Ask the Author: A Q&A with Mary Kay McBrayer
By Sonora Taylor
When I first heard about America's First Female Serial Killer, I immediately preordered it and put it on my summer reading list. Even with such immediate high expectations, I was blown away by McBrayer's deft portrait of a truly evil woman and the circumstances that bred and fed her monstrosity.
Mary Kay McBrayer was kind enough to agree to be interviewed for Fright Girl Summer. Check out our conversation below, and buy her book today!
Sonora: Tell us about your latest release, America's First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. What inspired you to research Jane Toppan?
Mary Kay: I heard about her and her crimes on a podcast. I thought that there was a lot missing from the way they were telling the story, particularly about her formative years, so I looked for a book written about her. I found Fatal by Harold Schechter, and although it’s extensively researched, it wasn’t what I wanted to read, so I decided I wanted to write a more narrative slant of the nonfiction story.
Sonora: Do you find yourself drawn to true crime/serial killer research, or is Toppan an exception?
Mary Kay: I studied creative nonfiction in my masters of fine arts in creative writing, and I do typically feel like, as Cormac McCarthy said in one of his very few interviews, “If it doesn’t concern life and death, it’s not interesting.” Those two precedents do kind of set me up to write about true crime, but I don’t think that serial killers in particular hold a huge draw for me. Just this one.
True crime, on the other hand… I mean, I love a good gangster story as much as the next guy. At their core, they’re underdog stories: they work outside the law, with a different moral compass, because the law doesn’t work for them. That is, of course, a far cry from killing thirty people, but since you asked, yeah, definitely, I’m a sucker for stories of vigilante justice.
Sonora: There are differing opinions on the prevalence of true crime in pop culture. How do you feel about its prevalence? Do you think there’s a balance between being fascinated/interested in serial killers while also being respectful to the victims and their families?
Mary Kay: Really the only point of looking at killers at all (for me) is out of respect for victims. By that I mean not only the people they’ve murdered or hurt, but also to prevent crimes from happening in the future. The more we know in general, the more aware we are of signaling behaviors, the better we can implement early interventions. Of course, popular culture tends to sensationalize killers, especially the hot ones (Oh my God, if I had a dollar every time someone confided in me that Ted Bundy was hot… like, YEAH, BITCH, that’s how he would have got you!), but I think those motivations are often different: they’re more so trying to make money and entertain, in my opinion. I mean, I’d be lying if I said I WASN’T trying to make money and entertain, but that’s not the whole point here.
That said, in the case of Jane, she was a victim, first, which is the main reason I think that studying serial murderers is important. Not everyone who has ever been hurt will go on to hurt people, but a lot of them do, in various ways, and if we could figure out what makes the difference, early intervention could be a true game changer.
Sonora: Personally, I think one of the reasons serial killers take on a legendary or supernatural quality in our society is because their typical demographic--white, male, cis--is one that our culture more likely frames as a hero as opposed to a villain. What are your thoughts on the sociology behind our obsession with serial killers?
Mary Kay: Oh yeah, there’s TOTALLY a mythology that happens around serial killers specifically when they are white men. So much time and energy is devoted to answering, but WHAT WENT WRONG?? They’re treated sort of preciously. I mean, offhand I can list at least three films based on the crimes of Ed Gein or John Wayne Gacy. There were fan clubs around Jack the Ripper. I don’t know why. God, if I did, I could probably unlock so many of the world’s problems. But yeah, I guess when someone is traditionally “hot” or the Golden Boy, so to speak, they’re just that much more watchable.
Outside of entertainment, though, it sucks. I mean, when will we know who actually was the Atlanta child killer? Why wasn’t Lizzie Borden convicted? How many victims did Jane Toppan have, actually? We don’t know, because people in those demographics were supposed to stay out of the spotlight. (I don’t know if that’s a good answer, but that’s what I thought of.)
Sonora: Serial killer “fandom” (for lack of a better term) is often associated with white women. As a woman of color researching a white female serial killer, what are your thoughts on white women discussing serial killers in this manner? Do you think this method of fighting back against someone we’ve been taught to fear--that someone being the mysterious serial killer bogeyman--as well an assumption of safety in talking about murderers, is a privilege that white women are able to enjoy more?
Mary Kay: I know that a lot of people will dismiss white ladies’ obsession with true crime as housewife porn or some sort of entertainment because their lives are so nerfy, but honestly, who better to equip themselves with the knowledge? Seriously, I rewatched What Lies Beneath the other day, and all I could think of was what a great neighbor nosy Michelle Pfeiffer was. How she could seem so innocuous, but because she truly was well-informed and trusted her gut, she got shit done. She confronts the guy she thinks is guilty, and she has pull. What’s that tweet that’s been going around? Keep the “can I speak with your manager” energy, but direct it toward injustices? Yes, that, definitely. White privilege/guilt is supposed to be used for good. Women have to stick together.
Also, as a woman of color (and I say that in my best Mindy Kaling impression… partly because I’ve heard that Arab is white, though that has not been my experience), I’ve kind of grown up thinking like prey. Most women do. (Don’t walk home alone at night, don’t let the pizza delivery guy know you’re by yourself in the house, never EVER open the door for an unexpected guest, park in well-lit lots, etc.)
I felt like Jane’s story needed to be told, and that’s really why I did it. I know that by today’s arbitrary racial lines in the sand, we consider her white, but at the time, Irish were discriminated against openly and viewed as an ethnic minority. She was made to hate her own ethnicity for the stereotypes of dishonesty and gossip and laziness, and she was even made to change her name from Honora Kelley (very Irish) to Jane Toppan (very nothing). In that way, and I’m certainly oversimplifying here, people who are not ethnic minorities can kind of GET that startle at realizing along with Jane as a child, wait… I’m different? But how? And why does that matter? And then realizing very quickly that it doesn’t matter, but in a more practical sense, it was everything.
Sonora: In your research, what have you found, if anything, that separates female serial killers from male? What have you found different in societal treatment of female vs. male serial killers?
Mary Kay: Experts say that women serial killers typically do not murder violently, but men have a variety of methods. Women also typically know their victims personally, and for men, it can go either way. There are also way fewer women serial killers.
I don’t know a lot about societal treatment of women serial killers outside of Jane Toppan, Belle Gunness, and Aileen Wuornos. It seems like they are largely baffling to professionals, and embarrassing to authorities who didn’t suspect them soon enough, but again, my knowledge is limited.
Sonora: What are some common myths or ideas about serial killers--female or male--that you want to dispel?
Mary Kay: Honestly, my hope is that people focus on the childhood part of this novel… and see that hurt people hurt people. I think if we can just get everyone to pay attention to children’s behaviors, early intervention will become more accessible and widespread and prevent a lot of atrocities from happening. So often people shrug off the “bad” kid, but kids are almost never born bad. They’re made that way.
Sonora: Tell us about your podcast, Novel Gazing. What got you into podcasting? How do you like it compared to traditional e-print media?
Mary Kay: I co-founded the horror movie comedy podcast that I co-host, Everything Trying to Kill You with two of my best friends because at the time, I was teaching a lot of horror films. When I was teaching, I would be mostly silent, just asking questions to help the students think themselves into realizations, but I realized that I had a lot of shit to say, too, and a lot of shit I wanted to say wasn’t appropriate for the classroom setting. So my friends and I started the podcast. We wanted the show to have a conversational tone, and to be like a movie club, but smart, and drunk.
I co-host Novel Gazing for Book Riot because literary fiction (and nonfiction!) is my jam. I like podcasts because you can listen while you do other things, and I think that makes them accessible but not too expendable. Plus, it’s really fun to talk shit about things you love to people whose opinions you respect.
Sonora: Like the rest of our country, the publishing industry has a long way to go when it comes to diversity. What has been your experience writing, publishing, and distributing as a woman of color?
Mary Kay: This is my first book, so I don’t have a huge frame of reference in publishing… I don’t know if I can answer this one well.
Sonora: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are some of your favorite books?
Mary Kay: Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jonathan Safran Foer, Carmen Maria Machado, Samantha Irby, Timothy Schaffert, Cormac McCarthy, Karen Russell…
In Cold Blood, The Godfather, Middlesex, Let Me Clear My Throat…
Sonora: What are you working on right now?
Mary Kay: I’m still in the research phase of my next book-length work, but it’s another true crime book, this time about a more uplifting woman!
Mary Kay McBrayer is the author of the nonfiction novel America's First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster. You can hear her analysis (and jokes) about scary movies on the podcast she co-founded, Everything Trying to Kill You. She is a contributing editor at Book Riot, where she writes the weekly horror newsletter, The Fright Stuff, and co-hosts the literary fiction podcast, Novel Gazing.