Burned is Here: Why I Love Writing Nonfiction

My new book, Burned, comes out today. One of my favorite parts of writing nonfiction is the opportunity to unravel a mystery while immersing in the worlds of the people and subjects I tackle. During the past two years I’ve attended arson school and learned from real-life CSI and fire experts at the top of their game. And I took a deep dive inside the world of the most unique criminal law practice I’ve ever encountered: the California Innocence Project.

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In the bowels of a San Diego law school, the project’s lawyers, volunteers and students sift through an ever-growing mountain of letters from men and women convicted of terrible crimes. Buried in this flood are a slim number of cases where justice went awry.

That’s how I encountered Jo Ann Parks, convicted of a triple murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. A Los Angeles jury found Parks guilty of trapping her children inside her house, then setting it aflame.

Since that terrible night thirty years ago there has been a revolution in the science of fire. Much of what was thought to be gospel in 1989 has been revealed to be myth and guesswork disguised as science. The California Innocence Projects reinvestigated the case and argues Parks should go free.

The question of Jo Ann Parks’ fate forms the central “whodunnit” of Burned. Beyond the question of her guilt or innocence, her case also takes readers on a larger journey into the world of forensic science—the CSI marvels lionized on TV, but that sometimes contain far less science and certainty than advertised. [My Publishers Weekly Q&A is here, and a full review of Burned is here. You can buy Burned from the bookseller of your choice here.]

It’s always a thrill when a new book comes out. But this story also marks my return to crime writing, which started when I was a newspaper reporter covering the courthouse and continued with my first five books. It’s been a while since I wrote Mississippi Mud and No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court, though they remain two of my best-selling books. When I came across the stories behind Burned, I knew it was time to return to the true-crime book world I love.

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Speaking of Mississippi Mud, I received some exciting news recently: the movie version of this tale of murder, the Dixie Mafia, and a daughter’s search for justice is moving forward in 2019! Stay tuned for more on that.

It’s not all crime all the time for me, though. These days I split my time and work between Seattle and Southern California. It’s also been another great year for Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash, which so far has been adopted for 24 community or campus reads, from Ranchos Palos Verdes in California to the city of Portland to the Georgia Institute of Technology. This year I talked trash at Purdue University in Indiana and The College of Wooster in Ohio, where every freshman read Garbology and did projects related to waste and the environment throughout the school year.

Finally, a note of thanks: I appreciate everyone who has taken the time to send me a letter or email this year, to comment on something I’ve written, to make a timely suggestion, or to point out a story, event or insight I otherwise would have missed. My readers are the best! I can’t thank you enough for taking an interest in my work.

[For media inquiries or to request an event during my upcoming book tour, contact Maria Whelan at Penguin Random House publicity.]