Between hosting To Catch a Killer on OWN Canada and teaching Forensic Writing and Investigative Journalism at Western University in London, Ontario, it's something of an understatement to say that Dr. Michael Arntfield is a busy man.
In June 2015, Michael added “self-published author” to his resume, when Murder City: The Untold Story of Canada's Serial Killer Capital hit bookshelves. The FriesenPress-published true crime title depicts a twenty-five-year period in the history of London, Ontario, “the deceivingly serene 'Forest City'”, in which up to six serial killers were active simultaneously.
Michael was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to answer some questions about Murder City, writing, and his self-publishing experience.
FriesenPress: Murder City, while largely centred on London, Ontario, has really taken off since its June release. How has the book been received, locally and elsewhere?
Michael Arntfield: Yes, the book is centered on London but also captures a certain—and epochal—period in Canadian history and crime history more generally. In the book, the events occurring in London in the 60s and 70s are continuously looped into what was going on elsewhere in the world: how the crimes seen in London compared to events like the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson family in LA; the so-called “Summer of Sam” in New York in 1977, and so on. For that reason I’ve seen significant sales and received feedback from readers across Europe and, naturally, throughout the US. The follow-up true crime book I’m working on now, Mad City, follows a similar trajectory. It focuses on Madison, Wisconsin but is to some extent the story of any city—or what could have been any city had history worked out differently.
FP: No doubt you've seen a lot in your careers, both as a former police officer and in your current role as professor of investigative journalism. What are some of the biggest takeaways you've been able to impart on your students after so many years of detail-oriented work?
MA: A lesson learned from police work which translates especially well for students studying investigative reporting and criminology in my classes is the importance of small details, especially today. We live in a world of broad strokes—memes, sound bites, and all things abridged. People, I think, have learned to skirt rather than sweat the small stuff while the inverse should be the case. The protagonist of Murder City—a real life detective named Dennis Alsop—was a former WWII cryptanalyst, intelligence operative and codebreaker. It’s no coincidence that Edgar Allan Poe, who invented detective fiction and essentially blueprinted modern crime scene work, was also obsessed with ciphers and cryptograms—as was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to a lesser extent. You can’t see the big picture without breaking it down into pixels first, and you’d be surprised what you can observe simply by looking.
FP: Can you describe your writing process? How do you take a sprawling story (like a murder investigation with many moving pieces) and make it digestible?
MA: It varies from narrative to narrative. Murder City, for instance, has a number of moving parts and points of view but is largely chronological in its storytelling and exposition. The forthcoming follow-up, Mad City, has by comparison proven more difficult as there are numerous locations, timelines, people and theories that all require commingling. As I tell my students, the best way to learn how to format a story and be an effective writer is to first be a reader. In more complicated stories of this nature I’m also a big fan of using epistolary devices (letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, etc.) to bridge timelines and consolidate information. This is largely a result of my work in Victorian gothic fiction rubbing off on my own writing. Many of the key works of that period were written entirely in epistolary format. These include Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which actually remain the most filmed and reproduced fictional works of all time.
FP: As a professor of investigative journalism and author of traditionally published academic and “popular” texts, tell us about your decision to self-publish Murder City.
MA: It was chiefly a business decision but it was also about retaining creative and editorial control from start to finish. I’ve authored and co-authored numerous academic monographs and textbooks with major international publishers and also edit my own book series with one of the largest academic presses in the world based in New York, so I know how to write, edit, proofread, copy edit, and arrange a work from start to finish. I also understand copyright law, intellectual property law, book marketing and distribution and actually teach all of these things at the advanced university level. So, rather than trust these tasks to other people and lose control in many key areas of the project, it just made sense professionally and financially.
A master carpenter with their own know-how wouldn’t pay someone else to try to realize their vision and build them a deck or install a new kitchen, so why would I want to forfeit both proceeds and control to other people when I can do it myself just as well—or better. I will always defer to academic presses or large publishing houses for more conventional academic or crossover scholarly-trade press titles, largely because as a professor your research is measured by the pedigree of the publisher and their ability to send manuscripts out for rigorous peer review. But, for all of my true crime works, which are more my passion than my job per se, I will continue to do the DIY thing. The book (Murder City) will soon be certified as a best seller and has already been optioned for network television, something I wouldn’t have been able to negotiate and possibly even agree to had a conventional publisher been left in control.
FP: What led you to choose FriesenPress as your assisted self-publisher for this project?
MA: In looking at the options out there now, and there are many, I was impressed by the professionalism of what we call the “paratext” content—things like cover design, font options, page stock, binding, etc. The finished look and feel of the copy, both paperback and hardcover, I found to be on par with (or better than) anything produced by one of the top trade press conglomerates. The long history and reputation of Friesens as a printer of foundational texts and its global reach in terms of distribution were also factors, as was the expedited production process. The concierge style of that very process, where the author is assigned a dedicated agent with significant industry experience, rather than just blindly uploading files, was also attractive in terms of accountability and ensuring transparency from start to finish.
Written by Brian Cliffen, FriesenPress Marketing Co-ordinator
Edited by Kate Juniper, FriesenPress Editing and Illustration Co-ordinator