Caitlin Rother: Crime Writer Print E-mail

caitlin(San Diego Magazine July 2010)

If you don’t know San Diego true-crime writer Caitlin Rother by name, you may recall the notorious subject of her 2005 book, Poisoned Love—the pretty, young toxicologist, Kristin Rossum, whose meth addiction drove her to sleep with her boss and poison her husband. To give his death the aura of suicide, Rossum sprinkled rose petals around his body. That book, a bestseller, launched Rother’s career. In five quick years, the former Union-Tribune reporter and Pulitzer-Prize nominee, has written “back-to-back-to-back books,” a string which, she says, in a break from editing her next grim tale, has been “exhausting.”

The fortyish author, attractively dapple in a black turtleneck and black leather jacket, seems anything but worn. At a Kensington coffeehouse, she opens up about a life she never expected would be this full. For Rother, the slog of producing a book a year—four nonfiction murder stories and a novel about “beautiful beauty [school] students” being killed in Pacific Beach—include researching, interviewing, and writing. And that’s just the half of it.

The other half is marketing her talent: writing book trailers, teaching at UCSD, blogging, fielding ideas from potential co-authors, lecturing on crime writing. She’s thrilled that TV producers use her as a “crime expert,” notably on Fox’s “Greta van Susteren” and E! Entertainment’s “Women Who Kill.” A shy journalist who used to freeze talking to a handful of colleagues in the newsroom, Rother recently addressed 350 people at San Diego State. Sporting a “Madonna mike,” she cracked a joke and everyone laughed. “Wow, this is fun!”

She says with a sigh that her next book, Dead Reckoning, the labor of five years, has meant attending three trials and making dozens of courthouse trips, not to mention the many kitchen-table interviews. It’s not easy, she says, being paid by the book and not by the hour. Exhilarated and vexed by her success—total books sold: 185,000 copies—Rother wonders how she might “use all these skills I have, continue to write books but not write them so fast—and have a life.” Two years ago, she took off five months “to recharge my batteries” but, unable to sit still, began selling “painted fiberglass art cows for extra income.”

Rother tackles heinous crimes. Dead Reckoning tells of a married couple, who while alive were tied to an anchor and thrown off their yacht by “a charming, manipulative conman and wanna-be hermaphrodite,” in Orange County.

She’s had to learn to detach from the subject matter. She says she’s not “exactly haunted” by the brutal murders, though she “had a hard time with” Body Parts, the saga of a serial killer with a fetish for cutting off and pocketing women’s breasts. It helps to concentrate on the characters’ psychology, she tells me, which leavens her “putting sex and violence together.”

Rother attends to criminal and victim. “Most readers of crime stories are interested in the criminal. But I want to pay tribute to the victim as much as I can. I choose stories with the most sympathetic victims.” To get a victim’s backstory, Rother trolls through court records and inveigles reluctant family and friends.

One fascinating aspect of these books, she says, is the nature-nurture question. “It’s what the defense does,” she says, detailing in her books how horrific a killer’s parents can be. The defense asks the jury “to spare the murderer’s life because his family made him a monster.” Querying prosecutors, she says, “I always ask them whether a murderer is born or made. They always say, ‘These people have a choice.’”

And yet, neither side really “cares what the truth is. They want a winning argument.” It’s a disarming yet wise statement, indicative of Rother’s toughness and impartiality. Indeed, after immersing herself in the fresh hell of killers, she says she now believes the question of culpability “has no answer.”