I had the pleasure of reading James Renner’s newest book, True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray, last month when Netgalley provided me a copy in exchange for an honest review. This was my first experience with his work, but I had a feeling I would love it as true crime is a favorite genre of mine. My spoiler-free review of the book can be found HERE, which also highlights a few other Goodreads reviews as well. Don’t forget to enter our giveaway for a copy of True Crime Addict HERE!
1) Tell us a little about life for you as an investigative journalist. What convinced you to dive into the world of fiction and publish there as well?
I used to be a reporter for Cleveland Scene and it was there I learned the ropes of investigative journalism. When I started I was very green. Like embarrassingly naive. I had a couple really good editors, though. And they taught me where to go to look for information, how to interview subjects and suspects, and how to pound out a tight graph. This was at a time in Cleveland history where the local politicians were being indicted for corruption and bribery, and when there were at least two active serial abductors/killers in town – Ariel Castro and Anthony Sowell. So, for a crime writer who also covered politics, it was a very busy beat.
After a couple years, I became known as the Cleveland crime guy. I wrote a book about the Amy Mihaljevic cold case, in 2006, and everything else kind of came from there. It didn’t take much convincing to dive into the world of mystery fiction. After working on so many unsolved cases I really want to write about a mystery I could solve. It was very therapeutic. So when I was fired from Scene in 2009 – fallout from a political expose – I had time to finish my novel.
2) CNN did a profile on your method of using social media to help solve cold cases in 2015; what first inspired your use of this method to reopen and solve these cases? What would you consider the most successful breakthrough on a case where this method was used?
I saw the power of social media very early on. As a crime writer, you’re always trying to find a way to reach out to people who may have information about an old case but sometimes you don’t even know who that might be. I realized I could use MySpace to hone in on specific communities of people. For instance, if I was looking for information on a crime that happened in a certain neighborhood, I could track down people from that community on MySpace. Then of course I moved over to Facebook and did the same thing, there.
At the time, other reporters kind of looked down their noses at this tactic. To them, I think it seemed like an invasion or something. But I see these same reporters, now, posting questions on Facebook: “Hey, does anyone have information about the hit-and-run on State and Main?” or even “What are the top ten side dishes to bring to a Fourth of July picnic.”
I think the best use of social media in an investigation was when Reddit went after the Boston marathon bombers. I know there are others who feel this was the worst moment for social media, but to me it showed opportunity. Witnesses from the marathon were posting pictures from the finish line right away and readers were combing through them, looking for clues. They quickly identified persons of interest. Some were innocent. But the innocent ones were quickly vetted and put aside as the investigation honed in on the real perpetrators. I guarantee you Reddit helped accelerate the Boston Police Department’s own investigation. It helped them but they will never admit that.
3) “True Crime Addict” is equal parts your looking into the disappearance of Maura Murray, a student at UMass who went missing from New Hampshire back in 2004, and your personal journey of descent into an obsession with true crime (past and present). You mention a past battle with PTSD; how were you able to safeguard against a similar situation happening during this case? Were you concerned about being pulled in too deep and did you have anyone you could turn to in regards of keeping you grounded in the present?
In the midst of my investigation into the disappearance of Maura Murray I came to two big realizations, which I talk about in the book. 1. I was an addict. An addict of true crime, sure. But also an alcoholic. An addict of prescription meds, too. Just a mess. And why? Because of #2: I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I was self-medicating. The PTSD came to me like cancer to someone who suffered from second-hand smoke. I’d interviewed so many victims of trauma, that trauma had found its way into my soul. It took therapy and more meds to get healthy again. I’ve been sober and sane, med-free for two years, now. I concentrate more on my fiction and screenplays now, because I don’t care to experience trauma any more. I’ve promised my wife I’m done with true crime.
4) Having written both fiction/non-fiction, which is your favorite as an author? Do you already have ideas for what your next book might be?
I’ve got a couple finished novels, which will be coming out in 2016 and 2017. The first is a precious little horror story in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft. The other is a kind of sequel to my first novel, The Man from Primrose Lane.
5) What is one weird/random/unique fact about yourself that your audience would be surprised by?
When I write, I listen to a specific playlist of songs to keep me motivated. It’s absolutely terrible. An eclectic mix of pop and rock and just the worst stuff you can imagine. I’ve got Led Zeppelin on there, next to Selena Gomez. Beethoven next to Taylor Swift. There’s quite a lot of showtunes on there, too.
James Renner’s true crime stories have appeared in The Best American Crime Writing anthology, as well the Cleveland Scene and Cracked.com. His method of using social media to solve cold cases was the subject of a CNN profile, in 2015. Renner is also the author of two novels, The Man from Primrose Lane and The Great Forgetting. His latest work of nonfiction – TRUE CRIME ADDICT – will be published May 24th. It follows his investigation into the strange disappearance of UMass nursing student, Maura Murray.