It’s an idyllic spring day on the patio of Lil’ Darlin’ in Austin, Texas. In many ways, as I sit across from my friend, author Abra Stevens, today is like so many others we’ve spent in each other’s company. There is vodka and cheese (naturally), laughter, and talk of music and life.
Today, though, Abra and I have met for more than a friendly catch up. With her premiere true-crime book set for release in mere days, our business today is a deep dive into her gripping debut, Out Here in the Darkness. Allow me to set the scene, courtesy of the book’s synopsis.
“Houston, 1985. A group of teenagers, drawn together through a passion for drugs and Heavy Metal, torture and murder one of their companions. But no one knows. Less than a month later, two more brutal crimes follow.
As detectives hunt for the killers, the media rocks the city when it brands the teens members of a satanic cult. Thrust into a moral spin, the young killers wonder: should they turn each other into the police, or hope to escape the consequences of their horrifying crimes?”
VH: Where did the idea for Out Here in the Darkness come from?
AS: I grew up in Houston. When I was in high school, I heard about the murder of Keith Medler. I didn’t know at the time that there were two other crimes that were connected. I thought about the murder often. It didn’t make sense to me how people my age could torture and kill someone they knew. It stayed with me, all of these years.
VH: What made you choose this crime for your first novel?
AS: I was about 50,000 words into a fiction book, and I just couldn’t make it come together. I was frustrated, and my husband said, “why don’t you write about that murder you told me about that happened when you were in high school?” I thought that surely someone had already written about it. The next day, I started researching the story and there was nothing on it, other than a few magazine articles and blogs. I came across the prosecutor’s name, reached out, and two days later we were on the phone chatting and it just went on from there.
VH: What was the process of writing this book?
AS: Because this is my first novel, of course I didn’t have any experience. I was living with these grandiose beliefs that this magic would just flow from me and be wonderful and I’ll constantly be encouraged to write, and such. And, well, that just doesn’t happen! I wrote, and I came to the same place as the fiction story I had started, where it just wasn’t really flowing. I decided to just let go, and see where the story took me, instead of trying to push it. What I had originally envisioned this book to be is 180 degrees from what it became. I really believe this is because I followed the story, rather than asking the story to follow what I wanted it to be.
VH: So, obviously, a book like this requires a ton of research. This is not fiction, this is a recount of something that actually happened! You are following years of information. How long did the research process take?
AS: I had to add that up, because my best friend is a CPA and she makes me deal with numbers. We are right at 11,000 hours of research for Out Here in the Darkness.
AS: But, you know, the time passed quickly because I was so fascinated! I would read one thing, have 50 questions I needed to answer from that, and so on. I guess what I did that may be a bit different was instead of taking what was written, I acted like this story was brand new. So, I would read a police report and it would say one thing. Then I would check the transcript, then the statements from people involved. Through that, it lead to a different piece or story. Once I had all of those pieces, I started interviewing the people involved. If one person said something, it had to be corroborated by another person, unknowingly, for it to appear in the book. So, there are a number of things that I know happened, but I did not have a way to corroborate them, so they don’t appear in the book.
VH: I think it’s also worth mentioning that you didn’t just do this research from Google on your couch. You drove to cities, you dug into microfiche and libraries. You went deep. Did you know it was going to be that intensive when you started the process?
AS: I assumed it would be. I spent over two decades in the legal industry before I became an author. I figured it would be intense. What I didn’t count on is how much I changed as a person through the process.
VH: How has publishing your first book changed your writing process?
AS: I think I would attribute that to my editor. I wrote my first draft, and was running around all proud of it. I sent it to my editor, and he came back with all these questions, and critical feedback. After a few days of being angry at him and thinking he just must be the dumbest person on the planet, I started realizing, “wait a second. I know these things because I spent so many years in the legal field, but the average reader won’t understand a lot of these things.” It turns out my editor is definitely not stupid and I just really needed to do a better job of explaining things.
VH: I imagine there is a lot of self-editing as well in the writing process. Is there anything that you edited out of this book that you never dreamed you would edit out?
AS: Ohhhh, yes! I have chunks that I was absolutely in love with and no one was ever going to make me edit it! Things I thought were amazing literary prose… and, well, it is not in the book.
VH: Will anyone ever get to see it now?
AS: Probably not. It’s staying with me.
VH: With this being a true-crime book, obviously you are writing about real people. Some of them are still serving the consequences of their actions, others are back in society living their lives. What do the ethics around writing about real people surrounding a crime look like?
AS: I was concerned with this. You have to understand that when I started this book, I was 100% in the mindset that these kids killed someone, they need to pay for the rest of their lives for doing it. There was no one who could have changed my mind about it. As I went through the book, and really started connecting with people in very human ways… For example, Fawn Anderson, I was very angry with her when I first started researching the crime, because she is never charged with anything, but she was there in the planning stages. After a couple of interviews with her, where she is breaking down crying because it still haunts her because she is a mother now. So, I think you have to be mindful that people pay prices that we put on them as society, but at the same time, once you cross that line, that crime is always going to be there. I just made sure that anything I said in the book came exactly from court records, police reports, or out of their own mouths.
VH: The crimes in this book are brutal. For those who don’t yet know, this is a book about a young man who is brutally murdered by a group of kids he considered to be peers, even friends. It is a very violent, gruesome death. What was the hardest scene in the book for you to write?
AS: When they were out there in the field. That one was difficult because I wrote it as if it was happening to me. Keith’s words, “if you’re going to kill me, please knock me out”. Those haunt me to this day. You have a person who succumbed. He realized there was nothing he could do. He was dying. It breaks my heart still today. That was the hardest for me. The break in his heart when these jackals just, you know, jumped on him, and he knew there was no way he would see another day. He accepted it, and asked to please just be spared the pain. That’s the part that was the hardest.
VH: I won’t give much away, but there is a particular part in that scene that has stuck with me from the time you told me about it, and then when I read it, it’s just indelible. The part with the bandana is one I don’t think I’ve ever come back from.
AS: I know exactly what you mean.
VH: I don’t want to give it away, because it is such a powerful moment. To me, that part is really key is showing the “why” behind you writing this book. The justice of telling this story.
AS: I think the reason the bandana is significant is because it was such overkill. It didn’t need to be done. It was done purely for torture and for the amusement of the person who had the bandana.
VH: With your first book set for release within days, what have you learned from this process.
AS: Oh, wow. I’ve learned about writing, I’ve learned about life. I very much have transformed as a result of writing this book, in ways I never would have expected. For years, I wouldn’t write true crime. I saw it as being sensationalism and hack work. To get rich off of someone else’s misery seemed wrong. I couldn’t make it okay within myself. I started writing this story because all you know about the victims is the way they died. I really wanted to make their lives matter. Unfortunately, those aren’t the doors that opened for me. I ended up getting to know one of the killers, and you know, I would have bet you a million dollars I wouldn’t have cared one way or another. I think I can sum this up by saying that I learned about life from a man that took the lives of two others.
VH: That’s a powerful statement.
AS: Yeah. That’s what the book did for me. All those little things I find so annoying in life, they just don’t matter anymore. Being annoyed that I have to get up to flip over a vinyl record, so it’s easier to stream instead. I learned what joy there is in flipping over the record. Because I can. Those are things I never expected.
VH: Where do you go from here as a writer?
AS: I’m working on my second book. I’m pretty excited about this one! It’s set in 1978 and it’s the story from the viewpoint of the daughter of one of the victims. It’s also going to tell the story of the police officers that investigated the crime. The realities they faced every day in their personal lives, not just their professional lives. The cost that a police officer’s wife and children pay for their husband or father choosing to be there for strangers. It’s a non-fiction as well.
VH: At the end of the day, what is you hope readers glean from Out Here in the Darkness?
AS: The truth. The truth. One of my driving points, without realizing it at the time, was that today we have an issue with Clickbait and “Fake News” and the like. My goal is that you understand that just because something appears online, or a magazine, or a paper, or wherever, there is always something they are leaving out. It is not the complete story, or there’s an angle, or some other agenda. Also, I hope that the reader really walks away with a good understanding of the crimes and the story. I didn’t include crime scene photos, I’m not a fan of sensationalism. If I didn’t do a good enough job describing what happened to these victims in a way that you can truly visualize, then I’m not a good enough writer.
VH: What was the first book you read?
AS: Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
VH: Classic! Was there a book that inspired you to be a writer?
AS: Absolutely. When I was 9 or 10, Louis Beam was the Grand Dragon of the KKK. He was on trial for intimidation and possibly, I can’t really remember really, murder of some Vietnamese fishermen. The trial was set at the Federal Building in Houston, Texas. My mother worked for the IRS and she worked in the Federal Building. I read about this trial in the paper – I learned to read from the Wall Street Journal. My dad would have me pick out stock tips, and that’s how I learned to read.
So, I’m reading the paper every morning. I went to my principal and told her I wanted to start a school newspaper to cover this trial. I covered the trial. I had an interview with Louis Beam, and got into it a little bit with him, really giving him my opinions! It started there, I think. I’ve always written. When I was a teenage girl, I was into rock stars, so I wrote about rock stars. Then, I heard Mark Manson talking about how if you want to be truly happy in life, become what you wanted to be when you were 8 years old. I thought about me as 8. My dad used to call me “Scoop”, and I wanted to be a reporter. So, yeah. I quit my corporate job, threw all my eggs into the basket of being a writer, and wasn’t real sure how to go about it. I bought Stephen King’s On Writing, and that is what gave me the courage to write this book.
VH: So, wait. You bought On Writing AFTER you quit your job?
AS: Yes! I was under the impression that I would just write this book, and how hard could it be? I’ve written tons of articles, I know how to write! Then, I sat down actually do the work and it was a very different story. I took a master class with James Patterson, and it really didn’t work for me. James Patterson says you have to have an outline, sit down every day and write from it. It didn’t work for me, it made me feel like a loser. In my frustration, I came to the realization that since Stephen King is my favorite author, maybe I should have a look at what his thoughts on writing are. The end result of me reading his book is my book.
VH: What other books do you have in the works?
AS: I am looking a doing a book on the birth of groove metal. The beauty of that one is there are some criminal elements that would be explored too. My true crime people would enjoy that book as well. Then, there is another crime from the 60’s that recently came on my radar I’m looking at as well. I don’t know if I’m going backwards in time, or what, but those are the two on the horizon when I finish my second one.
VH: I can’t wait for readers to discover Out Here in the Darkness. What is the best way for readers to grab a copy?