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Erika Krouse ’87 talks to Miranda Liu and Matt Wilce about her new memoir.
When you hear the words “private investigator,” it might bring to mind trench coats, wide brimmed hats, and perhaps even a silent, tense, black and white scene straight out of film noir. But when Matt Wilce and I spoke to Erika Krouse, ’87 about her most recent book, a memoir about her time working as a PI for a landmark sexual assault investigation, she was anything but dark and moody. Over Zoom, she greeted us with a warm smile from her well-lit home, and immediately engaged us in friendly conversation. Even virtually, it was immediately apparent that she is the kind of person who makes others feel at home. And it’s not just us—Erika became a private investigator because her face “is the kind of face that makes people want to confess, to tell her their deepest secrets.” It is a trait that prompted a lawyer to offer her a job working as a private investigator on the spot when he met her by chance in a bookstore. “I think it’s a writer thing,” Erika admits. “We just sort of omit this ‘tell me more, tell me more’ kind of vibe to people.” That encounter launched the series of events chronicled in Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation.
Erika moved to Japan in 1982 when her father got a job at IBM and spent grades 8 to 11 at ASIJ. One of her fondest memories of her time at school is the infamous modular schedule system, a unique scheduling system centered around 15 to 20-minute blocks implemented at ASIJ from the mid-60s to the early 90s. “It was the best thing in the whole wide world,” Erika shared with us excitedly, her eyes lighting up at the mention of the word “modular.” “You could choose your teachers. You could choose when you had your classes. You could coordinate with your friends to be in the same classes. I had all this free time, like college, and I could use it for my own projects. It was utopia, I’m not kidding.”
But unfortunately, Erika was forced to leave modular nirvana and return to the US for her senior year of high school. “It was terrible,” she recollected. “I had to go to school in a very small town in New Jersey, and the very first AmericanI spoke to after moving back asked where I was coming from. I said Tokyo, and she asked if that was in China. I said ‘no, Tokyo Japan,’ and she replied ‘yeah, Japan, like in China.’ And I was just thinking, this is not going to go well.”
To be fair, ASIJ was a hard act to follow. “It was so amazingly international,” she recalled.“Everybody is there together from all around the world having this amazing experience, doing ceramics and music during their four hours of free time in their schedules, and then I had togo back to people who thought Japan was apart of China.” ASIJ had a profound impact onErika, from the atmosphere and environment at the school to Japanese culture in general. When we asked about an unusual decoration on her wall, she sheepishly admitted that it was a sai, a traditional weapon from the Okinawan martial art form kobudo. “I studied karate and kobudo herein Colorado,” Erika commented. “It started out asa way to connect with people speaking Japanese again, because honestly, I missed it.”
From her delightful and friendly energy to her unusual wall decorations, it was a blast to speak with Erika about her unique experiences, starting with her time at ASIJ.
Did you start writing while you were in school?
Yeah, I wrote on the train to ASIJ really frequently, and before that, the bus, because it was a long trip out to Chofu. I lived right in the middle of Tokyo, so I’d constantly be writing while in transit. Something that really inspired me to keep it up was a friend of mine at ASIJ who also liked to write. We started trading short stories, and hers were better than mine by a lot, but it was still kind of fun. With all that free time that we had in the modular system, when I was alone, I would just go to the library to write or read stories. In fact, I remember reading modern short stories for the first time during my free time in the ASIJ library.
I also started keeping a journal when I moved to Japan, because I knew that this was an experience that wasn’t ever going to happen to me again. I really wanted to write down every cultural detail that I noticed and every experience that I had that I wouldn’t ordinarily have in the States. So I kept a pretty active journal, and I wrote in it every day—often several times a day. So I think Japan really did start me off on the path to writing.
Did you write for any student publications?
No. I was so shy, I would never have shared anything I wrote, except for with that one friend.
How did you go from writing being very private and personal to doing it professionally? What was the tipping point for you to decide, “this is something I want to share”?
Surprising, right? Well, after secretly writing for a while in college, when I was 19 or 20, I woke up one morning, and the first thought in my head was, I want to write books. I’m not kidding, it seriously went like that. I was still half asleep and I opened the door and my good friend was studying in the hallway. And I said, “Aaron, I want to write books.” I still remember him with his highlighter looking up at me like I was nuts and saying, “So go write books.” And then he went back to his studying and I went back to my room. It still took me a long time to write a book after that, but it was like this aha moment for me. I guess it’s because I love reading and I always have, and I have the kind of personality where if you like something, you want to make that thing.
Who do you read for pleasure? What’s your go-to genre or author?
I know this is geeky, but I really love the classics. But I also like a lot of contemporary writers. I’m in a pretty thriving literary community here in Colorado. There’s a nonprofit called Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and there are about one hundred regular faculty in it. So we read each other’s books a lot. And then there’s a lot of visitors who come in and we read those books, too. So for me, it’s almost like it’s either literature that is from just yesterday or from a hundred or more years ago.
So what was your pathway to beginning to write professionally?
I didn’t really take a straight path. I started out with poetry because I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to write very much. The thought of a novel was very intimidating to me. Even the short story form was really, really intimidating because it has to be so tight, you know? So I started with poetry... and I kind of got hazed out of poetry! I got a master’s degree in poetry, but my peers would write comments about my work, like, “Why are you making me read this garbage?” Just really mean stuff about my work.
So eventually I thought, “Well, I kind of stink at this. Let’s try some fiction.” So from there I moved on to short stories, and I had a lot more luck with those. I started getting my short stories published in various places like The New Yorker and The Kenyon Review, and I published a collection of short stories called Come Up and See Me Sometime, which did very well. Well, very well for a collection of short stories. None of them do that well. If you get like five thousand readers ever, with short stories, you’re like, “whew.” So that was really happy for me.
And then wrote a novel... and my novel bombed. So I had a collection of short stories and that did very well and then my novel just did terribly. It didn’t sell well at all, and people didn’t like it that much. But I just kept going, and I kept writing short stories, and then I moved on to this. This memoir came out of an essay that I wrote for a magazine called Granta. And then when I was writing the essay, I realized I just had a lot more to say that I hadn’t said about the whole story. The essay was fine for an essay, but I knew there was more. I knew I had to do more so. So then I wrote a proposal and then it sold, and then I wrote the book, and then here we are.
How was it transitioning from fiction to nonfiction? This book has personal stuff in it, as well as other people’s stories—how was that writing experience?
It’s horrible. No, I’m just kidding, but it is so different. I teach writing, and I’ve taught writing for 27 years, and before I wrote a memoir, I used to tell memoirist students, “Oh, it’s the same as a novel. It’s just about telling a story. That’s all you have to really worry about—worry about the rest later.” And then I wrote a memoir and I suddenly realized, oh my god, it couldn’t be more different. It’s so different. You have to worry about so much because what you’re writing is true. And in my case, I’m writing about something incredibly controversial and almost everybody is still alive. So the legal worries alone are just incredible.
With my novel, I spent probably like 20% of the time writing, 75% of the time revising, and 5% of the time editing. But with a memoir, the writing and revising process was really fast, because I knew everything. I didn’t have to make anything up. So I spent maybe 25% of the time writing and revising.And then 75% of the time was editing and just working with the words. I had to make sure that I wasn’t disparaging anyone unnecessarily or misrepresenting the facts. And then we had to go through legal reviews. The whole process of editing the piece was just ridiculously long and complicated.And I’ve talked to so many nonfiction writers since, and they basically told me, “Yeah, the problem with nonfiction is how meticulous you have to be.” So by the end of the process, you really want to just throw up all over it because you know it a little too well and you’ve belabored every word three or four times. So it’s definitely really different to writing fiction.
In a story like this, you’re telling parts of your own life story, but also other people’s stories. Do you feel any sort of responsibility towards the people featured both positively and negatively? How do you ethically navigate that side of it?
Again, that’s part of that editing, right? The back and forth questioning everything with the representation of real people. With the survivors of the sexual assaults, my number one priority was to disguise them and keep them safe because at the time they were not safe. My understanding is that some of them were getting death threats from rabid fans of the sports team involved, so I had to disguise them to the utmost of my abilities. And then strangely, the perpetrators I had to disguise, too, not because I was as concerned about their anonymity, but because if they were to be exposed, it could expose a survivor, just by nature of association. So that was a big concern for me. I would wake up in the middle of the night and say, “Wait a second, what did I say, did I let slip this person is X kind of athlete or from Y town or, you know, was moving in a certain direction of the country?!” All those things would give me serious nightmares.
So you’re writing nonfiction, you’re writing facts, but then you’re having to disguise facts. That seems like a kind of counterintuitive thing to do.
Even understanding the reasons behind it, it seems like it would be difficult to shift from the kind of forensic attention to detail to get it right, and then having to turn around and invent a cover story.
It was a major headache. It really was. It was really hard because again, you’re trying to stay true. And I knew that no one was going to write about this case in this way again. So I wanted to be very true to the case, but I also had to be mindful of the people involved.And, you know, I probably went a little overboard, becauseI didn’t have to disguise the university legally, but I did. And out of concern for the survivors. And there’s also the issue that this was a famous case. So if someone really wanted to find out about it, they could just go on the internet because that’s available to them now. So it definitely felt like I was giving myself brain damage over the whole process.
How did you come to take the role as a private investigator, which kind of set you off on this journey?
So I’ve often had the experience of people just spilling their guts with me, and I’ve been told by a lot of writers that this is really common for them, too. And then this happened in a bookstore with a lawyer, and at first he was a little bit shocked at what he was telling me. And then he immediately recognized an opportunity to make money out of it, and he hired me there in the bookstore as a private investigator. I had no skills and no ability to actually do the job. But I was sort of just feeling my way through the job just as he landed this amazing case. And really, it required a much more skilled PI than me. But in some ways it worked out probably even better than an experienced PI, because I was the right age, I was the right gender for that particular case, and it ended up being a really good fit.
What was the most surprising thing you learned from being an investigator?
I mean, part of the problem with becoming a PI is you get really jaded, really fast. But there was one thing that did surprise me, and I think it surprised some other people who worked on the case as well, from what I understand. And it’s that even when you’re working with someone that you don’t agree with anything they’ve done, you don’t agree with anything that they believe, somehow you can still feel a strange affinity with them. I won’t say affection, but I would call it an affinity, and that was really surprising to me sometimes. I keep reminding myself of that now in this age of political polarization. I’m very liberal, so when I’m talking to someone with a very conservative belief system, it can really start getting me in a bad place. But I try to remind myself of that time, like, “Well, when I was working on that case, I was talking to people who I really disagreed with and strangely enjoying their company.” So that was definitely surprising.
Now that you’ve written both fiction and non-fiction, do you have a preference? Would you do another work of nonfiction, or will you go back to short stories?
I think I’ll write essays in terms of nonfiction, but I won’t write another memoir, because, you know, your life doesn’t always fit that kind of arc. And this was a rare five year period of my life that fit a story arc very, almost completely. There are some parts that the fiction writer in me rebels at, some points in the book where I feel like, “The climax isn’t appropriate because X, Y, and Z,” but as far as a book of nonfiction, it still does fit that comfortable story arc for me. But for the future, I do miss the freedom of a novel. I miss being able to just make stuff up when it doesn’t fit, to make it better. And with nonfiction, if it doesn’t fit in the story that way, you have to sort of play with time in a way that’s very interesting... but the writer in me rebels. And my next after this is going to be a collection of short stories. It was part of a two book deal. And since I made that deal, I hate half of the stories in it, so I have to write new ones. So that’s where I’m going. Next is back to short stories, which I love.
I saw that your book got picked up by a TV production company. What’s happening with that?
So what we did is we sold an option. Those are pretty common. Not many get made, honestly. So I mostly feel like, if it happens, it happens. Great. If it doesn't happen, that's sort of expected. We're through the first year of a two year option. There’ll be another year option, and then after that they have to either buy the rights or let go of the option and then it could theoretically be sold somewhere else. So again, I think it would be great, but I’m a writer. I just care about the book, really. And if an entertainment company develops it and makes it, I kind of feel like that’s separate from the book. I made my thing and they can make their thing and I don’t need to be involved. I feel like they can make whatever they want out of it, you know?
So you’re not really interested in doing the screenplay? You’d just hand that off?
I don’t think I’d be qualified!
Well, you weren’t qualified to be a PI, and that turned out well!
That’s true! Maybe I can fake my way through a screenplay, but I don’t really want to. I think they could do better than me, honestly, if they want a successful screenplay. Really, I do believe in giving other creative people the room to do what they do best and not trying to manage. I micromanage my own work ridiculously, I mean, my poor beleaguered editor has had to put up with enormous rafts of emails from me. But outside of my own little purview, I try and just let other people do their own thing.
Bringing it back to ASIJ for a minute, were there any teachers or experiences other than the modular system that left a lasting impression on you?
Yeah, I had an English teacher named Mr Frieden (FF ’84–86), and he was so wonderful. Even when I was sick, I would come to school just to go to his class, and then I’d spend the rest of the time in the nurse’s office. He really brought books alive for me and I still remember the books that we read in his class. And again, they were classics, but he had a wonderful way of making them relevant to our lives. And that was really great. And then the rest of my teachers... Well, I was kind of a difficult student. I was a prankster and I was, oh, you know, that one who sat in the back and made trouble for everybody else. And I really was an underachiever. So I liked certain teachers, but I’m very certain they did not like me very much!
And I also took judo with Ki Nimori (FF ’60–02). The lessons were with him and his teacher, who was like 80 years old, maybe five foot zero, and he could just kick everyone’s butt!
And finally, do you have any words of advice for any of our students who are thinking of pursuing writing?
Yes, absolutely. Notice everything. If you’re going to ASIJ, you’re having an extraordinary experience with some of the most interesting people that you’ll ever meet in your life. So notice everything and write it all down. Keep it. Keep notes, because you’ll forget later even the things that you think you’ll remember now. Try to notice creatively. Notice things like what someone’s face is like when they’re not looking at you. Or, when someone says something, what are they not saying? What’s between the lines besides what they’re saying outright? What’s the air like? What are you feeling? What are you smelling? What are you sensing? What’s the light doing? Because wherever you go, it’s different in that way. So if you can stay open to your experiences and notice everything around you in a creative way, then it’s a simple matter just to put it on the page. And then from there you can make a whole world. That’s my best advice. I wouldn’t give that to other people, though. Because that’s ASIJ. ASIJ students are in an amazing environment. They have an amazing opportunity.
I don’t think they always realize how unique their experience here is going to be.
Right, at that age, how could you? Especially the long-timers, they must just get used to things after a while. But when you leave ASIJ, and people are asking you where Japan is, you know your life was really changed. You realize how much you gained from the experience. I know that it was such a rich experience for me and I don’t know who I would really be without it.
Life at school is full of stories and the narrative of where our vision will take us is told each day through the learning our students experience in the classroom and beyond.