Three years ago this December the remains of four women were found on a Long Island beach. Robert Kolker began by investigating the serial killer before shifting his focus to the victims and their families. Lost Girls delves into the lives of the women lost, the families who continue to mourn them, and the search for the killer they have in common.
Zola: This book developed out of a 2011 article you wrote for New York magazine, “A Serial Killer In Common.” How did that article transform into this book?
Robert Kolker: When I first reported on the serial-killer case, I had a lot of preconceived notions. My first impulse, as a reporter, was to join the crowd and try to report on the whodunit aspect of the case. I didn’t occur to me to learn much about the victims at first because I assumed, naively, that they had no stories at all—that they were “dead” long before they were really killed. Then I quickly learned they all had families, of course, and loved ones and friends. And as I got to know the families for the magazine story, it was my idea to write a book that would be about the lives of these women as much as about the case itself. While I hoped the book would maintain visibility for the case, I also hoped the book would help people understand the worlds these women came from—struggling parts of America that many of us don’t often see. I also hoped Lost Girls would explain why these women felt they had to work in the shadows to survive.
Zola: You quote a variety of people in the book: the victims’ families, friends and boyfriends (who, in some cases, were also their pimps), the police investigating the cases, the residents of the Oak Beach, Long Island neighborhood which was implicated in the murders. How difficult was it to get all these people to speak with you?
RK: As a journalist, I often am required to insert myself into communities and situations where I am an outsider. My approach is not prosecutorial. My job is to be open-minded and empathetic toward everyone I encounter. I have no problem asking difficult questions, but I always make it clear the reason behind those questions is always the search for understanding.
Zola: Have you heard from many of them since the book came out? What’s been their reaction?
RK: Their reactions have been all over the place — everything from tearful gratitude to unbridled rage. A few people have liked it at first and then changed their minds, and a few others disliked it at first and now like it. For my part, I’m incredibly grateful to all of the friends and family members who sat for interviews. I know it wasn’t easy for them to talk about a lot of what we discussed. It took a long time for many of them to decide to talk, but I think everyone in the end agreed that the entirety of these women’s lives deserved attention.
Zola: It seems that writers who write about such heinous crimes as these are forever linked to—perhaps even haunted by—them: Truman Capote and In Cold Blood, Robert Graysmith and Zodiac, Joe McGinniss and Fatal Vision. Do you sense this will happen to you? As long as the cases remain unsolved, will you always keep a close eye on them?
RK: I do plan on paying close attention to this case and I remain very hopeful that sooner or later there will be an arrest. Since my book focused on the families and friends of the victims, I’m just as hopeful that I’ll be able to stay in touch with the people I’ve interviewed. Facebook has been helpful. One person moved a few blocks away from me and I gave her a copy of the book at the local Chuck E. Cheese.
While writing the book, I didn’t really think about whether my name and career would be linked to it forever. Part of me wonders if books still have that kind of power in our culture. Maybe nowadays it’s the movie of the book, not the book itself, that ends up sticking in people’s minds?
Zola: Are you a fan of any of those books? Did they or any other books influence Lost Girls?
RK: I am inspired by nonfiction narratives that are a little about crime but also open a window into a part of the world we might otherwise overlook. I love Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc, There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz, and The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns. And when I started to worry that the second half of the book would be too different in tone from the first, I thought a little about Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which has two very different halves. And yes, my book’s discussion of the small community of Oak Beach owes a tremendous debt to In Cold Blood.
Zola: Did working on such bleak material have any effect on your personal life?
RK: I do recall being a little jumpy in the middle of reporting the book, and once I sat down to write I was terribly intimidated until things got rolling. I had great editors who believed in the book and were very encouraging, and when revision time came they had great ideas.
RK: I think you’re right about how accustomed I got to working on something that felt so dire. I find I’m a little shy about diving into something new now, because I know just how consuming it can be and I want to be sure it feels important, at least to me.
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This article originally appeared on Zola Books.