By Priscilla Lister
Nearly three years ago Caitlin Rother left a successful career as a newspaper reporter to become a novelist.
Since then she hasn’t looked back, or slowed down. Her fifth book comes out in September. “Telling stories was my destiny,” said the Kensington resident.
Four of her books are true-crime stories, which she wrote using skills she acquired as an investigative reporter. Her only book of fiction so far is “Naked Addiction,” a thriller about the murder of young beauty school students in San Diego beach communities. She started the novel while still working as a reporter, and it took her 17 years to find a publisher.
Rother said she has found that non-fiction is far easier than fiction to get published – 90 percent of published books versus 10 percent, she estimated. “Persistence and learning how to rebound from rejection are two keys to getting published,” she said.
Her newest book, coming out this fall, is “Where Hope Begins,” the true story of how Alysia Sofios, a TV reporter in Fresno, risked her career to help female survivors of the Marcus Wesson family recover from a cult-like life of incest, polygamy and the murder of their nine children.
Her most recent book, published in March, was “Body Parts.” It chronicles the true story of serial killer Wayne Adam Ford, a long-haul trucker convicted of killing four women – dismembering two – who is now on Death Row in San Quentin.
Her first true crime book, “Poisoned Love,” dissected the story of Kristin Rossum, a toxicologist in the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office who was convicted of poisoning her husband with drugs she stole from her county lab, where she was having an affair with her married boss. Rother’s second book, “Twisted Triangle,” is the factual story of a kidnapping, attempted murder and love triangle involving two married FBI agents and crime novelist Patricia Cornwell.
Rother was born in Montreal, Canada, and came with her parents to California as a toddler. Her mother, Carole Scott, was a dean at San Diego State University, where her father, Jim Rother, was an English professor. Caitlin earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.
She came by her new career naturally, having had lots of on-the-job training in true crime while working as an investigative reporter. Rother was a journalist for 19 years for daily newspapers, including a couple in Massachusetts early in her career, then the Daily News in Los Angeles and the San Diego Union-Tribune. At the Union-Tribune, she developed a kind of specialty writing about bizarre deaths. In 1998 she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her story about a depressed teenager who died after lighting himself on fire behind a Santee WalMart. She also wrote some 50 stories for the Union-Tribune covering the Rossum trial.
“When you cover a trial for a newspaper, you only get so much space,” she said. Her editors would tell her that her stories were too long. “ ‘We’re not writing books here,’ they said to me.”
“Maybe I should,” she thought.
The Rossum case presented her first best opportunity. “I had a lot of material left over,” she said. She took a six-month leave from the newspaper and got her first book deal. By September, 2006, with her second book deal in hand, she quit the Union-Tribune to write books full-time.
As an investigative reporter, Rother was used to digging, interviewing, and gathering facts – for her, that pursuit was like solving puzzles. “But no matter how much great information you have, if you can’t tell a story, people won’t read it. So to me (true-crime writing) is creative, but I also get to use my investigative reporting skills, which I think is really fun.” She prefers stories that explore the psychological aspects of criminals. Because she combines writing and reporting talents, her books are very detailed, twice-researched, page turners.
“Using a reporter’s edge, novelist’s eye and a crime scene investigator’s nose for evidence, Rother’s latest is all at once riveting, unbelievable, fast-paced and sure to keep you up at night,” said M. William Phelps, author of “I’ll Be Watching You,” about Rother’s “Body Parts.”
She works seven days a week in her new career. She might be working on different phases of three books at a time – editing, proofreading, promoting, even looking for the next story. She also teaches feature and creative writing classes at UC San Diego Extension. “You have to be able to multi-task,” she said. She keeps a spiral notebook of to-do lists.
“I’d like to dispel the myth that writers make a ton of money and live a glamorous life,” Rother said. “I work so hard, for really not that much money. But I was so driven. I wanted a book published more than anything on the planet.”
“I kind of equate my current career to professional poker – it’s speculative, uncertain and I feel like I’m gambling all the time, waiting for the big hit,” Rother said. “Essentially, I’m building a business. As long as I continue to see growth, even if it’s small, I keep going.”
“I think it takes a lot of courage to step out and believe in yourself like Caitlin has,” said Michael Kinsman, a former long-time Union-Tribune reporter who now works for Nuffer, Smith, Tucker, Inc. public relations firm. “She’s entered a very challenging and difficult world and she’s doing something she loves. You always have to admire somebody like that.”
She’s now working on her sixth book: it’s about Skylar Deleon and his wife, Jennifer, who led a clan of outlaws to murder Tom and Jackie Hawks by tying them to the anchor of their yacht in Newport Beach and throwing them overboard.
Rother often spends her mornings at a neighborhood eatery, her “office.” She goes to the gym or takes a walk around Kensington every afternoon. “I really like the old houses in my neighborhood. I walk around a lot and look at all the nicely kept yards. I like the fact the little commercial area is growing, getting more restaurants. It’s just a cool neighborhood with friendly people.”
It surely provides a balancing counterpoint to her work.
Caitlin Rother will be the featured author this month at Tango Wine Company’s “Wine n’ Writers” event, June 24, from 6 p.m.-8 p.m., 2161 India St., San Diego, 92101.
For her book signings and new publication dates, check her web site, www.caitlinrother.com.