising, but that’s how I was able to flip back and forth. So, I had, like, expert reports on one screen, I had audio of James Holmes’ interviews on another screen, and then I had the book. I would flip back and forth.
And the maddening part about this whole thing was, very much like a research paper, is you have to keep track of where these quotes and references and all these things are coming from. So, that was tricky too, you know, just to make sure that I had footnotes in different places. So, I also had a manuscript. It’s a very long answer to your question, but I also had a manuscript that had all the footnotes in it. So, there were two manuscripts, like, one had no footnotes and one had all the footnotes because I knew what was coming at the end of the day. It was like I was gonna have to write end notes in this thing and I was gonna be screwed.
So, those were the document part. But then I also had a multitude of research books that I researched for all of the mass shooting cases that are, you know, referenced in there. And I was researching Virginia Tech mass shooting, for example. I mean, I had, like, a ton of articles and hardcover books and also Kindle books and probably your listeners are thinking they’re never going to write true crime because it is a massive undertaking, but, you know, I loved it. I found it all so fascinating that for me, it was just, like, a passion. I would sit down and just get lost in the material. So, it was fun.
Rachel: And you mentioned you were still a practicing lawyer during these four years. How did you balance all of this in your schedule and in your brain as well?
Kerrie: Yeah, it was crazy. So, it was an incredible balancing act because during this whole thing, I was also going through a divorce. So, I was going through a divorce. I mean, it’s like, let’s just throw everything at me at once. I was going through a divorce and all the trappings that come with that. And I was having to… It’s funny. I have a client that told me this once where, it’s a death row client, and he would say, you know, “I got to get my head in the box.” And I always thought that was such an interesting phrase. And it stayed with me because I would repeat that several times, you know, during the course of writing this, which was, “Get your head in the box. Get your head in the gear.”
So, I really couldn’t divide my time as far as, like, practicing law half the day and writing the next half. I had to designate days where the book was taking precedence and the cases were… I would look at what was absolutely due and put it on a burner. Like, I would say, “Okay. How long is it gonna take me to write this brief?” Two days. “Okay. How long is it gonna take me to read the transcripts that I need to write this brief?” And so I would schedule that. So, everything is very scheduled. And I always looked at writing, I still look at writing as a habit. It is a habit. And so if I had a schedule of when I was gonna do something, it was like going to a job. I mean, I wasn’t calling in sick unless I got COVID. Let’s not forget COVID went on during this too. So, you know, I would say to myself, “Okay. I’m showing up today, I’m gonna write.”
And I have a habitual schedule where I get up at 4 in the morning almost on a daily basis. It’s just something that was ingrained in me from a long time ago. Before “Aurora,” I would oftentimes be writing… I probably shouldn’t even say this. But I would be writing in court while waiting for my case to be called because they called it the rocket docket, so you would be sitting in court just wasting time. I literally couldn’t stand it. I would show up at 8:00 and my case wouldn’t get called till 11:00. Maybe the client would bench for it and I’d be out there all morning, you know, and doing nothing. And so I wound up training my brain to be able to shut off what was going on in the courtroom, not during my case, but, you know, shut off everything else that was going on and be able to really get laser focused and start writing. So, I would either be writing or researching while I was sitting in court waiting for my case to be called.
So, I started to train myself very early on. I thought if I got up at 4 in the morning, I would have three whole hours to myself to be able to do something without any interruptions because by 7:00 a.m. I was getting kids ready for school, I was getting myself ready for court, and I was in my head in the box in court. So, I would train myself. And so depending on the kind of book I was writing or the case I was dealing with, sometimes that 4:00 a.m. turned into 4:00 a.m. to noon, and that’s a lot of writing time. And so if you make that a habit, you can accomplish it, you can keep going. So, I would just do that. I would reverse my hours and be able to be present for my cases, present for my kids, probably not present for my marriage, which is why I was divorced. I prioritized.
Rachel: I will say as somebody who struggles to get out of bed by, like, 7:30 in the morning, I am so impressed by this 4:00 a.m.
Kerrie: It was a necessity. You just train yourself. It’s like anything.
Laura: That needs to be your next nonfiction book, teaching us how to get up early and make the most out of our day because I could use that one.
Kerrie: I know. Well, I mean, it’s funny because I would run into colleagues. I had a couple of colleagues that were trying to write books and they would always say to me, “Well, I don’t know how you have time. I’m gonna probably write my book when I retire.” But they would sort of corner me in the halls and say, you know, “I have an idea for blah, blah, blah, but I don’t know where you find the time to do this.” And my response internally was always it’s, “You have to make the time. It’s never gonna happen if you always put it off.” If I waited until I retired, I probably would be demented. I would not even be able to write the book because I’d be too old. And so I wouldn’t have my faculties about me. But I think once you say to yourself, “This is a job…” I mean, if you wanna be a professional writer, it is a job. You’re being asked to, you’re being commissioned to do something you’re being paid for it, hopefully. You’re gonna get royalties off of it, hopefully. So, it is a job and it has to be treated as a job, otherwise, it’s a hobby. And so if it’s a hobby, then you’re only writing when you’re inspired, you’re only writing when you have time. Your hobby, you’re having ideas floating around in your head that aren’t materializing into anything.
And so that’s really the distinction that I made really early on. I mean, even when I was a poet, I mean, I was always writing something to make money even though it was $10 at the time, I was making money at it because, you know, writing is so difficult. It’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It’s harder than any law case I’ve ever tried. And I used to tell myself, “If I’m gonna spend this kind of energy and time putting together a book, I’m gonna publish it because what’s the point otherwise?” I mean, the whole point is to tell a story and share the story because that’s where the value is. It’s in the sharing of the story because maybe somebody out there is gonna identify with it, relate with it, be impacted by it. And so it’s a form of communication that I think is really the most valuable. I mean, and that’s the reason a lot of that piece of criminal defense work that I find attractive is the telling of the story, same idea.
Rachel: And how has the reception for “Aurora” been? Have you been able to talk to and engage with your readers?
Kerrie: So, the feedback I’ve gotten has been, they find it very powerful, very chilling. I’ve had people tell me that it’s so disturbing that it’s hard to get the images out of their head, which I take as a compliment because that really was the goal was to make it so visceral and so gut-wrenching that you don’t forget because, you know, the point is to keep it front row center so that we not only remember the victims, but we also remember the survivors and remember that ripple effect in the community and the trauma because it doesn’t go away. And I think it’s so easy, especially… I mean, it sounds horrible. Especially with so many mass shootings happening, I mean, in 2022 alone, there have been over 600. It’s so easy to sort of just shelve them and say, you know, “Another mass shooting.” I mean, people get desensitized to it. And I think the whole point is, no, we can’t get desensitized to it. I mean, these are horrific, violent crimes that are leaving these communities leveled and the survivors who never recover.
I mean, it’s not just the survivors of the dead, it’s the survivors of the wounded, it’s the mothers of these shooters, you know, the father. I mean, it’s just the ripple impact of this is so tremendous that I think it’s such an important topic. And so that’s why the book is very graphic, it’s very sad. I mean, there are moments, like I said, which actually made me cry during them because… And that’s how I knew I was writing something very emotionally raw because it was impacting me and I have a pretty tough… I mean, I’ve seen a lot. But if it got to me, I mean, that’s when you know you’re writing something important, something that’s gonna resonate with people. So, I think the response has been very positive, but, you know, it’s not an easy read. So, it’s not something you take to the beach and read.
My family has often lamented that they’ve not been able to read my books, you know, and so I just hope one day they can actually read the entire book and, you know, comment on it. But, yeah. So, I take that as a compliment though. I think that’s the point of it. And shows like this that help spread that out. You guys don’t have that epidemic. It is truly an American epidemic, I think, in a lot of ways, which is sad. I mean, that’s a comment. I mean, it really begs the question, “What is wrong, you know, with our culture and our… I mean, what is wrong?” There’s something wrong. It’s an epidemic. And we don’t have answers for it. And I think that’s even more disturbing. That’s sort of the subtext to the whole book is there isn’t an answer. I mean, the book asks the question, it sets it up, you know, it not only explains what happened, why it happened, why it keeps happening, and is it at all preventable? And it’s sort of, you know, underlying that is the question, can you spot a mass shooter? And if you can spot them, can you stop them? And the chilling and sad answer to that is no. And so then you have to look at something else, like, what is going on? Really, what is the underlying problem? Because it truly is an American problem. And I think that that’s really the larger question.
Rachel: Well, I think you nailed it that, like, reading books like this that do evoke such a, like, visceral reaction that are so emotional and, frankly, a little disturbing, just shows how impactful these events are because we hear all of the news up here too and we run the risk of being desensitized to it as well because we’re in Canada where it’s so easy to just say it’s not our problem when that is not at all the case. So, I think that, like, it is really important for these stories to be told from a personal level because that’s sometimes the only way that people will see the impact.
Kerrie: Right. And I think it’s also kind of interesting, you know, to me from a true crime perspective is that, you know, the audience of true crime is largely women, which is also very interesting. And I’ve thought about this a lot because I think with true crime, like, if you’re writing about a serial killer or you’re writing about, you know, Jeffrey Dahmer or something like that, it’s sort of like this titillating fascination where you can watch this crime unfold, watch this horrible person, you know, but have some distance. So, it’s like a horror film, right? You’re in the comfort of your home, on your couch, and you’re watching it while you’re texting a friend, while you’re cooking dinner, whatever it is. There’s some distance between you and that horrific boogeyman on the screen. And so I think with “Aurora,” that wall has been taken away. And I think that’s what makes the book so chilling and disturbing and difficult to read because you can’t separate yourself anymore and you can’t read the book without really thinking about the questions that I posed. And for me, that really is the difference and the distinction between what I call the other true crime, you know, it’s like the other flavor of true crime versus… I don’t even know how you would call it. These are all reality, but it’s that distance, you know, where you really have to connect with this. And I do that on purpose. It’s not, you know, where you have to literally get into her head and be there, be with Dr. Fenton when she’s meeting this person that she describes as evil incarnate. Yeah. So, that’s the difference, I think.
Laura: So, a lot of your previous books, true crime books, also touch on that other side of true crime. Your previous books were uncovering stories about the world of biker gangs like the Hell’s Angels. How did the writing process for this book differ?
Kerrie: I think the process was really different because, first of all, this was the first time that I was in the head of a person who I would consider on, like, equal footing in a way. She was a “normal person” like one of us. She’s a psychiatrist in a professional world. And this crime, like, came to her. It was a situation and an event. And any one of us, perhaps if we had been in her position, would have had that happen. Whereas writing about undercover operations, infiltrations, informants, biker gangs, those people deliberately put themselves in those positions to go inside and, you know, uncover an operation, uncover what’s going on in these biker gangs. And so they’ve put themselves at risk. And so, for me, the process was very different because the story really became about the operation. It became about what was it like for this infiltrator to go in and kind of, you know, become a made member of a particular biker gang? And what did that look like? And all of the things that happened to him and then kind of disclosing or revealing what these biker gangs were like.
And so it’s that subculture that lives, you know, under the radar and what’s it like. And so it was very interesting for me from that perspective because, you know, they’re like the mafia on wheels and people are fascinated by the mafia and by subcultures, and so it was a very different experience. And so this one, “Aurora,” was way more visceral, way more immediate, because I could relate, I could identify, particularly with being a capital defense lawyer and thinking, “Oh, my God, like, I could represent somebody like Holmes. I probably have not to that level or that scale, but, you know, I relate. This is my wheelhouse of pathology.” So, it was very, very different experience and I think that’s why it impacted me so greatly. And the fact that she was a woman, and this was the first time I was actually writing about, you know, a woman, like, a person who could be a colleague, a professional on my level. So, it was interesting in that respect.
Laura: And I imagine you have to conduct a lot of interviews with interesting people during your writing process for these books. How do you contact these sources and what is that process like?
Kerrie: So, for every book, contacting sources is very different. I would say, you know, in the biker books, it’s really challenging because they’re all different. So, in the last Chicago Boss, for example, it was predominantly interviews that I had with Big Pete, who was the boss of the Chicago Outlaws. And he was an incredibly funny, charismatic, entertaining storyteller himself. And so we would have a standing date every Sunday where we would speak on the phone for three hours, I’d record it. And this went on for almost a year where we would just, you know, talk and he would regale me with all kinds of, like, really hilarious stories and I would… He was easy because he was such a good storyteller. Whereas on the other hand, if you have somebody who doesn’t talk very much, doesn’t provide a lot of detail, it’s really challenging because then I have to get corroborating sources.
And so with writing about the undercover operations, those were very tricky. In fact, I have a whole workshop on what it was like to write true crime. It’s on my website, on kerriedroban.com, if anybody’s really interested in that process. But it is a very involved how do you become sort of a hybrid journalist? Because that’s really what it involved for me, because you only get one shot sometimes in interviewing people that are going south on you really quickly or don’t wanna be taped. And I had that come up a lot where, you know, these biker gangs, they don’t like to be recorded because that’s how the FBI catches them and things.
So, that was kind of tricky too. I wrote one book almost entirely on sticky notes that I was then… Because I was sitting in my closet at 4 in the morning trying to interview this person and writing things down on sticky notes, but I knew I was gonna have to mishmash later on some kind of… So, every book has been different, and a lot of it is really just building that trust and rapport and showing them that, you know, I can do this, I’m sensitive enough to do this. And each book is sort of built on the next one, and that’s how I’ve gotten those books. So, the very first biker book was very challenging, but the second one, they had read the first one, so it kind of came out of that and it just sort of organically evolved.
Rachel: And you touched on your writing workshop for true crime. Is there one piece of advice without giving the whole workshop away that you would give authors who are interested in writing true crime?
Kerrie: Yeah. I think that you have to have realistic expectations. There’s a lot of, I guess, what I would call false starts. I guess the biggest piece of advice I would get is to get the story quickly, like, within the first two to three months of getting that story because sources will go south, they won’t wanna be interviewed, they will lose interest quickly in the book. So, get the interviews done fast right off the bat and have that, and then have something in writing, whether it’s an email confirmation or… And I learned this the hard way. I didn’t have a mentor. So, a lot of these things I learned were by trial and error where I incorporated some of my lawyer skills. Nothing on the phone. Got to record everything in writing. Those are some of the things that are just, like, basics, but get the story quickly. And do not expect to, well, I guess, get paid a lot right out of the gate. That’s the big deal. I mean, that’s sort of the big thing. And I guess expect too that you’re gonna have some media interest. So, you have to be comfortable with that because a lot of these cases, they’ve either been in the media or there’s lots of follow-up articles on them and people are interested in that, and so you have to be ready for that piece of it, like, talking about it a lot.
Rachel: Along the same lines, a lot of our listeners are authors of, like, thrillers and mysteries, the more fictional side of crime, if you will. Is there anything that fiction crime writers can learn from true crime?
Kerrie: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think that a lot of the same techniques, certainly the same. I mean, you know, you still have to do the same amount of research even if you’re writing fictional characters, so you wanna research. I would recommend… I think if people haven’t done this, it’d probably be very beneficial to go and court watch, to go sit in the courtroom, get the feel and the vibe of what it’s like to have a trial go. I wouldn’t recommend watching the entire thing because that’s incredibly boring, but just designate like a couple of hours just to go get the vibe of what it’s like to be in the courtroom, watching the testimony because it’s not what it is on television. And I think that it’s a big misnomer if they start to write as if they’ve just watched a show of “Law & Order” because it’s not the same. Yeah. I mean, I think there are many, many crossover similarities. There’s still the same amount of research, same amount of, you know, how the structure of the story, the point of view, dialogue. I incorporate a lot of the same components in that because I think mine has been described as narrative nonfiction. So, I think, yeah, I don’t see a whole lot of difference, honestly, between the two genres.
Rachel: And what are you working on next? What’s your next project?
Kerrie: So, I am working on another really interesting book that deals with a lot of very dark and creepy pathology. I can’t give a whole lot of details on it, but it’s definitely in the wheelhouse of “Aurora.” It’s equally disturbing, I think. And I think it really is one of those books that’s gonna, I think, appeal a lot to women. And yeah, I think it’s gonna be good. It’s gonna be creepy. I’m very superstitious. I don’t like talking about something until it’s sold.
Rachel: I’m the same way. And I hesitate to say, like, I really look forward to reading it because you said it’s disturbing and creepy, but I do. And before we let you go, where can our listeners find you online?
Kerrie: So, they can find me at kerriedroban.com, which is my website. If they Google Kerrie Droban, they’ll find me all over the place. So, I think just plugging in my name, it’s D-R-O-B-A-N. They’ll find me.
Rachel: We will definitely include a link to your website in our show notes.
Laura: Is your romantic suspense also under Kerrie Droban?
Kerrie: Yes, it is. I don’t know if it can still be found, but I’ve had people find it. It’s called “In the Company of Darkness.” And, yeah, it was a fun book to write. It’s not too far afield, but it has elements of crime in it because it was a suspense thriller, but yeah.
Rachel: It’s gonna be Laura’s personal mission to find it now.
Kerrie: I know. I know. I can send you a copy.
Rachel: Well, thank you so much, Kerrie, for taking the time and chatting with us today. This has been fantastic.
Laura: Yes, thank you. This is great.
Kerrie: Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up Kerrie’s books or checking out her true crime writing workshop, we will include links in our show notes. And if you’re enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com and be sure you’re following us on social platforms. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Laura: This episode was hosted by Laura Granger and Rachel Wharton with production by Terrence Abrahams. Editing is provided by Kelly Robotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker. And thanks to you, Kerrie Droban, for being a guest. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.