True crime writers chase ghosts. In attempting to solve mysteries, they piece together bits of lives that have ended, examine events long over, and untangle relationships they never knew. They must then transform these details into engaging narrative, while remaining true to the facts of the case.
In her book "The Hot One," writer Carolyn Murnick tackled the genre from a different angle, blending true crime with memoir, telling a story of female friendship while also chasing the ghost of her childhood friend Ashley Ellerin, who was brutally murdered in 2001 at the age of 22.
Though Murnick followed Ellerin's case for seven cold years and worked as a writer and magazine editor, she didn't seriously consider writing a book about her friendship with Ellerin until 2008 when a suspect, Michael Gargiulo, was charged with Ellerin's murder, as well as the murder and attempted murder of two other women in L.A. (He's since been charged with an unsolved 1993 murder in Illinois.) "When I learned of his arrest, I thought, 'Now is the time,'" she remembered. "I was scared by it, but I knew I had to lean into the fear."
But how? Murnick was in her first year at New York Magazine, where she now serves as senior editor of nymag.com. "Some of the first things I did was start to talk about it to people. Should this be a feature for Vanity Fair? Book proposal?" Book proposal. After soliciting much advice from many published colleagues, Murnick queried and met with several agents before landing with Larry Weissman, known for representing authors writing narrative nonfiction.
The now-defunct Simon and Schuster imprint Free Press bought the proposal in 2010. At that point, Murnick had already spent several years gathering information about Ellerin's life in Los Angeles, meeting friends and visiting places Ellerin had frequented. At the same time she worked to assess her own feelings about her old friend.
Back in the days of elementary and middle school in rural New Jersey, Murnick and Ellerin took art lessons together, played piano together, did everything together. "I think of her as my first best friend, my original experiences of spending time with someone," Murnick told Spine.
When Ellerin's family moved across the country during their high school years, the two stayed in touch at drawn-out but steady intervals, enough so Murnick realized they were moving in different directions. "Ashley was much more confident than I was and much more experienced with men," she said. During the early years of Murnick's adult life in New York, as she was learning to navigate both the city and Columbia University, where she was a student, Ashley arrived from the West Coast for a visit. That week, Murnick understood just how far apart their paths had diverged.
"I learned that she had a totally different life. I had thought she was a student. Instead, she was dating older guys and dabbling in stripping and she appeared to be in a totally different world." Murnick also noticed that being around Ellerin made her feel badly about herself. When Ellerin returned to LA, Murnick wondered about the future of their friendship.
"For girls especially, we're really figuring out our identities with reference to each other when we're young," she explained. "You ask yourself, 'Should I be more like she is? Am I doing things the right way? … Your identities are really wrapped up in each other." And then you grow apart. "Those feelings can be really complicated. The connection you have to someone you were once close to never really goes away."
About a year after Ellerin's visit to New York, she was found dead in her LA home.
And so in The Hot One, Murnick tasked herself with weaving together two narrative tangles: the complicated feelings involved in a friendship turning a corner and the mystery surrounding Ellerin's life and death. She worked toward a successful intertwining. Originally, she had intended to use the trial as the central structure and arc for the story, as the trial was projected to start by 2012. But the date got pushed forward. And pushed forward. And pushed forward into a future so far off that, by 2015, Murnick realized she needed to let go of the trial altogether.
Many writers reshape storylines during the creative process, but Murnick had to abandon the overarching structure, with the first half of the book already in place. "That was incredibly complicated for me." Examining years' worth of experiences and interviews, she realized a chronological approach highlighting the most evocative anecdotes made the most sense.
Though the book doesn't culminate with a verdict, Murnick believes the current narrative is more true to life. "You don't tie things up in this neat bow at the end. … The emotional repercussions continue to grow and deepen as years pass.
"If and when this trial does happen, it won't be a neat ending, either. This story will still go on."
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Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.