It’s a pleasure to have Jeannie Walker here today. Jeannie’s ex-husband, a Texas millionaire, the father of her two children, was brutally poisoned after discovering a $35,000 business theft. When the legal system failed to indict the obvious suspects, Jeannie stepped in, waging a courageous personal battle to avenge her ex-husband’s death. Her true-crime memoir, Fighting the Devil, tells the gut-wrenching story of that fight.
Fighting the Devil was a ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year, 2010 True Crime Finalist, a Reader’s Choice, and finalist in the 2011 Indie Excellence Awards.
Interview: Jeannie Walker
Would you please tell us about yourself? Who is Jeannie Walker?
I grew up on a small farm in rural Oklahoma and later Texas. Living on a farm did not leave a lot of time for anything else except tending to farm animals, feeding and watering the chickens, gathering the eggs, milking the cows, and feeding the pigs. Then there was harvest time when the entire family had to pull cotton, combine wheat, and bale hay. Any spare time I got, I spent outside sitting under a big oak tree enjoying nature, reading a good book and writing down my thoughts.
My English teacher at Lone Wolf, Oklahoma was a big influence in my life. She encouraged all her students to excel in reading and writing. I worked hard to achieve excellence and make straight A’s because of the respect I had for Mrs. Schreiner and my other teachers in school. Most of the reading and writing I did was in school. I write because I love it.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I read mystery novels and in my spare time, I maintain a vegetable garden.
What are your favorite activities?
Singing is my favorite activity. After that comes golfing, biking, walking and just being outdoors enjoying nature.
Would you please tell us in your own words what your book is about? “Fighting the Devil” is a true crime story, depicted the way it really happened with factual accounts, information and recollections.
My ex-husband, a Texas millionaire, was callously poisoned to death in an unthinkable and horrendous way. I am the mother of his only children. I felt compelled to write the book to speak for him, as he no longer has a voice.
An autopsy concluded the cause of death his death: Acute Arsenic Intoxication – Homicide. The death certificate read: “Patient was given arsenic over a period of time until lethal amounts finally killed him.”
The wicked and evil circumstances by which my ex-husband was murdered necessitated me to tell this true crime story. I also write of the strange, woeful occurrences of a dark supernatural being from the depths of hell that was trying to destroy me along the way in my search for justice.
What would you like readers to take from this book? Maybe a theme or lesson?
It is my hope that my book will provide fans of crime stories with an appreciation of the pain, trauma, and grueling battle for justice that the family and friends of real-life victims experience. Additionally, I want them to realize that if their lives are ever touched by anything as horrific as a murder, “they have the ability and right to become their loved one’s advocate, and if necessary, to become their own, real-life Sherlock Holmes.”
Your book is about a very difficult subject. What inspired you to write it?
The horrendous way that my ex-husband was callously murdered inspired me to write the book. I was the mother of his only children. I wrote the book to speak for him as he no longer has a voice.
You write so honestly. Did writing bring back memories? If so, how did you deal with them? Was there any particular memory that troubled or encouraged you?
Writing my book brought back many memories, some I wanted to forget forever. I dealt with the memories by putting them down on paper where I thought they belonged. The memory of the Sheriff, who ultimately became a good friend and who diligently worked this case until his untimely death, encouraged me to continue writing the book.
Parts of the book – the rape scene, for instance – must have been brutal to write. How did you maintain enough distance to push through?
Writing the rape scene was like re-living it. It was very painful, but it was an important part of the story in what goes around comes around. Good is returned with good, evil is returned with evil.
Did you have a group or someone to talk with during the project? Did that help?
No, I did not! But, I am sure it would have helped tremendously.
Many scenes are intensely personal. Was it hard to open up, knowing strangers would read the book?
Yes, it was extremely hard exposing myself wide open for strangers and my friends alike to read things they never knew about me or my life and things I didn’t really want anyone to know.
How did your children feel about the project? About you writing about their father?
They have mixed feelings. My daughter is still grieving, and my son is just trying to move on with his life and trying not to think about what happened to his dad.
Were you concerned about the reactions of any particular person you mention in the book? If so, whose? How did you handle this?
I asked and received permission from the people I put in my book. Some did not want me to use their names, but said it was okay to put them in my book. I abided by their wishes and gave those people fictitious names.
Were you tempted to gloss over character flaws? If so, how did you overcome the temptation? How did you feel about this?
I just used the real characters of everyone. I believe a true story should reflect the people and the circumstances as honestly as possible.
What was it like to write about yourself? Did you feel exposed?
In certain parts of the book, I felt very exposed and did not know how strangers would react. I felt like I was on the witness stand in telling my story. Therefore, I had to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.
How long, including revision and editing, did it take you to write the book?
Honestly, it took me almost 20 years to write the book. I would start writing and then put it on the back burner, until something would happen that triggered me to start writing again. Once I earnestly decided I was going to finish the book, the revisions and editing took me almost a year.
Did you study writing or are you self-taught?
I studied creative writing in New York and Connecticut. I originally planned to write children stories. But, when my ex-husband was murdered, the children stories were put on the back burner, and the murder case became paramount to everything else.
It can be hard for memoirists to shape their story. How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out?
Since I helped investigate the case, I had two file cabinets full of material. I just picked out what I felt was the most interesting things to me.
Although I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, I was riveted by the demon. What made you think that presence was a demon? You must have been terrified. In the book, your faith is strong enough to overcome them. Was it really that easy?
The demon was very real. Some people, who have read my book, are insistent that it was just a dream. However, I know what transpired was not a dream or a nightmare, and I was wide-awake when the occurrences happened. I was terrified then and still shiver when I think about it. It is my faith in God that saved me from the demon, and I know God still protects me. It was very hard to overcome the power of the demon, who wanted to destroy and kill me, and take my soul to hell. I was powerless and the only thing I could do was pray, because I know God has the power to defeat the devil and overcome all things, natural and unnatural.
Did you ever get stuck? If so, what do you do to get yourself moving forward again?
Yes, at times I got stuck. But, I would pray on it. In the middle of the night I would think of something, and I would get up and write it down. I didn’t want to take a chance of trying to remember it in the morning.
It’s normal in a memoir to fudge certain facts. Most of us can’t remember whole conversations verbatim, for example. How did you handle that line between truth and fiction?
I recorded most all of the conversations. Some other conversations were in my diary.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been giving about writing? The worst?
The best advice I was given about writing was to put down what I saw, what I did and what I thought, especially when it is a true story.
If you were to give one tip to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Don’t ever give up!
What are you working on now? Can we look forward to another book by Jeannie Walker?
I am currently working on another true crime story, which I am hoping to finish and publish in the near future.
Here are a few fun questions:
Who, in your lifetime, is or was your favorite celebrity? Why?
Frank Sinatra. Because I met him and he was a friend.
If you could be a character from any book, who would you be?
If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?
I think I would’ have taken my half of the money and property, when I divorced.
Who do you look up to most in the world? Why?
I look up anyone who is honest. Because it takes a lot to remain truthful, especially when we make mistakes. And, we all make mistakes in our lifetime.
If you could take only 1 item on a trip, what would it be?
My tooth brush
To teach characterization, writing instructors often tell students to imagine what’s inside their protagonist’s trash barrel. What’s in yours?
A file cabinet full of material on the murder case, which is still an open murder case.
What is your favorite non-reading or writing hobby?
What is your favorite nickname (for yourself)?
You can dine with any one person in history. Who will it be? Why?
John F. Kennedy – I received a telephone call and a letter from him when I was a teenager. I would like to see him in person to thank him for taking the time to call and write me.
What is your favorite pure indulgence?
About Fighting the Devil
A True Story of Consuming Passion, Deadly Poison, and Murder
A Texas millionaire rancher discovered his wife and bookkeeper had stolen thousands of dollars from him. After he demanded the money back, he started getting sick. While he was in the hospital, doctors were mystified as to how an otherwise healthy, energetic man could become so deathly ill. The dying man told everyone within earshot that his wife and bookkeeper were killing him. The man’s wife said her husband was hallucinating from drugs the doctors were giving him. The millionaire rancher succumbed in the hospital while strapped down to his bed with restraints on his hands and feet and tubes in every orifice. After the rancher died, an anonymous caller tipped off the police.
The widow was the sole beneficiary of the estate and a $350,000 life insurance policy.
A week before the man’s death, a teenager visited the rancher’s home and became deathly ill after he drank juice that was in the rancher’s refrigerator. Two years after the millionaire’s death, a bottle of arsenic was found in a storage locker rented by a woman under an assumed name.
The millionaire’s ex-wife, the mother of his children, became a sleuth to help solve the murder. No one could have predicted the aftermath with its strange twists and unexpected results.