Q&A With Carrie Stuart Parks

CarrieStuartParksThank you so much for answering our questions. Jodie and I both very much enjoyed The Bones Will Speak. We both found your forensic artist background fascinating.

Jodie: What drew you into becoming a forensic artist?

Carrie: My dad was the director of the School of Law Enforcement at North Idaho College. In the early 1970’s he started the North Idaho Regional Crime Lab to show his law enforcement students this newfangled thing called “forensics.” He was an expert in a huge number of disciplines: crime scene, fingerprint, accident reconstruction, questioned and altered documents, and so on. I started helping him by going to crime scenes, holding the stupid end of the tape measure, taking photographs, and preparing trial charts and exhibits. In 1985 I attended the FBI Academy to learn about composite art and other types of forensic art. In an interesting turn of events, ten years later I taught the FBI. J

Jodie: What was the most rewarding part of being a forensic artist?

Carrie: It is beyond AWESOME to actually see your drawing lead to identification and see how close you were.

Now I do a tremendous amount of teaching with my husband. We have the huge thrill of teaching someone who can’t draw how to do forensic art—and to later see them succeed. One of our non-artist students went on to draw a composite that identified the largest serial arsonist in US history—and that same student later turned around and taught art!

Melissa: I know there are probably plenty of books on this subject, but in a nutshell, how do you even start to get an image from someone’s memory on to paper? That just seems like a monumental task to pull that information from them and interpret it into a drawing.

Carrie: It’s called recall vs recognition (and there are only 5-6 books on the subject!) Recall is your verbal ability to describe. Recognition is your ability to see something similar or the same. Recall is a weak form of identification while recognition is very strong.

I start by giving the victim/witness a stack of photos and saying, “just go through these photos and see if there’s anyone who kinda looks like the guy.” They thumb through the images and select the ones that roughly look like the person. I now have a visual idea of what we are looking for. I can start the drawing based on the photos, then have the witness make changes until they are happy.

Jodie: What made you decide to start writing after being a forensic artist?

Carrie: I didn’t think I could! I wrote a short story for my girlfriend, Barb Peretti. She read it to her husband and he felt I had talent. He offered to “teach me to fish.”

Jodie: Throughout The Bones Will Speak, there are numerous police proceedings laid out, how are these scenes? Is this how an actual crime scene investigation would go?

Carrie: It’s how I used to work a crime scene—that is with low budget tools (tape measure) and a pencil. I ran the scene past the Missoula crime lab to be sure a small town sheriff would still do it like I described and got a thumbs up. Big city or state crime labs have a lot more bells and whistles, but I love the small town approach.

Jodie: After reading the prologue, it seems that a lot of research went into this book, how much time did you spend on research?

Carrie: The first two books required I read over twenty books plus current articles on the internet. I’ll start research the minute I finish the previous book and will start writing while still researching. I’ll visit the location if possible and identify the experts I need to consult. The research continues throughout the book. It’s not unusual to see me sitting with a pile of books surrounding my chair—all of them highlighted, tabbed, earmarked, and with notes.

Jodie: What made this particular case, the Phineas Priesthood, jump out to you and make you want to research it more and write on it?

Carrie: I worked on a Phineas Priesthood case in the mid-1990’s, drawing over sixteen composites sketches for the FBI, ATF, police and sheriff’s department. I then was the courtroom artist for the local television station when they were caught and arraigned.

Melissa: In this series, like you Gwyn is a breast cancer survivor. There are several times when people ask how she’s feeling and she’s tired of the health related questions. What are some of the comments and questions you found most helpful and encouraging and what are some things people may think are helpful, but really aren’t when talking to someone going through cancer treatment?

Carrie: Folks asking, “how are you feeling?” was more tongue-in-cheek than annoying. Folks just want to know if the cancer is gone. Every tiny thoughtful gesture is a treasure to hold on to when everything hurts and you feel like doggie-doo. Although it has been more than ten years since my own breast cancer, I still have every card, note, hat, scarf, bracelet, charm, pin, and a multitude of other gifts my friends gave me. Just knowing folks care and are praying for you is a wonderful medicine.

Melissa: Aryan Nation type groups are frightening to me. I truly hate that they identify themselves as Christian and the idea that they have a righteous cause is quite unsettling. When researching them, what were some of the more disturbing aspects of these groups that maybe didn’t make it into the book?

Carrie: Everything about them is disturbing! Not just researching, but first hand, personal experience went into this book. They shot my dad, wounding him, and listed him as one of the people they would hang.

Melissa: Frank Peretti is your mentor. How totally awesome is that?! How did that come about?

Carrie: AWESOME!! He was my husband’s banjo-picking buddy. Later, he and his wife became dear and close friends. They are the most wonderful folks in the world!

Melissa: What’s next for you?

Carrie: I just turned in book #3 about Gwen and the Eastern Kentucky, Appalachian, Pentecostal snake handlers. Ooooooooooooh!! Now I’m researching Gwen going to the Nez Perce Indian reservation and working on a triple homicide—and finding her own past rearing up.

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