Hello to Psychological Horror fans. I’m Silvia Garcia and I’m conducting the interview with Anthony Flacco, the author of a lot of psychological horror books. Today, I’m going to focus on one of his best-known books, “The Road Out of Hell – Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders” – one of the darkest cases of the American crime about how Sanford was able to detoxify himself from the evil he had experienced, offering the ultimately redemptive story of a man’s remarkable ability to survive hell on Earth and emerge intact.
Here’s the new full interview with the writer – Anthony Flacco –
- What difference do you see between a writer and an author?
Truthfully, I never think about it. The time I might use in defining words could be used to actually write (or author).
2) In ‘The Road Out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders, are there therapeutic benefits of modeling a character after someone you know?
I have no objection to writing as a form of therapy, but I do not model my characters on people I know. I believe when a writer does that, they unintentionally bake their own prejudices into the story, to its detriment.
3) Which part of your writing process is more difficult in this book? And why?
A story like this cannot be told without deep empathy for the protagonist and the victims. That degree of empathy is painful and emotionally costly. It ruined my sleep for months.
4) What comes first for you – the plot or the characters – and why?
Each story is different, and of course it greatly depends on whether the story is true or fictional. In a novel like my book, In The Matter of Nikola Tesla, a Romance of the Mind, I began by reading everything about Tesla that has been published in book form, along with a bunch of his articles and patent explanations. In a book like The Road Out of Hell, where the facts are known and the protagonist can speak to me through his son, the process is one of absorbing all those elements in equal degree in the research phase.
5) What part of the book was the most fun to write?
Fun didn’t enter into the equation, but it was deeply satisfying to write the parts where young boy Sanford was secretly reading his Wild West “penny dreadfuls” out behind the chicken coops, and being transported to better places by those silly books. I loved telling that part through his eyes because the books themselves were clearly shallow and rather dreadfully written, but it made no difference to Sanford. They fired his imagination and consoled him in his loneliness. To him, it may as well have been Shakespeare.
6) Which of the characters do you relate to the most and why?
Sanford Clark. It’s best that we leave the why out of it; this is not my story.
7) What perspectives or beliefs have you challenged with this work?
The way I see it, my job is to tell the story in the best fashion I can, while your perspectives or beliefs are your own to tend. I don’t write political or religious work, and I never try to steer anyone’s opinion other than in interest of the story being told.
8) What inspired the idea for your book?
Jerry reached out with his story and his desire to have it told, and as soon as I spoke to him about it, I was sold on it and never looked back.
9) How much research did you need to do for your book?
It took several months.
10) How important was professional editing to your book’s development?
My editor did not work on developing the book with me, but he was a smooth and professional sounding board. His name is Philip Turner and he championed the book with the publisher and walked me through the whole journey. He is a fiercely intelligent man and I will always be grateful to him. He now freelances, and if you are looking to hire a great editor, search him out on social media.
11) What was your hardest scene to write, and why?
The scenes with Sanford buried under the chicken coop (really happened). I am claustrophobic and it shook me badly just to imagine and describe his ordeals. I am so thankful my own life never took me in that terrible direction and I certainly hope the same is true for you.
12) How long did it take you to write this book?
Once I began writing, four months, full time.
13) How did you arrive at an inspirational title for your book?
By asking myself what I would say in the title that was not a dark reference to the suffering and death of children. I had used the working title of “All Those Boys” as a way of keeping me focused on what the story was really about, but it was not a good marketing choice – too vague. Hence the title, The Road Out of Hell puts the emphasis on Sanford’s recovery, which is what makes this story so important.
14) Would you and your main character Mr. Sanford Clark get along?
I certainly would respect him, but I also know too much about his suffering. He might not want to have me around, and I would understand that.
15) Would you and your antagonist Mr. Gordon Northcott get along?
If Northcott were alive and I was given the opportunity to meet him, it would probably take several strong men to pry my hands from around his throat.
16) If you were able to meet your characters while they were still alive, what would you say to them?
Never go near a chicken ranch.
17) How are you able to stay connected with the Clark family for your book? Were they surprised, since they are known to have been very private family?
They are indeed a private family. I don’t discuss the family outside of what is in the book. I mean no disrespect to your question, but I know too many things that prevent me from openly commenting.
18) Have you been able to see many pictures of the Clark family since Sanford was still alive?
No. I believe I saw all the relevant photos in the research phase and used the best ones for the book. We must all remember that the in early 20th Century, having your picture taken was still an event, and often a rare one. The Clarks were also people without money, which was necessary then to have a camera, film, and cash for developing costs, or to pay a professional. The best photos are all in the book.
19) Have you been able to visit the tomb of Sanford and his wife to show their respect? If you are planning on visiting them in the future, may… if possible, may you give them letters from us, readers, filled with love and respect? Letters, I wonder if we can send them to you to pass on to their graves. Let me know.
I do not plan to visit their graves. And while your intentions of sending greetings to the family are meant to be kind, you must put yourselves in their place. Why would they want to discuss mass murder with a total stranger? And remember, if you want to send best wishes, you have the book review sections on Amazon and other sites where you can do so, and which the family members will read at some point. For me, the best way to show the deceased Clarks respect is in the pages I write about them and the way I treat their lives in the story.
Jerry’s own family is not a part of the story and I have no reason to seek them out, or they me. I don’t get involved in their personal lives, similar to the way psychologists avoid involvement in the lives of their patients.
20) Was Sanford Clark’s original story darker than what you wrote in a book due to the censorship that America imposed on us? I was kind of wondering.
What censorship??? I was able to write without restrictions. I have been censored by the corporate goons who run social media, but never by America herself.
21) We read the final message from Mr. Jerry Clark about his dad, will he ever know that we truly appreciate his courage in sharing his father’s story just so Sanford’s spirit can move on? His message was very touching and brave.
Jerry never mentioned anything about his dad’s spirit moving on, or the belief that it needed to. But he knows the book has sold a ton of copies and continues to sell, proving that people all over the world have embraced his story. The Italian version of the book, titled Lunga e la Notte, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and coincidentally uses a model of Sanford for the cover shot that actually looks like me as a boy. (That really struck me, since I never met the Italian publishers.) However, I do not believe Jerry thinks his father’s spirit needs a book so he can move on. I appreciate and respect your personal beliefs, but we must all also respect the fact that it’s just not the way Jerry thinks.
22) Would anyone in your family disapprove of anything you’ve written?
Not as far as I know. It wouldn’t make any difference anyway. We must all make our own choices in this life.
23) Does anyone in your family read your book?
My wife, Sharlene Martin, is also my agent. She reads my work through the drafting process and always has cogent insights to offer, plus she endures endless brainstorming sessions with me while I prattle on about book ideas all through the writing process.
24) Who has been the biggest supporter of your writing?
Again my wife, Sharlene Martin. She is not just a family member and my best friend, but she has great knowledge to draw upon. Of course, I am also blessed with a large contingent of readers in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, but they don’t have to listen to me bitch about typos.
25) Has writing and publishing a book changed the way you see yourself?
Yes, but not for long. There is always another to be hammered out. But then that’s the joy of it.
26) Do you see writing as a kind of spiritual or therapeutic practice?
It certainly can be, but we also have to press on when it is not. We have to refuse to give writer’s block any room in our lives. Writing for therapy is fine and I encourage the practice, but also draw a sharp line between therapeutic work and commercial work. I also remember a wise counselor in a group therapy session telling us, “When you leave here, you may have the urge to hold a deep conversation with others about what you spoke of in here. Keep in mind that the world is not in therapy and your pearls may find themselves cast before swine. Just remind yourselves, time and place.” Group is a great place to sound out our thoughts and feelings precisely because it is NOT the real world, but is much safer.
27) At what stage or stages of your life have you done most of your writing?
To me, that question sounds like, “At what stage of your life have you done the most of your breathing?”
28) What books do you enjoy reading?
I assume you mean pleasure reading and not research books? There is a huge difference. For example, in my research about an evil character, I will read foul work I would never open up if it were merely for my own enjoyment. I am currently working on a novel about child trafficking by the “Mongols” and “Hells’ Angeles” motorcycle gangs, and one of their members wrote out a detailed set of instructions for terrorizing and breaking down children for sale. Here’s what made it so terrifying to me: the writing was primitive and ignorant, but the psychology was brilliant. As I read, I kept thinking, “Damn it, that would work on any child.” It amazed me how any gangster would have so much insight into the way a child thinks while holding no empathy for their ordeals. I walked around feeling outraged and sad for weeks, but I had to read it, in order to accurately get a handle on how these evil bastards do the Devil’s work.
When reading for pleasure or general education, I avoid romance novels, but with everything else my tastes range all over. I’ll read any skilled and inspiring writer in any genre, whether I agree with their worldview or not, because I don’t read to simply reinforce my own views.
29) Are there any books or authors that inspired you to become a writer?
Oh, yes! John Steinbeck is my totem. Here’s why, in his book, Tortilla Flat, he actually managed to portray a bunch of what we now call “homeless” men — but who were then called bums — as sensitive souls who maintained their dignity by addressing one another in fake Shakespearean dialogue, giving one another their own form of manufactured dignity when the world would not extend the same to them. I doubt it has ever taken place in real life, but he made it seem so with his skill, and he gave the message that the best thing one can do to restore lost dignity is to offer dignity to someone else. Steinbeck makes us believe a bunch of bums can do that, then in his genius, he stops short of reminding us we could all do the same. He allows us the dignity of figuring that out for ourselves.
30) What books helped you the most when you were writing your ‘The Road Out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders’ book?
The Sociopath Next Door, by Dr. Margaret Stout; Criminal Profiling by Brent E. Turvey; plus most of the books by FBI Profiler John Douglas; and a few other psych texts. My main research was done via interviews, news archives, and endless hours with Jerry.
31) Name an underappreciated novel that you love?
Still Life With Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins. A brilliant examination of the question: How do we make love stay? Although the book has been out for a number of years now, its burning thematic question has lost none of its relevance.
32) Do you prefer eBooks, printed books, or audiobooks most of the time?
For my own reading, I prefer hardbacks, but will also read paperbacks. When I have to travel for any length of time, I will use a Kindle, but otherwise I already spend too much time in front of a screen.
33) What books have you read more than once in your life?
I don’t think there are any books I have loved that I didn’t read two or three times, some even more. But I especially love Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat, both by John Steinbeck. Everything by Camille Paglia and Dean Koontz. Paglia for her irreverent wit and Koontz for his gorgeous prose.
34) If you could be a character in one of your favorite books, who would you be?
I appreciate your question, but I don’t want to be anyone but myself, writing.
35) What are your favorite series or series authors?
Without question, that would be Dean Koontz and his Odd Thomas series. Filled with human insight and beautifully written. Highly recommended! Try to read the series in order if you can, and watch how Koontz has his leading character grow.
Between 1926 and 1928, Gordon Stewart Northcott committed at least 20 murders at a chicken ranch outside of Los Angeles. He held his nephew, Sanford Clark, captive there from the age of thirteen to fifteen. Sanford would be Northcott’s sole surviving victim. Forced by Northcott to take part in the killings, he bore terrible guilt his whole life. Yet despite his youth and the trauma he endured, Sanford helped gain justice for the dead and their families by testifying at the trial that led to Northcott’s execution.
These shocking events inspired Clint Eastwood’s film Changeling. But in The Road Out of Hell, acclaimed crime writer Anthony Flacco uses revelatory new accounts from Sanford’s son to tell the complete, true story. Going beyond the film’s narrative, Flacco recounts not only Sanford’s nightmarish captivity, but also the inspiring life he led afterward.
Check out this book if you’re interested in true crimes! Thank you, Mr. Flacco, for sharing it with us. I truly appreciate it.