One of the great pleasure of my writing life is meeting other authors, especially those who write in my favorite genres. I have been a fan of true crime for a very long time, so I was thrilled to make the acquaintance of February’s author of the month Anne K. Howard. Her debut work — His Garden: Conversations With a Serial Killer — is riveting. Her interview is delightful and revelatory about the process of compiling this type of work, and her research is impeccable.
Anne K. Howard is a true crime author and a practicing attorney. She also has a popular blog, “Serial Murders in Connecticut,” in which she writes about different solved and unsolved murders in the Nutmeg State. As an attorney, she is able to sift through large volumes of legal information and craft it into page-turning stories. Her book, “His Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer” won the Pencraft Literary Award for Best Non Fiction of 2018. The book and interviews with Howard are featured in an episode of “21st Century Serial Killers,” airing on Netflix in 2019. She is featured on the EU reality show, “Trace of Evil,” airing on the CBS Reality Channel in early 2019. “Crime Watch Daily” also interviewed Howard for a show about the New Britain Serial Murders that first aired in January 2018.
Anne K. Howard graduated with Distinction from McGill University, where she studied English Literature and won two creative writing awards. She thereafter graduated with Deans Honors from University of Cincinnati College of Law. She lives in Connecticut with her husband of 30 years, three dogs and one cat. Her children are adults now and happily living their own lives.
Janet Irvin: Your background is intriguing. The intertwining of writing and the law makes me want to know how you came to walk both those paths. Can you tell us a little about the early part of your journey?
Anne K. Howard: In childhood and adolescence, I kept a daily journal and wrote short stories. I recall narrating day to day life events in my head, using the third person voice: “She entered the dining room with great trepidation, instinctively sensing that a family fight would soon commence.” Fair to say, I did not want to become a writer one day- I already was one. I always hoped to become a lawyer because I was interested in government and politics. While the girls in junior high had pictures of Leif Garrett and the Bay City Rollers taped to their lockers, I had pictures of F.D.R. I started to read true crime as a teenager, and I could not get enough of the stuff. It is strange that I never considered writing in the genre until my late forties, when I started the Serial Murders in Connecticut blog site. When investigating solved and unsolved murders in my region, I realized that my legal background provided a great advantage that many true crime writers do not enjoy. I had a general understanding of criminal law, court procedures, and trial tactics. I had also fostered a lot of connections with lawyers in Ohio, where I lived for twenty years, and Connecticut. If I had a substantive question, I could simply pick up the phone and call a colleague or former law professor for feedback.
J.I.: Readers always like to learn about a writer’s process. In the case of a true crime, there are so many pieces to fit together. Can you share how you constructed His Garden?
A.K.H.: Writing His Garden was like stitching together a patchwork quilt. The material consisted of disparate pieces of police interviews, affidavits, newspaper articles, interviews with victims’ family members and people who knew the killer, and of course, hundreds of pages of letters that the serial killer, William Devin Howell, wrote to me over the course of three years. It was a daunting task, to cut and stitch all of that material together and fashion it into a compelling and accurate story. Many writers talk about the necessity of chiseling down the initial draft and editing out the excess words, and that is certainly an important part of the process, but I also went back to what I had written and added a lot of observations and details. Much of the story was coming to me in real time- as the killer shared more with me and finally confessed the crimes to me, and victims’ family members came out of the woodwork to speak with me. So for three years it was a work in progress.
My decision to alternate chapters, delving into the murder of Howell’s fourth victim and the investigation that ensued, and then writing about my author/subject relationship with Howell in real time, was inspired by the narrative structure of the true crime memoir, The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. I felt that if I wrote the book with a linear timeline, it would read like a newspaper article, and 283 pages of that style would be boring. I did not make the decision to alternate chapters until I was halfway through the project, so it involved many hours of cutting and pasting chapters and paragraphs that I initially intended to include in the later stages of the story, into the earlier part of the book. My high school English teacher read the book and sent me a message, stating that it must have taken a lot of work to go back and forth in time with the story. It did! For example, I would paste a real time chapter that took place in 2017 in between two investigation chapters that took place in 2005, only to realize that some of the information in the 2017 chapter gave away parts of the investigation that I was not ready to unveil to the reader, so those sentences had to be deleted or changed. It took a lot of editing for it to all flow together.
J.I.: The New Britain strip mall murders challenged investigators and you, as writer, to integrate the parts into a cohesive whole. This seems to be an intricate and time-consuming dance. How did you balance the research required with your law practice?
A.K.H.: I had the luxury of full-time paralegals, so I delegated as much of the grunt work involved in my law practice to them. Poor women. I tried to schedule a day off every week to research and write the book. I also wrote on the weekends. Over the course of three years, I routinely worked 6-7 days per week. No rest for the wicked.
J.I.: True Crime novels are fascinating for both their ‘plots’ and their backstories. What led you to write this genre?
A.K.H.: Some authors say, “Write about what you know.” That’s overly restrictive advice. Instead, we should write about subjects that fascinate us, and that often aligns with the types of books that we love to read. I have been an avid true crime reader for decades. My favorite authors include: Ann Rule, Jon Krakauer, and FBI profilers like John Douglas. I am endlessly curious about human nature and what leads people to commit heinous acts- often without a shred of remorse. For me, writing true crime is a spiritual quest. I am equally interested in reading about great saints throughout history- individuals who were drawn to goodness and self-sacrifice. It is quite confounding, that our species has the capacity for such extremes of love and kindness, and violence and depravity. I don’t know if Heaven and Hell exist in the next life, but they certainly exist here on earth.
J.I.: I’m curious about the physical and emotional toll that a story like this takes. How did you deal with that aspect as you developed the manuscript and got closer, literally and symbolically, to William Devin Howell?
A.K.H.: Well, as I answer these questions, I am recovering from shoulder surgery for adhesive capsulitis, otherwise known as “frozen shoulder.” The condition came out of nowhere last April, shortly after I finished the book, and I have been in chronic pain since that time. I cannot help but wonder about the mind/body connection, and whether the stress and distress that came with writing His Garden brought it on. I did keep a lot of turmoil bottled up inside of me. The first two years of writing the book and getting to know the serial killer was a walk in the park compared to the third year, when he confessed his crimes to me in great detail as our prison visits increased, and I fully realized the horror of who he was and what he had done. I was simultaneously getting to know members of the victims’ families and hearing their pain. As I stated in the book’s preface, “It was a head trip of the highest order.” I had nightmares and bouts of deep depression. Was it worth it in the end? The jury is still out on that one. One thing is certain, in the future I need to achieve greater emotional distance from my subjects and the stories that I write.
J.I.: What was the most compelling discovery you made as you wrote His Garden: Conversations With a Serial Killer?
A.K.H.: That Howell held his six female victims captive for 12-hour periods of time and took pleasure in their suffering. This is something that the police did not know. It’s impossible for me to wrap my mind around. Early on, I think that I naively willed myself to believe that the rapes and murders, albeit terrible, were relatively quick. It just horrified me to imagine that this apparently friendly guy that I had come to know was capable of inflicting so much pain- and that he enjoyed it. When he told me that there was a monster inside of him, he was not kidding.
J.I.: What was the most difficult moment in your journey with this book? The most exhilarating?
A.K.H.: Last spring, when I returned home after the second day of filming for the TV show 21st Century Serial Killers, I had a panic attack like no other. Until then, I had partially distanced myself from the reality of what Howell had done- probably to protect myself. However, when the show’s producer and I went behind the strip mall, the location where Howell left the seven bodies, and then to the Berlin Turnpike, where Howell would solicit drug-addicted prostitutes, the horror of it all really sank in. A waif of a woman emerged from the motel where one of Howell’s victims had lived in 2003 and asked us for money. She appeared to be younger than my daughter, no more than 23 years old, ravaged by heroin, with hollow, sunken eyes- her soiled clothing just hanging from her skeletal frame. I felt such disgust for Howell in that moment, realizing that he would have “snatched her up” (as he used to tell me he would do to his victims,) repeatedly raped her, and strangled her to death. As if this poor woman’s life was not enough of a nightmare. Howell is a wild beast and she would be his prey. It is all so sick, and yet, when he described it to me he expressed no emotion. He would minimize the atrocities and somehow try to normalize what he had done.
I can honestly say that there was nothing exhilarating about the experience. The work that I did for the three TV shows, Crime Watch Daily, 21st Century Serial Killers and Trace of Evil was interesting and intense. In the months leading up to the filming, there were a lot of emails, Skype sessions, and phone calls with producers to make sure that the facts were correct. It is also rewarding to know that many people have read the book and enjoyed it. I appreciate the positive reviews, and receiving The Pencraft Literary Award for Best Nonfiction of 2018 was a nice affirmation. Nonetheless, if I could weigh the negatives that came from the project against the positives, the negatives would definitely tip the scale.
J.I.: You recently announced you were leaving your legal career to focus on writing. Was this a gradual decision or did you simply take the leap?
A.K.H.: I was planning to retire early before I wrote the book. I have practiced law for almost twenty years and frankly, I am burning out. My clients are often homeless, or mentally ill, and the practice involves a lot of disappointments (Social Security Disability judges are getting tougher by the day.) When His Garden was published, it became impossible to juggle all of the media interviews and podcasts alongside my day job. So the book prompted me to retire a few years earlier than I had planned. Also, my husband’s experience with Stage 4 cancer in 2017 (as I was writing His Garden) was not just stressful, it changed my entire outlook on life. That brush with death left me with the realization that life is short, and I cannot keep working seven-day weeks. I need to pursue my passion- writing- and also take some time to smell the proverbial roses.
J.I.: As a reader, what do you look for in books?
A.K.H.: Honesty above all else. The author must be insightful and willing to say things that make him or her unpopular. Stephen King has this gift. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what others think of him. The next thing I look for is a gripping story with multi-dimensional characters. I cannot tell you how many books I put down after the opening chapters, simply because I just don’t care enough about the characters or plot.
J.I.: What topic or whose story will you tackle next?
A.K.H.: I am researching The Bra Murders, a vintage serial murder case that took place in Stamford, Connecticut, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It has never been written about in book form. The book will delve into the question of serial killers using the insanity defense. It goes without saying that all serial killers are crazy, but the legal definition of insanity is a completely different ball of wax. Several high-profile serial killers have pursued the insanity defense- most without success. I will include their stories in the book, as well.
J.I.: And now for some fun: when you want to kick back and relax, what’s your go-to movie or TV show?
A.K.H.: General Hospital. I have been a fan for over 40 years. I DVR it and watch it every night. Several of the characters have been serial killers. One had a brain tumor removed and, voila!, he ended up being a pretty nice, law-abiding guy. While soap operas are cheesy, they offer a lot of elementary instruction on how to build dramatic tension, flesh out characters, add unexpected plot twists, and leave the viewer in suspense.
J.I.: Who’s your favorite true-crime writer?
A.K.H.: Hands down, Joe McGinniss. Joe was more than an investigative journalist- he was a true wordsmith. He suffered for his craft. The fact that family killer Jeffrey MacDonald was able to get a $150,000.00 settlement from Joe after years of litigating the issue of whether Joe breached their contract for the book Fatal Vision is a travesty of justice, in my humble opinion. It just goes to show you that life is not fair.
The best way to contact Anne is by sending a private message to her Serial Murders in Connecticut Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/akhauthor/