Crafting a New Genre: A Conversation with Jamie Gehring
October 25, 2022 § 4 Comments
Jamie Gehring’s glad her initial pitches got rejected.
By L.L. Kirchner
I’m not typically into true crime. I prefer relatable memoirs. Then I discovered Jamie Gehring’s new book, Madman in the Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber, and found both in one—a relatable memoir about a true crime.
In 1996, Gehring learned the identity of the nation’s longest-running domestic terrorist, Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. He also happened to be her neighbor, and so her memoir blends personal experience—Kaczynski holding her as a baby and giving her gifts like painted rocks—with original research, including the author’s insights into Kaczynski’s personal correspondence, journals and interviews.
What makes this story accessible is that Gehring resists turning Kaczynski into a caricature. Her family shared meals with their reclusive neighbor, so she knew he didn’t care for her beloved, noisy motorcycle. Still, it’s shocking to read Kaczynski’s writing on the same memory:
“When I see a motorcyclist tearing up the mountain meadows, instead of fretting about how I can get revenge on him safely, I just want to watch the bullet rip through his flesh and I want to kick him in the face when he is dying.”
After meeting Gehring at an author’s conference, I got to ask how she went about researching and writing the book and the grit it took to create a unique genre, the braided crime memoir. Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
LLK: Do you distrust all your neighbors now?
JG: [laughing] I’m still very trusting of people until I have reason not to be.
LLK: What gave you the idea to write this book?
JG: Since he was arrested in 1996, I’ve wanted to tell the story. It’s so unique to us. But I was working full time, raising kids. It wasn’t till my two kids were older that I could. I wrote while my baby napped, or my husband would stay home for the weekend and I’d lock myself in a hotel room and write for 48 hours to get completely immersed in the project.
When I first started writing this six years ago, I thought the book would be short stories. I did my outline and started writing and when I had it almost done, I didn’t feel like it was personal enough.
LLK: What was the model for your book?
JG: There wasn’t one. I wanted to write something completely different. It was a risk because I didn’t understand the market, or what a braided memoir was. I had to learn how to incorporate the interviews, my history, and the journal entries.
A couple of writing coaches were like, “Braided memoir in crime is something that’s just not done. It’s not going to work.” I was like, I think it’s gonna work.
LLK: [Expletive] them!
JG: I’m just glad that when I was initially pitching, I got rejected. Because that wasn’t the story that I wanted to write. Other writers I met said I could pull this off, so I kept writing and recrafting. It finally came together. My agent really helped me hone as well.
LLK: Do you worry about glamorizing serial killers?
JG: I don’t want to glorify this violence or make a hero out of Ted Kaczynski, or to excuse acts of domestic terrorism. But when you’re trying to understand the people around you, I believe it’s important to try to understand their background, their story. The victims were always very present in my mind when I was writing.
I also researched my demographic. True crime is a broad audience, but there are a lot of women interested in true crime. It can give a feeling kind of empowerment, knowing that, though you can’t control the violence around you, you can control what you understand. I wrote with that in the back of my mind too.
If the beginning chapters of my book seem sympathetic toward Kaczynski, that’s honest. Those are my childhood memories. But those views changed. I take readers along as I read and learned about what he was really doing next door.
LLK: How did you stay with this difficult story?
JG: There were times I had to stop and put everything away for a couple of days. I remember reading the journal entries where Ted wrote these methodical, strategic descriptions of what he was going to do, hanging up by the neck, the neck height, type of wire… It was methodical. It was strategic. And it was in our backyard. He It was intentionally trying to kill people. And that wasn’t just people, that included me. Reading that was very difficult.
I had many moments of wanting to throw my laptop in a trash compactor and watch as 50,000 words were transformed into unrecognizable splinters and cubes. I wanted to forget this dream. Not only during the writing process but while pitching to agents and then publishers.
I made myself take weeks off the project to play with my children, hike, meditate—which I wasn’t very good at—and go to yoga. That way I could digest difficult discoveries and restore my nervous system, before diving back in.
LLK: What advice would you give writers who feel like their project doesn’t fit a mold?
JG: Trust your gut and your creative vision for a project. You may need to revise a hundred times, but stay true to your goals. Much of the initial advice I received was thrown out by the time I gained confidence as a writer and had the backing of a skilled agent and publisher.
If you’re new to this industry, find your village. Mine was found in online groups of writers, who are now real-life friends, my agent, writing coach, and my publicist.
Jamie Gehring is a Montana native who grew up sharing a backyard with Ted Kaczynski, the man widely known as the Unabomber. She was featured in Netflix’s Unabomber—In His Own Words where she discussed her family’s role in Ted’s capture. Her debut memoir, MADMAN IN THE WOODS: LIFE NEXT DOOR TO THE UNABOMBER (Diversion Books, 2022) has been referenced by Kirkus Reviews as, “A revealing, firsthand addition to the literature of domestic terrorism.” More at her website.
L.L. Kirchner is an award-winning screenwriter and author of the forthcoming BLISSFUL THINKING: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution (Motina Press, 2023). Her first memoir, AMERICAN LADY CREATURE, was recently re-released as an ebook. More at her website.
Tagged: braided memoir, pitching, true crime
Very interesting post here. I can’t imagine what she and her family felt as he was arrested and the depravity of his life was revealed. Plus, this is the first time I’ve heard the term “braided memoir.” Is this something new? I had to consult Google to find out.
Scary. Hopefully we no longer always under-weigh what this or that neighbor gives voice to.
I recently finished Jamie’s book as well. Her intuition about how to tell this story was right—it was such a great read, executed with grace and proper emotional levity.
Fascinating interview. Thanks, Roz Morris, for mentioning it.