Nina Burleigh is the author of five books. Her most recent is The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox.
Q: Your books cover a wide range of topics. Is there one particular region of the world or time period that has become your favorite to write about?
A: If you’d asked me this a year ago, I probably would have answered that the Middle East is my favorite region for great stories. Two of my books are set there, one in Egypt and one in Israel, and I have had many adventures there. But after spending about two months there last year, I might have reached my quota of time in the region for the decade. I am extremely fond of Italy and I could be quote happy stationed in Rome, but alas, no editor has dispatched me there. I do like the desert, but there are other deserts besides the Sahara and the Negev in which to roam. Last year I became quite fond of Arizona, reporting a story on a troubled Iraq war veteran who was sleeping on the streets of Phoenix.
As for era, I am still very intrigued by the people and events in the early Cold War years, the generation that endured the creation and first use of the atomic bomb. Am somewhat lazily seeking to find another book project set in that period.
Q: What drew you to write about Amanda Knox, and how did you do your research for that book?
A: The answer to that is partly sublime (by that I mean serious) and partly ridiculous. I had been looking for a subject that would allow me to explore what happens to girls, young women on the verge of maturity. What are the perils, the challenges, how has the porn-ification of culture affected their self-image and the ways in which they become sexual beings?
When I heard about the Amanda Knox case, I joked with my agent, who is an Italophile, that if she could get me a book contract, she could come live in the villa while I reported and she translated. Well, she got me a book deal. And we moved there as a family and I learned some Italian and I learned a lot about the dark side of Italy, and the perils that lurk in wait for young girls. It turned out to be a hard year and a hard subject, there was so much that was occult about their society and their judicial system, and some creepy things happened, my laptop was hacked, for example. But I am extremely proud of that book. I think it’s my best.
Q: Your first book, A Very Private Woman, also dealt with a woman’s murder—that of Mary Meyer, who was a Washington socialite and a mistress of John F. Kennedy. Do you see any comparisons between the two stories?
A: Now that you mention it, there is at least one huge similarity: a dead white woman, presumably murdered by a black male. And that is unfortunate because I am most definitely not obsessed with that particular sort of incident. Other than that, I suppose researching both stories involved trying to get through the gates of some notoriously secretive and well-guarded institutions, to wit, the CIA and the Georgetown social x-rays in the first book, and the Italian judiciary and occult societies like the Masons in the latest.
Q: You worked for Time magazine and People, and have written for a variety of other publications. What do you think of all the changes occurring these days in the news business?
A: I find it somewhat daunting that the industry in which I have made a career is undergoing such profound change. I am adapting.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have had a weekly column at the New York Observer for the last several months, which is great fun. I have been writing lot of journalism for various magazines over the last year; my next story will be in Town and Country, interviews with men and women recalling growing up as children of the founders of the CIA in the 1950s. I am desultorily looking for another book idea. I will know it when I see it. I’m also toying with the idea of writing a little fiction again.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I have been doing a bit of motivational speaking. I like it and hope to do more of it. We all need encouragement to live our lives authentically and creatively.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb