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Peter Vronsky: When History Is More Bizarre Than Fiction

Historical nonfiction author Peter Vronsky shares what surprises him about writing true crime books and how he negotiates titles with his publisher.

Peter Vronsky, Ph.D., is an investigative historian and a former film and television documentary producer. He is the author of Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters; Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present; Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters; and a contributor to R. J. Parker's annual Serial Killers: True Crime Anthology series, currently in its fifth year of publication. His research and interviews have been featured in numerous books and television programs. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in the fields of criminal justice history and the history of espionage in international relations. A history instructor at Ryerson University in Toronto, he divides his time between Toronto, Canada, and Venice, Italy.

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Peter Vronsky

Peter Vronsky

In this post, Vronsky shares what surprises him about writing true crime books, how he negotiates titles with his publisher, and more!


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Name: Peter Vronsky
Literary agent: Elaine Spencer of the Knight Literary Agency
Title: American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years, 1950-2000
Publisher: Berkley Books, Penguin Random House
Release date: February 9, 2021
Genre: True Crime History
Elevator pitch for the book: A history of the “golden age” of serial murder, the fifty-year surge of serial killers in the United States, 1950-2000. The story of the FBI "mindhunter" era of pioneer profilers and the epidemic surge of celebrity serial killers.
Previous titles:

  • Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters (2004)
  • Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters (2007)
  • Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada (2011)
  • Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present (2018)
American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years, 1950-2000

American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years, 1950-2000

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What prompted you to write this book?

The same thing that prompted me to write my first book, Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. I had two random encounters with different serial killers before they had been identified and apprehended: Richard Cottingham, the “Times Square Torso Killer” in 1979 in New York, and Andrei Chikatilo, the “Red Ripper” in 1990 in Moscow.

When I decided I would try my hand at writing a book, I turned to that familiar maxim: “Write what you know.” Writing about the history of serial killers, about how, when, and where they came from, became a form of self-exploration as to how it was that I randomly came to cross paths with not one, but two serial killers.

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The idea for American Serial Killers came to me while recently writing Sons of Cain, a global social history of serial homicide over a period of thousands of years starting arguably from the prehistoric era. The history of serial murder came to a head between 1970 and 2000 when there was an unusual surge of serial murder in the United States when over eighty percent of all 20th-century serial killers made their appearance. This was a period when the term "serial killer" was coined and defined, when the FBI "mindhunters" developed their profiling system, and serial killers were elevated as celebrity anti-heroes. Crime historian Howard Schechter described it tongue-in-cheek as the “golden age of serial murderers,” and indeed, people are still fascinated with the Ted Bundy-John Wayne Gacy-Richard Ramirez-Jeffrey Dahmer era of serial killers. These “old-school” serial killers are still today a staple of true crime literature and television and their stories are now being retold like familiar black fairy-tales to a new generation of readers and viewers who had not even been born when these serial killers were perpetrating their horrific murders.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

It was fast, about eighteen months from idea to publication, because I had been writing about it in small parts in my other books, and I had already researched and cataloged a lot of information. But it came to me to do as a stand-alone book when I was writing Sons of Cain in which I looked at the numerous serial killer surges in western history from 1450 to 2000. There was something unprecedented in the scale and scope of this last recent three-decade surge in 1970-2000 when comparing it to previous surges. And it doesn’t bode well for the future either, even though currently we have been enjoying a 25-year dramatic decline in serial killers.

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

I was a little surprised as to how "touchy" and "skittish" editorial boards have become by 2020. The original title for the book was The Golden Age of Serial Murder, 1950-2000 but an editorial committee felt that the title "promoted" or "glamorized" serial killers, even though we have the "golden age of organized crime," "golden age of porn," "golden age of assassins," "golden age of genocidal dictators," etc, no less tongue-in-cheek than what I intended for the title. They felt that readers would not understand the irony in the titleor maybe editorial didn’t get it. We settled on American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years, 1950-2000.

Then as the book was going through the final edit process, while we were in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, they began to question the subtitle “Epidemic Years”suggesting that the term “epidemic” at this point in time might put readers off. I argued that “serial killer epidemic” was precisely the term that the FBI and Congress used in the 1980s and that readers of serial killer history (or any history for that matter) or true crime literature are hardly going to be "put off" by or offended by the term “epidemic” in the title.

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I have been with the same publisher for fifteen years, but I had never encountered this kind of gut-reaction skittishness on any of my previous books. In the end, they wisely relented on “epidemic years” and I wisely relented on “golden age.” I think collectively we came to a better title in the give-and-take process and it worked out how it should have. I think the title works better than what I had originally proposed but for different reasons.

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

As a historian, I am often shocked or surprised by what I “discover.” Non-fiction, historyreal lifecan be so much more bizarre and twisted than fiction. You end up muttering to yourself, “Nobody could make this up as fiction; it would be too unbelievable.” Yet it is true. It really happened that way.

And then, when you are writing about serial murder, you are writing about life and death at its darkest extreme in a black hole that is devoid of all gravitational rational logic and emotion; serial killers do not think in the way the rest of us do. It’s something beyond evil; an alien world from the dark side of the universe, a world from our own primitive prehistoric primordial reptilian past. As a subject, serial killers always surprise.

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

I hope that readers get a spooky non-fiction random narrative journey into the not-so-distant past history of serial murder in the United States at its worst from an entirely new angle. I hope they come to understand why and how it might have happened and how it could again. Since 2000, there has been a dramatic decline in serial murder in the United States, accompanying an overall decline in murder and violence since the mid-1990s. But historically, these periodic "serial killing surges" have been hitting us with exponentially increasing severity. If we can understand why there was this unprecedented thirty-year wave in 1970-2000, we may better understand how to mitigate the next one coming at us.

Peter Vronsky: When History Is More Bizarre Than Fiction

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

I would not presume to give another author advice; I’d be all ears instead.

But if you mean advice to those who strive to become published authors, I would advise:

Before you become an author, first write. Writers write. “Authors” promote the writer’s writing. My sense of being an author is that it's almost a performance, administrative, and sales role, apart from being a writer. Cultural heroics, if you want to put it that way; the opposite of the solitude of writing.

Write the kind of book you would want to read yourself, I tell people; the one that nobody has written yet. Write for yourself your book and never mind anything or anybody else.

Please yourself first with your book and then share and promote it as an author and if other people like your book as much as you do, you’ll do just fine as an author, as long as your writer-self keeps writing.

Get an agent and a good one too, it will help the author focus on promoting his writer who should be busy doing nothing but writing and occasionally sleeping and eating.

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