Interview by RoseEtta Stone
Lois Duncan is a multiple award-winning author of more than forty books, most of which are YA (young adult) metaphysical/ paranormal-themed suspense novels. She’s received fifteen international young readers’ awards.
There are so many questions to ask you; why don’t we begin with your banned books? You knew that Killing Mr. Griffin had been banned or censored, but were surprised that Don’t Look Behind You also was, and “[couldn’t] think of a single thing that anyone might object to about that book.” If I told you it was challenged for its immorality, as well as for its graphic and sexual references, would you consider these valid reasons for challenging the novel?
I can only assume there was a mix-up. Don’t Look Behind You is about a family forced into the Federal Witness Protection program because the father helped the FBI expose a drug ring. It’s an adventure story. The closest we get to a sex scene is when the 17-year-old daughter goes to a party where the punch has been spiked, and her date starts kissing her. She shoves him away and makes him take her home.
Authors have stated before that they were unaware of objections or protests lodged against their books. How significant or insignificant an issue, then — and to whom, is the censorship of childrens’ and young adult literature?
I am almost never informed when a book of mine has been challenged. I learn about it only if a reporter contacts me for a comment and then, since I don’t know the specifics of the problem, I don’t know how to respond. It doesn’t seem to affect book sales.
Daughters of Eve was also banned or censored. Were any of your other books, and do you know why?
Killing Mr. Griffin has been censored in some school districts. The reason cited most often (at least, to me) is that one of the characters says “shit.” I’m sure others of my books have been censored as well, but, as I said above, I am almost never informed when that happens.
You’ve been writing for teenagers for more than twenty years . . .
Much longer than that. I started submitting stories to magazines when I was ten and made my first sale at thirteen. Throughout my high school years I wrote regularly for youth publications, particularly Seventeen Magazine. My first YA novel, a romance titled Debutante Hill, was published in 1957
Has, or how has censorship, in relation to books for this age group, changed over the last four decades?
The reasons for censorship reflect the social climate of the times. The publisher of Debutante Hill asked me to revise the manuscript because I had a 19-year-old boy (the “bad guy”) drink a beer. When I changed the beer to a Coke, the book was published and won the “Seventeenth Summer Literary Award.” In 1974, I was asked to revise Down a Dark Hall (a ghost story), to keep from offending members of the Women’s Movement. The ghosts in that story were originally all male; when I changed the ghost of a male poet to Emily Bronte, the book was considered politically acceptable. In 1984, I wrote a book of religious verse for children titled From Spring to Spring. That sweet little book was ready to go to press when the publisher suddenly got cold feet about offending feminists by referring to God as “He.” Of course, God couldn’t be called “She” either, so I had to go back and re-word all the rhymed verse to get rid of the pronouns, while maintaining the rhythm and naturalness of the wording. What a challenge that was!
Although you’ve no doubt been asked numerous times before, you wrote Killing Mr. Griffin because . . .
I started thinking about charismatic psychopaths like Charles Manson and wondering what they were like as teenagers? They didn’t just spring full-blown from oyster shells — they had to hone the “people skills” that allowed them to become so manipulative as adults. Kids like that are growing up within our school systems and can exert tremendous control over their fellow students. I consider Griffin a cautionary tale about the danger of peer pressure.
I found it interesting and wondered how and why the novel’s high school kids were so obliviously and fatally “taken in” by a charismatic psychopath?
For the same reason adults are seduced by charismatic religious leaders and politicians. Such people have a magnetism about them.
I also wanted to ask if there was an unstated, read-between-the-lines message in that, for kids? Or if I was being overly analytical? But you already discussed that.
Without my consciously intending to insert it, all my YA novels seem to contain an “unstated, read-between-the-lines message” about the importance of taking responsibility for our own actions.
The book didn’t definitively spell out whether Mr. Griffin was or wasn’t David’s father, thereby leaving the question of patricide unresolved. What did your readers make of that?
All the clues needed to answer that question are in the story. Does Mr. G’s age correspond with Mr. Ruggles? His personality — (over serious Griffin and free spirited Ruggles)? His career choice? His dedication to perfection? His huge feeling of responsibility toward his wife, unborn child, and students? The answer, obviously is NO. So why does David react emotionally to the class ring on Mr. Griffin’s hand? The book contains the information that both men attended Stanford University so, of course, they wore identical school rings. I like to think my readers are intelligent enough to figure that out for themselves.
Would the bloodshed at Columbine and other high schools, and escalating violence in schools Nation-wide make you censor yourself and think twice about writing Killing Mr. Griffin today?
Killing Mr. Griffin doesn’t encourage violence in schools any more than the story of Cain and Able encourages children to kill their younger brothers. Seldom does the small group of parents who want to protect their children from any knowledge that violence exists in today’s society have a problem with their children reading the Bible. The occurrence of an event in a work of literature is not a mandate that the reader should go forth and do likewise. In most cases it’s just the opposite. The devastating consequences of the “senior prank” that inadvertently led to the death of a fine man should make readers of Killing Mr. Griffin think twice before allowing themselves to be led down a dangerous path where there’s no turning back.
What I, personally, have a problem with are the stories (usually on television where action takes the place of introspection) where violence is sensationalized and made to seem thrilling rather than terrible. I was appalled when my book, I Know What You Did Last Summer, was made into a slasher film. As the mother of a murdered child, I don’t find violent death something to squeal and giggle about.
The one thing we’re absolutely sure of in our own minds is that this was not a random shooting — Kait was assassinated.
Kaitlyn, your then eighteen-year-old daughter, was murdered in July of 1989. Would it be too painful or uncomfortable for you to tell us a bit of her story?
Kait was shot to death in her car in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on July 16, 1989. Albuquerque police dubbed the shooting a “random drive-by” and refused to investigate any other possibility, despite strong evidence that Kait was murdered because she was preparing to blow the whistle on organized crime involving her estranged Vietnamese boyfriend, Dung Nguyen, and his friends. Those criminal activities were apparently protected by certain police officers.
Were there other reasons, beside telling Kait’s story, that you wrote Who Killed My Daughter?
When the police dropped off the unsolved case in 1991, I wrote Who Killed My Daughter? to motivate informants and to prevent the facts of the case from becoming buried.
Despite its publication, your own personal two-year investigation, FBI involvement, an investigative journalist and private detectives uncovering evidence, repeated re-enactments on Unsolved Mysteries, nation-wide reportage by newscasters, and your appeals for help and information on TV and radio programs across the U.S., Kait’s murder is still unsolved — her case still open?
Technically any unsolved case is classified as “open,” even if the investigation is permanently inactive. APD has stated, however, that they consider Kait’s case “closed” and will not follow up on any information that indicates that the shooting was not “random.”
Was Dung ever indicted or deported for his involvement in Kait’s murder, or for the other crimes he committed?
Did the mysterious “Good Man Who Is Afraid” who you mentioned in Who Killed My Daughter? ever again come forward with information? Or the “old” boyfriend whom Kait was seeing clandestinely, that took her to the “Desert Castle?”
Not the mystery man. But other people have. And, yes, “Rod” has contacted us and provided us with interesting information.
In the late 90’s you wrote Psychic Connections: A Journey Into The Mysterious World Of PSI. This book, by virtue of the material it discusses, must raise more questions than answers, as did Who Killed My Daughter? Did you find researching and writing the book as therapeutic or cathartic as you did writing Kait’s book?
It was educational rather than therapeutic. My co-author, William Roll, Ph.D., is a respected parapsychologist — a former research associate at the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University and past president of the Oxford University Society for Psychical Research. Working with Bill on this project was like taking a cram course in parapsychology.
Although you haven’t written any since Kait’s death, the majority of the forty best selling novels you’ve written were young adult paranormal mysteries. Did you believe in the paranormal when you wrote them?
Actually, I have written others since Kait’s death. At the time of her death I was under contract with Dell to write three YA suspense novels. The first two books, The Twisted Window and Don’t Look Behind You had been completed. At first I thought it would be impossible to write another fiction story about a teenage girl in a life threatening situation, when my whole heart and mind were focused upon our real one, but eventually I forced myself to fulfill the contract. Gallows Hill was published in 1997.
No, I didn’t believe in the paranormal. I thought I was writing a form of fantasy.
The Psychic Connection
Your daughter Robin manipulated you into something that wasn’t “your thing” —consulting a psychic medium. Through her, and other psychics, Kait communicated with you from the “Other Side.” And during the first two years following her death, you were both also able to communicate with each other without psychic intervention. Can you give us some idea of what those experiences were like?
Psychics work in various ways. The most common method used by psychic detectives is psychometry (obtaining information from the energy stored in inanimate objects). The psychic, Noreen Renier, who helped us with Kait’s case, held the earrings and necklace Kait was wearing at the time she was shot and got impressions of what Kait experienced in the last moments of her life. The psychic, Betty Muench, gets her information through automatic writing, as if taking dictation from voices that only she can hear. She uses an electric typewriter.
In my own case, I’m not a psychic and can’t do either of those things. But I am Kait’s mother, and the connection between us was a strong one in life and apparently continued to be so after her death. I received information about the case in dreams or by hearing Kait’s voice hearing Kait’s voice when I was in that twilight state between waking and sleeping, which private investigators were later able to document. I’ve been told this happens with many mothers of murdered children.
So that we fully understand — private investigators were able to document or substantiate the information you received from Kait after her death, about her case. They weren’t, of course, able to document (or substantiate), as fact, that Kait actually communicated with you while you were sleeping or in that (in-between) twilight state.
They were able to verify that the information I received in that manner was accurate. Examples: The R&J Car Leasing dream message that I describe in Who Killed My Daughter? — an insurance fraud investigator in Costa Mesa verified that a business called R&J Car Leasing was located directly across the street from the motel Kait and Dung stayed in when Dung staged his fake car wreck in March, 1989. Every time Kait stepped out of that motel, she was looking at a sign that said “R&J Car Leasing.”
You’ll find another account of a message-dream that was documented in an excerpt from The Tally Keeper linked to Kait’s web site (http://www.arquettes.com). That message pertains to a woman named Jane with a heart tattoo on her upper arm who had important information to give us. Without that dream, we would never have known that Jane existed.
A portion of Who Killed My Daughter’s? prologue reads:
But the third young man was a rebel who would not be intimidated. He considered himself invincible, but his judgment was poor, and he trusted all the wrong people. His actions brought disaster to himself and his teacher.
The psychic who told you about your own previous life as a male “robed” teacher concurred and added that Kait “came very near in this other time to a fate similar to her fate in this time. . .&nvsp;. Knowing whom to trust was the lesson she had to learn throughout this lifetime.”
But your “life’s purpose” (not “lesson”), in this incarnation, as the same psychic told you, “is to give out [your] ‘truths’ through the media.” Which you began doing by writing Who Killed My Daughter? And telling her story/your truths nationally, via the media?
I believe my purpose also involved learning patience. It’s been a long twelve years since Kait’s death, and we are still fighting the System to try to get somebody in authority to follow up on the evidence. Yes.
One of Kait’s messages to you, shortly before Who Killed My Daughter?’s publication, was: “I wanted to leave a note to tell you good-bye. I’m sorry things turned out like they did. I never told you how much I liked you. You were my favorite teacher.” Could her message be interpreted as an awareness on her part, or her acknowledgment that she remembered the past life you (the teacher), (and the students) — Kait and her siblings, shared together?
It could be interpreted that way.
You modeled April, the heroine of your novel, Don’t Look Behind You, after Kait. April was chased by a hitman in a Camaro. Don’t Look was published in June of 1989. One month later, in July, 1989, Kait was chased down and shot to death. And a witness reported seeing her chased by a Camaro. Please share with us the other astounding parallels or “coincidences” between the circumstances surrounding Kait’s assassination and fictitious details in Don’t Look.
That’s too hard to do in this short a space. All that information is in Who Killed My Daughter?.
Another remarkable “coincidence” you cited was related to the kidnapping in Ransom, your novel, published just prior to an actual kidnapping that took place (I think) in LA, which replicated the fictional one in your book.
You explained all of these extraordinary occurrences with an intriguing, thought-provoking theory which you defined as the “foreshadowing of future events” — your belief being that the fictitious characters and episodes had been “Written by someone whose mind had been touched by a memory of the future.” Now, that’s not precognition, with which I guess we’re all, to a greater or lesser degree, familiar.
For all we know, it may be the same thing.
Let’s end this portion of our discussion with one final question: In regard to our soul (or life) “scripts” which we ourselves, perhaps with some divine assistance, write between each physical death and the following incarnation — you, the entity now known as Lois, are, always were, always will, and were meant to be, a teacher. That’s who and what “Lois” is. In fact, you’ve lectured and taught writing and journalism classes, courses, seminars, etc., during your entire writing career, in your present life
And as far as your children are concerned, the psychic who spoke about your former “robed” teacher incarnation, informed you that you “will continue to be their teacher in all realms.” Does all of the above accurately reflect your beliefs as well?
I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I don’t find the concept unacceptable.
Lois Duncan died at her home June 15, 2016. She wrote more than fifty novels, several children’s picture books, and two volumes of poetry. Best known for her YA novels, among Lois Duncan’s awards are the ALA’s Margaret A. Edwards Award and the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America.