Interview: Wendy Ruderman on writing true crime and winning a Pulitzer

Wendy Ruderman [left] is co-author of true crime book Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love and co-winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Lauren Razavi speaks to her about getting started in journalism and the process of nailing a true crime story…

How did you get started in writing and journalism?

As a kid, I would lock myself in my room and write plays, short stories and poems. I was an avid writer, although I was in remedial reading and writing classes throughout elementary school. I used to be embarrassed to admit that, but now I hope to inspire other young people who love the written word but get a bit lost in the school system. I became interested in journalism in college and wrote for the college newspaper.

You won a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2010. How did that change things for you?

The Pulitzer Prize has not changed me personally. In fact, I feel pressure to live up to it, to prove that I am worthy of such a prize. As journalists like to say, you are only as good as your next story. I will say that the Pulitzer has opened doors for me. It helped me get my foot in the door at The New York Times, where I worked for a year before returning to the Philadelphia Daily News for personal, family reasons.

How did you make the leap from investigative journalism to writing a true crime book? Did it feel like a natural move, or an enormous undertaking?

Writing the book was super difficult. The challenge was to write a book that was not at all like the newspaper series, to make it interesting and to build tension. It is a different type of storytelling and I found it very challenging.

What really defines true crime as a genre, and what makes a good piece of true crime writing?

Although Busted falls into the true crime category, it is not really what I think of as traditional true crime. I love true crime that unravels a mystery, such as a murder. Busted is unique in that it is true crime, corruption, memoir and journalistic procedural.

Readers like stories that pull back the curtain on a crime, whether that's uncovering police corruption or tracking a serial killer. I also think that readers (people in general) are riveted by the darker side of people.

In focus: Can you give us some insight into how the Tainted Justice series [in which Ruderman and and Laker unearthed a web of police corruption in Philadelphia that included theft, sexual assault and fabricating drug busts] came about?

A reliable source had sent Benny [Martinez, the confidential informant that began the journey towards the Tainted Justice series and subsequently towards Busted] my way. At the time, I was writing a series of articles about police brutality and this source had a proven track record of tipping me off to solid stories. So while I had no idea what Benny was going to tell me, I knew his story would be at least worth hearing.

We (myself and Daily News colleague Barbara Laker) believed in this series; we were not going to give up. The people who had been victimised had been brushed off by authorities even after they filed complaints. The [victims] felt as if their complaints didn’t matter and the police would be protected. We felt it was our responsibility, as journalists and women, to make sure their voices were heard. We became obsessed in our mission to find them and tell their stories, but it wasn’t anything spoken between us. It just was, you know, part of our DNA.

After we won the 2010 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting for the Tainted Justice series, we started to get calls from Hollywood types who seemed to want us to give them the rights to the story for little or nothing. We wanted to tell the story in our way, to control the narrative, so we decided to write a book that told the story behind the story. In other words, we used our Pulitzer Prize-winning series, Tainted Justice as the backdrop to write Busted, which details how we got the story amid a financial crisis at the Philadelphia Daily News and in print journalism generally.

Originally published by IdeasTap. Image above courtesy of Wendy Ruderman.

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