John Safran on Murder in Mississippi
Belle Place interviews John Safran about his new true-crime book, Murder in Mississippi, the story of a white supremacist and his black killer.
For many readers, Mississippi typifies the Deep South and brings to mind typical associations – cotton fields, slavery, the blues. Tell us about the Mississippi that you encountered, and the everyday lives of the people that live there?
I’ve heard the expression: ‘The Jews are like everyone else, only more so.’ Mississippians are like this too. Like in my hometown, in Jewish Melbourne, everyone doesn’t know that they’re slightly mad. Race and history and suspicion courses through Mississippians. Everything gets back to race in Mississippi as surely as everything gets back to AFL in Melbourne. Everyone’s a little broken. They value parochialism, not cosmopolitanism. They don’t ask you about kangaroos and Aborigines, like everyone in New York and LA does. There is extreme self-segregation, all done quietly, and only getting more pronounced. The city of Jackson is black. The neighbouring Rankin County is white.
You first met Richard Barrett [the murdered white supremacist at the centre of the book] in 2010, while making Race Relations. What were your feelings of Barrett before he was murdered and, now without access to his testimony, how did they change as you were writing the book?
Richard Barrett annoyed me when I was filming Race Relations. I thought he wasn’t good ‘talent’ for my purpose. I needed a loudmouth overt racist as my foil for the prank. He was so evasive and careful and wouldn’t quite say things. This evasiveness transformed into a positive, investigating his murder and writing a book. A man with secrets is someone worth writing about. A man with secrets is good ‘talent’ for a true crime. I didn’t learn to love him.
There’s a lot of controversy, and mystery, surrounding Barrett’s personal life – allegations over whether he was gay, and indeed whether he was in a relationship with his killer. How did you mediate town gossip, so to speak, with your fact-finding mission?
The book digs up so much. Having said that, I learnt that people’s improvable gossip (and people withholding what they really know) tells a story too: about the gossiping person, about small towns and about human beings. Even though I was infuriated by people misleading and withholding during my six months research, I was pretty happy when I was typing the book in Melbourne, realising this builds a colourful and truthful world.
True-crime documentaries, I’m thinking most recently of The Imposter, show us that people are attracted to telling a story only in their own way. In writing true crime, how do you tell a reliable narrator from an unreliable?
I learnt that everyone is an unreliable narrator. Even people that aren’t trying to be. The killer’s mum says Richard pulled up to the house in a car. The killer’s aunt says it was a bicycle. A man wilfully lying tells me something about his character (assuming I can pick up that he’s lying). And I’m a storyteller writing about characters, not the district attorney. Lying, deceptive people work well for me. Possibly better than those vanilla truth tellers!
How does one engage with the pathology of a murderer, and enter a cooperation of sorts? Namely, how important was having his first-hand narrative to the integrity of the book?
I can’t imagine this book not being personal. My conversations with the killer are organic and un-micromanaged and running on impulse, my sub-conscience and my life leading up to the conversations. Like most conversations. The book’s integrity comes from the reader understanding this is the framework. I’m finding out the truth as far as this method can find out the truth. I’m not pitching things as the infallible truth.
You’ve recently launched a series on ABC radio around, in part, the ethics of investigating and writing true crime. What issues, of this sort, did you encounter while writing Murder in Mississippi?
This was my least problematic creative endeavour. I suppose there’s red meat for people out to get me. You’re a white interloper! Who are you to judge people? Who are you to reveal other people’s secrets? But ultimately, the only case against investigating and telling this story is if there is somehow a problem with telling any story. I was straight with people I spoke to in Mississippi (pretty much) and straight with the reader (pretty much). I did break a few eggs making the omelette but I don’t hide these from the reader.
Tell us about the crime novels that you’ve read in the past, particularly those that you used as reference for this project?
I had only read one true crime (that I can recall) before quite recently, The Needle and the Damage Done. It was ghost written by my friend Jack Marx. I had read long ago Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, a book about a true crime. That one canvases truth and storytelling. It’s great. Kind of like a muscle tears and grows back stronger, that’s what that book did to my brain. After Richard was killed but before it occurred to me to write a true crime, I read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, because there was the words devil and magic on the cover, two old interests of mine. The publisher decidedly underplays it’s a true-crime book. So I basically accidentally read a true crime. I loved it.
Amazon said if I like that I’d also like In Cold Blood. So I bought that (from a local bricks and mortar not Amazon, so no bitching Readings! I have the receipt!). Amazon said if I liked In Cold Blood I’d also like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Two weeks after reading that, the blobs congealed in my brain that the two most famous true-crime books involved the author infiltrating a small rural American town – and my Richard story could be just that.
I then tore through many true crimes, trying to see how different writers told their tales. The ones I’ve mentioned so far in my answers guided my way, as well as ones like True Story by Michael Finkel, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère, A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris, Undercover by Keith Bulfin, Compulsion by Meyer Levin, Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi, The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper and True Crime: An American Anthology by Harold Schechter.