Photo credit: Matt Richman
Describe your latest book.
My newest book is called Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
. It’s about the Osage Indians who, in the early 20th century, became the richest people per capita in the world after oil was discovered under their reservation in Oklahoma. Then they began to be mysteriously murdered off. Several of those who tried to catch the killers were themselves killed, including an attorney who was thrown off a speeding train. In 1923, after the death toll reached more than two dozen Osage, the case was taken up by the Bureau of Investigation, then an obscure branch of the Justice Department, which was later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The case was among the FBI’s first major homicide investigations. After J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the bureau’s director in 1924, he sent a team of operatives, including a Native American agent, to the Osage reservation. Working undercover, and with the help of the Osage, they began to unravel one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I Am the Cheese
by Robert Cormier. It was the first psychological thriller I ever read, and has a twist at the end that still haunts me to this day.
When did you know you were a writer?
I didn’t think of myself as a writer for a long time — and indeed doubted that I had enough ability to ever become one — but I began writing in a journal when I was very young. In college, I tried my hand at writing essays and newspaper stories. And when I got out of school, I continued to write in my free time even when I had other jobs. And so at a certain point I just accepted that if I’m always writing, I guess I must be a writer.
What does your writing workspace look like?
Chaos. It’s a tiny space and there are piles of books and documents on the floor, which are often toppling over. Once I finish a writing project, I try to clean everything up, only to watch the room slowly descend back into a disaster site.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
I guess if I had to pick one interest that is unique, it would be giant squids — I’m disturbingly fascinated by them and even wrote a story about the hunt for them.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
After an excerpt of my new book, Killers of the Flower Moon
, appeared in the New Yorker
, a reader reached out to me explaining that she was a descendant of one of the murder victims. She mentioned the pain her Osage family still felt, and the exchange drove home to me once more how living this history still is.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I haven’t read a word of Proust
. And I listen obsessively to sports radio.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
One of my favorite authors to read is Eric Ambler, who helped pioneer the form of realistic suspense novels. I’d recommend starting with Epitaph for a Spy
, which is rooted in my favorite conceit: an ordinary person suddenly swept up in a world of intrigue.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
My grandparents’ old postcards.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
It took me a long time to be able to write for the New Yorker
, and for me that has been the best job. I live a very conventional life, but reporting for the magazine has allowed me to do things I would never otherwise do, such as investigating a criminal conspiracy in Guatemala or trekking through the Amazon looking for a lost city.
What scares you the most as a writer?
A blank computer screen.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
As someone who looks for true stories, this passage from one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
stories has always stuck with me:
Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
Well, it’s not so much a grammatical pet peeve, but sadly Donald Trump has killed the power of the exclamation point, by ending every tweet with one.
Do you have any phobias?
Every breed of snake, particularly anacondas.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
Watching old episodes of Columbo
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
If you want to write, write.
Top Five Favorite True Crime Books:
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?
by Francisco Goldman
The Executioner's Song
by Norman Mailer
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
by Erik Larson
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
by Kate Summerscale
All the President's Men
by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
÷ ÷ ÷
is a staff writer at the New Yorker
and the bestselling author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes
and The Lost City of Z
, which has been translated into more than 20 languages. His stories have appeared in many anthologies of the best American writing, and he has written for the New York Times Magazine
, the Atlantic
, the Washington Post
, the Wall Street Journal
, and the New Republic
. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
is his most recent book.