Mark Horner Recreates Real Crime ... and takes a bite out of it
By Diego X. Jesus and Mark London
Given the events of his early life, it's as if American TV newsman Mark Horner was born to be a crime writer.
His first piece of writing was an innocent little piece of fiction about two horses that fell in love. But by the time he'd reached the sixth grade, at age 11, he'd won first place in a class contest for scariest Halloween essay, the gory details of which worried his wary teacher.
Later, the ambitious young Horner wrote a column for his high school's student newspaper and did the same in college. He graduated from college in 1986 and launched his career in television as a sports reporter. A transfer to the news department occurred within the first year, and he's been writing television news ever since.
In the early 90s, while working for KGUN-TV in Tucson, Arizona, he decided to take a shot at writing a freelance print story. He had discovered a tiny bakery in the middle of the remote desert.
He wrote a story about it, and a friend agreed to shoot the photographs. He sent the story to Arizona Highways magazine where, after careful consideration, it did not get printed. A small newspaper in Green Valley, Arizona, though, did print it... filling two pages with photos.
Horner believes his career in television helped him evolve both his storytelling and his relationship-building skills.There, his strength as a features and general news story writer emerged. His reporting took on a distinctively harder edge, and he learned how to dissect a criminal complaint and extract the story from a court document.
In 95, he took a TV job in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where in 99 he started a web site dedicated to a crime, the infamous Hossencofft murder case -- the TV newsroom hadn't quenched his thirst for investigating and telling real crime stories -- which became the subject of his very first book, September Sacrifice, five years later.
He happily answered a few questions for IN, but to get deep into his real crime story, you'll have to read the book.
IN: When did you first become interested in crime writing?
MH: A crime known as the David Parker Ray Sex Torture Case emerged in New Mexico in 99. I lived and breathed that case for three months solid and would later win first place for Best Investigative Reporting from the Associated Press. I entertained the notion of writing a book about it, but never did, wondering where I'd ever find the time. While I didn't write the book, my name appears in the two books written about the case (Jim Fielder's Slow Death and John Glatt's Cries in the Desert).
IN: What approach(es) or methods do you use when writing true crime stories?
MH: I gather as much information as possible about the case, first in court/police documents and also by interviewing people directly involved in the case and those who knew individuals -- usually the perpetrator(s) -- throughout their lives.
Regarding the interviews, a level of trust must certainly be developed before people truly start opening up to a writer. Next, it's extremely important to be well-organized and manage one's time efficiently. I'd amassed thousands of documents over the years. It was critical that I had them well organized and that I'd prepared a good chapter outline before writing the book. I spent about three months preparing my outline.
IN: Who have been the most influential people during your writing career?
MH: Without a doubt, true-crime writers Gregg Olsen and M. William Phelps and my literary agent Jim Cypher. Olsen found my web site and sent me an e-mail basically stating, "Like your web site. Are you writing a book about this case? If not, you should. If you don't, I will."
At the time, I hadn't heard of Olsen and didn't know he was a writer. But I Googled his name, and quickly discovered he was a successful author. I bluffed and told him I was writing a book about the case (I had started to write the book several times but the efforts had never really gone far). He recommended that I get an agent and passed along Jim Cypher's name. The rest, as they say, is history.
IN: During the course of your research you met some pretty strange people. How do you keep your subjects on topic when asking difficult questions?
MH: Well, I don't know that I always manage to keep them on topic. Sometimes you have to let people go where they want to go and wait 'til you can essentially reel them back in. Letting them go off-topic isn't necessarily a bad thing, either.
At times, it can expose dimensions to a story that the writer had not anticipated. Yes, that can mean more tunnels to explore, so to speak, but I don't mind the mystery. Some say that might be a fault of mine -- my willingness to look under so many rocks, to go down so many paths.
But to me, it's like a treasure hunt. I want to gather as much treasure as possible, then keep the very best of it and organize it in the most attractive way for the reader. Allowing people to go off-topic can also let the subject know that you're willing to listen to what is important to him/her. This also helps build a relationship and trust.
IN:Any uncomfortable experiences during the interviews?
MH: I interviewed Diazien Hossencofft for about 20 minutes during a recess in court one day. He attempts to intimidate people and come off as intellectually superior to people. I wasn't very uncomfortable, but I was excited to have the opportunity to interview him in person and wanted to get the most out of it. Years later -- while writing the book -- I received a letter from Hossencofft's accomplice, Linda Henning, vowing that I wouldn't live to finish the book. That was interesting, but consistent for Linda.
IN: Are the police and judicial system staff easy to work with? Are they forthcoming regarding events, notes, crime scene pictures, etc?
MH: I found police, the prosecutors and judges to be a pleasure to work with. I think the investigators appreciated my dedication to the story. The judge who presided over Linda Henning's trial was very gracious, but also presented a particular challenge to me as a writer. While I was finishing up my manuscript, he got popped for driving under the influence.
He had cocaine on his lap. In fact, the police report referred to the white powder all over his "crotch." Because the book is "true" crime," I decided to include this development in my book's Epilogue, knowing that it would not be well-received by the judge. I've never heard from the judge regarding the mention. I'd attempted to contact him after his arrest as every local news outlet wanted an interview with him. No one got it.
IN: What was it like meeting the various families -- of the victims and otherwise?
MH: Over the years, I invested tremendous time in interviewing and getting to know family members, friends, and co-workers of many of the people associated with this story.
Two weeks after starting my site I received an e-mail. The writer was Andrew Chew, the victim's (Girly Chew Hossencofft) younger brother. On behalf of himself, his brother and elderly parents, he "thanked" me for my web site, explaining it was his family's sole conduit to information about the case.
The e-mail came from Malaysia. Girly was from Malaysia and had come to the U.S. in 92 to marry the man who would ultimately orchestrate her disappearance and murder.
So I strengthened my resolve to maintain and update the site. It had a purpose far more profound than I had ever intended. Over the years, I developed a relationship of trust with Girly's family that proved very beneficial to the book.
I can say the same for the relationship that I developed over the years with now-convicted killer Linda Henning's former boyfriend Steve Zachary. Steve remains a loyal friend to Linda to this day. He's known her for the better part of 20 years now. Through Steve's eyes, I -- and ultimately the reader -- received a much deeper insight into Henning.
I was also fortunate to have had interviewed Diazien Hossencofft's younger half-brother, Stanley Chavez, for a TV story. I was later able to use that interview in the book. Later, Hossencofft's family entirely clammed-up. Shortly after finishing the manuscript, though, I was contacted by other members of his family.
They shared additional insights. Too late for the book, yes. But interesting to me. Most of it was told in confidence. But this demonstrates how long it can, at times, take to cultivate relationships and trust. Five years!
IN: Why did you decide to write about this specific crime?
MH: While working for a television station in Yakima, Washington, I covered a story about a husband and wife who were truckers... and whistle-blowers. They'd blown the whistle on the practice of backhauling in the trucking industry, explaining that they'd transport formaldehyde to New York and, after giving their tanker a quick rinse, fill-up the same tanker with orange juice destined for Safeway in California.
As a result, they were blackballed in their profession and couldn't get work. I thought their story, including the injustices they'd subsequently endured, would make a great book. But I never wrote it.
In 99, the David Parker Ray sex/torture case emerged. I lived and breathed it. And I thought it would make a hell of a book. But I never wrote it. That same year the Hossencofft case began to unfold.
I was profoundly struck that the victim, Girly Hossencofft, had gone to the police and FBI and told them that her estranged husband, Diazien Hossencofft, had vowed that she would be killed and that her body would never be found.
She lived in absolute fear, yet kept it in large part to herself. This petite, quiet, humble and likeable woman even signed up for karate to learn how to protect herself. She was that frightened, and certain that her day of reckoning would eventually arrive. She was right. And her body still hasn't been found.
I kept telling myself, "If I don't write this story, I'll never write a book!" That opinion only strengthened as the case became increasingly sensational, including its bizarre components of beliefs in blood-drinking and shape-shifting reptilian aliens. Thanks to Olsen's "threat" to write the book, I finally did it. I wrote a book that has been very well-received!
IN: What would you tell new writers about your process(es) that might help them to establish their own successful writing careers? Other than "keep writing," are there special insights you can pass along from your experiences in dealing with publishers?
MH: It's in the doing! I'm living proof that "thinking" about writing a book will never get it done. One must move forward with action. It doesn't have to be a rapid-fire, hectic pace. Even a constant plodding of small steps will eventually get you to the completion of your manuscript.
Also, research, research, research. Not only your story, but what it takes to write for your genre (develop and utilize the expected skills/format. Per my agent's advice, I browsed through a few "how-to write true crime" books), research agents and publishers, too. Be persistent. Stay focused and disciplined. If possible, pick the brains of other writers (be careful not to be a nuisance). Many writers are very gracious and willing to pass along advice/tips.
And write about something you're passionate about -- something extremely interesting to you. As has been said, "If you don't find it interesting, the reader won't, either (not to mention a prospective publisher)."
IN: Catherine Ryan Hyde and the film of her novel Pay It Forward popularized the concept of doing a favour for another person -- without any expectation of being paid back. Have any?
MH: Just one. I'd like to wish the best to a writer in Columbus, Ohio, Loretta Dillon. Loretta's just written her first book, Stone Cold Guilty: The People v. Scott Lee Peterson. Because the other Peterson books came out first, Loretta's had a difficult time getting a publisher.
So, she's just self-published. She recently sent me a sample chapter and it's not only well-written, it has compelling and never-before-reported information about the Peterson case. People can learn more about Stone Cold Guilty at http://www.lulu.com/dillon
Diego X. Jesus is a Dominican-born American freelance underground journalist and associate editor of IN who makes Toronto his home approximately half the time. Otherwise, we don't know where he might be.Email Jesus
Mark London is a Toronto based freelance writer and associate editor of IN who has been with the FWO-Int'l from the early years volunteering much of his time in assisting young writers' careers. email Mark: email@example.com