Capturing True Stories of Crime and Love
An Interview with Jaclyn Weldon White
by Joyce Dixon
The years Jaclyn Weldon White spent in law enforcement as a police officer, detective, and later an administrator for a large metropolitan Atlanta juvenile court prepared her well for gathering facts and listening to the poignant or disturbing elements of a story. Creative non-fiction is taking the actual facts and showing the story through anecdotes that draws readers into the subject. That is where Jaclyn Weldon White is a master of her craft.
White is the author of three books and numerous articles which have appeared in local and regional magazines. Her first novel, Distant Hearts, is scheduled for publication in early 2004. She is also working on a murder mystery set in Macon, Georgia.
Jaclyn White and her husband Carl have three living children and five grandchildren. They live in Macon, Georgia.
What inspired you to become a writer? Has the experience been what you expected?
I think Iíve always written. I can remember writing a one page story in 3rd grade, shamelessly plagiarized from stories that had been told to me, and getting an 'A' on it. Everyone made a fuss over it and I realized being a writer might be a good thing. More than anything, I was inspired by reading. My parents belonged to a mystery book club and, by the time I was 10, I was devouring the monthly selections. I always knew I wanted to write books when I grew up.
The experience of having several books published has been more and less than I expected. Itís been wonderfully exciting to be admitted into that exclusive club and Iíve met some terrific people I would never have encountered anywhere else. But it didnít transform me into Dorothy Parker or Scott Fitzgerald, as I imagined it would when I was young. And Iíve learned that writing is really hard work, something that takes time and diligence.
Your career background gives you insights in true crime writing that other writers lack. Do you feel it gave you greater access to resources and made it easier for those involved to talk to you?
Iím not sure my background as a police officer and court administrator has given me special insights as much as it has enabled me to understand the mechanics of police investigation and criminal prosecution. Having spent so much time working with these things, I have no difficulty understanding or interpreting police and autopsy reports, warrant affidavits and court documents. I do believe that my background has given me greater access to resources in some cases. When I interview law enforcement officers or those people involved with the courts, my history allows them to relax a bit. They know that I understand the work they do.
In researching The Empty Nursery this connection was especially apparent. I had worked with all of the guys who investigated Haley Hardwickís disappearance and most of the people in the District Attorneyís office. They not only made everything available to me, they even let me take the original case file home. You canít get any greater cooperation than that!
Can we expect more Georgia true crime books?
Yes, you sure can. In fact Iím starting my next book very soon. In about a week, I will begin interviewing the man who was the lead investigator on the Machetti murder case here in Macon in the 1970ís. Itís a story that sounds like it comes straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel, but it really happened. The killers were two of the most inept criminals Iíve ever heard of. I canít wait to get started.
A&E Televisionís City Confidential program has produced an episode based on Whisper to the Black Candle (to air July 21 at 10:00 pm EDT). What was the experience like? Did you see the actress for Anjette Lyles?
It was so much fun! The producer and crew came down to Macon and spent several days here. As Iím sure you know, City Confidential spotlights a particular town along with a famous crime, so they spent a couple of days just filming interesting things about Macon, such as the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. I spent a whole day with them. They interviewed me for a couple of hours, asking questions about the Anjette Lyles case and making lots of references to my book, for which I was grateful. Then we climbed in their van and drove all around the city so they could see the sites associated with Anjette. We saw the courthouse, the parking lot where her restaurant used to be, Anjetteís house, her parentsí house and the places out near the mill town where sheíd go to visit healers and root doctors. The next day we all drove out to the Olive Forge Herb Farm near Milledgeville where they interviewed the owner, Darryl Herren. In addition to being a good friend of ours, he was a social worker at Central State Hospital, where Anjette spent the rest of her life after the trial. Darryl knew her and recounted his memories of her.
Iím not sure they are going to have anyone portray Anjette. If so, they havenít told me about it. Iím assuming the show will be a collection of interviews, old film and photos and scenes from present-day Macon.
The Empty Nursery is a true crime that can haunt the reader. Was this book harder to write or, because of your background, were you able to separate yourself emotionally from the facts?
Any police officer will tell you that cases involving children bother them. Over the years, they build a protective shell around their emotions. Itís a necessity in order to continue doing the job. But cracks appear in that shell when the victim is a child. I find that, as a true crime writer, my experience is much the same as when I was a homicide investigator. I can be quite remote in writing about the murders of adults, but when children are hurt or killed, I canít just shrug it off. Working on The Empty Nursery is the only time in my life that I ever sat in front of my computer, typing away with tears rolling down my face.
A Very Special Gift is a gem showing your talent in creative non-fiction as you recount the story behind the gift of Atlantaís 83-acre Century Center Office Park jointly given to Mercer University and LaGrange College. How did the book project come about? How much did you know about Emily and Remer Crum before you started researching the family history?
In October of 2000, Emily and Remer Crum advised Mercer University and LaGrange College that they had changed their wills and, at their deaths, Century Center Office Park would be bequeathed to both schools. All they wanted was to have "somebody write a little book about the land" because it had been Emilyís fatherís farm. Mercer hired me to write it.
I had never heard of the Crums before that time. I went up to Atlanta to conduct the first of many interviews with them and promptly fell in love with this delightful couple. And, of course, once I met them and learned about their lives, I knew that the book couldnít be restricted to the story of the land. Their own stories, and those of their families, were fascinating, so my book became biographical.
Having met and interviewed Emily and Remer Crum for your book, what would you say their philosophy of life is?
I believe, perhaps more than any people Iíve ever met, Emily and Remer Crum try to live their lives loving all people. They are so caring and so interested in others that anyone meeting them for the first time feels enveloped by their love. They are also absolutely dedicated to education. They believe that only through education will the world become a better place.
In From the Heart you tell a tender story of your daughterís death and the kitten she left behind. What feedback have you received from readers and how has that affected your own healing?
I wrote the story about 6 months after Carolineís death. I had no plans for it. It was just something I needed to write. When, several years later, I heard about From the Heart, I knew this was the perfect place for my story. So many people have told me they were touched by the story, as well as by many of the other stories included in the book, that I know I was right to submit it.
A man Iíve know just since coming to Macon in 2001 read the book and contacted me. He told me that he lost his son in 2000 Ė something Iíd never known about Ė and that we belonged to a special club. He also wrote me a sweet prayer/poem about my daughter. It was one of the kindest, most loving things anyone has ever done for me.
Your first novel, Distant Hearts will be released in early 2004 by Mercer University Press. What can you tell us about the story? Will it be the first of a series?
Distant Hearts is the story of a young woman from New Orleans who comes to middle Georgia in order to access some historic papers for the writing of her masterís thesis. While sheís conducting this research, she discovers the Civil War-era journal of a young woman whose life and trials closely match her own. She also becomes involved in a local dispute over land condemnation and the construction of a medical waste disposal facility. Just so it doesnít get too bogged down in such serious matters, thereís quite a bit of humor and a nice sprinkling of romance.
Distant Hearts wonít be the first of a series. However, I have written a murder mystery set it Macon that could easily become a series. Iím in the process of finding a publisher for it at this time.
Is there such a thing as the perfect crime?
Yes, I believe there is. The perfect crime is one in which no crime is suspected, such as a murder that is perceived to be a natural death. And, in order to commit the perfect crime, the criminal must tell no one about it.
Books by Jaclyn Weldon White
© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved