Philip Carlo, one of America's foremost experts on serial killers and sexual predators, believes in going into the world and asking questions, never taking "No" for an answer.
Over the years Philip has written numerous books based on exhaustive one-on-one interviews with such notorious killers as Richard "The Ice Man" Kuklinski and Richard "The Night Stalker" Ramirez. The Ice Man, a 2006 New York Times Best Seller, is one of his many excellent, big hit books that leads the reader into the minds of maniacs.
He believes in searching until you find the truth, the real truth. That's what makes the heart and soul of good writing. He writes about murder and murderers, rapists, child molesters and predatory psychopaths but, what lured him to write about the psychotic world of serial killers and predators? IN had the privilege of asking Mr. Carlo that, and other questions about writing, to present this truly admirable man.
IN: When did you first start writing?
PC: I didn't finish high school and have no formal education to speak of. I got involved with the written word from my love of reading. Realizing at a young age that books can transport you to different, far away places, they can make you see, know and feel other people, other cultures and emotions. I always thought of it as some kind of magical experience because you can lose yourself in books. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, a very tough, Mafia saturated neighbourhood and saw a lot of crime and violence as I was growing up. I saw someone shot to death when I was 15 years old.
To make a long story short, I got out of Brooklyn, ended up in the Real Estate business, was making money, but I just wasn't happy. I felt there was something more in life that I could pursue, and I still had this bug about reading. I started entertaining the idea about writing. Thinking that I could do it, I just up and quit the business world and devoted myself to writing a great crime novel.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. No idea how difficult it was. How disciplined you have to be. How writing comes first before anything else. I spent maybe two years of my life devoted towards learning the basics of writing. Essentially reading and reading. It's all about reading. I'm a big fan of Hemmingway. I've read everything he's written several times. If I have anything to say to anybody in terms of learning to write, I strongly urge reading Hemmingway, specifically Movable Feast because that book tells about the crisis and the dilemmas that you're confronted with when writing at a professional level.
Movable Feast is about Hemmingway's years in Paris, his early years, and all the great ex-patriots there. He talks in detail about them all, Joyce, Fitzgerald, but more importantly he talks about what it's like to have an artist's mindset because writing is about being an artist. Writing is painting pictures with words. It was very helpful for me to understand the processes and what writing is about. Even Hemmingway was rejected a lot during his early career. My first book was rejected repeatedly, but it's all about hanging in there. Ultimately my first book was sold to E. P. Dutton.
IN: Why did you decide to write about serial killers and sexual predators?
PC: The bottom line is this: You write about what you know. You need to know so much about a subject that you can write 10% of what you know and that'll be the book. Cut away the fat, cut away the bullshit and write the heart of the story. Write the soul of the story. My thing was writing about the street. Writing about people from the street.
My first book, Stolen Flower, published in 1986, tells how abducted children were used and abused by organized groups of paedophiles and the efforts of a hard-boiled detective trying to get her back. I learned a tremendous amount of information about sexual predators to write Stolen Flowers. I'm proud to say that it is now used in prisons to teach convicted molester’s empathy…if such a thing is possible. Ultimately, I sold the rights to Robert DiNero.
Then I wanted to write a book about how a person becomes a serial killer. I came to know that many of the men on death row who've committed murders were abused as children. So, I was looking for a story that would clearly delineate the building blocks that makes a guy like Richard Ramirez, or Ted Bundy, or Jack the Ripper. Who are these people? How the f**k did they get that way? That's what I wanted to know. I was trying to understand the hardcore truths about what makes a serial killer, and the only way to learn that is to go out into the world and ask questions.
IN: What approaches or methods do you use when writing true crime stories?
PC: I think to some degree Truman Capote set the standard with In Cold Blood because it was all about him going out and talking to the participants, to the victims, the sheriff, the killers.
John Steinbeck, when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, lived with migrant workers for two years before he wrote a word. When you look at the enormity, the complexity, the impact, these types of books had you don't have to look any further. There's the answer right there. That's how to do it. Get off your ass, go out into the world and ask questions. Never be accusatory. Never make people feel you're looking down on them. It's about establishing camaraderie, a rapport, with whomever you are talking to.
I manage to get killers to talk to me on an intimate, detailed level because I look them in the eye and treat them just like any other person. There's nothing unusual about them. If there is anything unusual about them they'll tell me about it. I don't go in with preconceived notions. The answer is never in your head. The answer is in their head. If you let them know that you care, that you're non-judgmental, I found, after a lot of experience with these guys that they'll talk. They'll tell the truth and they're not ashamed. They're not so remorseful that they can't share what's really going on in their heads. And it's always what's going on in their heads that makes the nucleus of the story. Facts, dates and details you can get from the newspaper. You can't understand what's going on inside them unless you get them to relax and talk to you.
Whenever I perform an interview of an infamous person spending life in jail I talk about myself for a long time. Who I am, how I got that way, my childhood, my parents, school, sex life, whatever intimacies they're interested in, I tell them about it honestly and candidly. After a while, the conversation simply returns to them. The worst thing you can do is to ask about their crimes. The best thing you can do is to ask about their grandparents. Then their parents, then their formative years and you allow the interview to evolve chronologically.
The crimes will naturally come up and they'll say, "Well, when I was 25 years old I did my first murder." and I say "Oh really? Tell me about that. What happened? What were you thinking? What were you doing that morning?" Little by little the story evolves and suddenly you have it right before you. Once they start talking about the violence, it doesn't stop because it's always about multiple victims. By then I know them and they know me. They're comfortable. They talk and I listen.
IN: Any uncomfortable experiences during, or caused by, interviewing criminals?
PC: Yes, absolutely. It's almost part and parcel of the territory. When you're dealing with psychopaths, like Richard Ramirez, who has a lot of followers outside, it can be problematic. I had one of his girlfriends threaten to shoot me. She said, "I know where you live and I've got a gun." I called some cop friends of mine and they broke down her door. It turned out there were warrants for her and she was arrested.
I get angry when writers put their lives on the line. It's so stupid. The object is to get the story and come back in one piece. The object is to never go and get killed acquiring the story. That's plain stupid. Any writer who does that has their head up their ass. There are incidences where you make mistakes, a bad judgement call and things happen, but when you purposely put yourself in danger because you think that will make the story, that's bull. The object is to see it, know it, feel it, and get away from it with your sanity and yourself physically intact.
The most important lesson about the process of writing is to learn to be comfortable with whom you are. Learn to be alone, understand that writing is a solitary process. If you're going to be in relationships, it better be with people who understand what you're about. It's dangerous territory because you have to block people out to write, people who love you, who care about you, who might get offended when you say, "Don't disturb me. Don't bother me." But it's part and parcel of the process.
IN: Are the police easy to work with regarding events, notes, crime scene pictures, etc?
PC: Basically you're a whore. You get the information from wherever and however you can. Generally, cops are open to talking. They have invested a lot of time, a lot of energy, blood, sweat, and tears, in pursuing these guys. If you approach them respectfully, they're usually willing to get involved. There might be a movie deal where they can be made a film advisor, they like that. Every hero cop I've ever dealt with I made them a promise that, if the book becomes a movie, I'll tell the film's producer that the cops should be advisors and how important they were to the case. Whenever you have a chance to do something for a cop, then do it, because there will come a day when you'll call them for a favour.
As far as crime scene pictures and whatnot, it's a sticky wicket. Pictures are eminently important to crime writing. The public loves them; the publishers want them, always keep your eye out for great photos. When you see them, get your hands on them any way that you can. Beg if need be. Get on your knees and plead.
IN: How difficult is it to get into prisons to conduct interviews?
PC: It's a matter of calling, writing letters, it's a matter of always, always, not taking "No" for an answer. Just keep knocking. There's no reason why a journalist can't go into a prison to interview an inmate. What might prevent it is that the journalist has a criminal record. But if a writer has no record, they should, theoretically, be able to get into any prison. They should be able to sit down with a pad and pen or a tape recorder and interview the subject.
IN: Who have been the most influential people during your writing career?
PC: When I told everyone I wanted to be a writer, they thought I was nuts. They asked, "Why would you give up your Real Estate career? Why give up your business to become a writer? It makes no sense." But I always felt that I could do it and I wouldn't take "No" for an answer. Woody Allen used to say, "98% of success is showing up." It's willing to not take 'No' for an answer, that's what it's about.
I was most influenced by Steinbeck, Hemmingway, Capote, and many others. As I said it really is about reading. You need to read all of the great Japanese writers, the great French writers, and the great Russian writers. Chekov I like very much - and after reading the best writers who have ever written, you'll have an idea of what the medium is about. You'll know what does and doesn't work. It not only enters your conscious mind, it enters your sub-conscious and you'll start dreaming about it. You'll start thinking in terms of sentences. You'll understand the beauty and simple power of an effective sentence.
IN: What gets your writing cranking?
PC: I write in the morning, after a good night's sleep and a strong cup of coffee. I find in the morning that my writing comes very naturally. I write 7 days a week for continuity. I'm good for four hours a day and stop when I'm going the strongest. I always stop when I'm "smoking" so I can start strong the next day. I never write until I'm exhausted. Stopping at my peak, then starting the next day, reading the last 5 pages written allows me to jump back in and pick up the pace and tempo.
IN: How do you get your manuscripts read and into the hands of a publisher?
PC: It's an interesting process selling a book to publishers. These days, it's all about writing a really good proposal. Spending however much time it takes. I wrote a proposal that took three months to assemble, but I'd been looking into the story for several years.
A good proposal can be 20 to 65 pages. It contains all the meat of the story, including a sample chapter and the book's outline. It's also very important to have a good agent. I have a wonderful agent named Matt Bialer at Sanford Greenburger Associates, which happens to have sold The DaVinci Code.
It's important to bond with your agent and let them know what you're about. Matt loved the proposal. We gave it to 20 publishers, six publishers bid on it, and we ended up selling it to Harper Collins. The best of both worlds is when multiple publishers begin bidding on your proposal. It was a really good experience, a great deal, and now I'm deeply immersed in writing the proposed book. Fact is, just today I finished my first 100 pages. The book should be available around September of 2007.
IN: What types of legalities, such as permissions from people you write about, do true crime writers need signed and agreed to by the interviewees?
PC: This is a very good question. The publisher you're dealing with has a lawyer. You and that lawyer, at some point, will sit down and go through the whole manuscript. They'll question you about every single person you are quoting and whatnot. You need to prove that you actually got the quotes whether it is a recording or notes. Always date your notes and write the time and place of the interview.
You don't need to get written permission to quote people. You need to get written permission to use something that has already been written, even if it's an email. Bottom line is that dead people, you can say anything about, people still living you must be very careful what you write. But, don't even think about legalities when you're writing. Just write and work that out when you have a clean, polished draft and a publisher. Their attorney will help, I've done it three times, and it's a pain in the ass but you have to do it.
IN: Have you ever solved a crime or been directly involved in helping to solve a crime?
PC: I'm way after the fact, but yes, absolutely. I met The Iceman 18 years after he did what he did. I cleared a dozen murders though that nobody knew about. He told me about murders he'd never mentioned before. Ramirez, who's convicted of killing 14 people, in reality, killed 28. He told me about those other murders but not for publication.
That's another thing writers should know, when you give somebody your word that it's off-the-record, it really has to be off-the-record. You can't ever lie about that because word will pass around and you're dead.
IN: Is it necessary to meet the various families of both victims and perpetrators?
PC: Yes. It's absolutely essential to not only talk to the perpetrators it's utterly essential to talk to their families. You'll get insights, anecdotes, and a whole new perspective that has nothing to do with what the criminal tells you.
Sometimes I learn more by talking to their families than to them. Over the course of a month I spent over 100 hours in San Quentin Prison with Ramirez. When I finished with him I went to El Paso, Texas and spent three weeks interviewing his family, his teachers, the girls he dated, and I cannot tell you the wealth of information I was able to garner.
When you talk to the mother of a serial killer, like Ramirez, you see something that is almost a phenomenon of nature. Here is the person who gave birth to that monster. Here is the person who has to live with the guilt of that. Mrs. Ramirez is a hard working, good woman, who gave birth to a devil and she has to accept that. Every day, every morning she deals with it through prayer and going to church, but her tears were a very, very sad thing to see. Talking with her was extremely difficult. One of the hardest interviews I ever conducted.
Meeting with the families of the victims is terrible. It's heart wrenching. One of the most painful experiences I've ever had in my life was talking to a man whose 84-year-old mother was beaten to death. Blood all over the floor, teeth knocked out, jaw broken. Enough said there.
IN: Do you think there will be movie versions of your books?
PC: When you're writing books, don't think about the film, it's a dangerous trap for writers. Just concern yourself with writing the book. When I ended up selling my first book, Stolen Flowers, to Robert DiNero, it was a great experience. I got to know him, we travelled all over Europe together looking for locales, the story opens in New York and goes to Europe, six different countries.
He ended up making his directorial debut though with A Bronx Tale, one thing led to another and in the end Stolen Flower was never done. Now we're negotiating the film rights for Iceman. If it happens, it happens, but it hasn't happened yet. Talk to me this time next year and we'll be close to halfway done with Iceman.
I have two other books that came out in 2006 and we're putting them on the film market in 2007. Smiling Wolf, a novel about the global underground vampire scene, blood drinkers and S&M sex. The second book is Predators & Prayers, which is about the infiltration of paedophiles into the Catholic Church.
I'm prouder of that last book than any other I've written because it's a brutal, candid, thriller about what that world is really like. I spent ten years researching it, wrote a play about it in '94, and it will make a great movie, not a good movie, a great movie. We're really hopeful for this in January, February, or March, if we can find a producer who has the balls to make the film.
IN: What's next for you?
PC: I'm writing an in-depth study of the head of a Mafia family who's co-operating with me. At this point I can't divulge who it is because of the circumstances surrounding my ability to interview him. He's in jail. It'll be a blockbuster book that will be the biggest, most sought after book in that genre since Good Fellas. For the first time ever I've got the head of a Mafia Family to totally co-operate with me. It's amazing. It's already been picked up and sold to Harper Collins.
Read Philip Carlo's excerpt from The Iceman.
Predators & Prayers St. Martin's Press, 0312349289
Smiling Wolf Leisure Books, 084395678X
The Iceman St. Martin's Press, 0312349289
The Night Stalker Pinnacle Books, 0786003790
Stolen Flower E. P. Dutton, 0525244840
Inkwell Newswatch (IN)
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