Ethan Brown and Nick Reding on Reporting Real-Life Crime Stories

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Reding and Brown. Photo: Courtesy of the authors.

Nick Reding's extraordinary Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town is a long-form look at how methamphetamine warped the fabric of Oelwein, Iowa (pop. 6,000). Brown's heartbreaking Shake the Devil Off: A True Story of the Murder that Rocked New Orleans unpacks the strange, tragic life of a 28-year-old New Orleans resident, Katrina survivor, and veteran of Iraq and Kosovo who killed himself after dismembering his girlfriend. We connected the two authors, suggested a few questions, and turned them loose for a candid, sprawling discussion on their books, crime writing, and the state of nonfiction publishing.

Brown: Why did you focus on Oelwein, Iowa?

Reding: In a way, it's not as much about meth as it was about small-town America. Meth was the lens. A nearby town was actually a much juicier place than Oelwein. There, the sheriff’s brother was in on the trafficking and there was this really wealthy, powerful ranching family with one kid running for state senate and another who was a hard-core meth addict and small-time trafficker. In some ways, it's better that it didn’t happen there because I think I would’ve gotten so taken up with the sinister crime element in that town, where in Oelwein I was more just into the idea of people’s everyday lives. How did you start, Ethan? When you write these books based on criminal cases, do you get in them before they go to trial?

Brown: I like the idea of walking a story back. With this book, there is the horrific murder-suicide that got insane amounts of coverage, down here and internationally, because of how strange it was. The couple lived above a voodoo shop in New Orleans, so it had this New Orleans detail that everyone just went nuts over. Even in the months afterward, people would dress up as the dismembered girl in New Orleans for Halloween.

Reding: Really?

Brown: Oh yeah. There was a Mardi Gras float satirizing the crime. It entered absurd, cartoonish territory right away. I was here right after it happened. Particularly after Katrina, New Orleans is such a small place, with just about 300,000 people, so I heard all this gossip: He served in Iraq, he served in Kosovo. There were rumors that he had big disciplinary problems and possibly even rumors of war crimes. I thought, wow, there's more here than what's being covered. So let me try and walk the story back, beginning with Zack Bowen's birth, and try and figure out what happened. What in his past would indicate why he would do something like this? I was pretty sure that I would find a number of things — abusive relationships, or disciplinary problems — and then none of these things panned out at all.

Reding: None?

Brown: Yeah, none of them. The short version is that he enlisted in the military to get health-care benefits for his wife and his kids. He was basically a hippie bartender in New Orleans and he enlisted in 2000, in that last moment of peace. He was deployed to Kosovo in 2001 and involved in the Iraq invasion of 2003.

Reding: So he turned out to be kind of a good guy who had gone mad or something?

Brown: Extraordinarily overburdened by circumstances, I think. One thing tough about the book is that New Orleans is the kind of place where New Orleanians will kill you if you get anything wrong — especially if you're not from there. Was it the same in Oelwein?

Reding: I had to get things right in Oelwein, but I didn’t realize the vehemence of the reaction. I got death threats and all kinds of shit for putting the fucking softball field on the wrong side of Highway 150. After the book was finished, we scheduled a town-hall meeting in our brand-new library. As it got closer and closer and I got more e-mails and phone calls and I thought, "Fucking-A, man, I do not want to go up to this place." But I went. For the very first question, this girl said, “Why did you do this to us?”

Brown: Really?

Reding: Meaning, "Thanks, now everybody in the country thinks that we’re this shithole meth haven." I was totally unprepared for that. And people that live in these middling sort of cities like San Jose would tell me what a jerk I was for writing anything negative about this small town. They didn’t even live in a fucking small town! With you, it seems like people in New Orleans might get mad, whereas with Oelwein there were people in the rest of the country that were mad at me for having written about this small town.

Brown: I was basically so petrified that I had several smart New Orleans media people vet the manuscript before it was out.

Reding: I should’ve had the gal at the gas station in Oelwein vet mine.

Brown: If, in your case, the question was, “Why did you do this to us?” the question to me was, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Some critics essentially said that I gave a kind of image makeover to a murderer. I was totally taken aback. I mean, it had surprised me that this was not a monstrous person. But the fact that that’s what I came up with doesn’t mean that’s what I intended to write. Of course, recently there's been an explosion of studies and newspaper articles about the Army's suicide rates, or numbers showing that PTSD rates are off the charts, or Iraq veterans that are involved in homicide cases.

Reding: It's impossible not to read reviews. The worst though is the fucking Amazon people, man. But had it not been for any of that Amazon stuff I don’t think I would’ve had anybody react to my first book. So I guess I should be happy. I’m glad I’m not fucking Beyoncé or something. I don't know how Britney deals with it, honestly.

Brown: The business side of this is tough. What's next for you?

Reding: What I want to write is kind of an immigration story, and everybody in publishing is convinced that immigration is this taboo word that nobody will buy. Yet anyone I ever talk to that’s not in publishing seems to think that’s a great topic.

Brown: There is such a vast gulf between publishing and what people actually want to read about. And the list of supposedly taboo things is actually quite long, from drugs to immigration. There's a huge class bias, you know?

Reding: I think you’re absolutely right about the class thing, and the regional predilections are so obvious that they are considered to be invisible. An example: So the book got on the cover of The New York Times Book Review and I called my editor and told him and he said, “Well, you know it will be a critical darling, but it won’t sell.” And he had been saying all along that it won’t sell and I thought, what in the fuck is the matter with you? Are you kidding me? If it’s gonna sell, it’s gonna sell. Every newspaper in the country has reviewed it. Then it was sold out on Amazon for six weeks, and the reason is they refused to print books. I kept saying to him, "You could be selling so many books in Des Moines, Iowa, in Lincoln, Nebraska in Denver, Colorado, all these places, where people read, where there are great independent bookstores," and they kept saying, "No, mostly I think we’re going to push this in L.A. and New York." I thought, you dumb fuckers. Meth is not a problem in New York except for in the gay community, but it’s a problem everywhere else. But there was this feeling: "Well, yeah, but people out there don’t really read."

Brown: I found the most voracious readers to be outside of New York. My readings in New Orleans have been great. In New York, forget it: People want a free drink and then they’ll leave.