Still, he managed to find a new gig that pushed him out of his comfort zone — writing true crime for middle-schoolers. His new book — “The Unabomber: Kathy Puckett and the Hunt for a Serial Bomber” — is the first in a four-book series, called the FBI Files and published by Macmillan’s Roaring Brook Press.
I fell in love with true-crime stories when I was a teenager myself, because they were real and unvarnished. No subject in high school got me that close to the underbelly of human behavior. Today I write about teens because I think they are misunderstood and rarely given the respect they deserve as humans. I whipped through Denson’s book and think it hits both targets — unvarnished true stories and respect for young readers.
I was thrilled to talk to him about his latest endeavor. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get this gig?
After the success of “The Spy’s Son,” I was asked to consider writing another book. I came up with a strong pitch for a journalistic account of mass incarceration, how we got here. Unfortunately some similar books came out about that time and my publisher decided it was a no.
So I was a little despondent and looking for magazine work when I got a call out of the blue from my agent, Tamar Rydzinski, who asked if I would consider writing a series of books for middle grade readers, recounting true stories of the FBI. I said as far as the FBI, maybe. But what’s a middle grade reader? She explained this is the grade level just below young adult — from fourth to ninth grade.
Then she said the protagonist of these books cannot all be white males. I burst out laughing, because the FBI is like 83 percent white and male. OK, I don’t know what the actual statistic is, but it’s way up there. So I said that would be a really hard thing to do. In response, she said the advances on these books are very, very good. And the royalties could be life changing. She had my undivided attention.
But I don’t want to make it sound like I did this book series for money. My agent was able to convince me that writing multiple genres is always good for an author. I found writing these shorter books to be a little more frustrating because you have to explain more. We want every line to tell us about a character which ultimately advances the plot or advances the actual narrative. For kids it’s naturally streamlined because the breadth of their world knowledge, particularly in these historic books, is different from adults. So you give them just enough without backing up and doing a whole history lesson, which would be boring.
When I finally seized on the whole idea, I really loved it. I didn’t have to load the book with all these details. I could pick one detail, the one that was clamoring around in my head.
So how did you find the not-white-male FBI agent for your first book?
I was able to get a list of the folks who had participated in the Unabomber case. Kathy Puckett kept popping up and I was able to find a really great interview that she had done. It was with the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI.
How much interviewing did you do, and how much were you able to rely on newspaper accounts and books? There’s obviously a lot written about the Unabomber.
It was a good balance. First I read all the available literature that was any good. I think it was five books that I read straight through. Meanwhile I’m keeping a running tab of all the newspaper articles. They’re listed in the back of the book.
I interviewed Kathy Puckett first by phone and then I spent two days with her at her home near Fresno. And then former FBI agent Max Noel came to Portland because he was giving a talk on the Unabomber case. Later I had a long phone interview with Terry Turchie, who managed the day-to-day doings of the UNABOM Task Force. Those were the three that I knew I had to speak to. Any quotes from them are either from my interviews or from one of the books that are cited.
You’ve written nonfiction in many forms — newspapers, magazines, and a book — but you had never written for a young audience. How did you go about framing a true-life story for middle readers?
I always wrote in shorter, punchier sentences when I was writing for newspapers. I was accustomed to trying to keep the language accessible and not crowding a lot of three-syllable words in there.
So for me it was: Just write. Instead of writing a 4,000-word magazine piece with a lot of long sentences, I just decided to do the Reader’s Digest version of things. I always liked Reader’s Digest when I was growing up — I read it religiously as a little boy. That’s a really simple way of saying how I did it, but that’s exactly how I did it.
When you were describing characters or scenes, did you run into situations where you couldn’t assume common knowledge, as you would for an adult audience?
I’m 61. So it’s difficult to remember what it was like when I was 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 years old. There were instances where I would use a word or something that is common knowledge among folks who are older — and I’d have to explain it. My second book is on the Aldrich Ames spy case, and I had to do a whole sidebar — it’s called “extra matter” in these children’s books — to explain what the Cold War was and why it’s important and what the stakes were. In that way, when kids are reading that we’re killing these spies, they understand why that was happening.
A related question about considering the age of your audience: Did you have to give extra description to this world of the 1990s, before everyone had cell phones and laptops?
Yes, I think there was some mention of the cell phones, which were very rudimentary at that time — they were like bricks. At one point I had Terry (an FBI agent) stopping at a pay phone. And the computer systems — this is my favorite part of explaining the technology — there’s a particular passage in there where I mention that only one in five families had a home computer. The FBI was launching a Web site to generate publicity about the case and offer a reward, and only one in five families have a home computer. It was rare back then.
I think it’s important to use that so that you can really set the scene. You can take kids back to a world they never knew.
Adventure is inherent in this story — there’s a bad guy, and a good guy who is trying to catch him. But aside from that, I liked some of the everyday work stuff that you describe, such as someone speaking up in a meeting when they hold a contrary view and going to Washington D.C. to convince their bosses to go along with their plan. I wondered if you grappled with describing these workplace hurdles for an audience that hasn’t worked.
Originally I had included a lot more of the internal struggles, not just in Washington but on the UNABOM team in general. Kate Jacobs (the Roaring Brook editor) finally got saturated with it. She’s like, look I think the kids are going to be less interested in the meetings and the internal struggles and the fights between agents and their bosses. I think I probably eliminated 1,500 to 2,000 words just to take it all out.
The trick was to make these things relevant to (the main character) Kathy Puckett, because she was brunt of some of those internal struggles. She was being marginalized. I really wanted to show how she overcame it. I thought it was really character building. The hard work is figuring out what these younger readers are going to need. And what they really need is to trust and care for Kathy Puckett. That’s the most important thing.
Your book is about the Unabomber, who sent bombs through the U.S. mail over a 17-year period. Did the duration of the case pose a structural challenge?
It was difficult because I had all these cases over a vast period of time, with gaps between crimes. (More than six years elapsed between bombs #12 and #13.) My protagonist, Kathy Puckett, came on less than two years before the end. But those were the years where they solved the case. In my first draft I probably was taking too long to get to her. Kate (the editor) helped me move that section up.
You always want to introduce your protagonist pretty early, to plant the hook — that this is the person you want to succeed and overcome all these obstacles. I open the book with the last bombing. And then I have to return to Kathy pretty quickly — her entrée to the case and what she had to do to bone up on the case with the other members of this newly revamped team.
There’s a balance there, because it’s a long-running case and I had to tell readers about all the other bombings. But a good editor — and Kate is a really great editor — was able to offer some ways to condense material here and there and introduce Kathy Puckett more frequently. That required me to go back to and interview Kathy over some areas that I hadn’t thought to. It’s a very collaborative process, particularly when you’re writing in a new genre.
I especially admired how you avoided any temptation at woman-framing your story — such as, “women had to deal with this” at this time or “she was very assertive for a woman.” You simply treat her as a person. Was that intentional?
It was absolutely intentional. There are one or two spots in the book where I talk about it. There’s one up-front when she’s at Quantico and a guy says, if we have to have women agents, you’re one we’d want to have. I think the line was something like, she didn’t want to be considered a female agent, she wanted to be considered an agent. But yes, women had it hard. And the FBI, back then, was a lot more overtly sexist than it is today.
There is this idea that journalists should never talk down to their audience. I write about science, in which the advice is to presume your readers know nothing about your topic but also to honor their intelligence. Does that rings true for you?
A hundred percent. And that has been a career-long thing for me.