|Oct/Nov 2007 Reviews & Interviews|
In a town where everyone knows everybody else, where doors, windows, and lives are kept unlocked and un-curtained, and family relationships and histories are discussed as openly as the daily news, a young girl gets caught up in her husband's plot to rob and murder an acquaintance. When the crime goes down, the man's four-year-old son—known and adored throughout the town—is shot and killed.
Precious Blood is not your typical, modern-day "Bonnie and Clyde" story. This is a story riddled with misguided swipes at the American Dream, buried hopes, and blind, unconditional loves; loves that, had they come with certain conditions, might not have destroyed lives and marred a quiet community's peace of mind.
CM Kentucky is not known as a hotbed for homicide. What was it about the Jerome and April Boggs case that drew your attention?
SA I covered the case as the lone reporter at The Mountain Eagle, the weekly newspaper in Whitesburg, Kentucky. I really didn't think about writing a book about it until a couple of years later when my wife brought up the idea.
CM You've worked for a few newspapers wearing various hats. Did one of those consist of a crime beat? If so, did you cover the Boggs case?
SA Not a crime beat as such, but I've covered crime since 1986. In fact, the biggest story I did during my first stint at The Mountain Eagle was a public corruption case in the same county where the Cook murders were committed. Several officials, including the county judge, the circuit judge, the jailer, a school board member and the commonwealth's attorney were arrested. The commonwealth's attorney eventually got out of that without a conviction and the jailer died of cancer before his trial, but the others were convicted or pleaded guilty to various charges.
The Cook murders happened the second time I worked at the Eagle, and I covered that case jointly with the editor of the paper.
CM As a father of young children, did it bother you to write about the murder of 4-year-old T.J. Cook?
SA I did. I have three children now, but at the time I had two—one a little older than T.J. Cook and one a little younger. It really makes you think when someone that age is murdered.
CM T.J.'s father, Blister Cook, was not the cleanest of characters considering his drug-dealing venture. How did that affect your presentation of him as a victim?
SA You have to be honest. I quoted the son's teacher, who was a close friend of Blister Cook and really saw nothing but his good side, but I also detailed his police record. I think noting what he did for a living but also letting his friend have her say gave readers a pretty accurate picture of him. I was also careful to use both the nickname he was known by in the community—Blister—and the nickname he was known by to the majority of his family—Timmy.
CM How much, if any, cooperation did you receive from the Cook family? The Boggs family? April's family?
SA I really didn't have any cooperation from any of them. The Cook family first said they would talk to me, but the next day they changed their minds, saying they did not feel as though they could handle the emotional stress of talking about the crime. They did suggest I talk to T.J.'s teacher instead, who was really hesitant to speak to me without the Cooks' permission. I got a lot of that during my research. Several people refused to talk to me because they said the Cooks had asked them not to. Several others said the same thing, but talked to me anyway on the condition that I not use their names or quote them directly. April Boggs's mother gave me several interviews but never signed a release and finally told me she didn't want me to write the book. As a consequence, I had to get information from other sources to replace what she had told me. Her father was very nice, but said he was afraid giving an interview would make things hard for his daughter in prison.
The Cook family, by the way, has since changed its opinion of me writing the book. Blister Cook's sister told me she thought the book was "respectful and compassionate." Family members have also said the negative details about Blister in the book didn't bother them, since they were fact. I understand they've also been buying copies of the book to send to the governor and to other state officials to make sure that Jerome Boggs doesn't get out of prison sometime down the road.
CM How much cooperation did you receive from the lawyers, law enforcement, court, etc.?
SA I had a lot of that sort of cooperation. In fact, the lead detective on the case was very helpful. I probably couldn't have written the book without his willingness to be interviewed. The other thing that really helped is that all of the court records in Letcher County are on video tape, including what happens in chambers. By getting those tapes I was able to gain insight into what really went on when the lawyers left the jury's view.
CM What has been the response to Precious Blood in Kentucky?
SA It's been very positive. In eastern Kentucky especially, the people are very sensitive to image because they've been burned so many times by the national media. All of the comments I've had about the book have been exactly the opposite of what you usually hear when something is written about the area. Everyone I've talked to has told me how accurate the descriptions are in the book.
CM What inspired you to make the leap from newspaper reporting to true crime book writing?
SA Actually, my inspiration was for fiction writing and I have two novel manuscripts completed. The jump to true crime came because of my wife. She suggested that publishers might be more receptive to nonfiction from me because of my background as a journalist, and she was right.
CM How long did it take you to get a book deal with Kensington?
SA It only took a couple of weeks, which really surprised me. I was prepared to wait for months before receiving a rejection slip.
CM You used to have a literary agent that you have since fired. Why did you fire him? Do you have a new agent?
SA As you know from your own recent experience, the author-agent relationship is something that just isn't discussed publicly, and I'm not going to vary from that tradition. Suffice it to say that I am currently without an agent, but I'm not going to get into the circumstances.
CM Do you have another book deal with Kensington?
SA They have an option on a second book, but we haven't negotiated a contract yet. They are aware of what I'm working on, however, and they have told me they're interested.
CM Are you able to write full-time? If not, tell me about your other jobs.
SA Unfortunately, I'm not writing full time. In addition to being an author, I do some freelance writing and I do some consulting on grants and government relations things. For example, I'm a regular contributor to a rural health newsletter published by the University of Kentucky, and distributed to health care professionals and policy makers around the state. I also wrote and administered a grant to get downtown Whitesburg on the National Register of Historic Places. I have done a number of other things, including substitute teaching and running monthly writing workshops for a year. I've even consulted on how nonprofits can get their message out to the press. You don't need anyone to build an outside toilet, do you?
CM You have some unpublished fiction on your personal website. Do you intend to shop your novels?
SA I do. I'd really enjoy writing fiction more than nonfiction because you can create whole worlds out of your imagination. With nonfiction—especially true crime—you have to take a Sgt. Friday approach. "Just the facts, ma'am."
CM You are a contributor to the true crime portal, In Cold Blog. How has that worked out for you so far?
SA It's been a very interesting experience. I enjoy interacting with the other writers and learning about their outlook on life. I've been surprised at how diverse the group is.
CM How does your wife feel about you writing true crime stories?
SA She's been unbelievably supportive. I think she sometimes wishes I'd go back to work at a regular nine-to-five job, but then she wouldn't know how to act since as a reporter and editor I never had a nine-to-five job.
Seriously, she's not a real newshound, but since I wrote Precious Blood, she's always on the lookout for murders that would make a good book. She also keeps her eye out for developments in cases I'm already following. I couldn't ask for more support.