James Renner is an American investigative reporter and film producer. He is from Cleveland, Ohio. He is a former writer for the Cleveland Scene and editor of the alternative newspaper, The Independent. He was also a founding member of Last Call Cleveland. He is a graduate of Kent State University.
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James Renner, here.
My new novel, The Great Forgetting, is available everywhere books are sold, today. It's about a history teacher from Ohio who gets pulled into a trippy adventure to save the world. The question the book proposes is this: what if our history books are wrong? What if history as we know it is a lie? I grew up with the X-Files and this was my chance to play in that sandbox. If you like conspiracies, this one has them all: fluoride, chemtrails, HAARP, phantom time, 9/11, and that missing airliner, too.
I also wrote the mystery/scifi thriller The Man from Primrose Lane, which was optioned by Warner Bros for Bradley Cooper but is now being developed as a television series. More on that soon, hopefully.
You may also know me for my work as a true crime journalist. Last month, CNN profiled my work using social media to shed light on cold cases. At the moment, I'm investigating the strange disappearance of UMass nursing student, Maura Murray for a book titled TRUE CRIME ADDICT, which comes out in May.
Are you taking part in NaNoWriMo? Ask me your questions about the dirty side of writing, publishing, and publicity. I'll tell you no lies.
I'll come back at noon EST to answer all your questions! THANKS EVERYONE! I'm out. Feel free to pm me your thoughts on The Great Forgetting. Hope you enjoy the adventure!
Why do you censor posts on your MM blog? I've had some respectful, but critical posts denied. Whenever I say something positive, though, it makes the cut. Care to explain?
Also, do you think you've maybe created a "straw man" dynamic over at your blog? Not everyone who disagrees with you is a "troll" but it seems that is your consistent fall back. As a journalist, shouldn't opposing views be something to explore rather than shut down?
I don't see the benefit of negativity. Remember what Thumper said.
Okay so, reading your answer, is it fair to assume you believe anyone who does not agree with your interpretation of the facts is being "negative"?
Since when did differing opinions equal negativity?
No. And if you read my blog and the comments section you will find plenty of people who disagree with me. But it is possible to disagree and be nice at the same time.
How many hours do you think you'll put into Fallout 4?
All of the hours.
Hello James! What do you think about the tandem driver theory in the M. M. case?
I am almost certain that Maura was traveling in tandem with another driver. It's the only thing that satisfies the circumstantial evidence, in my opinion.
You have mentioned that when you interviewed Tim Carpenter, he said very frightening things. Could you shed more light on what he told you?
He doesn't think Fred was a very good father.
Good journalists allow people to shoot holes in their work. If your work isn't good enough to stand up to reasoned, respectful criticism, it's not good enough.
You look at the list of items in MM's car as proof she was running away. Some people brought up that some people have messy cars with lots of random stuff in them. Instead of trying to use logic to discount that and stand by your theory, you've discounted them as a "concerted campaign of spin." That's not responding to a valid counterargument (no negativity there) with logic and facts, it's acting like there's a conspiracy against you just because people have a different interpretation based on their own lives and experiences.
I've been a loyal reader and commenter on your blog and you really put me off here. And instead of reasonably responding to respectful criticism, you call people trolls and just say you don't want negativity. This isn't negativity. This is a loyal reader giving you one more chance before I give up on you forever.
I even made a reddit account just to ask you this question, because I'm afraid it would get deleted on your blog.
I'm not sure what your question is. Again, you will find many people disagreeing with me on my blog.
Do you think we will ever really know who killed Amy Mihaljevic?
There are three really good suspects and one who stands above the rest. I am 100% certain that case will be resolved one day.
Hi James, forgive me if this is something you've previously discussed on your blog or already answered elsewhere, there's just so much info and speculation on the Maura Murray case that it's impossible to cover it all and determine fact from fiction.
In the last MMM podcast, Tim Westman said the blue ribbon was on the wrong tree- has the 'correct' tree been identified, are there marks consistent with a car hitting it, and are there any photos of said tree? This interests me because the Murray family placed the ribbon around the tree, and it's not even the right one? If it was my sister that was missing, I'd be well acquainted with all of the facts of her disappearance, down to the very tree that she possibly struck. So my thought is, as there is a disagreement regarding the damage to Maura's Saturn, have you considered the possibility that Maura's trip was perhaps to have her car fixed and that the damage was already present when her car slid into that ditch?
I'm neither a mechanic nor an expert, but a quick google image search yields that the damage to the Saturn appears to be consistent with a hit in run. I would assume that in a hit and run investigation, police call local bodyshops to inquire if any cars brought in for repair appear suspicious- so it would make sense that Maura (in an effort to avoid getting caught) called her dad and sought to escape to an area far enough away from her school to have her car fixed before anyone could see the damage, bringing the $4k from Fred to cover the costs and taking backroads to avoid attention being drawn to a damaged car? Repairs would of course take several days to complete, hence her getaway to the White Mountains- and Fred could never admit what the money was truly for, as that would brand him an accomplice in a cover-up. Were any of Fred's phone records reviewed, or is there any evidence that either Fred or Maura had looked into getting Maura's car repaired somewhere in VT?
Maura's car didn't hit a tree. It impacted the wall of snow that was pushed up by plows near the tree. I believe she clipped the corner after her car stalled and the momentum turned her around. That corner was sheered off by something when the fire crew arrived. Dick Guy made note of it. I don't believe it was damaged before the trip to New Hampshire.
Who is “Ben”? Is there anyone involved in the Maura case that has the name Ben or Benjamin or some derivative? It’s odd that both psychics pulled that one name seemingly out of thin air.
Where did the idea come from for this book?
I talk about how the idea came to me on Scalzi's Whatever blog today. Basically, I started to wonder about this notion of phantom time and whether our politicians might have manipulated the calendar for their own agendas.
Kate and Sara are clearly lying that there was a party the night of Maura’s disappearance. In your opinion, what do you think really happened that night? Do you think they just got wasted or high or were doing something illegal and at this point coming forth with that information seems insignificant?
I suspect there might have been a kind of intervention that night. I think Maura was finally given the support she needed to leave Bill Rausch.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to publish his book?
My advice would be to take the time to go the traditional route and not self publish. If you want to make a living, it's worth the wait. The thing to know going in, is that writing and publishing a book is a VERY long process. I wrote the first draft of The Great Forgetting 5 years ago.
The first step is getting a good literary agent. Everything else comes from that. Toward this end, I would recommend two books: The Writer's Market and Stephen King's ON WRITING. The first will provide a list of agents who rep books in the genre you write about. The second will help you construct your query letter to agents. NEVER go with an agent who demands money for showing your work to editors.
It took me 9 months of submitting queries to find my first agent. So, be prepare to wait a bit. Spend the time making your novel better.
You really need an established publisher behind you when the books comes out. They are the ones who have the relationships with bookstores and newspapers and can tell the world about you.
Oh, and of course, you need to cross your fingers and hope a good editor finds your work from that agent. I got really lucky in that regard with both Sarah Crichton, for my fiction, and Nicole Sohl for my nonfiction.
James, thanks for the AMA. So much new info seems to have come to light recently on the Maura Murray case. What is your current theory/speculation on what happened and do you think the case will be solved anytime soon?
Who is John Green?
How did your relationship with Lance/Tim begin?
lastly, Have you established a working relationship with 'john smith'?
I do think the case will be solved in the near future.
John Green is a cool cat and a good researcher.
Lance called me up the night Alden Olson posted this disturbing video. He wanted to know if the man was familiar to me. He was not at the time. And thus began a very odd chapter in the Maura Murray case. Lance and Tim and good guys. I'm happy they've shined some new light on the cold case.
I consider John Smith a friend.
Why did you end up canceling The Twilight Show?
Lance and Tim keep eluding to Maura’s brother-in-law and how he thinks Fred was involved in Maura’s disappearance. What’s the deal with that guy? Does he have anything valuable to contribute, or is he just a naysayer/publicity whore?
I don't know about that. I spoke to Tim Carpenter and he had some frightening things to say. But I don't know that he ever told me that he suspected Fred.
Aside from your own, what are some of your favorite True Crime stories, published or yet to be published?
A couple favs: The Wrong Man by James Neff, If Looks Could Kill, by M. William Phelps, Bitter Almonds, by Gregg Olsen, and The Shadow of Death by Philip Ginsburg.
From my understanding of the recent case regarding Robert Durst, the documentarians of The Jinx approached the police with information about the cold case disappearance of his wife and murdered friend long before the documentary was released, and no progress was made in Durst’s arrest. When the documentary aired this information, Durst was arrested shortly after, and the files were reopened to examine the disappearances and Durst’s alleged involvement. In light of the progress made in the Durst case, would it not be beneficial to release the new information you have acquired about the Murray case to the public? It could apply pressure to the cold case division of the NH State Police, similar to how it is has worked in the Durst case?
I would release the info if I could. I cannot at this moment.
What conclusions do you draw from the items found in Maura’s car?
That she was leaving UMass for more than 24 hours and was possibly traveling with friends. And she liked having clean hair.
What is the new information that you haven’t released, you terrible tease. Who told you not to release it…was it the authorities or a publicist?
The new info is tangential to the case, I believe, but speaks directly to the character of Bill Rausch and provides motive for Maura to want to leave.
Kate Markopolis (I think? Or was it Sara Alfieri?) told Fred, and Fred only, about what happened the night of the alleged party…what’s your take on that?
I think it's obvious that Kate, Sara, and Fred know more than they've ever revealed publicly. The only motive I can think of that makes sense is that they want to protect their friend. But if Maura's alive, she really should just say, "hey, I'm okay, let me have my privacy." Because until that happens, this looks a lot like a possible murder.
I don't really have a question, but do you collect murderabilia at all?
No way. I don't need dark mojo in my house.
>If you like conspiracies, this one has them all: fluoride, chemtrails, HAARP, phantom time, 9/11, and that missing airliner, too.
Alright, you hooked me. I'll be visiting Books A Million after work lol.
My question for you is do you have any advice on writing a good query? It's the one thing that I can't seem to be comfortable writing. Trying to condense down 80k+ words into a paragraph or less just stumps me.
Thanks! Hope you enjoy the adventure.
Confession time: Stephen King's query letter can be found in his book, ON WRITING. I used his as a template. Why reinvent the wheel?
Is there another disappearance or true crime story that you are investigating and plan to bring to light?
I've been doing a lot of research around Adelaide, lately. ;)
What do you make of the phone records? Was there anything surprising to you? Why'd you name certain people and just label others by an initial or one letter?
The phone records tell a story. I would really like to know what Sara Alfieri said to Bill Rausch.
I agreed to keep the identity of certain people a secret.
So why do you think that on the podcast, Tim Westman claimed there was no snow bank to hit? Are there any photos of the scene from around the time MM went missing? Why do you think TW so adamantly claims she hit a tree?
I think Tim's memory is not so good.
I guess my question is about both the information and the reason you have for keeping it on the DL. Is this about justice or and act of kindness/respect to the Murrays?
I am always most concerned about justice.
Why wouldn't the Westmans or Butch Atwood have seen another car, then? If I was traveling with friends in another car we'd generally keep within sight of one another- especially in an area without cell reception, and most certainly her friend(s) would have stopped to help her?
The tandem driver could have picked her up and driven off in less than 3 seconds. If someone else came by to offer a ride, someone she didn't know, that interaction would have taken much longer, especially if she fought back. I think, unfortunately, that other driver got lucky and picked her up and moved on in a 3-5 second window when nobody was looking. The Westmans and the other witnesses weren't simply standing and watching the whole time. They kept checking back and eventually she just wasn't there.
Sounds like an interesting book- very Philip K Dick. As someone who loves conspiracies, I find most fiction authors don't quite get them and generally just serve to make them ridiculous. If you get the real concepts and foundation, it can make for great (true) fiction. Hence the reason spies make the best spy novel authors.
So my question is: are you a spy?
I will tell you this: I did a TON of research for this book so I hope I get them. I used to laugh at the fluoride conspiracists but you know what? There's a poison control warning on your toothpaste. If you accidentally eat more than a pea-sized drop you're supposed to call poison control. If it's that harmful, why are we drinking it? Why are we bathing in it?
You know, the Somerton area.
Wait, what? Don't be cute Mr. Winky Face. What is this Adelaide thing? What should I be researching? Come on man, you're like my favorite blogger. Hook a sister up! Is this what you're referring to? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taman_Shud_Case
Yes. But you know what? Everyone spells it wrong. It's Tamam Shud.
So... how many of her friends were questioned by police regarding Maura's whereabouts, as well as their own?
I believe the police questioned most of her friends. The police I spoke to said that Kate Markopoulos was less than forthcoming.
Have you ever seen a Commie drink a glass of water?
Well, I can't say I have, Jack.
Hi, I'm a big fan of your blog on Maura Murray. May I ask what your take is on the whole internet culture that surrounds Maura? The Alden thing, the years of blogs and websites and research dedicated to Maura...haven't seen that in other cases I've followed and I'm curious on your views. Thanks!
I think the thing that appeals to people about this case is that it's a strange double mystery: 1. What happened to Maura Murray? 2. What was she doing in the White Mountains in the first place? So, it's bigger than most mysteries, deeper somehow. Also, it's the first big mystery of the social media age. Did you know Maura disappeared the same week Facebook launched?
What are your thoughts about the information provided by the psychic, Laurie Bruno?
I'm not a big fan of psychics. But it can't hurt!
Two questions: Are you sad that the book is released the same day as Fallout 4? and secondly, is the actor who played second lead in your film "The Leafeater" as handsome in real life as he is on screen?
I am thrilled it's the same day. I'm secretly holding out hope that if we keep talking about Fallout 4 on here, they'll send me a promo copy. Handsome? You tell me.
Does anyone know the number of the Londonderry ping call? Or is it impossible to get this information now? Do the police have the caller's name or number?
I don't think the police could even get it.
I mean...my car is a mess half the time, but I don't have 47 bottles of shampoo. Clearly some of those items were in a gym/workout bag that she used for track or exercising. She had a second bag with items. The list does not indicate what was in each bag. It just lists the items. It is hard to tell what exactly was 'packed' versus what was just strewn about in the car. If it's an unproductive comment on James' blog, does he not have the right to focus solely on the productivity of helping draw conclusions about this mystery? There are tons of message boards and areas for commentary. While some may be dissatisfied in the choices James makes, it is his blog and he gets to run it the way he wants. If you want to disagree, then do so...but what I am seeing here is that James just wants us to disagree with a modicum of respect. The man has sunk time and money into this. I would be frustrated too.
do your friends and family get involved on cases your research? as in, do they have their own theories and discussions with you or is work and personal life completely separated?
My wife does not like that part of me. So, no. She prefers the fiction! Lately, I've tried to keep it very separate as I've received threats related to my work on Maura's case.
Hello Mr. Renner! Thank you for doing this AMA. I have a few questions that I honestly don't know if you can answer but it's worth a shot!
1) How did they know she took a black backpack with her?
2) How did police at the scene of the accident manage to notice a rag stuffed up in the tailpipe? I believe it was stated that it was shoved up in there.
3) Are you sick of this case yet? Not just the case itself, but all the bullshit that comes with investigating it!
4) What do you think about Laurie not going to the search? Bad mother, legitimate excuse, or something else?
5) Will you keep the blog going after your book comes out?
That's all, thanks very much if you reply! I am an avid reader of your blog and can't wait for the book. Hope you turn up on the podcast again, too.
On your post about what was found in Maura's car I noticed that she only brought enough clothes for a few days. Since a major part of your in-tadem theory is that she was planning to run away for good, does this information change anything for you?
No. We don't know how much she took out of the car. There's at least one backpack missing.
How is the television series coming? what was it like dealing with a production company?
So far, so good! It's very exciting to see the process from the inside. Can't wait for this to come together. The show's going to blow your mind!
Find any cryptic messages in your pocket?
Is there evidence that Maura planned or corresponded with a specific tandem driver in any of her internet and cellphone correspondence? Maura only started planning the trip (searching for directions, contacting places to stay) the night before she left. The Londonderry call was not picked up. How do you think she coordinated with this person?
We don't really know how long she was planning the trip. I believe she was not the only one looking for rental properties. It's possible someone else was coordinating.
If a hiker stumbled across the remains of Maura Murray tomorrow near the crash site in the woods, would you think she must've "succumbed to the elements" as they say and call it case closed, or would you think there was a killer to find? Would you keep investigating what happened that weekend before she left or would that be it for you?
That area has been searched, extensively. She's not there.
Have you talked to Kurtis at all recently? (sorry for the flurry of questions lol)
I have spoken to him but not for a couple years. Hope he's doing well. He's a real good kid.
Hey James, I am new to writing and thought I would ask, what have you done to break through low writing confidence?
That's hard. It still is. You just gotta ignore it. Music helps. Just keep at it. It takes 10,000 hours to get really good at something. Reading autobiographies of other writers helps. They all think they suck, too.
How do you interpret Billy calling all of those different women after he learned Maura was missing?
At least one of them was a former girlfriend.
Do you have any theories on what was said? What about Bill's character could possibly shed light on reason to take a trip? I think you've already mentioned him cheating and such. Do you think she just wanted to have a "girls trip" to clear her head with friends after realizing get bf was cheating? I don't think that's new info on his character. Can you share a theory (or theories) of what might have happened based on your new information?
I think she wanted a new life. I think she wanted to be safe and happy.
Do you think that was Maura with Kate and Sara at the Butson's store that night?
Any opinions if Fred blamed Billy or what he thought of him as a boyfriend for Maura?
I think it's possible.
Don't we all! Thanks for the reply.
What do you think happened between her wanting to be safe and happy and today? She left with an intention... But what do you think happened after she left?
Hopefully the accident was only a minor delay.
The podcast dudes (shout out to the dudes) had a weird event when they went to Lincoln. What do you think was the deal with that?! Tourism stunt? Lol
I think it was a troll. One of several who insert themselves into the case just to mess with people.
So, a tandem driver friend accompanies MM and picks her up from the scene of her accident to perhaps flee before she can be caught drinking & driving, they book a cabin somewhere near Stowe/Burlington... and MM never comes back, but the friend does, and lies about it. While you can't release the information you've recently acquired, can you say whether or not a motive for possibly hurting Maura is clear?
I'm not sure anyone hurt Maura. I personally believe she's alive.
> If it's that harmful, why are we drinking it? Why are we bathing in it?
We're drinking it because the Aluminum industry sold that concept to the dental industry. I just hope you didn't use the communist/nazi plot bit.
The fluoride compound found in water hasn't been proven to be particularly harmful other than in higher concentrated amounts, but you're asking "why is it found in our water?".
The justification is that it increases tooth strength (as a topical application- yes). So let's examine what led to it's inclusion in the water supply. Certainly sounds like a Bernays level PR campaign...
In the 30's, Alcoa was concerned over lawsuits as their aluminum manufacture byproducts (fluoride) were leeching into groundwater. There had been several lawsuits against smelters in Germany and Great Britain for the same thing. Once H Trendley Dean (working for Alcoa founder Andrew Mellon) found that the mottling (fluoridosis) caused by high levels of fluoride could actually be shown to increase tooth strength, the aluminum industry jumped on it, and with the help of Bernays, pushed a campaign to the American Public to actually sell the byproduct and introduce it as an additive. The wonders of psychology and PR, right?!
But you sidestepped the question... You a spy?
That's fascinating! You know the guy who first introduced fluoride into the drinking water in Michigan was stationed in Berlin during the war?
And yes, I am a spy. But not a very good one.
I agree, and that's shitty of him, to be so obstinate about what he thinks he remembers- bottom line: there's a missing girl out there- by force or by choice or by accident- but still missing. It's infuriating how many people in this case lie or misremember or 'can't remember'.
Thems the brakes.