At Home with Gish Jen

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The characters of Thank You, Mr. Nixon, Gish Jen’s expansive new collection of superconnected short stories, are restless. They leave China for America and return, leave America for China and return, traveling between the two countries and cultures as if through a revolving door. Jen, like the second-generation Americans in her book, understands what it is to be “hybrid,” and the inherent tension that requires her characters to engage in frequent acts of translation—linguistic, cultural, and generational—whether they wish to or not.
Born on Long Island in 1955, Jen says she came of age “at the height of multiculturalism, when I was supposed to be writing about my Chinese roots.” But growing up in Scarsdale, N.Y., she learned more Yiddish than Chinese—an experience she mined for her very funny second novel, 1996’s Mona in the Promised Land, about a Chinese girl converting to Judaism.
“Once that was published, many people were convinced that I must be Jewish,” Jen says over Zoom from an office at Harvard, her alma mater, where she’s a visiting professor in English. “So much so that I began to feel positively lapsed in the fall, when I failed to observe the High Holy Days.”
Since she first began publishing short stories in the 1980s (many selected for the Best American series), Jen has had a reputation for writing vivid, smart, often humorous portrayals of second-generation Chinese Americans. She has long been interested in, and has lectured and written about, hybridity, most recently in her 2017 nonfiction book, The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap.
Thank You, Mr. Nixon could itself be called hybrid: 11 stories threaded so carefully together that they become as interdependent as they are independent, almost novelistic. Jen calls the connectivity a “very complicated network.”
In one sense the book is simple: the stories run chronologically, beginning with the title tale, a letter sent from heaven to hell. In it, a dead Chinese woman thanks the disgraced American president for what he unleashed on his 1972 trip to China. This missive sets the book’s dramas and concerns in motion (the symbiosis of capitalism and communism, for one), and introduces the two families—the Hsus and the Koos—whose various ties give the book its novelistic breadth.
“With stories, there’s a suggestion that there’s so much more than what we see on the page,” Jen says. “We catch a glimpse here, a glimpse there, we see they’re connected, but whoa, there’s a big, big, big thing underwater that will probably take another century to understand.”
That leviathan is China’s role in the world. There’s the country Jen herself experienced as a “foreign expert” in 1981, teaching English to coal-mining institute students who’d never seen a refrigerator—and the country that became, one generation later, an economic and geopolitical powerhouse.
“Who could have seen the meteoric rise?” Jen says, still awed by the change. “I don’t think the Chinese even saw it.” Her stories trace that rise—what she calls, “this kind of low-grade rumbling beneath the lives” of her characters.
By choosing to include in this book “Duncan in China” (from her previous collection, Who’s Irish, published in 1999), Jen makes the Hsu family a lodestar, their presence seen or felt in every tale. (Second-generation Chinese-American brothers Duncan and Arnie Hsu move with particular fluidity between the U.S. and China.)
“Frankly, today, I was not going to be able to write a new story about that period that captured it as well as my old story did,” Jen explains. “I was there. The material looks so different in this context. Now we understand that it was just one step in this huge process.”
In these stories, globalization is both poignant and hilarious. Readers of Who’s Irish will recall hapless young Duncan’s exploits as a foreign expert, clashing with his watchful boss and spending more time showing off his bathroom than teaching English. When he falls for an older student, a report is written and she vanishes, only to surprise him later with an offering that changes his life. The full impact of her gesture isn’t felt until several stories later, in “Amaryllis,” about a single, middle-aged, mixed-race, second-generation Chinese American woman working for the Koos in Manhattan and caring for Duncan Hsu’s aging father in east Brooklyn. Mr. Hsu’s nomadic children and grandchildren have largely abandoned him. Lonely Amaryllis wants a connection but only finds it when she stops looking.
Amaryllis is only four in the collection’s long and powerful second story, “It’s the Great Wall!” She’s left with her Caribbean Sephardic Jewish grandparents while her parents take her Chinese grandmother, Opal, to China for the first time since she immigrated to America decades ago. As part of an organized group of mostly Western tourists, Opal tires of translating for the struggling guide, but her understanding of the guide’s “heart” helps her navigate the People’s Republic in ways the others, including her own daughter, cannot. This makes possible a clandestine reunion with the family Opal left behind, an unexpected turn that takes the story in a crushingly poignant direction.
The Hsus and Koos are intricately entwined in “Rothko, Rothko,” wherein Rich Lee, a broke creative writing teacher with a novel in a drawer hopes to profit from the forgeries of a talented Chinese artist, despite warnings from his lawyer wife, Arabella.
In “No More Maybe,” the story that follows, Arabella is now representing a Chinese family whose visa status has lapsed; this tale, set during the Trump years, vividly evokes the rising anxiety of undocumented immigrants in America.
And in the long, extremely funny “Gratitude,” a former student of Rich’s, Bobby Koo, tries to maintain the (8,000-mile) distance she’s put between her and her parents. Unhappy with their “number one daughter” ghosting them, the Koos outsmart her: they plan to buy her apartment through a proxy (Duncan Hsu’s brother, Arnie), fly from Hong Kong to America, and surprise her at the closing. The reunion does not play out as they’d hoped.
“I felt a responsibility to get the details right,” Jen says of the book, and many of the stories contain vivid details of a China that no longer exists; she pulled from extensive notes taken on a family trip in 1979 and her foreign-expert stint two years later. “I was there,” Jen says again. “I was a witness, and I take that seriously.”
Her command of detail makes Thank You, Mr. Nixon authentic and engrossing; her vision makes it unique and vital. “I’ve been writing all these stories in this changing world that involve mainland immigrants—stories that 30 years earlier wouldn’t have been possible,” Jen says. “Because there were no immigrants. They wouldn’t have been here—much less in law school.”
She throws up her hands and laughs. “I am very, very, very lucky that my career has coincided with these changes.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

The Venom of Snakes: On Diane Williams

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“No writer’s life is pain free,” Diane Williams says early one morning while discussing her forthcoming book of stories, How High?—That High. “Marketing aside, just doing the work is so punishing. It’s an athletic ordeal on every level.”
Williams is speaking via Zoom from her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she writes six days a week. She is bathed in light from a window with a view and framed by bookshelves and an art collection (twice profiled in the Paris Review). Paintings and prints share space with sculptures and a crimson plague doctor mask Williams calls “terrifying.” Every piece is personal and tells a story, and she enjoys telling them.
The mask she found in Stockholm, at Drottningholm Palace theater, one of the oldest opera houses in the world. “Sadly, some of the artwork I live with every day gets tamed—loses spirit,” she says. “But not this mask, and its strength provides strength for me.”
The 34 short stories of How High?—That High, Williams’s 10th work of fiction, reveal an artist who, at 75, shows no hint of being tamed. But a common subject for Williams—pleasure—may be more complicated now than it was in her earlier books. The first story, “Upper Loop,” begins with, “I am trying to think if there’s any reason for having fun anymore on any level?” In another, “O Fortuna, Velut Luna,” a character considers “the upcoming loss of all kinds of pleasure.”
When asked if placing pleasure in a fretful context signals something new, Williams laughs. “Pleasure is really important,” she says. “I’m all for it!”
Both on the page and in person, Williams likes complications, contradictions, and conundrums, so she goes on: “And I’m very concerned about pleasure—I hope it’s a good sign. There have been periods in my life where I’ve struggled with sadness, with regret, with shame, with a lot of very burdensome feelings. I must say I’m happier now, which comes as a big surprise. I think that joyfulness is so precious when it occurs that it’s worthy of study in a way that I probably haven’t felt interested in or capable of doing before now.”
Pressed to explain what may have driven this shift, Williams resists.
Readers familiar with her work will recognize this reluctance to explain. Williams has been called a minimalist but, like the iceberg’s tip, beneath what is visible lies immense hidden depths. From her time in the ’80s studying with Gordon Lish (editor, most famously, of Raymond Carver), she learned how to make language strange again, and to leave ample room for the reader.
Williams can chronicle the whole messy business of living and falling in and out of love and falling ill and dying with an electrifying economy. “If you’re not telling the reader what to think every moment,” she says, “they need to take the experience and make something of it, rather than be limited by the limitations of the writer.” She snakes an arm around an imaginary body and pulls her in, explaining that “the writer’s primary assignment” is to hold the reader’s attention, from a story’s title to its terminus.


Some of the pieces in How High?—That High, such as “A Type of Vertigo” and “Popping,” are vivid portraits in miniature, and tornado-like in the way that Williams bears down to reveal only a moment or two in a fully imagined life. The effect leaves her characters and readers stunned. In 12 slim paragraphs, “Popping” contains decades of shared illness and care and still turns on the sly amusement of a kitchen appliance “considered by many to be the greatest toaster ever made.” Some stories are interrogative: a character in “Finished Being” tries to make sense of why a “solid square of cement-hued cement” has drawn her respect. Some entries, such as “Harriet Mounce,” feel like memories or regrets of something or someone lost. Metafiction at times breeches the surface. Existential inquiries appear, as in “What Is Given with Pleasure and Received with Admiration?” whose central character “is drawn forward—but by what?”
Uncertainty has attended Williams’s work since her first book of stories was published 31 years ago. From then—1990’s This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate—to 2018’s The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, a 784-page compendium that she calls “the very big book,” much effort has been made by critics and interviewers to attempt to define what exactly this writer is doing with her pens and Mead notebooks.
She’s been called “avant-garde” and “experimental,” a word she dislikes. In an introduction to the very big book, author Ben Marcus writes that “most of us are doomed to hunt for sense” in the stories we read, but Williams’s stories “show us how little we can know.” Her stories “defy logic” and “thumb their nose at conventional sense,” he notes, “or even unconventional sense.”
The stories hum with their own mad logic, prizing “the enigma and the uncanny,” in Marcus’s words, above narrative. In composing a story, Williams says that her focus is on the “call-and-response tension” from one sentence to the next and the “acoustical maneuvers that keep it all together.” She compares the work to creating a concerto, with her goal being to produce fiction that has “the characteristics of great music.” Her stories demand such an active engagement that they are almost collaborative. To take How High?—That High onto a subway or beach is to risk missing your stop, or a coming tsunami.
Asked about her writing process, Williams explains, “It’s just words. As simple as, ‘Now we’re going to go.’ Or ‘Do we have to?’ Or ‘I don’t have it.’ Just putting down language so that I can see my handwriting.” Then she circles what stands out on the page and numbers the circles in search of “logic and momentum.” Then she types it, prints it, and gets to work, composing so many drafts that the story’s folder can be “a foot high,” she says. She keeps these folders near.
“It’s easy for writers to romanticize what they’ve done when they feel they’ve done something great, and think ‘I can’t do it again,’ because they can’t remember the labor it took,” Williams says. “It’s not magic.”
After 30 years of work, some writers grow lazy; Williams has grown more potent, like the venom of certain snakes.
When asked if stories come more easily now than they used to, Williams explodes with laughter. “No,” she says. “Oh no. No no no no no. They don’t come easily. No.”
She repeats something she says she heard about practice from an editor at Noon (the literary journal Williams founded with Christine Schutt 21 years ago): “You sit and you do it—that’s art. And that’s my only relation to it. I just have to do it. Because to anticipate it and to have an idea of how it will be is hopeless. I’m not congested with ideas or schemes of any kind. Or inspiration. It’s really just going to the clay and making something.”
Williams extends and works her fingers in the air in front of her. “That’s all I have.”
Bonus Links:
People Are Strange: Diane Williams’s ‘Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty’
A Year in Reading: Diane Williams

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Writing, Always Writing: On Charles Baxter, Craft, and Aging

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There’s a maxim in the teaching of creative writing: like death, a story’s ending should be unexpected, yet inevitable. Across an impressive half-century career full of books, accolades, classroom hours, and awards (including a Guggenheim Fellowship, multiple Pushcart Prizes, and the Rea Award for the Short Story), Charles Baxter has mastered this maxim. He’s lectured about it and written about it in his seminal book on craft, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, and the many short stories of his six collections—from 1984’s Harmony of the World to 2015’s There’s Something I Want You to Do—put the maxim into clear practice.
Encountering the unexpected is one of the joys of reading Baxter’s stories. He’s the rare expert craftsman who’s also an alchemist. And he’s published as many novels as collections, including The Feast of Love, nominated for the National Book Award in 2000 and featuring a nocturnal wanderer named Charles Baxter.

The Sun Collective is Baxter’s sixth novel, and his first in 12 years. For perspective, his previous novel, The Soul Thief, was published back when George W. Bush was president. Summarizing the plot of a novel by the writer of The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot is at best reductive and at worst like bringing a knife to a gun fight. But here goes: retired engineer Harold Brettigan and his wife, Alma, have heavy hearts. Their children have disappeared—their daughter into the dull comforts of middle-class life, their son into the mean streets of Minneapolis. Once a promising actor, their son has been seen with the anti-consumerism radicals of the Sun Collective and may be living on the street, a dangerous proposition with the violent homeless-hating “Sandmen” on the prowl. Age has been rough on Brettigan. “In contrast to several of his contemporaries who had been hardened by life,” the novel explains, he “had been softened.”

From the bright study of his home in downtown Minneapolis, Baxter, 73, says over Skype that there’s a fair amount of himself in Brettigan. “I have those days, and I don’t think I’m unique in this, when I think, I don’t know if there’s a book I want to read today, I don’t know if there’s a movie I want to see, I don’t know if there’s any music I want to listen to.” As you get older, he says, the art you once loved “loses its shine.” After a pause of two breaths, he smiles and assures me, “It comes back.”
The Sun Collective begins with Brettigan on a train bound for the Utopia Mall, a totem to consumerism that produces “a disorienting spatio-temporal rupture” in visitors. Ironically, 20-something Christina Lubdell, also on the train, is tripping on a designer drug called blue telephone that does the same thing, making users feel that they are in “two places at once,” like Schrödinger’s cat. Her life is similarly quantum: by day, she works in a bank; after hours, she serves the Sun Collective in a “semi-ironic” capacity as its minister for propaganda, urging Minnesotans to “de-consume.”
Christina is a mess. “Blessed and afflicted with the scourge of empathy,” according to the novel, she’s also a magnet for unstable men. One, a self-proclaimed revolutionary named Ludlow, is hatching “little plans of revenge and ruination.” The other is the Brettigans’ missing son.

While Brettigan goes on nocturnal wanderings in search of him, Alma takes a different approach: she befriends the radicals. The inevitable collision of these disparate seekers creates fissures and bonds of unexpected depth and consequence.
Baxter says that the first ideas for the book began to appear five or six years ago. There were three, like a Venn diagram. The first: Reading about the flu pandemic of 1918, Baxter came across folklore cures of the era. One directed the ill to hold mirrors underwater and wash their reflected faces. He recalls that when he told Louise Erdrich about this over dinner, “she looked at me with that predatory look novelists have, and said, ‘If you don’t use that, I will.’ ”
The second: Baxter says that riding Minneapolis light rail to work, he was plagued by the moral dilemma of homelessness. “You ask yourself, What should I be doing? Is there anything I should be doing? That feeling was sort of a narrative generator.”
The third: Baxter heard that the number one al-Qaeda target in North America was Minnesota’s infamous shopping mecca, the Mall of America. “Instead of being horrified,” he says, “I thought it was funny.” Light pours through his windows as he laughs. The wall behind him is a bright puzzle of books. “That’s such a ridiculous place. Who would want to take it down?”
In some writers’ hands, the ridiculous is simply ridiculous. In Baxter’s hands, the ridiculous is strangely menacing and oddly disorienting. From the start, he knew he needed a different approach with this novel. “The sort of realism that I’ve practiced in the past isn’t adequate to the times we’re in,” he says. “I needed something more like Joseph Heller, or somebody whose work is running a fever.”
The result is a novel in which characters can be grounded in the quotidian and communicate with house pets; a novel in which a heartless American president can have a hair-trigger Twitter finger and stoke the flames of the economic divide with poetry. His name is Amos Alonzo Thorkelson, and a sample stanza from his poem, “No Free Lunch,” reads, “At the cash register she paid/ For junk food with a wad/ Of food stamps, and this made/ Me very very very sad.”
Baxter, who is among a handful of contemporary writers known almost as much for their teaching as for their literary output, has been a fixture at the esteemed Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference since 1995. He’s turned many of his craft talks—which are more philosophical ruminations on lesser-explored aspects of writing fiction—into essays published in literary journals, as well as in Burning Down the House. His full-time academic career began in the 1970s at Wayne State in Detroit and included positions at Warren Wilson College’s low-residency MFA program, the University of Michigan’s MFA program, and, for the past 18 years, the University of Minnesota. His final course there, “Reading Like Writers,” was forced online by the coronavirus outbreak, and he had to make his retirement celebrations virtual.
It was a muted coda to a vital career, but Baxter says he didn’t miss being celebrated in “those ego fests.” He’ll remain involved with Bread Loaf and other literary conferences as long as he can, and a third volume on craft, tentatively titled Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Fiction, is due in 2022. “I think it’ll be my last book of essays,” he says, which will make a lot of writers very, very, very sad.
When asked what he’s most looking forward to about retirement, Baxter pauses for several seconds. “Like a lot of people, I’ve almost stopped looking forward,” he says. Still, he is eager for the time “when people can sit around and talk and not be scared to death that their conversation is going to lead to a lethal illness.” And as soon as it’s safe, he’ll volunteer again with food pantry or literacy efforts.
Until then, Baxter will be writing, always writing. “This is one of those things I probably shouldn’t say,” he offers. “But I started a new novel, a sort of thriller.” His mouth twists into a broad grin and he spreads his arms in front of the laptop. “I’ve always wanted to write a thriller, and who’s going to stop me?”
Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Charles Baxter

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Politics Is in Its DNA: On Jess Walter’s ‘The Cold Millions’

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A cold city square fills with protesters. Armed police approach from all sides, penning them in, and a standoff ensues. Voices, signs, fists are raised. “We are here to stand against injustice,” shouts one man, only to be silenced by the swing of a stick. Within minutes, the peaceful show of solidarity has become a full-scale riot. Protestors run, fall, are trampled, shackled, and hauled away. A holding tank fills beyond capacity; gaunt faces are stained with blood. No one is read their rights. They fall ill, starve, some die. The youngest is only 16, and he’s not even a member of the union that staged the protest. His name is Rye Dolan. He was only there to support his older brother, Gig, as proud a union man as there ever was. Now both are guests of a corrupt, malevolent system. Their crime? Sedition: speaking out against the established order.
Though this scene could have been torn from today’s headlines, the protest occurred 111 years ago. It ignites the drama at the heart of The Cold Millions, Jess Walter’s first novel since his runaway 2012 bestseller Beautiful Ruins.
It’s mid-June, and, like everyone else, Walter is home, social distancing. We are speaking via Zoom. He’s backed by the harsh afternoon light of two windows on the top floor of a 1909 river rock carriage house at the back of his property in his hometown of Spokane, Wash.

Writing Beautiful Ruins, Walter explains, made him realize that the stories he likes to tell are themselves composed of stories and contain a multitude of characters and forms. He’s come to question the I narrator. “When I’m reading a first-person novel, sometimes I hear the voice of social media leaking in,” he says. “Somebody on their Facebook page or Twitter feed. I want a larger world than that.”
That larger world is on full display in Walter’s new novel. Even its title evokes a multitude, referring to a subset of desperate souls that Emma Lazarus, in her 1883 poem “The New Colossus,” called “huddled masses.” Though The Cold Millions spans 100 years, it takes place mostly in one: 1909, when the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, formally began their fight for free speech in Spokane.
At the novel’s core lie two brothers who couldn’t be more different: Gig is idealistic; Rye is uncertain. Gig provokes; Rye mediates. Gig is content in rags; Rye spends six months’ salary on a suit. Gig enjoys the affection of local vaudeville legend Ursula the Great; Rye could pass 100 women with nary a notice.
The story turns first when Rye reluctantly joins that protest only to find himself pulled into a battle he doesn’t care much about. Because of his age at the time of his arrest, he becomes a cause for labor. He’s given a lawyer and released, while Gig, incarcerated indefinitely, begins a hunger strike. The story turns again when Rye becomes a pawn in the fight, manipulated by both sides. In labor’s corner stands real-life progressive firebrand Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a 19-year-old Irish beauty who uses Rye, and his sob story, to fire up her base. In industry’s corner stands fictional Lem Brand, who owns much of Spokane and thinks he can own Rye too.

Walter was born in Spokane in 1965. At the age of five, playing in an empty lot with a friend, he was blinded in his left eye. (He says he’s “possibly the greatest 54-year-old one-eyed point guard still playing.”) He says he grew up embracing adventure tales like Treasure Island and dreamed of “stowing away on a train, stowing away on a pirate ship.” But at the tender age of 19, he set sail on a different adventure: “I was a dad living in government housing trying to not drop out of college, looking into factory jobs,” he recalls. “If I hadn’t gotten subsidized housing, I don’t know that I would have finished college and been a writer. It doesn’t take much to derail you. I think we underestimate how many people are in that situation. My car breaks down, I’ve gotta call my brother, get a ride, go rent a car. Someone else’s car breaks down, their life falls apart.”

Walter was lucky. He got through college and found a journalism job at his hometown paper, the Spokesman-Review. His reporting on the Ruby Ridge standoff (a violent days-long confrontation between white separatists and the FBI) led to a Pulitzer nomination, and his first book, 1995’s Every Knee Shall Bow: The Truth and Tragedy of Ruby Ridge and the Randy Weaver Family.
When asked if he sees his new novel as a battle cry, Walter says, “Being a former journalist, I discovered early on that fiction is a terrible way to break news. I think it’s also a hard way to practice politics. What fiction can do is more important than that: it’s such a shot of empathy. I don’t think of it as a cause novel.”
Maybe not, but The Cold Millions has politics in its DNA. It raises questions about power’s corrupting influence, about the sides people take and fortify with rhetoric, and about brotherhood, both genetic and thematic. The book is intimate enough to tell a moving story about Rye and Gig, and expansive enough to tell other stories too—about labor, class, inequality, privilege, corruption, and migration. But above all, The Cold Millions is about Spokane.
“Writers should have to write a book about the most interesting period of time in their city’s history,” Walter says. He raises a postcard he found when he began his research, showing downtown streets teeming with people as work horses wait with equine patience at the roadside. “This is a normal day in Spokane in 1910,” he notes. “Spokane was income inequality as a sort of social experiment. The wealth of these mining and timber families was unbelievable. The mayor couldn’t afford to live on the hill. It connects with where we are now. Anyone who’s been watching income inequality over the last decade knows that we are at the highest point since the Gilded Age.”

From the publication of Walter’s first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, in 2001 to that of Beautiful Ruins, no more than three years elapsed between books. When asked about the eight-year gap after Beautiful Ruins, Walter says that book “took a lot out of me, creatively.” Then his beard bends with a grin. “And I may have taken a slightly longer victory lap than usual.” He pilots his laptop around the room in his carriage house for a tour. “This is the house Beautiful Ruins renovated,” he says, pointing out his writing desk, his other desk, his Nerf basketball hoop (crucial to the creative process, he says), his “napping couch” and his “napping chair.”
Walter takes us downstairs and out into the overblown day. The back of his main house lies ahead, flanked by homes built, like most of Spokane, in 1909 or 1910, when union men like Rye and Gig were being imprisoned for modest demands that threatened the immodest profits of the industry titans up the hill. He enters his house at the back, crosses to the front, and points his camera out a window at the river valley, stretching as far as the eye can see.
“I wrote once about Spokane that it doesn’t matter where you live, you’re never more than two blocks from a bad neighborhood,” Walter says. “I kind of love that about my hometown. I still live in the flats, I still live next to the river I lived next to when I got a stick in my eye. I feel so connected to the person that I was, and maybe more comfortable than ever being that person and writing class stories that are about meth addicts stealing televisions, not about which private school you send your kid to.”
Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Jess Walter

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.
Mike Harvkey is the author of ‘In the Course of Human Events’ and was the researcher/reporter for the bestselling true crime book ‘All-American Murder.’