Author Interview: Steve Miller

Steve MillerSteve Miller is a highly regarded journalist who has lately turned his hand to true crime; he’s now written four and this one sparked my interest so much I wanted to hear what he had to say about it. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

Q: True Crime as a genre is kind of looked down on—but to me it shows a real true side of human behavior; maybe not a nice one, but a true one.  What motivates you personally to write true crime?

A: True crime is the pornography of non-fiction. Literary agents steer you away from it and publishers treat it like a place for castoffs. Yet you see how many titles come out every year, and you see these TV shows in Investigation Discovery and truTV and the other networks. Someone’s digging it. And someone’s making money.

I come to it as a journalist, and it presents this opportunity to really dig into a case that I wouldn’t have in any other venue. There’s a bit of a puzzle in deciphering each case, and a challenge in bringing it to the reader in 80,000 decent words with structure.

Without true crime, I don’t think fiction crime and mystery writers would be able to feel so superior. I’ve been run down by housewives at book fairs who climb over me to get a chance to converse with a fiction crime writer. I mean, butt-in-face, push past me, it was pretty funny. They sure don’t want to talk to the scary guy who writes about things that really happen. That’s the stuff you read or watch in the privacy of your own home. And you don’t tell anyone.

Q: How did you decide to write about this case?

A: I was doing interviews for another book, Detroit Rock City, that placed me in the city a lot. I live about 70 miles from Detroit. It seemed every day that summer 2012 there was a twist in this case and I couldn’t avoid it. In the course of my interviews for the other book, I came across a couple people who were connected to the Bashara case and had some pretty good information and insights. So that fall I reached out to Bashara and we began to converse. He felt he was being railroaded and hoped that I might uncover some flaws in the prosecution’s case regarding the murder charges. With that kind of access and with the case having that BDSM twist, I felt it would be interesting. Especially if he was not guilty and the Wayne County prosecutor’s office was wrong. As it turned out, the office was not so far off base.

Q: You mention in your introduction that the victim’s family wouldn’t talk to you—was that a huge hindrance as you were putting the book together?

A: No, I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t talk to a journalist if I were in their shoes. 

Q: I thought this book was especially excellent as it gave the reader a real picture of an actual killer.  I was saying to my husband, “He’s not exactly evil,” then described what he’d done, and he said “that’s evil.”  Maybe what actually makes people so uncomfortable with true crime is that it shows how absolutely banal bad and criminal behavior actually is.  What are your thoughts on that?

A: Evil is a funny thing. I can’t say Bashara is evil but he certainly made some choices that hurt people all around him. That’s some bad shit to carry around. It’s interesting how once people find out someone did some reprehensible things, they’re judged immediately. But before knowing those things, that individual was okay. Like the Grosse Pointe Rotary Club. Bashara was president of that club for some time, so someone must have thought he was ok. He raised money for a lot of causes around the Pointes, and no one handed back any of that money, that I know of.

But yea, a lot of people don’t want to know about the objectively immoral/indecent actions of those among our species, of which murder leads the pack. I understand that. I don’t even like to think about the subjectively amoral actions. I take news blackouts, where I don’t read any news for a 48 hours period to keep away from the noise, like the work of politicians who actively work to do bad things to the public in order to stay in office. So people avoiding true crime are taking on a strain of that avoidance. It hurts your spirit sometimes.

Q: Was it ever uncomfortable exchanging e-mails with Bob?

A: No. He would get angry on occasion over a question, but that’s cool, I understand. But I notice that he has never wavered in his stand that he had nothing to do with this. I’ve watched his post-conviction testimony and it is exactly what he told me at all times. That consistency is scary. I can think of nothing worse than being locked up for something I didn’t do, and that never really leaves the picture as I cover a case.

Q: When you start a book do you have to check your preconceptions at the door, or are there some that hold true for every story you write about?

A: I never have any preconceptions. Every case unfolds differently as all the players are different. If they start to look the same, it’s a bad sign. I try to approach each story differently, knowing that this is going to be a long exercise and I have some time to develop the story. Unlike fiction, though, these are real people and the only thing I aim at doing is ensuring I deliver an accurate portrayal of them. Of course many people make it hard to do, but that’s part of chronicling crime.

Q: I know Ann Rule became very focused in her writing on the investigative process, and on the police detectives, who she wrote about in glowing terms.  The cops in this book are a bit bungling.  Do you feel they could actually have nailed Bob sooner with a tighter investigation?

A: Rule’s books were tributes to law enforcement, and I’ve never felt comfortable with that. Or her books, for that matter. That kind of soft treatment of the cops sits really poorly with me. Some cop beat reporters today give the cops plenty of love because they are afraid that if they don’t, the cops won’t give them info. It’s a game that poorly serves the public, as we can see how corrupt cops can be. This is why it’s no surprise to see the recent emergence of citizen-recorded videotapes of shootings. These are not the only instances of cop abuse, they’re just the once that happen to get recorded. We can go back to Rodney King to see the impact of that.

In this case, the local cops had no idea what to do. They failed to get the security videotape outside the Hard Luck, where Bob was the night of the murder, before it was erased. In fact, that was one of the factors that got me interested early on in this case, when I was told about the video in an early conversation with a source in Detroit. The section in the book, the trial section, where the Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor lays into the Grosse Pointe cops during trial for their shoddy work and failure to meet deadlines and work with the prosecutor’s office tells a story of classic cop stupidity. Yes, the case would have been broken sooner with good cop work, although I don’t think there was a lot of damage done to the public overall due to the lag. Surely Jane’s family must have been aware that this was taking too damn long.

Q: Was there part of this story that just broke your heart and made it hard to write?  Often when I read a true crime book I feel so terrible for the victim it’s almost hard to read about.  I thought you were quite respectful of Jane Bashara, the victim in this case.  

A: In my first book, A Slaying in the Suburbs, it was a case in which both the killer, Stephen Grant, and the wife he murdered, Tara, were miserably angry at each other and really vicious at times. I had people tell me, ‘well, you know, I can almost see a guy getting so angry…’ But in this case, Jane Bashara was truly a good woman who did the right thing, walked a strong path and was absolutely a kind wife and good mother. Of course no one is perfect, and domesticity is a sticky, complicated thing that at times brings out the worst in people. But feeling, how decent she was really hurt me some nights when I would sit and think about justice in the universe. The justice system says Bob Bashara was responsible for the murder, but I couldn’t gin up the hate for him on the same level I could the sadness for Jane. 

Q: This is your fourth true crime book—what are you learning as you write each book?  Do you feel your investigative and writing skills evolving?

A: I hope so. I wish I could tell, but I can’t. It never gets easier, and I write a lot over the course of a year, articles for different magazines and news outlets. Sometimes it moves, sometimes it’s a struggle. I like reporting more than I like writing because it keeps you moving and takes you places, literally and figuratively. I can stay up all night researching a string of an investigation—an errant public official, or agency usually—if it’s hot. Crime is a lot like a football game; it unwinds in front of you. Things happen. That’s why you see a lot of crime on the news. It’s easy to report, people like to know when it happens in their community and it goes away as quickly as it comes when it’s just a news item. The books, well, that takes some dedication to get the whole story as both a reader and a writer.

Q: What’s next?  Do you have another case in mind you are planning to write about?

A: I have a book, Juggalo: Insane Clown Posse and the World They Created (Da Capo) coming out in the summer. It deals with the Juggalo culture but also the FBI’s mislabeling Juggalos as a gang in a national report in 2011. That led to a lawsuit by ICP against the Justice Department, which alleges among other things a First Amendment infringement. It’s the first time a fan base has been officially deemed a gang, which is quite an interesting direction for the feds to go in.

As far as crime, I’m watching a case in Florida. I don’t know that I will write a book on it, but I am close to it and have good sources. That’s how it starts. Maybe it won’t be a book next time. There are a lot more ways to get this stuff out there than the traditional true crime books, which are ignored by the marketing people for the publishers. I think about that next time I hear of layoffs at a book publishing house; they don’t support a genre because they feel it’s unseemly. But they do so at the expense of profits. And ultimately, jobs. 

Thank you so much, Steve!