Sharing an Inspiration with Joyce Carol Oates

schmidpics2When I set out to write a novel inspired by the case of Charles Schmid, the “Pied Piper of Tucson,” I knew from the start that I was not the only writer to find a story in this case.

There were works of non-fiction, including Don Moser’s excellent The Pied Piper of Tucson and John Gilmore’s true crime book, Cold-Blooded; several movies (good and bad); numerous internet posts; and one iconic short story by Joyce Carol Oates. This last item gave me pause. Oates’ chilling “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” had been one of my favorite short stories long before I learned we shared the same inspiration.

My initial inclination was not to re-read it, because I didn’t want to be overly influenced by this literary masterpiece. But when my novel, Half in Love with Death, was on its way to publication, I finally gave in to my curiosity and re-read her story. What I discovered was surprising.

Oates and I both learned of this case from a 1966 Life Magazine article about Schmid, the seemingly charming and popular young man who murdered three teenage girls and buried them in the Arizona desert. His friends knew of the murders but kept his secret, suggesting a depravity that extended beyond Schmid—the charismatic psychopath at the story’s center—to the children of the good citizens of Tucson (hence the nickname Pied Piper). 1966 was pre-Manson. The counter-culture was just emerging, but this Life article offered a frightening glimpse of what bored teens could be capable of when their parents weren’t around. Looking at its stark black and white photos of Schmid and his friends decades later still gave me a chill.

Interestingly, in an article about the movie Smooth Talk (adapted from her short story), Oates indicates that she didn’t read the full Life article, because “she didn’t want to be distracted by too much detail.” I totally understand her response; in my own research I sometimes felt I was drowning in facts and eventually had to step away from them to write my story.

But in spite of my efforts to distance myself from my research, Schmid became the inspiration for Tony, one of my main characters, and influenced my novel in so many strange and unexpected ways that at times I felt like I was conjuring him. I was reassured to see that though Oates also stepped away from the reality of the case, she ultimately wove many traces of Schmid, the man she referred to as a “tabloid psychopath,” into her story as well.

In Oates’ story, Arnold Friend, the character inspired by Schmid, comes for Connie, a nervous, vapid teen, who is home alone while her family is away at a barbecue. Friend arrives like a dark and twisted Prince Charming—not in a pumpkin, but in a gold car with a pumpkin face drawn on the side. As he tries to convince Connie to go with him, she becomes increasingly skeptical and distraught. The ambiguous ending suggests that he is leading her not to the fulfillment of her fairy tale dreams of love, but to rape and murder in the wilderness.

Like Schmid, Friend is muscled (Schmid was a gymnast), wears makeup, and looks like he is wearing a wig (Schmid dyed his hair black). As Friend totters and almost loses his balance at one point, Connie suspects his feet don’t go all the way down, and that he must have stuffed his boots with something to seem taller; Schmid stuffed his boots with tin cans. Oates skillfully uses these unsettling details to make Friend appear inauthentic and dangerous in Connie’s eyes, and to imply that he is literally on unstable ground.

Schmid’s pale blue eyes were his most striking feature, but Oates doesn’t exactly give Friend blue eyes. All the photos of Schmid in the Life article are in black and white, and in them his eyes are hauntingly light. Oates takes this photographic detail further. When Friend finally removes his mirrored sunglasses, his eyes are “holes that were not in shadow but instead in light”—an image that evokes the terrifying emptiness at the heart of a psychopath.

Though Schmid was 23 at the time of his crimes, Friend is a much older man posing as a teen. His singsong language, littered with misused phrases from another era (“Don’t hem in on me, don’t hog, don’t crush, don’t bird dog…”), is like an eerie incantation luring Connie into oblivion, warning her that he is not her friend, not a teenager, but something terrible masquerading as both. By the end of this story, Oates has transformed Schmid, via Friend, from a “tabloid psychopath” into an archetypal monster.

Re-reading Oates’ story made me realize just how masterful her transformation of this crime was. It also made me realize that I had taken the same facts and come up with a very different story, and a very different vision of Schmid.

In an interview with The Library of America true crime writer, Harold Schechter, states that, “Our fascination with psychopathic killers derives in no small part from their outward appearance of normality.” For me, one of the most fascinating things about Schmid was that in spite of his quirks, he was attractive, popular, adored by teenage girls, and seemed normal in many respects. In developing Tony’s character, rather than focus on details that would peg him as creepy, I focused on the charming and alluring qualities that led girls to fall in love with him, and blinded them to his darker self.

In Oates’ story, from the moment Arnold Friend sets an unsteady boot on the dusty ground, Connie senses something disturbingly false about him. But for me, one of the most intriguing details about Schmid was that teens did not see him as an imposter but rather as a friend—a hero, even. In my novel the main character, Caroline, starts out with love and trust built on false impressions, and only slowly realizes the hard truth. In some sense, Oates and I took opposite paths toward unveiling the monster behind the mask. But I never truly saw Schmid as a monster—a flawed person capable of evil acts yes—but still irrevocably human.

I love Oates’ story even more after reading it again, and sometimes I wonder if I’d re-read it earlier whether I would have taken my novel in a different direction. I don’t think so. Ultimately a true crime acts like a sort of black mirror in which writers can sift through the facts to find the story they want to tell. To the benefit of readers everywhere, those stories are infinitely variable.

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