To date, award-winning Canadian author and retired forensic anthropologist Debra Komar has written four books dealing with historic crimes committed in Canada: The Ballad of Jacob Peck, The Lynching of Peter Wheeler, The Bastard of Fort Stikine and most recently, Black River Road (to be released in September 2016). All are published by Goose Lane Editions. The four books are notable for Ms. Komar’s authoritative, forthright style of writing, covering the historical time period of the case, presenting the facts and pursuing lines of medico-legal reasoning from a present-day perspective.
I was very happy when Ms. Komar agreed to accommodate my request for an exclusive interview for the Miramichi Reader.
Miramichi Reader: Tell us a little about your background, education, employment, etc.
Debra Komar: I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, went to the med school at Queen’s (M.S. in Anatomy and Cellular Biology) then did my PhD at the University of Alberta. I completed my training at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Edmonton. Working for organizations such as the United Nations, Physicians for Human Rights, the US Department of Justice and others, I served as a forensic investigator specializing in genocide and mass death. I was deployed to Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Darfur, Cambodia and East Timor, where I exhumed mass graves, did autopsies, and identified victims. I have testified at the international court in The Hague, as well as across North America. I was also a tenured professor at the University of New Mexico and the state forensic anthropologist at the Office of the Medical Investigator for most of my career.
MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people who may have influenced you to become a writer.
DK: Maybe it’s telling that my favourite book is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I am also influenced by the mix of storytelling and research that you see in books by Erik Larson and Charlotte Gray.
MR: Your previous book, The Bastard of Fort Stikine was frequently shortlisted for various awards, and won many, including the 2016 Canadian Authors Award for Canadian History. Did the national attention for the book surprise you? Has fame changed Debra Komar?
DK: You have a very liberal definition of fame! I was happy the book received as much attention as it did. I chalk much of that up to the enduring interest many Canadians have with the Hudson’s Bay Company and the idea of solving murders committed so long ago.
MR: Let’s talk about your latest book, Black River Road (BRR) your fourth book of historic Canadian crimes. How did you discover this particular case? What made you choose it over any other possible case?
DK: I always begin with the question I am asking, which in this case revolved around the capacity to kill. I wanted to look at whether everyone is capable of murder and whether character should be treated as evidence in a court of a law. Once I have my question, I go back through Canadian court cases until I find a case that allows me to answer that question. In the case of Black River Road, I knew I had what I needed when I realized that Munroe’s trial allowed the introduction of “character as evidence” for the first time in a Canadian court.
MR: Do you plan on writing any more historical crime books like BRR, or are you working on something different? Any plans to write a work of fiction?
DK: My agent is currently selling my next non-fiction book, which deals with a massacre I investigated in Bosnia. I have written one novel, which remains mercifully unread by the public, and am not certain I will try another. I prefer non-fiction.
MR: In the acknowledgements in the back of BRR, you mention “the most ludicrous episode of your professional career:” the 2004 criminal investigation into the death of Billy the Kid. Could you elaborate on that case, and how did it become the “genesis of where you are now” as you put it?
DK: Ah, Billy the Kid. In 2004, then-New-Mexico-Governor Bill Richardson decided he wanted to be the first Hispanic presidential candidate, but he was not well-known in the US. To bolster his profile, he announced that New Mexico was reopening the criminal investigation into the death of BTK. Because I was the forensic anthropologist at the ME’s office, it fell to me to investigate. I was given an unlimited budget and the full powers of my office to do what was essentially a historical investigation. Richardson had announced we would be exhuming Billy’s body from his grave in Fort Sumner, a very popular tourist attraction in NM. He wanted that done because both Texas and Arizona also claim to have the final resting place of BTK and both of those states also have multi-million dollar tourism built around it. Richardson wanted to “prove” NM had the “real” grave, thus forcing Texas and Arizona to dismantle their tourism programs relating to BTK. It didn’t work out that way. After months of investigation and scientific testing, I had a very uncomfortable conversation with the Governor’s office, informing them that the body of Billy the Kid is not in the Fort Sumner grave (it is empty) and it hadn’t been there since three days after he died in 1880. The investigation was nothing but ridiculously expensive political boondoggle, but it made me think about the use of forensic science to answer historical questions. That’s how I came to do the book series that includes Black River Road.
MR: I know from following your profile at Goodreads that you are a voracious reader. I also enjoy your concise reviews of the books you read. How do you choose which books you will read? Do you have a favourite book, one that you like to revisit from time to time?
DK: I have been an obsessive reader since I was a kid. During the decades I spent in academia, I had to restrict my reading to scholarly works. When I retired and began writing for the general public, I started reading anything I could get my hands on. While I love non-fiction, I have also expanded my reading into fictional works of many genres. Reading is the best thing I have found to help my writing. Looking at other works and determining what is good and bad is the first step to learning how to edit yourself. One of my favourite books lately has been How Music Works by David Byrne. It’s the sort of thing I would not have picked up before, but absolutely loved it.
MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be?
DK: I have been thinking seriously about writing a biography of John Radclive, aka “Radcliffe,” Canada’s first professional hangman. He is a fascinating, colourful character who was an eye-witness to much of this country’s legal history. He was a notorious drinker who often sold the clothing and artifacts from his hangings. He died under mysterious circumstances in a Toronto hotel room. A very strange and curious man.
MR: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
DK: Reading, cooking, and art history are my big loves. I also freely admit to an obsession with the show The Walking Dead. Call it an occupational hazard, but I just love that show (and Daryl Dixon).
MR: Finally, what is your Kryptonite?
DK: Baked goods and ice cream. Can’t keep either in the house. They are my undoing every time.