By Amy Shojai
Twenty-three years ago Cathy Scott worked as a secretary at Pacific Bell. “No offense to big corporations,” Cathy says, “but they have a tendency to kind of suck the passion out of you. I always wanted to be a writer and I saw that slipping away from me.”
So Cathy quit her day job and took a buyout to fund her leap of faith. “People told me I was nuts,” Cathy says. She lived lean like a poor college student for the next two years, got her degree, and wrote for anyone who would have her. As she gathered clips, Cathy set a goal to land a job with a daily newspaper in five years. She made it in 3½.
“The Las Vegas Sun offered me a job,” Cathy says. “Then Tupac Shakur was killed on my watch, and that was my first book—THE KILLING OF TUPAC SHAKUR.” Her second book, THE MURDER OF BIGGIE SMALLS, further established her as a bestselling true crime writer.
Cathy Scott’s latest book released March 2012 from St. Martin’s Press is THE MILLIONAIRE’S WIFE. It chronicles the true story of a real estate tycoon, his beautiful young mistress, and a marriage that ended in murder.
Thriller novelists get to make stuff up, but a true crime writer must work with the facts. I spoke with Cathy to find out more about her writing process and how it compares to authors of thriller fiction.
How do you choose book projects? Are the “headline” cases most appealing or do you find topics in other ways?
Certain cases just catch my eye. I like crime. The first book was THE KILLING OF TUPAC SHAKUR and the second one naturally followed when Biggie Smalls was murdered. With PAWPRINTS OF KATRINA I was invited by a large animal welfare organization to cover the subject for their website and magazine.
The publisher brought THE MILLIONAIRE’S WIFE story to my agent and asked if this was something I could bite into. I read up on everything I could get my hands on and made a telephone call to the prosecutor. It’s a fascinating case.
How important is it to “bite into” a case?
I get passionate about anything I write about. You don’t want to be bored while you’re writing. You get to know these people even though they’re dead. I want somebody in the book to be sympathetic, just as novelists do with their protagonist. I use all the elements of a novel, world building and who the character is, only true crime writers base it on the facts we learn.
Thriller fiction often requires research. When do you know “enough is enough” to start writing?
I love love love research. In nonfiction, we write a proposal that typically consists of a table of contents with a synopsis. So I’ll expand the table of contents, break it down into chapters, and start working on it. If there’s something really intriguing I’m fired up about, I start writing that section, and then later go back to the research. I think there is a little bit of back and forth. Sometimes I get documents late, and then find where to fold in that information, or talk to somebody and get these nuggets of information.
When dealing with real people and true events are there liability issues?
The thing about writing about a dead person, they can’t sue. The family can’t sue because dead people have no right to privacy. In the case of Tupac Shakur, I included an autopsy photo in the book only because the Associated Press and mainstream media reported that Tupac faked his own death. But I contacted Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother, and gave a heads up that something was coming out.
It gets very pesky when you write about someone who’s still alive. In the Kogan case, the wife had filed for bankruptcy although she had inherited $4.3 million. I was able to say those things because it was all a matter of record in the bankruptcy files. There needs to be a resolution in the case, and once she was charged with murder it was fair game to write. Different publishers do this differently but with St. Martin’s, once a person is charged and there’s a pending trial, you can begin writing. Now in Tupac and Biggie’s case there was no resolution, but that typically only happens when it’s a really big name.
Do you base your books on interviews, affidavits, other records or a combination? How do you get the players to agree to interviews?
I interview everybody, as many people as I can. This was tricky because the Kogan case was 19 years old. I blogged about the book and I also was on a radio show. Some of the family heard me or read my blog, and they emailed me. Family members even found me on Twitter.
I also go out and find people. George Kogan was shot in front of a high rise apartment building on the upper Manhattan at 10:00 in the morning. So I went to the building, wore jogging clothes, and met the same doorman on duty, the last person to speak to George before he fell into unconsciousness. I hate to give people time to say no. Had I called or left a message he might not have spoken to me. I opened the book with what he gave me. Just like in a novel you need a pivotal moment and in this case it was the scene of the crime.
How do you balance the journalist side with the story teller?
I am a journalist by trade, but I color outside the lines. The story kind of leads you in that direction and then you employ the narrative voice. It’s quite fun because you get to do things you don’t get to do in a “just the facts” news story.
What do you like best about writing true crime books?
I like to write about the underdog. Kogan was the underdog. In some ways his wife was too, because her husband of 22 years had a girlfriend and she was wronged. A lot of times the family wants you to depict them in the right light. You don’t write for those people, you write the book wherever it takes you. But you try to do right by the victim. In many cases I believe we’re writing on behalf of the victim.
The writing life can be filled with stress. When you’re up to the eyeballs with such things, what is your go-to safe spot?
My dogs. I have thirteen-year-old Rosie, a heeler/basset mix cancer survivor; Gypsy, a longhair Chihuahua from a terrible puppy mill in Missouri; and Georgie Girl, a Shi-tzu/Maltese mix from a shelter. I take my dogs to Red Rock Canyon and nothing else matters. It’s gorgeous up there, and it’s like the back yard for them.
Your books happened because you took a chance on starting a second career. Would you recommend other aspiring writers follow your example?
Absolutely. If you want something, go get it and don’t be afraid of anything. People are afraid to take risks. But you only go around once. Writing isn’t easy. Anybody who does it knows it’s difficult and very competitive. But the first book teaches you how to write the second one.
Cathy Scott is a veteran crime writer and award-winning investigative journalist. She is the author of six true crime works. She is from San Diego and lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.
To learn more about Cathy, please visit her website.
THE MILLIONAIRE’S WIFE was released March 2012 from St. Martin’s Press. The beloved son of Holocaust survivors, forty-nine-year-old George Kogan grew up in Puerto Rico before making his way to New York City, where he enjoyed great success as an antiques and art dealer. Then one morning in 1990, George was approached on the street by an unidentified gunman—and was killed in cold blood. Twenty years after George Kogan’s murder, in July 2010, his estranged wife Barbara admitted to hiring a hit man to have her husband gunned down. She was sentenced to 12 to 36 years in prison.