Today is the official publication date of the 10th anniversary edition of my true crime book Wages of Sin.
I’m a bit stunned that typing that sentence, hitting that period at the end of it, rendered my fingers motionless. It wasn’t the end of the sentence that did it. Mixed emotions did, emotions I didn’t realize I had until that moment.
With my fingers hovering an eighth of an inch above the keyboard, my mind reflected back. I signed my first true crime contract in 1997. And just like my fingers hesitated moments ago, they hesitated back then. Did I – the girl who had attended the largest Southern Baptist university in the nation, the co-ed who had been a missionary over school breaks, the girl who prayerfully had considered going to seminary – want to write about a drug-abusing dead lesbian and her world? I wasn’t so sure I did. In fact, I was pretty sure I didn’t.
Furthermore, did I want to be known as a paperback true crime writer? Absolutely not. I wanted to be known as a writer of commercial fiction.
But the reality was that my career as a novelist was going nowhere and I needed income. So I asked my then literary agent, “Will this book hurt my career as a novelist? Should I write it under another name?” She said no, along with the words that I’ll never forget: “No one will ever know you wrote it anyway.” That was her not-so subtle way of saying the book would disappear into the oblivion of rotten sales figures.
I was speechless because, strangely enough, her words elicited mixed emotions. (Man, I have a lot of those.) Part of me felt safe and comforted that I could make some money, finally get a book published (even if it was a massmarket paperback), no one would know about it (since it was paperback true crime), and my career would be no worse for it. Another part of me wanted my first book to succeed. And since I’d never ever read a true crime book in my life, I went out and bought my first true crime and started to report and write my own.
Eighteen months later, Wasted was published. It soon hit #32 on the New York Times best-seller list. My publishing house was ecstatic; my then editor Karen Haas told me that a massmarket paperback original true crime rarely makes the New York Times best-seller list. I too became ecstatic. After all, for more than a year, I had gone to bed at night and awakened each morning envisioning my name on the New York Times list. I’d just failed to envision which list – fiction v. nonfiction, hardback v. paper.
The Austin American-Statesman then reported that Wasted had been banned in Nacogdoches, Texas, because the book had the word “lesbian” on the cover. That banning resulted in coast-to-coast press coverage. Wasted was also named a finalist for the Austin Writers’ League (now Writers’ League of Texas) Violet Crown Award for nonfiction. All of that combined to send the book into a second printing. Ten years later, Wasted was updated and reissued, resulting in its third print run.
When I signed the contract for Wasted, I planned to write one to four true crime books and return to fiction. As a result, after Wasted was published and it was time to pitch new true crime ideas to my agent, my pitches were half-hearted and subsequently rejected by my agent.
But one August day in 1999, I was on the phone with my editor when she asked if/when I was ever going to pitch them – the publishing house – another true crime idea. I relayed that I’d been talking to my agent about it and we’d never found a case she liked. My editor asked about the rejected ideas, and I told her about the one I called the case of the Southern Baptist killer stripper – a girl who was reared devout Southern Baptist, became a stripper, then a killer. She screamed, “That’s it! That’s the one we want!” And so Wages of Sin came into being.
By then Michael Corcoran of the Austin American-Statesman had started referring to me in print as “true crime writer Suzy Spencer.” Despite the fact that a few paragraphs above I said I’d asked myself if I wanted to be known as a paperback true crime writer, the truth of the matter is I didn’t think of myself as a true crime writer. I thought of myself as a writer. In fact, Michael’s true crime moniker was rather difficult for me to accept … until I added the words tabloid trash to it.
“Tabloid trash true crime writer Suzy Spencer” – now that’s a title I could embrace. God only knows why. My friends were appalled and repeatedly berated me, telling me I shouldn’t put myself down like that. I didn’t think of it as a put-down. Again, God only knows why. But honestly, I love being called a tabloid trash true crime writer. It suits me.
So I signed the second contract without hesitation and dragged a couple of guy friends to the Yellow Rose strip club. That’s where the killer stripper had worked. Over the course of two research trips, I discovered that the type of man with whom you walk into a strip club affects how the dancers interact with you – well, interact with me. One type of man gets you – me – offers of table dances; another type gets you left alone.
I also learned that if you take notes under the table at a strip club that it can get you surrounded by security and dragged into the manager’s office. But if you – I – let the manager show off, he’ll be nice to you and let you stay.
I returned a time or two alone to pick up research documents. On those trips, I discovered that when I go into a strip club by myself I’m invisible to the men and glared at by the women. Strangely enough, that made me feel completely safe and utterly threatened. Mixed emotions?
What I’m trying to say as I ramble on far too long is that as I close out my true crime career with the reissue of Wages of Sin, which sends the book into its third print run (and even without the third print run, or any fancy accolades or awards, it is a book that has far outsold Wasted), I’m … well, … overwhelmed. My life and career have turned out nothing like I expected. I’m not sure if it was the path that God chose for me or if it’s one I foisted upon Him. But either way, it’s been a stunning, life altering, soul-changing 13 years, and I thank Jesus for it.
Wasted irrevocably changed my attitude about homosexuality. Wages of Sin confused me. Breaking Point broke my heart, while giving me credibility as a journalist. The Fortune Hunter broke my spirit, and for that I am most grateful.
In fact, for my entire true crime career – with well more than 300,000 books in print – I am grateful. God, I am grateful. That’s the one thing about which I don’t have mixed emotions.
Now please go out and buy the reissue of Wages of Sin. I’d be most grateful for that, too.