On October 17, all the way from Chicago (home of serial killer Henry Howard Holmes), Tori Telfer brings Lady Killers, all about the many unjustly neglected female serial killers (pre-1950s). And there are a lot. If we were as egalitarian a society as we pretend we are, you would be just as terrified of psychopathic women as of psychopathic men. Alas, we are not there yet. Maybe some day. In the meantime, here’s a short interview (foreshadowing?) ahead of Telfer’s visit this Tuesday.
Eric Larkin – People love true crime stories, but personally, I don’t get it. Why do you think people are so drawn to these grisly, miserable, frightening stories?
Tori Telfer – On the most basic level, I think it’s something of a personality trait. You either like ‘em or you don’t. I have friends who obsessively listen to My Favorite Murder and friends who never touch the stuff. I could talk about Ted Bundy and Kate Bender all day; my grandma doesn’t want to hear a word of it. Maybe it’s genetic, like having a taste for cilantro.
But on a more primal level, true crime speaks to our deep-seated desire for serious, meaty narrative. We want to see monsters—more specifically, we want to see heroes battling monsters. We want to panic when it seems like the monsters might win, but sob with relieved joy when they’re finally caught. We want to flirt with evil but see good triumph, we want to see great forces clashing in the night. Serial killers are like the most extreme, freakish versions of film noir or detective stories or superhero movies or Lord of the Rings or anything that’s centered around a clear battle between good and evil. They’re ickier and tougher, because they’re real, but I think that true crime fanatics consume them in a similar way.
I also know that for many women, it makes them feel safer and more in control to know all they can about these sick, dark, twisted secrets that our world contains. (True crime fans are pretty overwhelmingly female!) Since we’re usually the victims, you have to think that in some way reading about true crime is a defense mechanism, or maybe even a bit of a middle finger thrown up to the world.
EL – I’d never thought about it like that- makes a lot of sense. Who’s your favorite Lady Killer, and why?
TT – That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child! (Half kidding—CALM DOWN, PARENTS.) I think it’s a tie between Kate Bender, who was the nightmare incarnation of the myth of the American Frontier, and Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova, who was like the terrible, logical conclusion of a class system and religion that utterly devalued its servants. I’ll tell you more about them if you come to the reading!
EL – I keep picturing a guy getting stabbed 38 times by a Lady Killer, but with his dying breath, he says, “Well, actually, you’re holding that ice pick wrong–“. Did you find any consistent differences between female and male serial killer scenarios?
TT – Ha! I love it. The differences I found were pretty consistent with what you’ll find online if you do the most surface-level “what’s the diff between male & fem srl killer” Googling. Women tend to a) kill the people they know, b) use poison, c) almost never engage in overkill, and d) avoid capture for far longer than men. Men are a bit more of a diverse bunch, I have to say, but they’re more likely to have some horrible sexual component, use more direct forms of violence like guns or strangulation, and become super-famous. THAT BEING SAID, I like to think that my book will show you how these dichotomies actually totally erase what’s real and frightening about female serial killers. While arsenic might not seem as objectively scary as strangulation, I believe that all serial killing comes from the same deranged place, and at a certain point who cares how they killed—the terrifying thing is that they killed.
EL – What’s your origin story as a writer?
TT – I sprang fully-formed from the heads of my mother, Rhonda Telfer, who has written a young adult novel and many short stories for children, and my father, Charles Telfer, who has published an impressive book on the on the 17th-century theologian Campegius Vitringa. You’ll see us all on Amazon, along with my great-grandpa, Robert Stockdale Telfer, if you search for “Telfer” in the books section! I always wanted to be a writer, though my path has been a bit snaky, genre-wise. I majored in fiction-writing at Northwestern, worked in children’s publishing, did a year of an MFA, and then decided to go freelance, which was the best decision I have ever made. It was as a freelancer that I decided I NEEDED a column—what does TV teach us if not that every writer has a column?—pitched a column about female serial killers, dove headfirst into the bloody fray, and eventually it became a book.
EL – Freelancing is not an easy path. Any advice for folks thinking about taking the leap?
TT – Oh man, I think you really have to have the right personality for it, and there’s no shame in not wanting to be freelance (no matter how much certain ads and publications glamorize it). So that’s step one: stop dreaming about doing yoga in your kitchen at 11 AM and ask yourself if you really enjoy the hustle. I can’t imagine doing anything else, but I’m an oldest child (=type A) who was homeschooled until college (=dreadfully self-reliant and organized, with a bit of an antiestablishment-eco-warrior-truther streak that means I’m always about 24 hours away from finally learning how to preserve peaches). I HAD to be my own boss. I just HAD to. I couldn’t bear it otherwise. I think if you can live cheaply and are cool with sometimes taking on a waitressing job and trading out your tips for bars of gold that you store under your mattress (this is metaphorical but only slightly), you have the freelancing spirit. And remember that even though no one reads anymore, blah blah blah, there are so many places that need writers, whether that’s journalists or longform essayists or corporate copywriters (a gig only a fool would frown at because it pays the most). It’s extraordinarily helpful to switch your thinking from “I am knocking on impossible doors and will eat rice until I die” to “editors across the world are desperate for good, reliable writers who can say interesting things; I just have to show them that that’s who I am.” I’ve been an editor, so let me assure you: a friendly, dependable freelancer is worth her weight in bars of waitressed gold!
EL – Your “Old School Show-Off” series (there are 4 so far, I think) on The Awl is pretty great. Is there a book in there somewhere? What’s next for you?
TT – This question made my day, because I didn’t know anyone read that series. Thank you!! There is not a book in there, yet, but the idea of the series overlaps with Lady Killers in that it’s about weird, kinda larger-than-life historical figures who have been pretty much forgotten. I absolutely love writing about people like that. I definitely want to start on a second book soon, but I need to catch my breath and be savvy about what it might look like. Stay tuned.
Don’t miss Tori Telfer in the flesh, this Tues (Oct 17) at 8pm. Get Lady Killers signed, and maybe the inside of your skull, too – if you’re lucky.