Kensington’s Resident Author
Author Inc. – The Caitlin Rother Story
Story and Photos by Donna Marganella
“Every story needs an edge,” says Caitlin Rother. “And when the story deals with life and death, that’s the ultimate edge.”
Rother, a Pulitzer-nominated investigative reporter, formerly with The San Diego Union-Tribune and a resident of Kensington, was speaking to a rapt audience at the Kensington Library on a recent Saturday, discussing her latest true crime book, “Dead Reckoning.” It tells the well-publicized story of Skylar Deleon, who plotted the murder of Tom and Jackie Hawks by tying them to an anchor and throwing them from their Orange County-based yacht while they were still alive.
The high profile case, which led to convictions for Deleon, his wife Jennifer, and an accomplice, was fascinating to research, according to Rother who actually interviewed Skylar Deleon four times in prison, while working on the book. “There was so much back story to tell,” says Rother. “And pulling all of that material together was a very engaging process.” The complicated personal history, motivations and manipulations of Deleon, a compulsive liar and serial charmer, made for intriguing work and a riveting read.
The process of investigating and then telling these complex stories is clearly something Rother enjoys, and it’s obvious that readers appreciate her efforts. Her library audience in Kensington peppered her with questions about “Dead Reckoning” and her other true crime books, their curiosity extending beyond the books, which all end in convictions (a condition her publisher stipulates for publication).
That kind of “what happened next?” curiosity is one of the things that drives Rother to take on these complicated stories. The attraction also involves delving into the psyche of her subjects, whose motivations are often intricate puzzles of greed, addiction, abuse and psychosis.
While some books are more difficult to work on than others — Rother cites “Body Parts,” the story of convicted serial killer Wayne Adam Ford, as one such example — she admits to an ability to compartmentalize, which helps her deal with and get through some very dark subject matter. Still, working on “Body Parts” “did get difficult,” she says, as the story involved rape, torture and dismemberment of Ford’s female victims. “The book did affect my life,” Rother admits.
As she begins working on book No. 8, Rother delves further into the darkness. Tentatively titled “The Makings of a Monster,” it will tell the story of sexual predator John Albert Gardner III, who raped and murdered two San Diego teens. It doesn’t get much more high profile than that, and Rother cites the “anger level of the local community” and access to some exclusive information as primary reasons for agreeing to this newest project, which she describes as “very dark subject matter” that she says is “already taking its toll.”
Rother’s first book, “Poisoned Love,” while not quite as dark, was the riveting story of another well-known local murder. It tells the story of the Kristin Rossum case, which Rother covered from arrest through conviction while working as a U-T reporter. Rother used a combination of extensive new research and exclusive interviews to unravel the story of Rossum, a toxicologist and methamphetamine addict who, while involved in an affair with her married boss, poisoned her husband and staged it to look like a suicide, complete with sprinkled rose petals. “Poisoned Love,” published in 2005, made national news and became a best-seller with seven printings.
Regardless of the material at hand, the key to success for any of her books, Rother says, is “to make them read like a suspense thriller.” All the interesting details must be “woven into a narrative structure that keeps the reader interested.”
Rother’s skill at this is apparent, based on the number of audience members in Kensington who said, “I couldn’t put it down,” when describing her books.
It’s the ultimate compliment, but one, Rother says, that’s not easily achieved. “The tricky part is using the character’s back story and weaving that in without losing rhythm, and keeping the pace going strong with scenes that keep the reader hanging.” The stories can be bleak, the details gruesome, but Rother crafts each one into a suspenseful read, a carefully woven narrative with all the characteristics of a novel but, “it all has to be true,” says Rother. “I can’t make any of it up.” The freedom to make the story up came with Rother’s novel “Naked Addiction,” which she started while still working as a journalist.
Leaving her job as a journalist was a big leap, but one that Rother plotted as methodically as any detective investigating a crime. “Lots of people told me I was brave and they’d be scared to take that risk of going off on their own. But I was okay with it because I had minimized the risk. I had a plan with books lined up, and a completed novel to sell, and other projects in the queue.”
Rother has expanded her writing repertoire to include co-authoring projects that are less dark but no less engaging. Her recent co-authoring projects include “My Life, Deleted,” written with Scott Bolzan, who lost his long-term memory after a head injury. The inspiring story covers Bolzan’s struggles to rebuild his identity and start his life over without the near total obliteration of his previous life experiences. Her “amnesia book,” as Rother calls it, was a challenge because she also had to interview Bolzan’s family to verify events, adding another layer of complexity.
Rother also stresses the sensitivity required as she works on a book project. “Everyone I’m talking to is traumatized,” she says. That may include victims, victim’s families, the convicted person and his or her family, law enforcement officers and attorneys.
An important part of her job, says Rother, is “not to take advantage of people.” “It’s very important to be respectful of people and their stories,” she says. “They’re talking to me because they trust me and I have to honor that and maintain their trust and respect.” Plus, it’s a small world, this circle of people involved in investigating and solving these crimes. “They all know each other,” Rother says, “And if you don’t treat people with respect the word gets out pretty quickly that you can’t be trusted.”
It’s likely Rother will continue to keep multiple projects going, happily busy in that overwhelming kind of way she seems to thrive in. “Things are going so well right now,” she says. Currently, Rother has three books going at once, all in different stages of development, which requires great organizational skills and the ability to switch between different tasks easily. “At each stage, a book requires different things,” she says. There is the activity of “constantly promoting” her books and herself as an author. “Plus, I’m always thinking about the next book, always looking for what could come next.” It’s the hope that drives writers, Rother admits, calling her work “a lot like speculative poker.” “You always hope you’ll hit with the next book,” she says admitting to putting her “heart and soul” into her work.
That’s good news for her readers who eagerly anticipate Rother’s next chapter.