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Joe Pompeo: On Revisiting Gothic History

Writer Joe Pompeo discusses how a conversation with a former professor led him to write his new historical true crime book, Blood & Ink.

Joe Pompeo is a correspondent at Vanity Fair who previously worked at publications including Politico and The New York Observer. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, the Columbia Journalism Review, and many other outlets.

He lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife and children. Learn more at bloodand.ink or follow him on Twitter @joepompeo.

Joe Pompeo: On Revisiting Gothic History

Joe Pompeo

In this post, Joe discusses how a conversation with a former professor led him to write his new historical true crime book, Blood & Ink, what he learned in the publishing process, and more!

Name: Joe Pompeo
Literary agent: Jen Marshall, Aevitas Creative Management
Book title: Blood & Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder That Hooked America On True Crime
Publisher: William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers
Release date: September 13, 2022
Genre/category: Historical true crime/narrative history
Elevator pitch for the book: It's about a wild “crime of the century” that captivated 1920s America. It's also about the birth of tabloid journalism. If you're a fan of dusty old murder mysteries, the Roaring ‘20s, tabloid culture, media barons, and/or New Jersey, it's right up your alley.

Joe Pompeo: On Revisiting Gothic History

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What prompted you to write this book?

I’ve always been drawn to dark, gothy history. The Victorian era, Jack the Ripper, stuff like that. Years ago, when I was a grad student at the Columbia Journalism School, I took a history course where we studied newspaper sensations of old, like the murders of Helen Jewett and Mary Rogers in 19th Century New York.

I started reading a lot of nonfiction in this genre, including books about the Jewett and Rogers cases: The Murder of Helen Jewett by Patricia Cohen and The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower. A few others that really got me hooked were Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, Midnight in Peking by Paul French, and The Murder of the Century by Paul Collins.

In my professional life as a reporter, I’ve covered the media industry for a long time, most recently at Vanity Fair. I loved the idea of doing a story about an old murder mystery with some sort of newspaper angle—they often have a newspaper angle—so I decided to find one.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

The book grew out of a conversation I had in the fall of 2018 when I was catching up with the professor who taught the afore-referenced Columbia j-school course, Andie Tucher. She mentioned the Hall-Mills murders of 1922, which sounded especially enticing because they happened in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where I went to college at Rutgers. We also talked about the utter outrageousness of the 1920s tabloids.

There was a through line between those two topics, and that became the vision for my proposal, which my agent and I workshopped for a good 10 months and then sold in the summer of 2019. From conception to pub date was about four years on the nose.

Apart from the murder-mystery plot, the proposal focused heavily on Joseph Medill Patterson, who brought the tabloid format to America when he founded the New York Daily News in 1919. But the more I immersed myself in the research, the more I was drawn to a guy named Phil Payne, a pioneering tabloid editor who defected from Patterson’s Daily News to Hearst’s Daily Mirror, where he resurrected the Hall-Mills case in 1926.

Patterson didn’t disappear altogether, but he faded into the background as Payne’s story became one of the two main arcs. He’s also my favorite character in the book.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

You sometimes hear about book editors not exactly doing the most substantial edits. As a longtime magazine and newspaper journalist accustomed to serious editing, I was wary of that. But my editor at William Morrow, Mauro Di Preta, really got down in the weeds of the story with me, and his line-edit of the manuscript was utterly surgical in its precision. I don’t know if “surprised” is the right word, but he exceeded my expectations.

I also learned that a good agent can be just as important as your editor when it comes to shaping your work.

Joe Pompeo: On Revisiting Gothic History

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I never got to a point where I felt like I was hitting a wall or tiring of the subject I’d chosen to devote four years of my life to, either with the research or the writing. If anything, it was the opposite. Like I don’t know what I’m gonna do with myself once the book is out in the world and it’s time to move on to the next thing.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Escapist, immersive, educational leisure time.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

Study the craft of great writers and try to emulate it.

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