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Red Room Interview With Nina Burleigh
Interview by me
The Fatal Gift of Beauty

Red Room is proud to feature this exclusive interview with Nina Burleigh, whose book The Fatal Gift of Beauty was published by Broadway Books in August.

Q:        While Amanda Knox's story has been widely reported, you made a decision to be a part of the story by being on site. Why did you decide to relocate to Perugia for the trial? What advantage did you expect, and did you find that you were right? What surprised you about the experience?

Nina Burleigh:  I usually look for book subjects that have a strong storyline that can be used to explore larger issues and stories. Clearly the larger story here was the setting, Perugia. And living within those city walls for 9 months really did give me an advantage, I think, in that I came to understand—a little bit—this very idiosyncratic culture. The biggest surprise for me was how cold it got there in winter!

Q:        One obvious advantage your being on the scene is that in your book, THE FATAL GIFT OF BEAUTY: THE TRIALS OF AMANDA KNOX, you bring the city itself alive as a character. Tell us more about this place. Do you think that this case would have unfolded differently if the tragic murder had occurred elsewhere in Italy? If it had happened in the US or UK?

NB:     Perugia has a 3,000-year history, a complex history from pagan Etruscan through ancient Rome, feudal powers, brutal Vatican domination, and finally, what it is today, an amalgam of all that, plus an influx of immigration, which has unsettled many of the natives. It is, essentially, a walled mountain town, closed off and provincial. And this kind of thing could happen and does happen in similar towns in the United States (and in bigger towns, too).

Q:        Did you ever feel threatened or uncomfortable while researching and writing your book?

NB:     I often felt uncomfortable, because practicing journalism is an uncomfortable thing, at least for me. You go into a place where you know nothing, and you try to make sense as you go along. And that is uncomfortable and exhausting. I did not feel threatened, per se, but I did come to understand that journalists working there don’t expect the same latitude we get in the U.S. Phones are presumed to be tapped, weird things happened to my laptop, and I was yelled at a few times by lawyers and the police. I also faced the problem common to anyone covering an accused criminal, in that dealing with Amanda Knox’s family, I had to constantly remind them that although I was sympathetic to their plight, I was not their pal and would follow where my investigation led.

Q:        As a journalist, can you comment on the role the media played in this dark tale? How did it ally itself with or obstruct justice?

NB:     The Italian judiciary is opaque, lacking a public face. In the U.S. we pick up the phone and call a public information office, or file a freedom of information demand for information. In Italy none of that exists. What happens is lawyers drop tidbits of information to favored reporters, and reporters print these bits as fact, without getting anywhere near the full story. And that’s what happened here. People printed and said things that were incorrect, or half-truths, and never corrected them.

Q:        September 2011 should be an eventful month, as the Italian court resumes its consideration of the case. Without requesting a prediction from you on Ms. Knox's fate, can you share with us what you anticipate the next round of hearings will reveal?

NB:     The appeal will end sometime in late September. Without the DNA evidence linking the students to the murder room, I expect their sentences to be reduced or thrown out. But that could also not happen. Much depends on what is happening behind the scenes in the judiciary over there.

Q:        In the book you reference, and excerpt, correspondence you had with Amanda. Can you talk a bit about that correspondence? How did this begin, and how did it color or affect the writing experience?

NB:     I started corresponding with Amanda, conducting interviews by letter, shortly after she was convicted. I had already seen a lot of her writing, because she kept a prison journal and the Perugia authorities had put that into the record. I was surprised by her dreamy, childlike way of looking at the world, even after her conviction and years in prison. She is an unusual, nonconforming character.

Q:        We're intrigued by the title of your book, drawn from a poem. How did you settle on this? Did you ever consider another title?

NB:     Yes, that is a quote from “Chile Harold’s Pilgrimage,” a poem by Lord Byron. And I settled on it after I wrote the book. Throughout the writing, I had another title in mind: The Dream Cottage.

Q:        One might say that this case has many victims; Meredith Kercher is the primary one, but upon reviewing headlines and articles about this case, it is possible the murdered woman herself is less central than other actors in the drama. What is your reaction to this? Do you agree? How do you think this came to be?

NB:     I think the obsession with female evil and female eroticism in Italy and in the media generally is to blame for that. The Italians actually voted Amanda Knox woman of the year in 2008.

Q:        Amanda Knox has been vilified in the press, and by Italy's justice system. After your in-depth work, would you be willing to list five words you feel best describe her?

NB:     Childlike. Naïve. Passive. Callous. Oblivious.

Q:        Nina, what are you working on now, and do you have an idea for your next book-length work that you'd like to share?

NB:     I spent this summer, which I had hoped would be my rest and reward for two years of hard work, writing magazine articles about everything from a Beirut feminist to American adoption to Chinese immigrants in Italy. I hope to do a shorter project next on Arab women, Islamists, and the Arab spring. It probably won’t be as long as this book, though.

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Murder As Entertainment

As the sister of a convicted murderer, let me tell you that murder is not entertainment to any of the victims on all sides of the crime.