Ann Rule has a sweet voice and an unassuming appearance. Don't be fooled. Rule, 68, is the No. 1 true-crime writer in the country. Her masterpiece is The Stranger Beside Me, about serial killer Ted Bundy, who confessed to killing more than 20 women in the 1970s. Police suspect he killed many more. Now Rule has come out with Hawaiian murder tale Heart Full of Lies (Free Press). TIME talked with Rule:
Is it true that you were a police officer?
I worked as an officer for a year and a half. Then they realized how near-sighted I am. I couldn't pass the civil service test, because I wasn't allowed to wear contact lenses.
How did you switch from being a police officer to being a true-crime writer? I started by writing for True Confessions magazine, then became the stringer for True Detective and Master Detective. That entailed going down to the police department, the sheriff's office, to get the story. I went back to school to get a degree in police science. Over the next 14 years, I probably covered more than 1,000 cases, mostly murders, some bank robbers, some serial rapists.
How did you come to write The Stranger Beside Me? Ted Bundy had been my partner at the crisis clinic in Seattle, where we took calls from people in emotional turmoil. We worked together for about a year and a half. We were good together. We saved lives. Every Sunday and Tuesday night for a year, I was locked up alone with Ted Bundy and feeling perfectly safe. I was 34, and he was 23. I thought of him as a younger brother. He used to walk me to my car late at night and say, "Be sure you lock the doors. I don't want anything bad to happen to you on the way home." If anyone had told me then that I had been locked up with the most dangerous man to women in America, I would have said, "You're crazy." He was the perfect gentleman.
Did you eventually give his name to the authorities? I did, and I felt so guilty. I saw the composite drawing of a man who gave the name Ted when two girls disappeared. The composite looked like Ted Bundy. Nothing came of my turning his name in, and I found out later that four other people had turned his name in.
What happened after he was arrested? I told him right away that I was writing the book. He said, "I'm proud of you. I hope you make a million dollars." I visited him in prison. We had lunch several times when he was out on bail. We wrote back and forth. He always wanted me to say "I know you didn't do it." And I couldn't, so I just avoided the question.
How do you do a project like your next book, Green River, Running Red? This one is so different, because it was 21 years before Gary Ridgway [was found guilty of] at least 48 murders. I saved everything. Instead of having towels and sheets in my linen closet, I've had tapes and letters and pictures and maps. People who have gone to school with Gary Ridgway, girls who have dated his brother, women who have lived with him call me.
Does this type of gory work make it hard to be home alone? No. You'd think it would. I suppose it should scare me. I've only had three nightmares about murder in 30 years. I think it's very cathartic, that it comes out through my fingertips into my computer. I usually know where my people are, because they're usually serving life someplace.