Knik River, Part 4: When Things Went Bad

“When things went bad,” was Robert Hansen’s way of saying he killed someone. The phrase elides the fact that, in every way imaginable, his killings were intentional. Hansen created the situation, placed vulnerable young women in that situation and then, when the moment struck — when they acted out their most natural instinct to escape — Robert Hansen pulled the trigger. Not once. Multiple times.

Escape attempts, he reasoned, were betrayals. More than betrayals, though, they represented loss of control. That’s the one thing he had to have, the one thing he didn’t have. There was no control over his impulses — early on, when he stole a chainsaw, his psychiatrist said as much. So, if he couldn’t control himself, maybe he could control someone else. And when that failed, his anger knew no bounds. Things went bad.

[Transcript lightly edited for clarity]

RH: I laid both my pistol and the rifle up against this shack here and then walked back in to her in there and got her freed and got out you know. Up until that time you know, ah, even what’s — when that guy first flew over — you know, everything was just right. As a matter of fact the plane come over for the first time and I said, there comes a plane. I said let’s ah, let’s get out of sight and, boy you know, she just right away gonna – got over and got behind some bushes and ah, done everything she could to keep out of sight, because I said:

“You know if that son-of-a-bitch lands were going to have a problem. I don’t want a problem.”

Things Went Bad: Aerial View, Knik River
Alaska State Trooper plane, above the Knik (Alaska State Troopers)

RH: She done everything in her possible at that time to keep there from being a problem. And ah, at the airplane before when we took off you know, she was — boy, when it come time to get her into the airplane from the car, she just ran around the airplane to get in quiet. She even asked me “should I duck down.” I said it’s not important. I said just sit there and sit quiet. No problem. Just done everything she could to do exactly what I told her, so that there wouldn’t be a problem. I think I had her convinced of this.

Things Went Bad

But the problem was, I think that when she was there in the meat shack — maybe I shouldn’t have called it a meat shack to her, maybe that’s what maybe got her mind to thinking, I don’t know. I thought about it a lot of times but I don’t know the answer. I know when she — I come back there, just started walking out of there with her, she started, “You’re going to kill me aren’t you? You’re going to kill me.”

I said no I ain’t going to kill you. The problem is over with. The guy is gone.

“Oh no, no, you’re going to kill me.”

She just slapped at me and she started running, you know, she started running — the river’s out this way — and she started running this way. I caught up to her and ah, I got her stopped. I said now look, it’s over. There is no real problem, the guy is gone. It’s all cool now, you know. But she had got hysterical and I couldn’t get her calmed down. She just, ah, the more I tried to talk to her, maybe it was because I was getting excited, but she just got more and more hysterical and she broke away from me again and ah, started to run, you know.

Things Went Bad
Hansen’s .223 Rifle (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

I just reached back you know, the rifle was laying there and ah – or leaned up against the building — I grabbed — reached back — I took a couple steps back and grabbed that, I ran and caught — and I caught her again and I said now look — I said don’t make a bad thing worse. Don’t — stop — it’s okay. But then I had a gun in my hand and she said, “You’re going to kill me right now.”

Then she — it just went completely, things just went completely bad again. If that son-of-a-bitch hadn’t circled in there, it would have never happened, but that’s — as a matter of fact I’d never had one with me that tried as hard to keep it under wraps, you know. But being there I think when she was by herself there she just – confined in there – that’s when things went bad.

Things Went Bad: Frank Rothschild
Frank Rothschild, Anchorage Prosecuting Attorney

[FR = Frank Rothschild]

FR: Was it with the .223 that you shot her?

RH: Yes.

FR: Right in the woods there?

RH: Yes. By this time we was out closer to — we were still in the woods but we was almost out by the riverbar or river, where the gravel starts going towards the river. There’s still some trees there.

FR: Then what did you do?

RH: Well, the only thing I could do. I didn’t even have a shovel or nothing with me there, you know. I’d went back to the shack there and I got some boards off that and used them for a shovel and dug a hole out there as much as I could and ah, pulled her in and that was it.

Purchase Butcher, Baker

Walter J. Gilmour, In Memoriam

Walter J. Gilmour

There are memories galore. I’ll share one.

When I finally convinced Walter to appear on the Sally Jessy Raphael show to promote “Butcher, Baker,” he was still less than enthusiastic. He didn’t like New York. He didn’t think much of the show. He thought our hotel (the legendary Plaza Hotel) was too old, the rooms too dated, with big porcelain tubs instead of showers.

At the studio, we were taken to a Green Room separate from the other guests, who were, no surprise, the surviving relatives of Robert Hansen’s victims. One of the runners kept promising that Sally “will come see you before you go on.”

Walter mumbled, “She’s not coming.”

After makeup (still no Sally), we were led to the set. Walter said, “I’m looking forward to this about as much as a visit to the dentist without Novocaine.”

He was right, of course. In the little world of daytime TV, Walter was cast as the villain. He was the cop. Robert Hansen had killed 30 odd women. Someone had to take the blame.

They underestimated Gilmour. He had the AST at his back. He refused to play the fall guy.

Instead, we watched with amusement as the stage manager walked us through the elaborate rituals of daytime TV. “When I raise both hands, I want you to start interrupting each other, okay?” she insisted. “There’s nothing more boring than people politely waiting their turn to talk.”

Okay, we said. And promptly ignored her. Every single one of us. Walter had set the tone. We didn’t budge. Perhaps that’s why the show never aired.

Butcher, Baker Now an Ebook

We are pleased to announce that Butcher, Baker is available as an ebook edition, published by Open Road Media (which just so happens to be the best ebook publisher out there). Many thanks to Karen Iorio and Dave Adams at Open Road for shepherding the ebook to final publication.

You can purchase your copy at one of the following fine booksellers:

  • Amazon Kindle edition
  • Apple iBooks (supports iPad and iPhone)
  • Barnes & Noble Nook edition
  • Google Play (supports Android devices)
  • Kobo bookseller (supports multiple formats, including the Kobo eReader)

Word to the wise… The ebook has MORE photos than the print edition. And it’s got that snazzy new cover. Just sayin’.

Butcher, Baker Open Road Media ebook

Harry Marks Quits Reading

So this Harry Marks dude announces he’s going to quit reading for a year. Ok. Sure. Count me skeptical.

This whole stunt reminds me of the Breatharian, Wiley Brooks. Brooks, like many Breatharians, claims he can live solely on light and air. He doesn’t need food. Or drink. Which is fine, if you can get away with it.

In 1983 he [Brooks] was reportedly observed leaving a Santa Cruz 7-Eleven with a Slurpee, hot dog and Twinkies. He told Colors magazine in 2003 that he periodically breaks his fasting with a cheeseburger and a cola, explaining that when he’s surrounded by junk culture and junk food, consuming them adds balance.

I imagine the same fate will strike Mr. Marks. He’ll get busted reading a food label. Or someone will spot him reading a highway sign. You know, something like “Detour Ahead.” At some point, he’ll need to find the EXIT. Or choose something from the MENU. I’m not saying it’s going to happen at a Santa Cruz 7-Eleven. But it could. It really could.

Hey, Harry. No cheating.

Amazon vs Walmart

Amazon gets a lot of ink about its innovations and business practices. Deservedly so. Wired magazine’s Tim Carmody has even compared them to Walmart. In a provocatively titled article penned last year, Carmody asked: “If Amazon Out-Walmarts Walmart, Can Anyone Out-Amazon Amazon?”

Good question. Flawed premise. Amazon’s biggest problem, a persistent one, is that after twenty years it still doesn’t know how to manufacture a decent profit. We go to MG Siegler of TechCrunch for the most recent evidence:

  • “Not only did Amazon only make $177 million on sales of $17.4 billion last quarter, they’re warning that they could actually lose money this quarter.”
  • “Last quarter, Walmart pulled in $109.5 billion in revenue, which led to $3.3 billion in profit. As with Amazon, the margins are awful, but at that scale, it doesn’t matter.”
  • “In fact, Amazon’s margins are so slim that Facebook, which just filed to go public […], recorded nearly double the profit of Amazon last year ($1 billion versus $631 million).”

Notes Siegler: “Compare this to Apple’s most recent quarter in which they posted a record $46.33 billion in revenue and, more importantly, a record $13.06 billion in profit. The margin difference could not be any more stark.”

I write this not to diss Amazon (although paying a little more attention to the bottom line couldn’t hurt) as much as to put Amazon in perspective. On the publishing side, there is great fear of Amazon. A recent article by Nico Vreeland points fingers at the publishing industry for not having their act together as compared to Amazon. Point taken.

Just remember who Vreeland’s talking about when he says:

So publishers: it’s time to embrace technology, put your customers first, and entirely revamp the logistical architecture of your industry, or Amazon’s publishing arm will do it for you (and nobody wants that).

Back to the Audience

As an author, you think about your audience. Your “dear reader.” Or at least you should. Even if it’s only your inner audience. After all, there’s a reason you’re committing all those words to the page. A message, perhaps?

But getting your work published adds another dimension or two, enough so that you start to think perhaps the publisher is your audience. I say this from the perspective of someone for whom it took eight years from inception to publication. Twenty rejection slips. A complete rewrite of the entire work. The publisher held the keys to the kingdom and was, in a very real way, an arbiter between the author and her audience.

The rise of the internet and eBooks is supposed to change all that. Chris Meadows over at TeleRead takes it as a given that writers whose books the Big Six won’t take can sell directly to customers via Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble. The counter-thought, here from publisher Teresa Nielsen Hayden, is even more provocative:

Stated axiomatically: If you’ve written a book that people want to buy and read, you stand an excellent chance of getting it published by a real commercial publisher. If you haven’t, no clever workaround publishing scheme is going to help, because there’s no way to force readers to buy and read books they don’t want.

The backdrop here is whether or not publishers — traditional publishers — really care about “dear reader.” The accusation, which some in the industry (like Brett Sandusky) are taking seriously, is that publishers are not as customer-focused at they should be. If not, the argument goes, the customer is being underserved. This creates an opening for others. Are independent publishers more attuned to customers? Will they take over while the giants fail? Is Amazon poised to play a similar role?

The critical question is whether traditional publishers still hold the keys to the kingdom. Or even matter.

Certainly the pressure is being felt on all sides. Publishers are getting hit over agency agreements, which drive up prices. Authors are finding their work potentially highjacked by Amazon, which is pushing wholesale pricing at a cost to author royalties. Some customers are having second thoughts about eBooks themselves (though eBook sales are up 202%).

The tragic thing is what’s being lost in this conversation. All the forgoing “pressure” is focused on customers and the bottom line. Consumers want cheaper books. Authors want higher royalties. Publishers want profits.

But there is an older relationship that, I think, is more important. As an author, writing for your audience is paramount. They are more than mere customers. They’re your first duty. If you just write for the money, you’re a hack. Let me repeat. A hack. Good publishers — great publishers — recognize and support these obligations. And find writers whose work deserves a wider audience because it actually has something to say.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden puts it better than I: “Being focused on readers and their reactions is a marker for people who work in the commercial publishing industry. Reader-fixation is water, and [they spend] decades being a professional fish.”

Is the model that Hayden defends the only way? Heavens no. The internet is there, eBooks aren’t going away. But you better write the best book you can.

October 10, 2011

A provocative piece by Alexandra Horowitz in the New York Times wonders whether the rise of the eBook means the demise of the footnote. Notes Horowitz:

…The e-book may inadvertently be driving footnotes to extinction. The e-book hasn’t killed the book; instead, it’s killing the “page.” Today’s e-readers scroll text continuously, eliminating the single preformed page, along with any text defined by being on its bottom. A spokesman for the Kindle assured me that it is at the discretion of the publisher how to treat footnotes. Most are demoted to hyperlinked endnotes or, worst of all, unlinked endnotes that require scrolling through the e-reader to access. Few of these will be read, to be sure.

There are, of course, lots of reasons to keep the footnote where it is, proximate to the text it references, as Horowitz argues eloquently — and to not shunt it off to the endnotes. Particularly important in contemporary writing is the “digressive” footnote, but scholars and lawyers alike are also affected.

What to do? Audio books handle footnotes with production tricks. One commentator (April Brown) notes that browser-based media can also handle the footnote as a mouseover popup. That at least keeps it proximate to the referenced text.

But let it also be said: If your work has a lot of footnotes, it’s going to be a royal pain to get them into the eBook format using popups. Though the technology is there (with some reservations), at the moment it means fussing with the underlying code. As with most things, publishers and eBook authors often take the path of least resistance. Put this down as another place where better tools are required.

And, having recently read David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” in eBook format, I can attest that having his footnotes converted to endnotes was a thoroughly unsatisfactory experience. Horowitz is right. I read few of them. Their relationship to the prose was lost. It shouldn’t be like that.

October 8, 2011

Horace Dediu’s Asymco blog does an exemplary job of tracking the technology industry with what he calls “curated market intelligence.”

Recently, he’s had a series of articles comparing iTunes download rates for various media (songs, apps and iBooks). So far, his stats have shown iBook downloads fairly far down the stack. Pretty discouraging if, like me, you’re waiting for a new publishing model to help you revive an old book.

  • Download rates for iBooks are quite low (full article), with apps even more valuable than songs.
  • The log scale trendline, while more encouraging, shows that songs are 10x more downloaded than books, while apps are 10x more downloaded than songs (full article).

Given what we already know — that the publishing industry is in considerable flux, with some distributors closing down their brick and mortar stores, and new publishing models trickling in (especially for eBooks) — this author wonders:

What difference will the Kindle Fire and the new touch-enabled Kindles make on the overall book publishing ecosystem?

I’m not talking about the impact of “iOS vs. Android” or whatever other tablet competition you prefer. From an author’s thoroughly selfish point of view, having multiple entry points to your work is a huge bonus. Amazon’s offer just got better. They now have traditional printed book sales, PLUS four devices, all optimized for accessing their bookstore. And one of them (Fire) is moving toward becoming a more general purpose device.

The big question is whether consumers will actually buy the new models. At their price points, I’m betting there will be lots of Kindle’s under the Christmas tree. More than a few will be the new Fire, if only because it has the promise of being an iPad, without the cost [1]. My view is that it’s a quite different device, more a 21st century version of the Sears catalog than anything else. Amazon doubtless aims to drive business AND get boatloads of (aggregated) data about our purchases.

But there’s something else going on here… something of personal interest if you’re an author. Amazon’s free “Author Central” service provides another way to promote your body of work. Amazon also has some Publishing Programs that make it easy to submit your work and have it converted to the Kindle format, especially if you’re comfortable letting their servers do all the conversion. If not, you can always pay somebody.

Clearly, Amazon is positioning itself as the distribution AND publishing hub for new book formats. Barring any Facebook-style privacy meltdowns, it’s a good thing. If you’re an author. But stay posted. The full story is still emerging.

[1] Anecdotally, my nephew is getting a Kindle Fire for that very reason. He tells me it’s for his school-aged kids, as well as a bulwark against more iTunes purchases. Good luck on that last one, buddy.

October 7, 2011

Post-Steve-Jobs, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about “technology writers.” Perhaps because the majority of my bills have been paid by technology, not book publishing, although I am increasingly intrigued by the intersection of these two worlds.

At any rate, there is this annoying tendency among so-called “technology writers.” For the most part (there are some exceptions), these folk remind me of middle school males (adolescents) talking about “girls.” What counts as “analysis” is whether the female in question has “big boobs,” plus some additional numbers representing preferred height or hair color or whatever it is the ideal “girl” should have. In other words, lots of math but no substance and certainly no sense of person.

Q: What’s it like to hang with her?

A: I dunno.

Q: Have you talked to her?

A: No.

So they’re “writing” little more than spec lists because, you know, if you want to make comparisons you need something concrete to compare things against. Big boobs seems to be the ruling metaphor. I personally think that every technology writer should spend at least two years on an “art” or “food” beat, gaining experience describing abstact things that aren’t readily explained by a feature matrix.