I'm excited to be interviewing Carolyn Murnick today. Carolyn is the author of The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder. An editor of New York Magazine, she has contributed to several anthologies and delivered a TEDx talked called “How Crime Shows Undermine Your Empathy.” She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Welcome, Carolyn, to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks so much for coming.
Carolyn Murnick: Thank you for having me.
Zibby: It’s so nice to meet you in person. Your book was so good, as I was just telling you. I gobbled it down on an airplane and couldn't wait to talk to you about it. I'm so sorry for your loss. Your book was about -- why don't you tell listeners a little bit about what the book was about? Then I can go from there.
Carolyn: My book is called The Hot One. It’s the story of my search for answers around my childhood best friend’s murder. She was killed in LA in 2001 when she was twenty-two. I was twenty-one. The story and what happened to her really haunted me throughout my twenties. Then in 2008, I learned that there was a man arrested who was connected to her murder as well as three other victims. He was going to be put to trial in LA. That began my reporting process. I decided I wanted to write a book that chronicled the unfolding court case for her alleged killer but also really got at the power of childhood friendships and how this relationship had made such an impact on me. She was my first best friend when we were seven, eight, nine years old in New Jersey.
Zibby: I'm so sorry. I'm sorry about your loss. I interviewed another author. We were talking about how sometimes when you lose touch with someone who then passes away, it’s almost harder because you think, “Do I have a right to be this upset if we've drifted apart?”
Carolyn: You never know what kind of loss, or who, or when loss is going to trigger something in you. What I started noticing when I would talk about Ashley throughout my twenties, I realized that lots of other women resonated with the story of the friend who got away, someone who you had so much in common with in childhood and then maybe started to take different paths, which is what happened with Ashley and I in the high school years. I describe our relationship as our bond was cemented during an innocent, playful, girlhood time. Then, as girls start to make different decisions around things like drugs and sex and have different life experiences, that can feel really complicated for you as a young person.
You're looking to your friends to show you how to be in the world and figure out your own identity in reference to them. When someone starts making different decisions, it can feel like a referendum on your own choices. That was a little bit what happened with Ashley and me in our high school years. As I write about in the book, we had one last -- didn't know it would be the last -- one last weekend which turned out to be reckoning experience when we were about twenty. I learned that her life in LA was so much different than what mine was as a student in New York. I was in intimidated by her and confused. I wondered if our relationship would have a future. Then a year later, she was found dead.
Zibby: That's so crazy, that story. I like how you contrasted how your relationship started with how it ended, how you had the two of you so close, taking pictures of yourselves, being faux-flirty at such a young age and your parents getting upset at the pictures, and then to have her actually become more in that sexualized way. I had a friend at one point, we broke the rules in this one way. For me, that's as far as I was going to go with breaking the rules. That was just the beginning for her. As adults, we completely drifted. She actually ended up passing away as well. I related to a lot in your book because it was what used to bring you so close together and then all of a sudden you're…
Carolyn: I think everyone has a friendship like that. It doesn't mean that person died, but that somehow there was a parting of closeness. You still end up thinking about that person throughout life and maybe sometimes are subconsciously comparing yourself to that person.
Zibby: How did you go from this whole experience happening to you to making this into a book, and a really great, gripping book at that? I know you work at New York Magazine and you have a lot of magazine-writing background. What did you do with this story? How did you turn it into a great memoir?
Carolyn: Thank you. The story had a very organic evolution over many, many years. I also want to point out it’s been almost twenty years since she died. I worked on the book for close to nine years. The paperback just came out last year. I had a new afterward in that. I don't want to give too much away, but the unfolding court case is still going on. It’s going to be in the news again. I'm doing more writing about it. Linearly, when she died in 2001, as I write about, I had so many questions that I didn't know how to find answers to. I had preconceived ideas about what might have happened to her considering the last time I saw her I learned that she was working in the sex industry and doing drugs and dating older guys and actors who are flying her all over the world to visit them on set. She seemed to have such a glamorous, fast-paced, very LA-lifestyle that I didn't relate to. It intimidated me. I had all these ideas around who could've done it? How do I find out more?
Unfortunately, there was very little information available to me. I learned about it in our town newspaper in New Jersey. Her family had already moved away to California during high school. The flow of information and answers to the questions that anyone would have weren’t around. I sat for years around my feelings about that last weekend and how confusing it had been. I go into more detail about either conversations we did or didn't have that weekend, what happened between us with going out and New York nightlife and guys and how I was comparing myself to her, and maybe vice versa. I knew that there was a lot of emotional truth to be mined with writing about with what that weekend meant. Like I said, as I started talking about it with other women, people were telling me their own stories, that they had an Ashley in their life too and what happened to her. I knew that there was something universal there.
I'm not an investigative journalist. I did entertainment journalism throughout my twenties and worked at different magazines. I'd never taken on something this complex and hard-hitting and detailed. Then I started at New York Magazine in 2008. That also turned out to be another year of media falling apart. Everyone I knew was getting laid off. Magazines were closing. It was announced that there was going to be layoffs at New York Magazine. I started freaking out and thinking about what could be a different path for me. Maybe now is the time to really take on this book.
Also, I have to credit New York Magazine in a subtle way because just being among these really brilliant journalists I felt like maybe I can pick something up from them and I could be a person to tell this story. I started having little conversations with people around the magazine who had written books and asked for what they thought of the story, or asked would they refer me to their agent, or would they look at this query letter that I had written, so baby steps from there.
Then I learned that there had been this arrest in LA and that there was going to be a real criminal trial. Obviously, this is the moment to do this, whether I'm ready or not. I started the process of sending out queries, finding an agent, starting to go on some reporting trips to LA. Then very slowly, about a year later, I sold the book on proposal. The sticking point was, what I had pitched was that I'm going to be following this trial, which is going to be happening soon because the guy was arrested in 2008. There was a preliminary hearing in 2010, but -- spoiler alert -- the trial still hasn’t happened. We’re in the year 2019. Many years into my writing process I had to figure out a new way to shape the narrative because I realized I wasn’t going to be able to wait for the trial because no one knew when it would be.
Zibby: I can't believe how long it takes to get somebody on trial when they have all this information, all the stuff you documented from the preliminary hearing and everything that you went and recorded.
Carolyn: It’s very unusual what's happening in this particular case. From my understanding, so many moving parts have to line up to be able to put someone on trial for multiple victims. One of them is in another state. There could even be another trial in Illinois after this. What's happened year after year is a prosecutor can be working on it for many years and then they have to take a leave. Then a new prosecutor comes on who’s given a year or more to get up to speed. Then a defense attorney leaves because this defendant is allowed to keep having as many court-appointed defense attorneys as he wants. Year after year these personnel changes on different sides have pushed things back. Judges leave. There's things as ridiculous as the courtroom that you think it’s going to be in suddenly is booked for months. Somehow, this can add up to ten years of delays.
Zibby: It’s so great in the book, you paint yourself as this self-effacing court reporter. You make it so that it seems like you don't know what you're doing at all and you're talking to the actual reporters next to you.
Carolyn: That is definitely how I felt. I write about this in the book. My first or second time showing up to watch one of these hearings for the defendant, there were other media who were covering the case. This has gotten some media attention because it’s a LA serial killer. All the victims are white women, which as we know gets more media interest. The other point is that on the night of Ashley’s murder, she was supposed to be going on a date with Ashton Kutcher. He was twenty-four or twenty-five at the time. This was before he really took off. Then when he did become more famous, this story came up again. This case has been reported all these different ways as “Ashton Kutcher’s tragedy,” and “Will he testify?” I think he will be testifying. That's going to be a whole circus.
Zibby: Are you annoyed that the media has made this into his story when it’s so much about your friend and her story and what happened, and his part was so tiny?
Carolyn: Of course. One of the things I wanted to explore in the book is that there are different ways to tell crime stories that aren’t focused on the men. Most of the time, that is what we’re getting. The narrative is based around the male killer. In this case, it’s this male actor and what happened to him. Sometimes you see stories like -- what was that one on HBO with John Turturro? Almost any prestige crime drama, the detectives and the lawyers are the through line that we’re getting instead of the female victims. The Ashton Kutcher fiasco is just another version of how the story of women’s deaths gets pivoted to be about men.
Zibby: You wrote a great article in The Cut about that very recently, which was really great. You had a such a strong opinion about how the crime shows are only about the criminals. It’s really sensationalizing them. It’s sort of like what we say at the dinner table, you should give more attention to the kid who’s been hurt than the other who does it or else they thrive off that attention. I like how when you ended that article about bakers who are making cakes that are bad for you, at least they know and that’s what they're doing now. I'm probably mangling this. Maybe you could say it better.
Carolyn: We’re always having a new moment of prestige crime TV. It seems like these podcasts and these shows and books are being released every week now. This month it’s all about Ted Bundy because we have The Ted Bundy Tapes documentary on Netflix as well as this Zac Efron dramatization of Ted Bundy, and so all this attention around “let's eat this up,” with elevating and glamorizing these men. I know that there is a different way to tell these stories that is still powerful. I know that we are sucked in by crime for all different, complicated reasons. This is what I tried to do with my book. There's a way to get at these feelings that we’re having and the drive we have to consume these stories but make it more sensitive to the victims and shift the attention around to what happened to either the victims and family’s stories or the media. I know that there is a way to tell the story that drives home the emotion of loss more than elevating these male killers over and over again and being like, “Wow. The criminal mastermind this guy was, I need to know more about him.”
Zibby: I think it’s just the fascination with somebody so different and so sick. How can that happen? It’s like why we’re attracted to car wrecks and all of that. Isn't it? It’s a little bit like watching a disaster unfold.
Carolyn: The car wreck analogy is a good one. As I said in this piece I wrote for The Cut today, I actually have studied this serial killer for over ten years now, seen him in person, had interactions with people he knew. I recognize being drawn to him as holding answers, but I know that he doesn't now after years. There's so much more interesting, more meaningful stuff to explore about this case and any crime story than just, “Let's get inside this killer’s head.” It’s missing the point. It’s a real missed opportunity around how we could convey the true trauma and tragedy of loss.
Zibby: Not to change the subject, but you do a lot about the male gaze in this book, which took me back to art history class and all of that. Ashley, you refer to her striking looks and her self-possession and how attractive she was many times. You wrote, “It was as if Ashley had taken that essential truth I woke up to at ten, that the male gaze was a given, and stared squarely, defiantly right back at it while I was still attempting to avoid eye contact for as long as possible.” Later in the book you say, “In the years since, my feelings had shifted. The male gaze felt like power only up to a point. It could just as easily be disempowering.” How do you feel about that now? Tell me more about that whole piece.
Carolyn: Those are some complicated ideas. The first part, looking at Ashley as a nineteen, twenty, twenty-one-year-old, she had great sexual confidence and magnetism. The title of the book is The Hot One. I use that to mean a few different things, but also just that that's who she was. It’s also supposed to connote the way that girls and women, it always seems like they have to be held up in competition to each other or reference to each other. If you have two girls together, one’s the hot one and one’s the not hot one, or the smart one or the sporty one. There can only be one. Somewhere along the line, that became Ashley.
I want to explore the idea of how and when for girls those identities start to take hold, and then how they affect your sense of self, and also how you operate within the world. I was not sophisticated enough at age twenty to be able to have these conversations with her. It was only much later that I started to understand what that might have felt like and looked like. As I grew up, I wasn’t an active dater. I was more of a typical college student, was just starting to have my first few relationships and things not working out, etc. Then after years of dating, probably my early thirties when I was finishing up this book having much more experience with men, I had a taste, an understanding, of what sexual power can look and feel like. In some ways, that’s when I felt like I was understanding what it was, when I was in my thirties. She maybe understood it much younger. It’s a burden. It can be a dangerous thing in a way. It doesn't necessarily mean that you are fulfilled just because you recognize that guys are going to be attracted to you and want to sleep with you immediately.
Zibby: Having a friend like Ashley, do feel like that's something that you carry with you in comparison to someone else? Even when that other person goes away, do you feel like you carry the insecurity, the contrast? Do you know what I'm trying to say here? Does that linger, or then do you get another friend, does your next friend come around and now in that friendship you're the super smart one or you're amazing or you have these great eyes or whatever, then you move on?
Carolyn: That's something that I also write about in the book. These labels are so arbitrary. You have two girls together. One’s the hot one in that group. Later on in life, you could be the hot one in someone else's group. Now with the hindsight of many, many years, I recognize how to pay attention to those things a little better and when you're a woman, recognizing what might be triggering to you about different dynamics that are going on. These are clearly things I didn't know how to put my finger on when I was twenty and last seeing Ashley. I just knew that being around her made me feel bad about myself.
Zibby: Is it too an advance thought? I have two daughters. Do you think that it’s something you can say, like, “You might feel terrible in this group, but wait ‘til you get to your next school?”
Carolyn: It’s very complicated. I have a daughter now too. I think about how to express these ideas. I really have no idea. What I would like to share more with my daughter, which I didn’t quite have these conversations with my mom about, is that these are real complicated issues. We tell girls, “You can be anything you want.” There's always a “but” to that. I don't think that my mom ever really clearly explained the “but” of telling girls they can be anything and these other forces that are going to be at play. Those are some of the ideas that I was playing with in the prologue of my book.
Ashley and I as kids used to take all these pictures of each other all the time. We had these cheap cameras. My parents would develop the film every week. One night we decided to pretend to be Playboy models. We had pictures of each other topless and swinging on bars. It was proto-erotic. We were nine years old. There wasn’t exactly sexual energy. It was just exploration. We didn't know what was happening. It was girlhood. However, two weeks later when my parents brought the photos back to me -- they hadn’t looked at them, but they had been told by the photo delivery person, “We don't develop smut.” Suddenly my parents were like, “What's on this film? We are ashamed. What's happening?”
That right there tells you that girls are going throughout life having their own experiences and playing, but other people can apply meaning to what you are and what you're doing that will get in the way of where you're trying to go. I'm saying this in a very abstract way, but I think you get it. That was the beginning of my understanding of, “Oh, there's a lot more at play here to being a girl.” You can dress however you want; however, judgements that people are going to make at you or how you might be perceived, etc., you can't control and you will have to live with in all different ways. That's unfortunate.
Zibby: Are you planning on going to the whole trial? Is it going to be in LA?
Carolyn: Yeah. It’s in LA. As of very recently, there was hearing just two days ago where they have set a date to begin March 18th, which is really amazing but also feels like, “We’ll see.” We’ll see if it really gets started. I won't believe that this is going to start until I'm sitting in the seat. I do hope to be able to go to at least some of it. It’s going to be a real emotionally intense thing to do. It’s also going to be really long. There's no way I can cover the entire thing. It could be over three, four months. Hope to get out there for some of it, hopefully do some more writing about it.
Zibby: Is this like the part two, book part two?
Carolyn: Something like that. I'm not sure.
Zibby: Do you have any other books that you're itching to write at this point? Do you feel that was exactly what you needed to get out?
Carolyn: I don't know. I am certainly not a fast writer. I worked on this project for almost ten years. If a book is going to take me ten to twenty years a piece, who knows. Obviously if I'm going to keep doing this, I've got to contract that process a little bit more. We’ll see. At the moment, I feel like there's still a little bit more to see through with this story. I'm only just coming up for air around the whole long process of writing the book in isolation, and then letting out and seeing the feedback and what comes back to you, and how your perspectives continue to evolve after the book is out in the world.
Zibby: Did you have any surprising reactions to it once it came out?
Carolyn: All sorts of things. I had people contacting me, certainly people saying, “I had a friend like this. This is helping me remember or honor my friend.” Other people who have had stories of loss or were relatives of a victim of a crime that maybe wouldn't have very much in common with what happened to Ashley have reached out and said, “This book has really given me some new ways to think about this grief right now.” That's been very meaningful. I've also heard from other people who knew Ashley who I didn't know during the time of my reporting, friends of hers from California or a summer program. I recently heard from someone who grew up with the alleged killer. You never know who's going to find these things and how it will click with them.
Zibby: Do you feel it gave you some sort of personal closure to have done it?
Carolyn: As I write about in the book, I'm still of mixed mind about what closure is. I don't really think closure is a real thing in a way. We can get to a point where we’re not super emotionally triggered by loss on a daily basis, but yet you're still going to think about this person and loss and feel moved by it and feel sadness. I still have all of that. I don't think this will ever be fully over. As anyone knows who has lost someone, there's so many different milestones. I know you also interviewed the author of the Modern Loss anthology. I love that site. They talk about these things a lot. You have the loss and then the first year. Your feelings about loss continue to evolve as you go on in life. Now, I have a child. That is a whole new perspective on what that means to lose a child. Another thing that's interesting is that the older I get, the younger twenty-two is and feels that she only got to live until. There's a lot of depth just even in that idea. The older I get, the younger twenty-two feels, the more outrageous it feels that that was the entirety of Ashley’s life.
Zibby: My older kids are only eleven and a half. The other day I was like, “Wow. At some point, they’ll get as old as my friend Stacy was when she died.” All of a sudden, I’ll have kids who are her age. It’s crazy to think about, although she wasn’t who I was referencing earlier.
Do you have any advice to aspiring authors out there? You must.
Carolyn: One thing that is often said but I do feel is a real, true statement, somehow you have to find the story that only can you write. That felt very, very true for this book and me. Now, I'm in a place where I don't know if there even is another story that is as individual as this one for me. To other writers, you really need that. Another thing that was very helpful is not being shy about talking about either your work-in-progress or what you're thinking of doing. It helps a lot to be able to hear and see how people are responding to the story you're telling. It also helps to crystalize your own thought process when you have to tell someone what your book is about. This is still a thing that I probably got down a few weeks before my book came out. Even though I had been working on it for ten years, I could not concisely say what it was about. Try to practice that and then you have something to be able quickly sum up what it is you're doing. I wouldn't necessarily say pay attention to literary trends, but pay attention to what the ideas are that are getting a lot of discussion in culture, whether it’s other books or whether it’s politics. It always helps to try to speak to what's happening in the moment.
Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Carolyn: Thank you for having me. I love what you're doing. Authors are lucky to have someone like you in the world that is really excited about books.
Zibby: Thanks. That's really nice. I love books. Thanks.