Festival of Books: Writing about America's criminal underbelly

How the panelists on "Writing American Crime" found their sources became a fun topic Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Ruben Castaneda said he smoked cracked cocaine while he was covering crime in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s before kicking the addiction.


For his book "S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C.," he revisited the block where he bought drugs and spoke with a pastor who was protected by a local drug dealer named Baldy.

Sam Quinones had no trouble speaking with drug users for his book "Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic."

The Mexican drug traffickers in federal prison proved tougher nuts to crack. He wrote to dozens and ultimately convinced some to talk after he mentioned his last writings about Mexican singer Chalino Sanchez, who is idolized by drug traffickers.

The panel talked about the criminal underbelly of America and the intensive research needed to write about it with gusto and authority.

"You have to do far more immersion," Quinones said when asked to compare writing a book to a newspaper article.

Deanne Stillman, who wrote "Desert Reckoning," argued that writing with a sense of place is important in crime writing. For her, the desert is a key place to convey the sense of mystery and renewal.  "It has whispered to everyone from Jesus Christ to Timothy McVeigh."

Writing about crime and its many layers is especially interesting since courtroom justice essentially comes down to juries picking between competing narratives for which story they like best, said Barry Siegel, a 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist for "Manifest Injustice."

"What goes on in a courtroom is not a pristine search for truth," he said.


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