Journalist Julie Kramer trades truth for fiction in thriller

Julie Kramer
Doubleday
Julie Kramer

After working in TV news for years, including two decades at WCCO and freelance production stints with Dateline, NBC’s Today Show and Nightly News, Julie Kramer knows how to tell a true story.

Turns out, she can make up some good ones, too.

“Like most journalists, I thought I had a novel in me,” she says. “But boy, they don’t write themselves. You have to grab them and pull them kicking and screaming onto the page.”

Her first book, “Stalking Susan,” a crime-thriller about an investigative TV journalist on the trail of a serial killer, is out July 15. The book is packed with local color: Characters crack open a cold Summit beer, gather at the St. Paul Broiler and navigate their way around the fallen 35W bridge.

Here’s an excerpt:

Minnehaha, meaning “laughing waters,” is named for its fifty-three-foot waterfall—another Minnesota reference from Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. I could hear the creek still running, but it was much too dark and snowy to see any of the park’s natural beauty or historic Native American sculptures. Kids sometimes hang out after hours to smoke and drink, but not in this weather.

The parking lot near the Longfellow house was empty except for a tan SUV in the far corner. My headlights shone on its bumper as Roy Orbison sang a mouthful: “If your lonely heart breaks, only the lonely.”

The license plate read SUSAN.

“I like to weave in real detail,” says Kramer, “because I love to read books set in places I know, and because it’s a newsroom thriller. But some readers expect it all to be real. They’ll pick out something I made up and say, ‘I don’t remember that happening,’ ” she says. But one key detail she wants people to remember is real: Two dead women named Susan.

Ten years ago, Kramer worked on a story about two cold cases involving murdered women named Susan. The cases remain unsolved, and lingered in her memory, becoming the seed of inspiration for the book.

“I changed a lot of details about the locations, the decade, the women’s occupations, and I added more murders. I almost changed the name Susan, but I didn’t, because I wanted to keep something of them alive in the story. I never forgot them and I wanted other people to remember them, too. So, even though this is a work of fiction, I took it as an opportunity to remind people that there are still these two unsolved murders out there.”

Dedicated to two victims named Susan
Susan Ginger Petersen was found in a Highland Park alley on May 17, 1983. Susan Jean Rheineck was found May 17, 1985, near the Mississippi River in St. Paul. St. Paul’s cold case unit is reviewing the cases again, and Kramer will carry their contact number (651-266-5956) on her book tour, in case a reader has any information that could help.

In her book, the Susans are clearly connected. In real life? “I thought there were enough similarities that a connection couldn’t be ruled out. If they were connected, most likely the name was a coincidence. But people get inspiration wherever they get inspiration, and as a journalist, I’m a ‘ripped from the headlines’ writer. But in the world of fiction you’re free to ask, ‘What if?’ “

For Kramer, that question is followed by, ‘What next?’ Her book took 2 1/2 years, from start to sale — warp speed for the book business, although painfully slow for this newsroom veteran.

“Boy, that feels like a long time to someone who is used to the live news cycle,” she said. “I just could not believe how slowly these people worked, how long everything took in the revisions process. There was a lot of time after the sale in which I kept losing confidence, kept questioning whether the book was any good or not.”

Kramer’s book sold as a two-book package, which meant she had to turn in a sequel within a year. Now deadlines, she could handle.

“I think a lot of my journalistic skills helped me,” she said. “After you work through the ‘it’s all right to make things up,’ issue, I found that news is a good background for writing fiction. Research is second nature to you. Deadlines didn’t scare me. And I truly believe that interviewing people, many of them on the best and worst days of their lives, helped me develop an ear for dialogue. My agent/editor remarked that I have very tight, focused writing. That comes from news, too.”

The early reviews have agreed. “Publishers Weekly gave me a starred review and called it an impressive debut, and then my agent started really liking me more. It’s been recommended in Kirkus, Booklist — that industry acclaim is priceless,” says Kramer, whose past life is also filled with acclaim.

Kramer’s investigative work has garnered an impressive collection of national media laurels. “But nothing gets your friends and family thinking you’re a real author than getting in People magazine. The book was reviewed in the Tim Russert issue, which meant a lot for me, because he’s someone I really admire.”

People put “Stalking Susan” in its “sizzling summer read” category. “In this snappily paced debut thriller, TV reporter Riley Spartz tries to stop a serial killer who’s targeting women named Susan. Truly scary, no matter what your name is.”
 
Raising respect for TV reporters
While Kramer finishes the next book, she is on unavailable status for TV work, but says she won’t be able to stay away for long. “I like to get out on the chase. It’s very exciting and energizing. And unlike writing, TV is a very collaborative process. You develop a real camaraderie.”

In fact, her novel goes a long way toward raising respect for the oft-vilified TV newsperson. Her heroine, Riley Spartz, is a smart and principled investigator who fights as doggedly for truth and justice as she does against the “dumbing down” of the news. Spartz particularly wrestles with the fact that TV viewers seem to care more about dead dogs than dead women, and that soft consumer “news” catches bigger ratings than current events.

The author in the WCCO-TV newsroom.
Photo by Liz Zilka
The author in the WCCO-TV newsroom.

Kramer, who grew up on the Minnesota-Iowa border, left WCCO to spend more time with her teenage sons and to pursue national freelance work. She lives in White Bear Lake and is married to Joe Kimball, a former Star Tribune columnist who now writes for MinnPost.

“Have I exaggerated the flaws of the profession? Probably,” she says, laughing — a little. “The Twin Cities market does like soft news. That might be true nationally as well. You’ll recall when KARE-11 TV reinvented themselves as a feature network; that became the talk of the industry, and the industry wants to give viewers what they want. Figuring out exactly what that is, though, is the real mystery.”

Events
What:
Book Launch Party
When: 7 p.m., Tuesday, July 15
Where: Once Upon a Crime Mystery Book Store, Minneapolis
Phone: 612-870-3785
How much: Free
Online

Readings
When:
11:30 a.m., Wednesday, July 16
Where: Downtown Minneapolis Barnes & Noble
Phone: 612-371-4443
How much: Free
Online

When: 10 a.m., Friday, July 18
Where: Lake Country Booksellers, 4766 Washington Square, White Bear Lake
Phone: 651-426-0918
How much: Free

More events listed here.

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