Kate Winkler Dawson's podcast with the Exactly Right network, Tenfold More Wicked, recently wrapped its third season of deep-dive, first-person research with the fascinating story of the murder of Associate Supreme Court Justice William Pierson and his wife Lena by their son, Howard. Dawson, the author of the acclaimed book, American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI, takes her experience as a writer and former television documentary producer to create involved and well-crafted six-episode seasons which immediately draw the listener into a story of a crime of which they've likely never heard.
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As Dawson recently started a new podcast, Wicked Words, wherein she “interviews journalists and writers about their best true crime cases,” it seemed a perfect opportunity to speak with the writer and podcaster about her shows and books, and how they all come together.
TLU: I really appreciate the fact that, in your work, you put in so much effort for your research—like how in American Sherlock you put in a year's worth of work trying to get access to the Oscar Heinrich archives. And then, in Tenfold More Wicked seasons one and season three, you're doing in-person, onsite interviews, traveling to these places. How much time and effort in research do you put in for each season of the show?
KWD: You know, it totally depends. Seasons one and two were really unique because they were both based on books that were not going to become books, although season one is now going to be a book. My first job—my primary job—was always author, and when you're a nonfiction author, you have to put together a really big proposal to present to an editor.
You have to do a lot of research before you even sell your book. You put together this 50 page proposal, and in order to put together the proposal, you have to have done quite a lot of research. I had researched these two subjects—Burke and Hare and Edward Rulloff—with the intention of them being books, and my editor passed on those as books.
Luckily I kept the files, so that when I decided I was going to try to get into podcasting, I thought, “Okay, well, these aren't books, but these two stories would be fantastic podcasting topics.” I had all of this research already ready to go, but as you can hear, a lot of Tenfold has to do with the families and finding, for example in season three, people who actually knew the killer Howard Pierson, because this was something that happened in 1930 or something that happened in the 1800s. Finding the descendants of relatives who have heard these stories through their family and getting them to be those people—the representatives of the victims or the killer.
That is where, for me, the big, heavy lifting is: finding those people and getting them to talk about something that truly happened in their family. It was horrible—truly horrible in their family, usually—and in getting them to talk about it, that's where a lot of the research comes in.
Starting with season three and Howard Pierson, it was a brand new story to me. I had not researched it before, so there was an awful lot of looking into archives. I mean, hours and hours. I'm pretty much constantly working. If I'm not with my kids or I'm sleeping, I'm working. I'm always reading. And so, it's even hard to quantify how much time it takes to do research on a show like that, because it's rooted in history and in facts.
The thing about the first season is it starts with you tramping around in a graveyard with the descendant of of one of the Schutts, and that sets, I think, the tone for not just that season, but the series that would follow. The show puts the listener in the position of not just seeing it from the perspective of the killer, as so many true crime stories do, but in the shoes of those who were affected by it, which is a very recent development in true crime.
I think it sort of depends. That was actually a pretty quick change for me. I had written it and had it being edited and being mixed by my sound designer. Episode one was not like that. It did not start, like you said, with me tromping through a cemetery with a descendant of the Schutt family. It started with me talking a lot to intro the show.
When I listened to it, I thought, “Okay, well, you get the point. It's kind of hitting the nail on the head,” literally saying, “This is what the show is going to be about: It's going to be very personal. I'm going to be hanging out. It's material with relatives.” And instead, I just thought, “I mean, why say that? Why not just show it.”
A couple of things that I think that achieves, that I'm glad you pointed out one, the biggest one—besides setting the scene and just saying this is going to be a more intimate show than you might be used to—it also introduces listeners to my voice in a way that's not artificial, because, no matter how much energy I have or how good of an actress I am, studio is still studio. It still sounds fake. I mean, you know you're recording and you've got a script, and it's not that easy to sound natural. I do the best I can, but I'm not perfect.
So I thought, “Okay, well, they're gonna hear me sound unnatural. They're gonna hear how I sound in the studio with a script, but why not soften the blow a little bit by having me sort of stumble and bumble and chat with Craig Schutt and get his reaction on things?” I'm hoping that it immediately puts people at ease that this is not going to be just someone blandly reading off of the script—that there'll be some interaction.
Did the desire to start a podcast come from your background in doing long-form documentary journalism for television, and the ability to use words in a different way? Being able to use audio and things that you can't necessarily do in a book, even as ones as enjoyable to read as yours?
I would say yes. What I think I've learned from this whole experience is that I really enjoy storytelling, and I think most journalists are good storytellers. I think that we convince ourselves that we need to be siloed: that a magazine reporter is always going to be a magazine reporter. It's too scary to be a television filmmaker or a podcaster, or someone who works in a completely different medium. But to me, storytelling is just storytelling. I think that there are certain stories that lend themselves better to books than to podcasts and to documentaries or to newspaper articles and magazine articles.
So for me, it's a little bit less about what the medium is and more about “How do I leverage this material to present it in the best way to an audience?” I am lucky because I worked in television for so long and on the technical side. I was a producer, so I understand the content, but—even more so—what's been the most helpful here was that I was an editor for a very long time, so I know how to edit.
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I do all my own editing on both podcasts, which just nearly kills me, but I do it. I just finished an episode of Wicked Words. I just stopped as soon as you called me. I also record my own stuff, and I'm my own audio engineer. It's just me out there with Craig Schutt in three feet of snow in upstate New York in January. I don't have a crew with me, so I do my own traveling. I have producers who help me at home with scripts and story and make sure I'm not jumping off of some ledge of storytelling that I can't climb off of, but this is a very solo project. I am there with my headset and my microphone and I reach out to the families myself.
So I think that it was not a jump going from television to audio storytelling. My television experience has helped tremendously. I love the intimacy of audio storytelling. That's even more intimate than documentary filmmaking. But I also love the research and books. I love the depth. I love writing words that are more eloquent than when I might write for Tenfold More Wicked. I mean, I'm not going to say I don't write eloquently for that show, but writing a history non-fiction book is another level.
I think that it triggers all these little skills within you. The trick is to not be scared and to know what your limits are and when you need to bring people in to help you. I do all my own social media. I know that I'm enough of a control freak that I don't want anybody else to do my social media. I even control the content. I don't even let people put graphics on the photos that I use on social media. I do that every little bit, myself, every little bit—which is shaving probably a month off of my life every year that I do this—but I think that's how I know it's important to me, is that I am willing to get up at three in the morning to put Tenfold More Wicked graphics and Wicked Words wear graphics on the corners of historical photos and then write something quippy.
That was a long answer to say, “Yes, television really helps with podcasting, tremendously.” I wouldn't have the confidence, nor would I have the budget. With all this audio equipment, it's not cheap, so it is a huge benefit that I don't have to hire crew and that I don't have to hire somebody to edit. All my budget goes to really outstanding producers and outstanding sound designers and that's where I prefer to put my money. They make it really, really good, if we do say so ourselves.
Wicked Words is such an interesting idea for a program because it's a different look at true crime, in that you're talking to the people who were there while it was happening, in a journalistic sense, rather than the usual cops and investigators. That's a very interesting look at a first-person source. Did it spring from doing research for Tenfold More Wicked and your books that you just wanted to sit down and talk to the people who made the things you enjoyed and respected?
I knew that I needed to have another show aside from Tenfold More Wicked, because it's so nice to hear the feedback that people didn't want Tenfold More Wicked to go on hiatus after three seasons, but that show is very high-maintenance. I mean, it is making a four and a half hour documentary—times three—a year, and that's a full-time job for most people. I had to take a break. I can't do Tenfold More Wicked year round, and Wicked Words, I felt, was a really good companion and I think it's because I'm a journalist.
I reported on true crime as a producer and as a writer, and a lot of my buddies have who are journalists. So I sat down with one of my friends one night, hanging out, and I said, “What's your best true crime story?” He's actually going to be episode two. His name is Bryan Burrough . He's a Vanity Fair writer and New York Times bestselling author. And he said, “I went to high school with a serial killer,” so I thought, “Holy crap! Why would I not record it?”
Then, American Sherlock came out February of 2020, and my publisher sent me all over the country to do book tours. And so I just decided, “Why not start recording? Find these reporters, these journalists, who have written really great, true crime stories in each city that I go to.” I went to seven different cities and had them come to my hotel and to just sit down and talk.
All these random men show up at my hotel and we sit down with the microphones. I've never met half of these people that I interviewed before. I just emailed them and said, “I've got this podcast. Can you tell me about the story I read about that you did?”
The thing that people love listening to podcasts that do a lot of talking for several hours, lots of talking and catching up? That's not really my thing. I really like “Let's get to the story and you can learn a little bit about me along the way,” and so, you hear a lot more of me as a person in Tenfold and Wicked Words, because I give my opinion, but really, the reporter is telling the story. In episode one [of Wicked Words], Katherine Ramsland, the forensic psychologist, is telling the story and I react.
Sometimes I know nothing about the stories, and sometimes I know a lot about the stories. What's fantastic about journalists—at least all of the ones I've spoken to about their stories—is if they are involved, there's a reason why they chose that story to report on. They have an interesting perspective, usually an intimate one. They've spoken to the main players in the story. And most importantly to me, they articulate it well. A lot of them are very funny, and I am a believer that, in true crime, you have to laugh a little bit, as horrible as it is. There are times when I just think, “This is so absurd, I can't do anything but like chuckle at it.”
Journalists, you know, when we sit down and we talk about these stories, they are really, really good at explaining the themes. “Tell me why the story is important. How does this fit into society? What does this say about us? And where do we go from here?” I think hearing from survivors, families, victims, families, the families of killers—all of that is important—and that is something that I really tackle in Tenfold More Wicked, but for a show like Wicked Words, I wanted just damn good storytelling.
You have Wicked Words and Tenfold More Wicked's first season is being turned into a book, and I know it's been optioned by Netflix, as well. Are there any other upcoming projects, or are you just happy that the academic year has finally like wound down?
Yes, what you said. I am full of projects right now. I'm always on the hunt for Tenfold More Wicked. We'll start back up again at the end of the year or January, most likely, but that means I've got three more seasons that need to be taped. I interview anywhere between 10 to 20 people per season and I got three seasons that start in January, so I'm going to be in Virginia this summer.
I was in L.A. two weeks ago to do one season that you'll hear about. I'm going to be in Virginia this summer to tape a couple of seasons, and then I'm going to be in Maine in October. I'm gonna drag my kids out of school and we're going to go to Maine. So I am super busy dealing with Tenfold More Wicked, because when season three ends, the whole thing starts over for me. Then I've got these new seasons that I'm going to be dealing with, and I continue to do interviews for Wicked Words.
And of course I'm my own editor, so I'm pretty busy. I have a lot of things I can't talk about right now that are kind of up in the air, but I'm trying to just survive. I'm in the middle of writing the third book, which is about Edward Rulloff from season one, and that's going to be called All That Is Wicked, and that will be out most likely next October, so I have a book due in a few months. I'm pretty busy, but good busy.
Wicked Words' first season is currently available wherever you get podcasts, and more information can be found at the Tenfold More Wicked website.