Debra Komar is a forensic anthropologist turned true crime author – she was one of the writers speaking and teaching at this year’s Thin Air – Winnipeg International Writers Festival.
I sat in on her Writing Craft 1 seminar drawn more by curiosity about her and her career than an interest in true crime writing. She was a world renowned forensic anthropologist for more than 20 years investigating human rights violations for the UN and testifying as a world expert witness in The Hague and across North America. She turned out to be just as forthright, funny and level-headed as I’d hoped and she kindly agreed to answer some questions for this article.
Firstly I asked her a couple of questions about Winnipeg…
What is something you really like about Winnipeg?
There is a cultural diversity here that I love, a mix of people you don’t see in a place like PEI. The writers festival was great, a chance to connect with a new audience and I have had some absolutely great food in Osborne Village.
What else did you like about Winnipeg while you were here?
I absolutely love McNally Robinson. As independent book stores go, it is one of the very best. They love authors and take great care of us when we visit and they love books. Their staff are readers and make great suggestions and they promote Canadian literature (and bless them for that!).
…And then I asked lots of questions about her work
Why did you become someone who does autopsies? Did you study to be a physician first or a police officer? Or do you have a degree in anthropology?
My background is in medicine and anthropology. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, then to the medical school at Queen’s University (department of Anatomy and Cellular Biology) and then did a PhD in Forensic Taphonomy at the University of Alberta. While I worked very closely with law enforcement, I am not a police officer (although I have great love and respect for those who do).
‘Forensic taphonomy is the study of the postmortem changes to human remains, focusing largely on environmental effects—including decomposition in soil and water and interaction with plants, insects, and other animals.’ Manual of Forensic Taphonomy – CRC Press Book
How did you start working with the UN?
One of my first major deployments was to the Former Yugoslavia. I started with Physicians for Human Rights but was quickly hired by the UN Mission in Kosovo. After that, I worked for them in various capacities in various places throughout the world.
Why were you picked for the UN?
There aren’t a whole lot of people who are trained to do what I do, and even less who can 1) stomach the mass grave work and 2) have the freedom (ie lack of kids and family) that would allow them to disappear for six months to a year all the time. It’s pretty much the same for every organization I worked for – once you start doing this kind of work and are comfortable doing it, you keep getting deployed to do the next genocide.
Did you have translators when you were working in other countries?
Yes, translators are the backbone of every investigation. I can only speak English, French and a smattering of Serbo-Croat. We could not have done the work without the spectacular translators I was lucky enough to work with.
Did any religious beliefs help you to do this job?
I am not a religious person, which is not unusual for a scientist. I respect those of all faiths but I am far too analytical.
How did you stay sane staring at so much death? How many autopsies did you do? (I know you mentioned a figure but I didn’t write it down).
I stopped counting after 6000 postmortems (and that was years before I retired). Working on large-scale international human rights gets the number up fast (I stopped counting after 120 mass graves). As for staying sane, I’m not sure that I am. The organizations I worked for provide excellent mental health and support, both in the field and after.
This is kind of a weird question and you don’t have to answer, I was just wondering, while I was thinking about it…was it hard to eat when you’re surrounded by death?
It’s a fair question. I have been a vegetarian for the past 33 years – not a surprise, given what I work with – but that is sometimes hard to explain in places where all food is so scarce.
Did you have any hobbies while you were in forensics?
A colleague in Bosnia turned me onto crafts, particularly cross-stitching and knitting. It was a great way to relax after work (we didn’t have TV or much access to internet and there were only so many English books kicking around.) I still do it today, more than 20 years later.
Which part of your job gave you the most satisfaction?
Returning the victims to their families, giving them some closure.
Since retiring from forensic work, Debra has written four novels as well as co-authored a textbook. They are all historic Canadian crimes where she can use modern forensic methods to prove wrongful conviction. I asked her some further questions about her writing…
Reading some of the articles that have been written about you as a novelist – it seems that you find a question you want to answer, and often it seems like a question of character, and then you find an unsolved case where that question is pertinent. You then apply modern forensic techniques to solve the case. Does extensive reading and research play as big a question in solving the case as forensic evidence?
I am not a novelist (which is someone who writes fiction). I write non-fiction. Research and reading is central to what I do. There are some great cases in Canadian history but they left behind very little evidence or documentation (Louis Riel being a classic example). I start by looking for cases that allow me to answer my question and then narrow them down to those that have material that survived. There are still cases that retain fingerprints, court records, autopsy reports and all manner of evidence, even if they are more than 100 years old. Other cases are far more recent and have virtually nothing left in the archives.
Theoretically is there any case here you would consider writing about?
I always start with the question, rather than the case, so it would depend on the question I am looking at. I have the next case already picked out (for the question, “what constitutes reasonable doubt?”) but have always wanted to look at the merging (and disparity) between Aboriginal notions of justice, which favour witness testimony and community perception over forensic evidence, and those of the mainstream justice system. I have seen a number of cases in the past in which a First Nations defendant must navigate the Canadian justice system and how the First Nation’s community’s sense of justice is at odds with that of the criminal courts. If anyone knows of a great case from Manitoba that highlights that, feel free to contact me through Twitter @debrakomar1.
How many hours a day do you spend writing?
Depends on what I am working on. I usually work about 8 hours a day, although sometimes that is spent doing research or combing through archives or doing rewrites.
How long does it take you to write a book?
I usually spend two to four months doing research, six months writing the first version of the manuscript and another four months working with an editor and others to prepare the book for publication.
What do you think about digital books taking the place of physical books?
While I will always read a physical book, I can’t complain about anyone who reads, no matter what format they do it in. My personal preference is for the real thing. As I writer, I spend almost a year with my book as nothing but a computer file. The best part of the process for me is the day the actual books arrive and I can hold it for the first time.
What type of novels and non-fiction do you like to read?
I will read almost everything I can get my hands on. For much of my career, I only had time to read scholarly stuff, so it was a real treat when I retired and I had the freedom to read anything. I love non-fiction, but a good novel is always welcome on my nightstand.
Does writing pay? As in can you make a living doing it?
Not in Canada (unless you are Margaret Atwood or Alice Munroe).
Do you have an editor who makes a lot of corrections or are your books almost perfect as written?
My books are nowhere near perfect as written :). I have been lucky enough to work with Sarah Brohman on the last two books and she is a wonderful editor. If my writing has improved at all, it is largely because of Sarah.
Do you have a set writing schedule?
I usually wake up with things running through my head and it’s a rush to get down notes before it all disappears. I usually write most of the morning and then spend the afternoons doing research.
Had you written anything before you wrote your books?
I was a tenured professor before I retired, and wrote a textbook and more than two dozen scholarly articles on forensic science before I began writing for a popular audience.
Which crime authors do you read and what is your favourite genre of fiction or books in general?
My favorite book of all time is “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote. I enjoy the crime genre (true crime and fiction), although some of it is better than the rest.
Did you have a feeling you’d be a successful crime writer before you started?
I always wanted to become a writer. Now that I have published four books for the general public, I am changing my definition of “successful.” It’s not about best sellers lists or awards – it’s about being proud of the things you write.
Were you nervous writing your first book?
I’m not sure if nervous was the right word, but writing for a popular audience is much harder (and very different) than writing for fellow academics. It was an entirely new skill set (and learning it has been challenging).
Is there any other type of writing besides crime and writing textbooks that you’d like to try?
I believe in “writing what I know” and there is no question that what I know is crime. I think I will stick to that.
What do you do if you have writers block?
One of the benefits of working in a morgue is that we don’t have the time (or luxury) of having writers block. It taught me to keep working, even if the words aren’t flowing. For me, the writing is not in getting the words down at first, but in the rewriting.
What do you think of Janet Evanovich and other light romance crime authors?
It is not my favourite genre, I must admit. It’s hard to see the work I do reduced to a plot line or depicted so inaccurately.
How important do you think a site like this where ordinary citizens write articles is?
I think it’s a great way for readers and writers to connect. I suspect that many of the questions you ask are the same ones readers are thinking.
In Debra Komar’s seminar, I learned that rigor mortis disappears within 36 hours of death and that blowflies start laying eggs in the body’s nose, mouth, eye and ear cavities immediately after death; important details to know when you’re writing crime fiction.
I don’t read true crime as I prefer lighthearted crime but I will borrow one of Debra Komar’s from the library as they have won rave reviews, they pay great attention to history and each is based on a question of human character.
The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Murder of John McLoughlin, Jr. is Komar’s most recent novel and it won the Canadian Authors Award (CAA) for Canadian History in June of this year.
Thanks to Debra Komar for taking the time to answer my questions; and thanks also to Bruce Symaka, Audience Development Coordinator, Winnipeg International Writers Festival, for setting up this question and answer.