"Our best day is your worst day."
Not sure who said that first, but I often hear it attributed to the Bay area's masterful mystery writer, Michael Connelly. It underscores a peculiar fact about journalism: that the most horrible, ghastly and life-changing events make great stories.
Your tragedy, my benefit.
Of course, no one in journalism gets off on the heartbreak and misfortune of others. The great journalist I.F. Stone looked back on his half-century career and said God had blessed him with a big fire to cover and that no matter how old he got, he always felt like a kid reporter covering a great story. It was so much fun, he said, that he should be arrested. "But then you remember," he said, "that ... it's really burning."
And that is the paradox and the gnawing pain of a journalist: You traffic in bad news. If things go well, if the sun shines and flowers bloom and puppies lick your face, it is not news. We are interested in the aberrations, in the anomalies, in the sick shit that makes the reader clutch his chest and say, "My God — you have to read this!"
If you have a good marriage, we don't want to hear about it. Good news isn't news. But if your marriage is dysfunctional, if it's riddled with jealousies and infidelities ... well, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth used to say, "If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me."
Former Bay Area writer Andrea Billups and her fiancé, Steve Miller, both respected journalists, have collaborated on a true-crime book that not only tells the story of a horrifying murder, but also takes the lid off the most intimate moments of a marriage.
A Slaying in the Suburbs (Berkley, $7.99) is about a young couple — Stephen and Tara Grant — who had it all. Great house, great career (hers), great family. Then one night, Stephen Grant lost it, killed his wife and cut her into 14 pieces.
We know from the beginning how it all ends. But this book isn't just about a crime — it's about that complex organism called marriage and what can lead a husband to kill his wife.
I had to ask Billups: What's it like to be nearly married to each other, writing a book about a marriage with such a gruesome end? They both saw what was going on in the Grant household and how, one night, things took a horrifying turn. "I don't think that it informed our relationship," Billups says. "I think it sort of stood out there to us in that when things are going bad, people need to step up and handle it, and not stay in and hurt each other. This is a couple that should have divorced years ago."
Tara Grant's career took off and Stephen Grant's was mired in muck. Eventually he became a Mr. Mom, though he often strutted and preened as if his luxurious lifestyle were the product of his work, not his wife's.
Writing as a couple allowed Billups and Miller to show both sides of this complex and tragic relationship. They crawled inside someone else's marriage. "That in itself is the story," Billups says. "From the outside, this couple looked like they were living the American Dream. They were enjoying fruits of their success: two children in private school, husband the soccer coach, wife climbing the corporate ladder. They had it all. People down the street thought, 'Wow, the Grants are a beautiful family.'"
Both Billups and Miller brought a lot of journalism experience to the table. In the 1980s, Billups moved to Florida after college and wrote for the St. Petersburg Evening Independent before heading up the road to graduate school at the University of Florida. She worked for the Gainesville Sun and taught at the university before joining the Washington Times. She covered politics for the Times, and her profile of Katherine Harris during the 2000 recount was one of the most widely admired stories of that political year. She spent a few years as a correspondent for People and still writes frequently for the magazine (the Grant story started as a People assignment), but has returned to the Times as a national correspondent. Miller also worked for the Times, but has freelanced for magazines and written extensively about music. (He hopes to pen the definitive biography of Johnny Ramone.)
Holding down full-time jobs and writing a book isn't easy. When your live-in fiancé is also your collaborator on the book, it can get a little overwhelming. Yet their relationship not only endured, it thrived.
That isn't to say it wasn't difficult. "At times, it was great because we're both journalists and we knew what we were aiming for," Billups said. "We wanted it to read snappy and with a lot of detail. The bad part was that we were working our day jobs during a lot of the writing. We'd finish the day job, then work on this at night. At times, we were too close to the story. There were times when we wanted to kill each other. But there were more times when we felt so good about it that it fueled our commitment to move forward. It didn't affect our personal relationship other than we looked at each other and realized you have to be committed and work out problems."
Each writer brought a different strength to the table. Billups calls Miller "a great shoe-leather reporter," with no compunction about hunting down reluctant sources and being aggressive. She provided the narrative velocity."We both saw the story the same way," she says. "After the event happens, all of the human elements come in behind it. Then you go back and start constructing who these people were."
A Slaying in the Suburbs is much more than true crime or another update of An American Tragedy. It's an unflinching look inside a marriage and what led to murder.
"It was never far from our minds that we were writing about a human tragedy," Billups said. "Knowing there are two children out there and this happened to them and that her family and his family are forever going to have to live with this ... " She leaves the sentence unfinished.
We can fill in the blanks.