Jerks in Connecticut
Ray Bendici joins us today, to talk about his book. He’ll be reading and signing copies at R. J. Julia on December 4 at 7 p.m.
His book is a “delightfully wicked look at the badly behaved characters who shaped the history of Connecticut through their deeds and misdeeds.”
Tell us about your new book.
Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Connecticut History features the stories of 15 bad boys and girls, colorful figures in state history whose stories I found compelling and thought were worth sharing. I stretched the definition of “jerk” so that I could include a wide variety of characters—not only are their a few murderers (okay, three) but there’s also a colorful counterfeiter, a Native American sachem, a legendary showman, a vindictive minister, a transplanted Russian count, a wise guy mobster, a mad bomber and God. Well, a self-proclaimed god, anyway.
Where did the germ of the story come from? Was the subject matter of the book related somehow to your regular job?
I have been an editor at Connecticut Magazine for 13 years, and also have been running a website called Damned Connecticut (damnedct.com) for the past few years, and when Globe Pequot Press was looking for someone to do Connecticut Curiosities: 3rd Edition, I was recommended to them and did the project. They also have been doing the “Speaking Ill of the Dead” series for various other states in the country, and I guess after the job I did with Connecticut Curiosities, they decided they had the perfect jerk for the job.
What did you most want to get across to readers that they might not have known about before you wrote this book?
I really want the readers to enjoy reading these stories as much as I did researching them—all the crime and mayhem aside, there are some terrific human stories in here. Truth is often truly more interesting than fiction. I tried to present them in an entertaining manner, and I recommend that people check out the sources at the end of the book to learn more.
Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?
I had about a year to write the book, and about a month in, I woke up in the middle of the night in a full-bore panic attack—I never thought I was going to get it done by the deadline, especially when there was so much research involved. To talk myself off the ledge, so to speak, I literally sat down with a calculator in the middle of the night and did the math, and realized that I needed to come up with 350 words a day to get it done on time—and that’s what I stuck to. If I missed a day of writing, I wrote 700 words the next day. It was a bit grueling at times, but it worked for me.
Was the research fairly easy to come by, or did you have trouble finding the sources you needed?
For some people in the book, there was a tremendous amount of material out there to sift through—Benedict Arnold, P.T. Barnum, Samuel Colt. For others, it was a challenge finding material, but I really worked at getting to source material rather than just regurgitating information posted in more accessible works. For instance, for the “Derby Poisoner” Lydia Sherman, I got a copy of her confession, in which she gave a lot more biographical information than I saw in any other source, including mentioning a son who wasn’t talked about in other places because he was older and didn’t end up being one of her victims. Getting to some of the original sources was a challenge at times, but worth it in every case.
What has been the most satisfying thing about compiling this information and getting the book written?
Having people read the book and say that they really enjoyed it. I worked very hard not only in researching it but also trying to strike a tone that was entertaining because sometimes history can be dry. Trust me, none of these stories are boring! My challenge was then just presenting them in a way that was fun for everyone. I really feel as though I achieved that.
Were there any surprises along the way—either in the research or in the writing? Did you find sources who were unexpected?
I think the biggest surprise was when I was working on the aforementioned story of Lydia Sherman. I knew she had been living in Derby when she was caught by the police, but as I doing the research, I discovered that when she was married to her second husband, they lived in the “Coram section” of Shelton. I live right off of Coram Road, which means that she very likely lived very close to where I live now, and probably walked in many of the same places I do now. That brought it home for me—literally.
When did you first know you were a writer?
Wait, I’m a writer? Still not sure about this—I think of myself as a guy who writes. William Shakespeare, Stephen King, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Sandi Kahn Shelton … those are real writers. I’m not quite there. Yet.
What has happened since this book has been published? What kinds of reactions have you gotten?
I’m glad that it seems to have been well received so far. It’s a fun topic and these are great stories in Connecticut history, so I’m glad to be able to share them. I love that people now know about someone like William Stuart, “Connecticut’s First and Most Celebrated Counterfeiter” (as he refers to himself in his modestly titled autobiography).
What’s next for you? Will there be a follow-up?
I don’t know if there’s going to be a follow-up—although I now do have a few more subjects who I would love to add. Maybe not enough for another book, but maybe a few bonus “tracks” if there’s a second edition.
As far as what’s next—I’m still keeping busy blogging between my websites (damnedct.com and raybendici.com) and at Connecticut Magazine. I’d like to try my hand at some fiction—that way I can make up stuff about jerks rather than have to worry about researching and getting it right.