Interview with D.M. Pulley
*In the beginning of your writing career you underlined the struggles you had, but in the end you said, “But I had a story to tell.” I love that! Can you tell us about this feeling?
The building that inspired The Dead Key haunted me for ten years before I really sat down to write the story. In that time, I changed jobs, I got married, and I had children, but no matter where life took me, the abandoned vault below the Euclid Avenue and its unclaimed safe deposit boxes followed. It nagged at me in daydreams and every time I picked up a novel. Whenever I talked about the vacant building with friends, I could tell they were intrigued. When I considered what treasures and secrets had been left buried in the basement of that old bank, my toes would curl up with anticipation. The story just wouldn’t leave me alone.
*How did the story about the torso killer emerge and made you want to tell it?
Another abandoned building in Cleveland inspired The Unclaimed Victim. I had no idea that the Torso Killer would become the focus of the story. I just began researching the empty Union Gospel Press building’s history, particularly its years as a religious mission in the 1920s and 1930s, and became fascinated with the nun-like “Sallies” that lived there and the city of Cleveland during the Great Depression. The labyrinthine factory cried out for a serial killer in the mold of H.H. Holmes (see Devil in the White City by Erik Larson), and the Torso Killer became an obvious, albeit daunting, choice. So much has been written about the Torso Murders, I was reluctant to take on these true crimes, but as I delved into the research, it became clear that not every story about the murders had been told.
*Describe how you came up with the title, The Unclaimed Victim.
With this book, I wanted to tell a serial killer story from the victims’ perspective. So many thrillers are told from the detective’s or the killer’s point of view, and the victims become more like objects than people. The fact that only three of the thirteen official Torso victims were ever identified or claimed by their families struck me as another injustice of these crimes. It was my intent to breathe life into the Torso Killer victims with the hope that one might just get away.
*What was your first reaction when you heard about the Torso killer?
First I was horrified, then morbidly fascinated, then ultimately skeptical of the official findings. The Torso Killer became a media sensation as one of the nation’s most notorious maniacs back in a time before the term “serial killer” even existed. The detectives and coroners that worked the case were certainly devoted and professional, but they had no concept of modern profiling or access to modern forensics. After looking at the facts, I couldn’t shake the feeling that some evidence and potential suspects slipped through the cracks. The killer was never officially identified.
*Describe your experience writing about him, the unclaimed victim, and the final conclusion (no spoilers of course!).
It took eight months of research and drafting to really find the story I wanted to tell and another several months to finish it. I don’t outline, so I usually don’t know the answer to the mystery until I write the ending. As a result, I’m on the edge of my seat as the final scenes unfold. The process of writing this book took me to some pretty dark places where I considered murder on an intimate level from many angles, and asked myself almost daily what it would take for me to kill someone. My kids gave me funny looks for a few weeks there.
*How does it feel knowing the success you have today versus the struggles you began with?
I feel unbelievably lucky that my books have found an audience and I am able to write full time right now. I try to be thankful each day I sit down to work. I am currently editing my fourth novel, and I’ve found that every book presents different struggles and challenges. I still try to write my first draft like nobody will ever read it. I still worry the literary police will take me away in handcuffs any day now for impersonating a writer.
*Do you like historical fiction?
I love historical fiction, but I generally prefer to write and read stories about the 20th century. Some of my favorites right now are The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and The Stranger House by Reginald Hill.
*Are your stories always based upon true crime?
I like to use real history as a backdrop for my stories. The Dead Key wasn’t based on true crime as much as Cleveland’s history of political corruption and financial default. Similarly, The Buried Book was inspired by true events like the 1953 Flint-Beecher tornadoes and Detroit-area history. My third and fourth novels were inspired by true crimes from Cleveland’s past.
*What would you say to all the struggling writers out there?
Keep writing. Keep reading. Don’t fall in love with your words; just find and follow the story. Don’t be afraid to try and fail. Always be willing to re-write, rework, and re-examine. Don’t give up. I also recommend reading craft books including On Writing by Stephen King, No Plot, No Problem by Chris Baty, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.
*What are you working on next?
My fourth book is a historical mystery about a hundred-year-old mansion in Shaker Heights, Ohio and the decades of secrets and lies hidden behind its facade.
About D. M. Pulley
Before becoming a full-time writer, D.M. Pulley worked as a Professional Engineer, rehabbing historic structures and conducting forensic investigations of building failures. Pulley’s structural survey of a vacant building in Cleveland inspired her debut novel, The Dead Key, the winner of the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. The disappearance of a family member formed the basis for her second historical mystery, The Buried Book. Pulley’s third novel, The Unclaimed Victim, delves into the dark history behind Cleveland’s Torso Killer and is due out November 14, 2017. She lives in northeast Ohio with her husband, her two children, and a dog named Hobo, and she is hard at work on her fourth book.