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What does it mean to feel safe?
It's a question I first began exploring last fall. I was sipping coffee at the Wild Detectives bookstore on a sunny afternoon with filmmaker and Texas Theatre co-founder Jason Reimer. He offhandedly told me the story of a location scout at an abandoned farmhouse in Argyle that took a bizarre and frightening turn. I was chilled -- and riveted.
Soon, I began quizzing other creative types and writers I knew. I had an idea to produce an occasional podcast where interesting people tell their true short stories of an encounter with the strange.
The turning point was when I emailed Dallas preservationist and author Virginia Savage McAlester. I knew she had spent a lot of time roaming historic houses and figured she had experienced something ghostly at least once. No, she wrote back politely. But days later I got a follow-up email. There was this other thing: "I don't know if anyone remembers the Boston Strangler, but I had an encounter with him."
An episode was born.
The working title, Strange, is the one that stuck. I love its simplicity and that it is broad enough to encompass a range of stories and experiences, from horrific to humorous.
I also love that this show is 100 percent made in Texas. Reimer joined me as co-producer. He wrote our music and we mixed the program at his Cigar Box Studios in Oak Cliff. Audiophiles Brian Elledge with The Dallas Morning News and Keith Reynolds with Spoke Media in East Dallas applied extra polish. Dallas illustrator Rob Wilson designed the striking logo.
Oh, and if you're curious to hear about Reimer's surreal scouting trip, we recorded that story, too. I promise to include it in a future episode.
Until then, keep it strange.
1. The Long Walk Home (starts at 1:01)
Virginia Savage McAlester pays attention to detail. How else could she have written the 848-page book, A Field Guide to American Houses. She lives in a history-filled house of her own in Dallas, the city her father, Wallace Savage, was once mayor of. She's also known for her accomplished children and stepchildren; a clan of writers, musicians and filmmakers with at least one Oscar nomination in the family. (Stepson Keven McAlester's documentary with Rory Kennedy, Last Days in Vietnam, was nominated last year.) What almost no one knows about McAlester is that when she was a college student, she had a chilling encounter with one of the most infamous serial killers of the 20th century: the Boston Strangler.
2. Creepy-crawling (starts at 6:15)
Jeff Guinn is an award-winning investigative journalist and former books editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He's also the best-selling author of numerous books of his own, tackling everything from Bonnie and Clyde to the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral. Jeff is an obsessive researcher. So, in 2014, when he published his definitive biography: Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, it was no surprise that Jeff was able to dig up new details. He even scored exclusive interviews with members of Manson's so-called family. Guinn's book became the primary source material for a hit audio series last summer on "Charles Manson's Hollywood" for the podcast You Must Remember This. (Vanity Fair gave it raves.) What fewer people know about the Manson case is the bizarre training Manson ordered his followers to undergo leading up to the murders, an activity he gave a very disturbing name, "Creepy-crawling."
3. The Night Fisherman (starts at 11:25)
After years of waiting tables at an upscale Dallas steakhouse and writing whenever she could, Merritt Tierce hit it big in 2014 with her debut novel, Love Me Back. The book became a critical darling and won the Texas Institute of Letters' Steven Turner Award for best work of first fiction. (Read her interview with Luckiest Girl Alive author Jessica Knoll in The Dallas Morning News) She now lives in Denton with her family and is working on her follow-up, a dystopian novel featuring kangaroos. But Tierce still remembers those early days as a struggling writer and a single woman living alone in Dallas. In fact, there is one night in particular she will never forget.
4. Out of the Shadows (18:35)
You may not recognize Texan Jeffrey Cranor's name, but you will know the hit podcast he co-created, Welcome to Night Vale. The show is about a fictional desert town with some very comical and surreal problems: scary glow clouds, a sinister dog park, weird hooded figures. Night Vale is such a popular podcast that Cranor and show co-creator Joseph Fink wrote a spinoff novel by the same name last October; it debuted at No. 4 on The New York Times best-sellers list. As things get more hectic in Cranor's work, he relishes the escape of a small country house in upstate New York. The animals he sees in the surrounding woods are nothing like the ones in his native Mesquite. In fact, on one recent night, Cranor wasn't even sure what he was looking at.
Virginia Savage McAlester and Merritt Tierce are among the featured speakers at The Dallas Book Festival April 30 at the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library, 1515 Young St. For a full schedule, visit dallasbook festival.org.
#LiteraryDallas: Find interviews with, reviews of and writing by authors taking part in the Dallas Book Festival at interactives.dallasnews.com/2016/literary-dallas.