Bookpleasures.com today is pleased to have as our guest, Deborah Halber. Deborah started out as a daily newspaper reporter, then turned to the dark side to do public relations. She worked as a writer and editor for Tufts and as a science writer for MIT, where she chronicled everything from quantum weirdness (that’s the technical term) to snail slime.
A freelance journalist since 2004, her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, MIT Technology Review, the graphic news magazine Symbolia, and many university publications.
Her narrative nonfiction book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014.
A member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the National Association of Science Writers, she lives near Boston in a house with a lot of former pets buried out back.
Norm: How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
Deborah: My 9th grade English teacher thought it would be fun for us kids to launch a school newspaper. It ended up with the terrible name The Beard Bugle—because our school was Daniel Carter Beard Junior High—but I wanted to become a journalist. Mr. Steinberg—wherever you are—thank you! But even back then, writing was a way to try to understand the world.
Norm: What helps you focus when you write? Do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Deborah: Sometimes writing feels like pulling teeth, or coaxing shy woodland creatures to come eat from your hand. It’s a frustrating, pain-staking struggle. Other times, it flows faster than I can type (which isn’t very fast anyway).
Same with reading what I’ve written. Some days, especially if it’s been a slog to churn out even a few hundred words, I’ll read it back and think, “That’s pretty good!” Then the next day, I’ll read it again and think, “What the hell was that supposed to be about?”
Norm: What has been the best part about being published?
Deborah: Hearing from people who’ve read the book and really get it. It never ceases to amaze me that you can connect with perfect strangers through some little black marks on paper or a screen.
Norm: What are the preponderant influences on your writing?
Deborah: I love the way Susan Orlean, Dave Eggers and Mary Roach capture what is quintessentially funny or ironic or poignant about their subjects. I aspire to do that with a fraction of their finesse.
Norm: Why have you be drawn to writing about mystery and crime and what motivated you to write The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases?
Deborah: I love a good mystery, but I actually don’t read much mystery or true crime myself. What I found most compelling were the people who “adopt” these cold cases and become a little (sometimes a lot) obsessed with them. I love to write about people who are passionate about their work, whether they're neuroscientists or amateur sleuths.
Norm: Could you tell our audience a little about your book?
Deborah: As the book jacket says, it’s DYI C.S.I. THE SKELETON CREW tells the stories of amateur sleuths who seek to identify people who died and became separated from their identities. These Jane and John Does—by some estimates, more than 40,000 of them--are scattered around the country, stowed in the back rooms of morgue and buried in potters fields. The book revolves around a handful of cases that web sleuths managed to solve, although one—ironically, the one that drew me into this macabre subculture—is still infuriatingly elusive.
Norm: What would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read your book?
Deborah: Readers have told me that it’s a page-turner about a quirky crew of characters and a national phenomenon that many people are unaware of.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing your book and did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Deborah: I came across a lot of drama—competitiveness, name-calling, and back-stabbing—within the web sleuthing community and struggled with how to portray that accurately and fairly.
Norm: Where did you get your information or ideas for your book?
Deborah: The old-fashioned way—by contacting people and asking for interviews.
Norm: Can you tell us how you found representation for your book? Did you pitch it to an agent, or query publishers who would most likely publish this type of book? Any rejections? Did you self-publish?
Deborah: I had found an agent for a previous nonfiction book proposal, which was ultimately rejected. My agent was patient enough to stick with me as I prepared the completely new proposal based on a completely different idea for THE SKELETON CREW (which she initially called THE AMATEURS). It garnered interest from two major houses and ultimately ended up with Simon & Schuster, where I was lucky enough to work with the fabulous and talented Sarah Knight.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Deborah: For years, I’d heard at writers' conferences that publishing is a tough road for first-time authors without a prominent platform (like me), but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s not as dire as it sounds. There are opportunities out there. But it's really important to do your homework. Read one of the many excellent books on how to write a proposal, then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until it’s as compelling as you can possibly make it. Of course, this is for nonfiction. The process is different for fiction.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases?
Deborah: MY WEBSITE
Norm: What is next for Deborah Halber?
Deborah: Since the book came out, I’ve heard from people with perplexing, fascinating—and sometimes heart-wrenching—real-life stories. I’d like to tell some of their stories.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Deborah: Do cucumbers, fresh basil and lime have any place in a vodka gimlet? Definitely.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Follow Here To Purchase The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases