Festival of Books: Writing about America's criminal underbelly

How writers about crime sniff out the details: A report from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

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.

FULL COVERAGE: FESTIVAL OF BOOKS

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.

MORE FROM THE FESTIVAL OF BOOKS:

Gladwell, Choi and Oates close out fest's 20th year

Female writers talk 'mansplaining,' un-motherhood

The winners of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes are ...

Follow the books section on Twitter @latimesbooks and Facebook

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
72°