Mystery Writers Key West Fest: Murder and Mayhem in Paradise!

Interview with Author Carla Norton

Acclaimed novelist and #1 New York Times bestselling true crime writer Carla Norton joins the Mystery Writers Key West Fest June 13-15 as a guest panelist and moderator. A former newspaper and Readers Digest journalist, Norton is author of “Disturbed Ground,” the true story of a boardinghouse proprietor found guilty of murdering tenants and “planting” their bodies in her garden. She is co-author of “Perfect Victim,” the chilling #1 New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Best Seller about the kidnapping of Colleen Stan, “the girl in the box.”  Her debut fiction work, “The Edge of Normal,” has been nominated for a THRILLER AWARD for Best First Novel. She agreed to answer some questions for the readers of Paradise.


Q&A with Author Carla Norton

Q: “Disturbed Ground” is a story of serial murder for personal gain – the victim’s social security and disability checks. “Perfect Victim” - which is now required reading for the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit – is about a crime of prolonged captivity and abuse. Speaking from your own research and experience, was there a similarity in the personality traits of these two types of criminal that you found particularly noteworthy or surprising?

A: Good question. They both had secret lives and got away with their crimes for years. And they’re both psychopaths, but of very different types. Cameron Hooker (the true-life villain in Perfect Victim) kidnapped a 20-year-old hitchhiker and held her captive for seven years. I tried on the ‘head box’ he used in her abduction, visited the basement where he kept her captive. He took pleasure in torturing her, and his sadism gave me nightmares for years.

Dorothea Puente (the criminal in Disturbed Ground) was a rare bird: a female serial killer. She mainly murdered for money. Dorothea was a gentle killer, serving up deadly cocktails laced with various drugs. She buried seven bodies in her yard, and murdered nine trusting souls altogether. Her Sacramento boardinghouse was the scene of very “Arsenic and Old Lace” type crimes.

Q: What did you find most challenging about making the transition from writing true-crime to crime-fiction?

A: This will sound strange, but researching for fiction is tougher in some ways. With true crime, the facts are facts. There’s no equivocation. But with fiction, you have endless choices, so your research can take you off track.

Q: What did you find the most liberating about the transition?

A: In fiction, the villains disappear when you close the book. Seriously! Psychopaths are scary people, and true stories will haunt you. So it’s great to be able to mete out justice to the bad guys in whatever way I wish. If I’m bent on retribution, my protagonist is up for the job.

Q: Commenting on “The Edge of Normal,” The Daily Mail wrote that you have “a Hitchcock-like capacity for suspense,” - towering kudos in any case, but in particular for an author’s first work of fiction. Is there a living author – other than yourself of course - whose capacity for creating suspense particularly impresses or inspires you?

A: Too many to name! Thomas Harris, Stephen King, Lisa Unger, Jeffery Deaver, Robert Crais, Laura Lippman… it’s a long list. I admire their skill and technique.  But I’m also inspired by true-life survivors of kidnapping and captivity, like Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, and Colleen Stan. They’re the heart and soul of my fiction.

Q: Carla – you spend a lot of time immersed in the darkest recesses of human nature. Seriously, what do you do for fun?

A: True, I often lock myself in a dark room for hours at a time, but I also reward myself with little things: chocolate, fine wine, a good conversation. I take pleasure in simple walks on the beach. No matter what’s on my mind, I feel better the minute I step outside.  And I love watching the pelicans, the surfers, the boats. I also love to travel when I can, so coming to Key West will be a treat!

Carla Norton will be a panelist in the “Women of Mystery” panel with Miriam Auerbach, Sandra Balzo, Nancy J. Cohen and Heather Graham on Saturday morning, and will moderate a “Writing the Series” panel in the afternoon. For more information about this weekend’s Mystery Writers Key West Fest, visit
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