Photo courtesy the author.

Ron Franscell is the acclaimed author of 17 books and recognized as one of America’s most respected narrative nonfiction writers. Although he has covered war and natural disasters abroad as a journalist, he has regularly returned to Wyoming for his stories. His newest is Alice & Gerald: A Homicidal Love Story (2019, Prometheus Books), a true story about two of Wyoming’s most heinous killers and the frustrating 40-year struggle to bring them to justice.

His debut book Angel Fire—a USA Today bestselling literary novel about two Wyoming brothers’ necessary relationship and the wounds of war—was listed by the San Francisco Chronicle among the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century West.

In addition to being a 2017 Edgar Award finalist for his Morgue: A Life in Death—co-authored with renowned medical examiner Dr. Vincent Di Maio—Franscell’s honors have included many national awards, including the prestigious national Freedom of Information Award by Associated Press Managing Editors, and a Best of the West Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). He is a Wyoming native, a graduate of Casper College and the University of Wyoming, and now lives in San Antonio, Texas.

We caught up with Ron Franscell to ask him about his new book, Alice & Gerald, and what it takes to be a journalist turned true crime writer. As a journalist, why do you think you’re drawn to true crime and murder?

Dying and pure evil are the most consequential stories that any journalist can tell.

During my time overseas after 9/11, reporting on the first months of the War on Terror, a slow epiphany began to take shape: that in the imperceptible moment between life and death is where we find our most necessary stories. A mystifying thing—a sort of ghost in the machine—happened on my long flight home, and I came home intently focused on writing The Darkest Night, about a horrifying 1973 Wyoming crime that changed my hometown, Casper, overnight.

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Why? I was learning that this immeasurable moment between life and death happens in both war and murder. I’m well past the days when I can cover wars. But I still want to tell consequential stories.

Gerald and Alice in 2004. Photo courtesy of Gerald Uden.

How did you find the story of Alice & Gerald Uden and what made you want to dive into their story?

The secret of my success as a writer is that I never pick a story I can screw up. Alice & Gerald struck me as such a story as I followed it in Wyoming media. To me, its power was universal stuff like perverse love, desperation, persistence, and devotion.

Certainly, the colorful cast of characters inspired me. A homicidal husband and wife, a series of dogged detectives who pursue this case over four decades, and a grieving grandmother who won’t let the memories or the search die. On one level it’s just an American crime story … on another it’s a damn Shakespearean tragedy.

In Alice & Gerald, I also saw a chance to write about a time and a place I knew like the back of my hand. And I saw a story that reflected the pure evil of two people, but the goodness, common faith, and determination of many others.

That’s the kind of story I like. If I’m going to spend a year or two of my life immersed in all the gore and mayhem, I at least want to see some purpose, some blue sky. I get so close to these particular flames, I want it to be worth the risk.

Was it hard to get access to Gerald and his family, and how did you go about making that initial contact?

It’s a kind of dance that crime writers do with sources—bad guys, victims and their surviving families, cops, lawyers—most of whom never want to talk to a reporter about the gory details.

In this case, I wrote to Gerald and asked if he would do an interview about what happened. At first, he resisted. But after a few letters between us, he grew more comfortable with me, and he agreed.

Alice wasn’t happy about it. She had refused to be interviewed and she wanted Gerald to refuse, too. But for maybe the first time in their relationship, he went forward on his own.

What followed was a lengthy correspondence between us for a year. Then I proposed a meeting in prison, and he agreed. I think we spent two days together in a little visitor room. He was like your slightly odd old uncle. He sang songs, recited pieces of poems he could remember, drew maps on my notebook, fondly recalled the people in his old life … and then you could see the veil come down as he described how he murdered Virginia and his boys, or disposed of their bodies, or the cover-up that lasted for almost four decades.

Alice never spoke directly to me, and her children who play significant roles in the story didn’t either. But all of them talked many times to investigators over 30 years, and I had extraordinary access to all those transcripts and recordings. In the end, I’ve never had so much first-hand material from the killers’ point-of-view.

The book reads like a novel. What’s the trick to pulling it all together into a literary narrative?

Narrative nonfiction is a journalistic technique that borrows tools from the novelist’s toolbox—foreshadowing, dialogue, characterization, etc.—to tell absolutely true stories. It’s a storytelling form that I embraced in my journalism and now my true crime writing. It’s not just a string of facts. It’s an honest-to-God story where we get to know characters who are in great conflict and must find a way to conquer whatever demons they’ve got.

Capote pioneered it with In Cold Blood. He made a few mistakes in the process, but he was inventing something, for God’s sake. We’ve had a little more than 50 years to perfect the craft, and it has produced some great work, such as Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.

Think of it this way: When you put your child to bed at night, she might look up and say, “Tell me a story.” Do you grab the paper and read the city council minutes? Or do you tell her about children much like her in frightening situations that they must overcome with their natural strengths? A child wants to know there’s always a possibility of happily ever after. A parent wants to know there’s a possibility of a life lesson.

I subscribe to a kind of “iceberg theory” of journalistic storytelling. You might only see 10 percent of what I’d like to tell you, but a book has its limitations. However, if I’ve done my work, it feels like there’s so much more beneath the surface. It supports everything you see.  You’ll know I didn’t just bungee-jump in and bounce out again. When I finish, I want to know more about a case than anyone else.

In this case, I did more than 150 interviews. I visited the places. And I had unprecedented access to four decades of investigative reports, transcripts, and recordings.

I’m an old-school journalist. I believe truly, madly, deeply in being there, so I stood in the places I describe: the exact spot where Virginia and her boys died, Claire’s laundry, and among the bones that still clutter the edge of a deep, dark mine. I smelled it, listened to it, and looked for that narrative dust that settles on everything. It’s that textual grit that makes it real. The rest is just years of practice and taking risks.

What’s your biggest takeaway from covering the Alice & Gerald story?

It is Shakespeare in a trailer park.

At its heart, Alice & Gerald is about a narcissistic sociopath’s need to control everything around her at any cost—even by murder. Is that not Macbeth?  The leading ladies in both stories—Shakespeare’s fictional Lady Macbeth and my very real Alice—know no boundaries. They exercise their own personal ambitions with little regard for anything else, even the law.

And Gerald is so desperate for a lover, a wife, and a family, he’ll do anything, even murder, to keep them.

Because there are so many parallels, Shakespeare lurks in a dozen different hidey-holes throughout the book.

What makes Wyoming a compelling backdrop for a story?

For most of America, Wyoming is literally and figuratively a foreign country. Hell, it might as well be a big square crater on the surface of the moon. It’s not only a metaphor for challenge and loneliness, it has also always felt to me like sanctuary and immunity from the rest of a messy world. Wyoming is so tangled up in its own myths that we couldn’t disentangle them if we wanted to—and we don’t. That’s part of who we are.

My first book—written while I lived in Gillette—was a modest little literary novel called Angel Fire. I was more surprised than anyone when it was eventually listed by the San Francisco Chronicle as No. 74 on its list of the 100 greatest novels from the American West, but I am convinced my atmospheric treatment of Wyoming’s landscape—my own home and safe harbor which transformed magically into an allegorical sanctuary for my characters—made it stand out.

In Alice & Gerald, Wyoming plays a darker role, much like it did in my true crime book, The Darkest Night. It aids and abets the killers by giving them a place to hide both their bad behavior and their bodies. Who hasn’t driven across Wyoming in any direction and mused that it would be the perfect place to “lose” something? Well, it has happened more than we want to admit.

Photo by Adam Ritterbush.

In the early 2000s, you were dispatched by the Denver Post to write about the evolution of the American West. Did you unearth any notable stories that have been overlooked?

My assignment was to find the places where the West’s past, present, and future intersected. I was specifically hired to do provocative journalism but to use those narrative tools I’d learned in my first three books, all novels.

I drove the western half of Route 66, which has vanished in most places but still peeks through in a few spots like a curious ghost. I covered the Burning Man counterculture festival in the Nevada desert, where I saw naked Santa Claus strippers and traded my socks for shots of whiskey. When the media was telling us that 9/11 was the first terror attack on American soil, I went to Columbus, New Mexico, where Pancho Villa struck in a terror attack almost 80 years before. I wrote about a desperate club of middle-aged Montana women who had been secretly sold as babies by a female abortionist to families willing to pay for babies of their own. And a hundred other stories, where I really perfected my narrative chops.

I felt it was the best beat in American journalism, but when the corporate MBAs started editing newspapers, the long-form stories were judged to be uneconomical. One year I’m nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and the next the beat is being killed as a space-waster.

Do you have a favorite Wyoming place or story?

There are so many terrific stories—some untold—and so many different places—some unexplored—that I hate to pick just one. With luck, I have more time for more stories and more homecomings.

What’s your history in Gillette? When will you visit next?

For 12 years in mid-career, I was the editor and publisher of the Gillette News-Record, where we had an extraordinary run of great stories to tell. Some were criminal, some not, but we had some great reporters who went on to greater journalism elsewhere.

I’m hoping to return to Gillette sometime this year to meet readers and writers, and to talk about writing at a special library event, but we haven’t yet picked a date.

By: Jen C. Kocher

Franscell’s Writers  Tips

  Read a lot. And pay attention.

  Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Repeat. Often.

  It’s all about the verbs.

  Write something every day. It’s called “practice.”

  If it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot, cut it.

  Say something original.

  This work requires a writer and a reader. If you don’t share it, it’s just a diary.

  Practice some more.

  Have something to say before you start. The writing will be easier.

  Don’t let your inner editor discourage you. Just tell the story.

  Practice again.

  It’s a heartbreak business. If it was easy, they’d just call it “typing.”

  And, finally, practice.

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