How Writers Write: Kate Winkler Dawson

Kate Winkler Dawson is doing laundry when she picks up the phone. It’s seven a.m. in Austin, where she teaches at the University of Texas. She’s already been up for hours.

As a full-time lecturer and mother of twin girls Dawson has no time to waste.

With a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University, Dawson has worked as a reporter, TV producer, and documentary filmmaker.  She recently turned her attention to writing.

Dawson’s 2017 book Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City details the experiences of the victims of the 1952 London Smog and the responses of politicians and policymakers. Dawson traces the consequences for 13-year-old Rosemary Sargent and her family of the cheap sea-coal fog and intertwines her story with that of elusive serial killer Arthur Reginal Christie. Christie’s murders and precedent-setting trial overshadowed the tragic losses suffered by Londoners in the smog.

Death in the Air has drawn comparisons to Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City and glowing reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, as a beautiful example of narrative non-fiction (see my review here).

During a recent interview, Dawson shared some of her creative secrets with me. We spoke about where she does her thinking (in the car, on a spin bike, and in the bath), her aesthetic (spooky, creepy, and mysterious), her meticulous use of Dropbox (she told her agent that if she died the book could be finished from her Dropbox files) and her weeklong archive-digging trip in London, among other things.

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[Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

OL: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me. I’m trying to learn about the processes writers use to find their stories and follow through and write them.

KWD: I came at it from a little bit of a unique angle. After I had been teaching at the University of Texas for a few years I had a friend who suggested that I think about doing books. I have a pretty heavy background in documentary filmmaking, and once I had a family it became really difficult to travel. You know, when you do films you have to adhere to somebody else’s schedule and you have to hop on a plane and go. You work with editors or you work with producers and there are many schedules that you have to coordinate. I have twin girls who are now almost nine, and I just couldn’t do it. So books really, the more I thought about it, would be a way to get up whenever I wanted or stay up as late as I wanted to work on them, and that’s what I do. I mean I’m regularly up at four in the morning and I’ll work for a couple hours before the girls wake up and then I scoot them out the door within an hour to school. And then I can work some more. But, you know, I teach full-time also. It’s really been about compartmentalizing my priorities.

OL: You have a history in TV and, of course, the kind of writing you have to do for a book is different, but does it feel like a natural extension of your journalism career?

KWD: I don’t know about a natural extension. It’s definitely an extension. Journalism is based on facts, truth telling and, of course storytelling. And so generally storytelling, particularly in documentary filmmaking, works along that narrative arc of a beginning and middle, and you’re setting the stakes at the beginning of the story about why we should care to get to the end of that story. And then the tensions and the conflict and the resolutions, if there are resolutions. Those are all pretty consistent with documentary filmmaking. When I was in journalism and I was at WCBS or Fox News or ABC News, the stories were different. You didn’t have the luxury of having 90,000 words, which is what I have to write a book, or an hour, which is what you would normally have to do a documentary. You’ve got sometimes a minute and a half for a news story. Or you have a three or four minute profile. It’s just a different animal, but it really is all based on research and how you stay organized and really I think the most important thing for me was figuring out how to stay on deadline.

OL: How long did it take you to finish Death in the Air?

KWD: I would say it was about two years.

OL: I read that you spent part of a year living in London. Is that when the idea for this book originally came to you?

KWD: Sort of. It was when my love for London really solidified. I was a reporter/write for UPI in London during that semester when I was gone. So I heard about the smog, but it wasn’t anything that was even on my radar because I was covering parliament. SO when I was looking for a book idea I had had many that weren’t panning out. I was looking on Getty Images and the woman who appears on the cover of my book popped up, and I thought it was a really striking photo. I looked at the caption and it talked about the Great Smog of 1952.

[Dawson stops here and offers to tell me more about her checklist for what makes a good non-fiction book proposal.]

KWD: And then, you know, my checklist started which is: Has anybody else done this story? It checked off that box for me because no one had done this story. It’s a visual story, which for me is really important because I’m such a visually-based person. I have to be able to recreate this world and the world has to be vivid. Is this a historically important event? And then certainly when you’re trying to sell the book, you need a story that is going to really reach forward. Does this resonate with present day readers? Is this something they can relate to? And then a really deep archive collection is important. A lot of primary sources. OF the people in the book only three were still alive.

OL: When I was reading the book I couldn’t imagine where you would have begun with all of the research you had to do. What was your first step when you decided you were going to write this book?

KWD: Well once I had settled on the fog the first thing I really had to do was find the characters. With narrative non-fiction the number one thing is who are your characters? Whose point of view are you really going to hang your hat on? For me, inevitably it was Rosemary. She had this vulnerability. She truly is someone who has absolutely no culpability in this at all. Once I had nailed down the characters and I knew that the archive existed – I was a TV news producer for so long and I’m really, really big on preparation. I talked to the people at the National Archive. I only had a week to get all the material. I created a hierarchy of things that I needed to gather. What boxes need to be reserved? What priority do the boxes have? I was there for all thirteen hours every single day, and I don’t think I read more than five pages of information out of I think about 2,000 documents, because I was just frantically taking photos. I was exhausted by the time I got home. But I got everything that I needed to get, I just didn’t have a relaxing trip. For me it’s really about being hyper-organized.

OL: I can imagine there’s a heightened sense of responsibility when you’re telling any story like Death in the Air which is about real people.

KWD: I think it’s a great sense of responsibility. You do still have families out there and you have a responsibility, as any journalist would in any story, to tell it accurately, to double check your sources. I don’t believe secondary sources, and many times I don’t believe primary sources. I think the best way to combat that is research. I double up my research by paying a fact check – who works for Conde Nast – a lot of money to fact check me. She calls me out on a lot of stuff She questions where I find sources. And then I have to go back to really explain where I found this information, because it is so important. I hyper-organize for sure. I don’t want to waste time and I can’t waste time. I have a full-time job and a family so I can’t waste time digging around for stuff.

OL: With something like this, something that happened decades ago, where do you look for people like Rosemary and other characters in the story?

KWD: It was hard. The BBC, in 2002 for their fiftieth anniversary, made a documentary about the fog and Rosemary popped up really briefly, and I was able to track her down through some kind of paid service. And she also popped up in an NPR story. Probably the smartest thing that I did, I would say, to find characters was I sent an email to the retirement association in London for Metropolitan Police, for doctors, like a physician’s association, a nurses association. You have to think of who is involved with the story and I just sent an email to the heads of those and said I know you guys have a database, can I send an email and have you send it to everyone in your database saying if you’re interested in hearing something from me and being in this book let me know. And I got a lot of replies, which was really great. You just have to kind of be creative and think well, who is the voice of this story? And then do what I did and think how would I get a hold of a retired cop who worked during the smog?

OL: You have these two parallel stories. It’s hard enough to tell one story well, why did you decide to tell them both simultaneously?

KWD: I don’t think either story would have worked if they weren’t told together. Somebody had already written a really great book on John Reginald Christie that didn’t go anywhere. It didn’t sell. So that’s not encouraging. And nobody had written about the fog, and without the pull of a serial killer, air pollution is tough. And I think for me, I really needed that juxtaposition between the two stories. I needed to see why we care more about a serial killer who kills six, maybe eight, people, versus something that happens yearly [the smog] that is a systemic, habitual problem and has killed, at the time they believed, about 5,000 people. So I really thought that the two stories were going to work well together. Also, you know, Christie was in the fog. His wife wrote about the fog. He was there as one character, and then really the stories collided in the press and in parliament. My frustration came in when it was very clear to me that Christie’s story buried the fog’s story.

The cover of Death In The Air.

The cover of Death In The Air.

OL: I was talking to a couple of my former classmates from journalism school, some of whom are working on their own writing projects now, and one was curious to know if you ever experienced a moment that was really frustrating and, if so, how you overcame that?

KWD: I think synthesizing a lot of the government documents was pretty difficult for me because of some them were pretty God-awful boring. It was really hard for me to figure out who did what and what their significance was. And so I would do a batch of memos, read them, sort them, and figure out what I would use. I would go through in batches and then stop and write about John Christie. And then I would go back. I just had to take a lot of breaks. I remember reading an interview with Gillian Flynn who wrote Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, and someone talked to her about the writing process and how she’s able to finish books, and she said “I’m a journalist. That’s my training.” You make your money by meeting deadlines. So I’m a big Google Calendar person.

OL: One of the things that made me pick up your book was a review that I saw online comparing it to an Erik Larson book. Is it a positive thing to be compared to another writer, especially one who’s done as well as Erik Larson has? Or is it frustrating to feel like you’re competing with someone?

Well, being compared to Erik Larson is always, I think, an honour. It’s difficult. They’re different books. The thing they have in common is a serial killer and a braided narrative. But they’re pretty different books, and I think the final message is pretty different. It’s also a little daunting because you’re setting yourself up to either say “I like this more than Devil in the White City” or “I like this far less than Devil in the White City.” I want Death in the Air to stand on its own, not to be necessarily compared, but that’s just the nature of the business.

Dawson is currently working on her next book, American Sherlock, which follows the true story of a forensic scientist in 1920s San Francisco and the bizarre cases he solved. It’s expected to be released in 2020.

If you want to hear more from Kate Winkler Dawson, you can check out her newsletter at http://www.katewinklerdawson.com/true-crime-newsletter/.