Nate Hendley is a Canadian true-crime writer who recently had a book published by Greenwood Press of Connecticut on the outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. A full-time freelance writer/author, Nate lives in Toronto, Canada with his fine wife Alyson and two cats. You can view his website at www.natehendley.com
What makes “the bad guys” fascinating? Why do people love to read about bank robbers, family massacrers, and American gangsters?
I can think of two different reasons. On one hand, people can sort of live vicariously through the action of bad men. Anyone who’s ever fantasized about robbing a bank would find a certain delight in the actions of say, Jesse James or John Dillinger. Bad men live outside the law, outside morality. Some people find that fascinating.
At the same time, I think people are intrigued by the efforts by law enforcement officials to capture and/or kill various bad guys. There is a sense that “justice will prevail” and it’s extremely gratifying when you hear about some low-life who has been captured, cornered or killed. My Bonnie and Clyde book, if I may be so bold, is a good example of this. You might root and cheer for Bonnie and Clyde in the early chapters, but once "the good guys" have been introduced, in the form of the Texas Rangers and Frank Hamer, the story turns into a question of ‘how far will they go before the Rangers nail them?’
The killings of the Donnelly family and of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were horrific. Should there be a line that a true-crime writer won't cross, or is anything, no matter how gruesome, fodder for the writer?
Yes. There is actually a recent example in Canada of this in Canada. Back in the early 1990s, there was this horrid couple in St. Catharines Ontario named Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. They kidnapped, raped and murdered at least two teenage girls, possibly more. Paul was also a serial rapist on the side. For whatever reason, Paul and Karla videotaped their little sex torture/murder sessions. Anyway, when Paul came up for trial (he was arrested after a long investigation that saw Karla more or less cooperate with authorities for a reduced sentence), the judge imposed a publication ban on evidence. The end-result was that only the judge, jury and lawyers could actually view the sex-murder tapes in the trial. It was verboten to broadcast them on TV or even watch them (unless you were a judge, juror, lawyer or Paul Bernardo).
A crime reporter named Stephen Williams put together a book called Invisible Darkness: The Horrifying Case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. The book contained descriptions of the taped torture sessions. Authorities somehow concluded that Williams had actually viewed these tapes, something Williams denied. He was actually criminally charged with two counts of disobeying a court order.
The charges put the crime writer community in a bit of quandary. On one hand, people naturally sympathized with a fellow writer being put upon by the forces of law and order. On the other hand, there was a sense that the Bernardo case was so slimy that it was immoral to probe too deeply into it, for the sake of a book.
I think timing is a big issue. Williams’ fault might have been that he wrote his book too soon after the killings took place. The case was still very raw for a lot of people and they were offended at the notion of “making a buck” by writing about it. Once a few decades have past, it’s generally a lot easier to write about touchy, controversial topics. Williams, by the way, did manage to beat the rap in the end and didn't go to jail.
Last year you published a book on motivation for non-fiction writers. Do non-fiction writers have to psych themselves up in a different way than fiction writers?
Yes. As a fiction writer, you can let your imagination go wild. There are workshops, for example, to promote creativity in artists—a category that certainly covers fiction writers. Non-fiction writers, however, have less to go on. It’s hard to do a creativity exercise to generate enthusiasm about a 1000 word piece on Computer Numerical Controlled lathe machines. Non-fiction writers generally write on command, at least when they’re starting out. You have very specific parameters in which to write—strict word count, deadline, and everything has to be factual and verifiable. This tends to instil a sense of pragmatism among non-fiction scribes. I psych myself up by thinking about the financial ruin that might befall me if I don’t get an assignment done in time
You're also a professional proof-reader and copy editor. What is the biggest problem you see in submitted manuscripts? What do writers need to learn to do better?
The biggest problem I can see in most manuscripts is over-writing. This is particularly the case for beginning writers, who feel they have to make every last word golden. I have found this to be the case in both fiction and non-fiction writers. The more confident you get about your abilities, generally the fewer words you need to put on page to convey a story.
Next month Canada Calling visits Linda Hall, a mystery writer fascinated with how mysterious water can be.