Jason Kersten is a senior editor at Maxim magazine and a graduate of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. He has recently published his first book, Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexican Desert. Jason Kersten lives in New York City.
Journal of the Dead recreates the story of best friends Raffi Kodikian and David Coughlin and the August 1999 cross-country road trip that ended in the death of Coughlin in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. A camp out turned horribly bad, Raffi Kodikian admiited that he had killed his friend to end his suffering in the punishing heat of the desert. Jason Kersten does not take sides and observes that only Raffi knows with certitude what happened. Outside editor Bruce Barcott opines in the New York Times Book Review, "By the end of the book Raffi Kodikian seems as much victim as villain, an Everyman dropped into a scenario devised by an ethics professor: What would you do if your best friend were dying in the desert and asked for mercy killing? It is one thing to answer in the classroom; it is quite another to do it while fighting off the cruel distortions that the natural world can visit upon the mind."
Robert Birnbaum: Tell me about the title of your book, Journal of the Dead.
Jason Kersten: It's actually a play off English and Spanish. It comes from a desert region in the Chichuan in New Mexico called La Hornada del Muerto. Which is in English, the Dead Man's March. You can also call it the journey of the dead—which is what the Spanish called it because they lost many people there when they were colonizing New Mexico. The history of that particular place really struck me—more people died there than any other place in New Mexico, the desert. So the hornada, the [Raffi's] journal that investigators later found in Rattlesnake Canyon, there was that connection.
RB: So you have this intelligent and thoughtful title for a book that will on the face of it appeal to people because of its harrowing headline grabbing drama—namely a friend murders another friend.
JK: Yeah. Yeah.
RB: How dare you?
JK: [both laugh] It runs a lot deeper than your typical murder story. It certainly wasn't a typical murder. Raffi had claimed it was a mercy killing, which is arguably something quite different. So I would say it's not your typical true crime novel in a sense where somebody is doing something that is definitely not out of maliciousness. It deserved a different treatment.
RB: One of these days I may take the questions that the publicity packet accompanying review copies contain and begin asking them. One of the questions in this case was, "What do you think of this as a true crime story like so and so's book?" On the other hand, thinking about the category is worthwhile. What would the bibliography of classic true crime stories include? In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. One by David McClintock called Swordfish about a big DEA sting. John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Can you think of others?
JK: A book called Spoken in Darkness by Annie Imbry. Her personal search for the killer of a girl she went to high school with. That she didn't know well. That's true crime but not like any other true crime I had read. Other than Capote…
RB: There is also My Dark Places by James Ellroy—his story of his search for his mother's killer. What makes a good true-crime book?
JK: I think there has to be something else going on other than a killing or a murder. Every other story in America is a murder story, a true crime story. When I was doing the book that was one of the things that I looked long and hard at—how do I treat this differently. Because I think this story deserves it.
RB: Why is that?
JK: No matter how you personally feel about what he [Raffi] did, whether you believe him or not, you have to at least open yourself up to the possibility that he could be telling the truth. And then it's not a conventional murder at all. Then it's a kind of squirrelly euthanasia case.
RB: By New Mexican legal standards it is clearly a murder.
RB: I noticed that you reserved judgment about whether you believed him.
RB: The openendedness and irresolvability is what makes this story so compelling.
JK: I definitely wanted people to question the issue at hand. Ask themselves, did they understand it? Can they relate to what he did? To see if they can call that up within themselves. And what do they find there, when they try to imagine themselves in the same situation he was in? That's really where the crux of this all takes place, internally, for a reader. I definitely wanted readers to wrestle with themselves as they read this.
RB: Here is a minor bone of contention and certainly off the message, But what the hell…
JK: Why not.
RB: Have you driven from Boston down the Atlantic Coast down the Gulf Coast through to New Mexico, on the superhighways?
JK: Yeah, on and off.
RB: I am not so willing to accept the conventional wisdom that condemns the superhighway as monolithic and unsurprising. You dismiss it as predictable and not part of Kerouacian mission and road mythology.
JK: You have to pull off of it and go into the towns. The superhighway is great in the sense that it gets you from town to town very quickly. But to see something, to see America in a Keroaucian sense, you have to get off that damn highway and you have to go into the towns and meet people. And explore the history of those little places a little and the highways tend to be off the towns and town killers. It's not the same as it was in Kerouac's day.
RB: That's true. But I don't agree that the superhighway journey hasn't something that can be noteworthy. People frequently say, "I have to get to Cuba before it all changes and Disney and such get there and it becomes a big theme park." My response is, "Yeah, it will change, but whatever it changes to will still be Cuban. And the Cubans have their own flair and style." So going to a McDonald's in Louisiana is not the same as going to a McDonald's in Maryland.
JK: Right, right. I wasn't in any way dismissing the road-trip experience. It’s a great thing to do. You are going to have fun. If you and your buddy get into a car and just drive and see what's out there. Even if you are on a superhighway. The comparison with Kerouac was important. Kerouac is an important writer to my characters. I definitely got the sense that it was the Keroaucian ideal that he was trying to get in touch with all the time. And one of the questions I raise is about the change since then. It's something different. But you see what you want to see.
RB: Good point. My brief is very much for not accepting a conventional wisdom which is that if you take this superhighway you are not going to see anything, learn anything and it’s all going to look the same.
JK: You'll see plenty. You'll see lots. I hope I don't come off like that in the book.
RB: It wasn't a big thing in the book, but I have certain sensitivity to it.
JK: Well they weren't stopping— they were hauling ass to California.
RB: They stopped in New Orleans…
JK: They did. They were there for a day. They walked around and smoked a cigar on Bourbon Street.
RB: They stopped in Austin, Texas.
JK: Yeah, they went to a bar, but that was pretty much when they came into each town. They'd go and have a Guiness and shoot a little pool. Then it would be ten hours in the car the next day.
RB: There was a small detail that I didn’t understand. There is a scene where the bartender pours a Guiness and there was something that one of the guys [Raffi] didn't like about that.
JK: He mentioned this in his journal. It was one of those odd details he noticed. On the road the bartender had poured a Guiness and waited too long before topping it off. Apparently, one of his pet peeves. [laughs]
RB: I guess I don't know the rituals of drinking Guiness stout.
JK: I'm not even sure myself. They do pour it twice. They will fill half glass of it and then let the head settle and then top it off.
RB: A mystery for the ages. The turning point of the story, for me, was the prosecutor's attitude. Essentially, Raffi served sixteen months for a murder. He was sentenced to two years, and it could have been fifteen years or more. The prosecutor did not push for a stiffer sentence. The prosecutor moved this case forward because under law there is no mitigation for Raffi's act, the defense's contentions notwithstanding. He committed this act, and it was plea-bargained to second-degree murder. The prosecutor seemed to accept the fact that Raffi was not evil and the act was not premeditated and accepted his account and thought he should be punished but not to the extent that he would a normal murder. Doesn't this in effect exonerate him?
JK: You mean completely?
RB: I don't know what 'completely' means here.
JK: I know what you are saying. The fact that the prosecutor believed him and in other words, "Shouldn't we all?" Is that what you are asking?
JK: The prosecutor made a choice. He chose to believe him. And not everybody else did. There were other people in that courtroom that certainly did not make that choice.
RB: Like the sheriff, who was skeptical from the beginning.
JK: There were many townspeople who didn't believe him. I thought it was pretty brave of the prosecutor to take that step. What really transformed him more than anything was Raffi Kodikian's testimony. Which was absolutely amazing. It was completely riveting. There wasn't a dry eye in the courtroom. After that, he was willing to accept the lighter sentence. Prior to that, he was prosecuting this case as hard was he could. He wasn't a young "go get ‘em" district attorney out to put another notch on his belt. He was never like that. So this has very much to do with his personality.
RB: It is possible that justice was actually served here?
JK: Yeah. In fact, that's what both lawyers said. Of course, other people said if he hadn't had Gary Mitchell, the best criminal defense attorney in the state, and he hadn't been from a relatively well off East Coast family, if he had been some poor from Carlsbad, he would have gotten life.
RB: All big ifs. If it were a different story you would have a different ending.
RB: You never directly talked to Raffi.
JK: No, we exchanged some letters.
RB: Where is he today?
JK: As far as I know he is back in his hometown, Doylestown, Pennsylvania working for his father.
RB: Very touching that his father came to Carlsbad and befriended the Sheriff's investigator, Gary McInless.
JK: Though Gary didn't quite believe his son. I think it was genuine—some people would say it was in Gary's interest to befriend the father. But I think it was a genuine friendship.
RB: Well, the most profound moving part of this story is that parents of the victim hold no grudge.
JK: For me, that is the most amazing thing about how this went down. This was relatively soon after their son was killed by Raffi that they chose to believe him. Even in that pit of grief—which could so easily have come to anger—they found within themselves forgiveness. That was another question you would ask yourself, "What would I do if this was my child? Could I forgive like that?" Whether you agree with them or not these are incredible people to be able to do that. Absolutely incredible.
RB: The odds would favor an angry reaction. Emotions are not obliged to be morally correct. Somewhere there must be anger about what happened to their son. But it was not directed at the person who killed him.
JK: Some people thought it might be directed at
the media a little.
And you can't blame them there. The hard part of being an investigative journalist on something like this is that you can understand why people hate you. You know? And at the same time you have to do your job. And you have to tell the story…
RB: What's your job?
JK: I thought my job was to provide context to this and show why this is such an amazing story. And where it fits into the historical narrative of all these different stories that come together. The Keroaucian thing, the history of the desert, the euthanasia movement. That's one of the amazing things about the story—that so many cultural elements cross.
RB: As you pointed out there is not much legal precedent. One British Naval case…
JK: Even that was totally different. What they had in common was they were both morally ambiguous acts that took place during extreme situations of survival.
RB: Interestingly, the British sailors confessed, and they could have easily gotten away with their cannibalism.
RB: I asked you how you saw your job because I read a book by Alston Chase on the Unabomber (unfortunately it got lost in the din of the Iraqi War drums). It was interesting that he did the book on his own without a media affiliation and he observed the media congregating in this little town in Montana (and later at the trial in Sacramento) and all they did was talk to each other and to anyone who would talk to them —whether or not their credibility had any validity. So what was their job? To provide real and reliable information?
JK: No, to fill the air, absolutely.
RB: Which leads me to your day job as an editor at Maxim. You took a leave to write this book?
JK: I took about two and a half years.
RB: How long will this story stay with you? It's been your bedside companion and breakfast companion for a fair amount of time. Now what?
JK: Yeah, I want to writer another book.
RB: You have to wait for the next crime. [laughs]
JK: Something, maybe it won't be another true-crime story. I am taking it one day at a time. I want to get out there and do the tour and I am hoping another story will come to me.
RB: Will come to you?
JK: Well, yeah, it's work [laughs] I don't know. It's kind of frightening. So far this book is being pretty well received and I want to be able to follow up with something.
RB: Because you live in New York and because your agent and everyone is saying, "What's next?"
JK: Yeah. And I like writing…
RB: Move to Montana [laughs]. Maxim is interesting. I have the luxury of dipping into the New York Media fray as a voyeur. For example, I noticed that Keith Blanchard, editor of Maxim, headed the list of some NY weekly's Fifty Most Loathsome New Yorkers. Though I thought the idea was repugnant, I didn't mind that much. I remember reading this obnoxious speech he gave at the Columbia Journalism School.
JK: Where I went…
RB: Where he claimed that Maxim was saving magazine journalism.
RB: So was that just NYC trash talk or is there real animosity there? Or can you even talk about your boss?
JK: That's no problem. For one thing to call Keith Blanchard loathsome is ridiculous because he is a really nice guy, and he is a funny guy, and part of the reason he is funny is because he says things like, "Maxim is saving Journalism," which he knows is patently untrue. But he is just using it to make a point. You get a few ears and show people what changes have been made. It's just a segment of journalism. But making a grandiose claim like that gets people's attention. There is an inside story there, actually.
RB: He fired someone who is now working at that weekly?
JK: A few months earlier there had been a cover story written by someone who used to work at Maxim. It was supposed to be an expose on what a horrible place it was, and how bad it was for journalism. What really was apparent to everyone was that this guy, if he hadn't worked there, he would have had nothing to write about. We were all surprised because he knew what his job was the whole time he was there. He could have left anytime. It was very strange, and it seems he was just trying to make a name for himself.
RB: There is something so infinitely regressive about reading Manhattan-based media.
JK: It's ridiculous. That's always been the worst part of New York for me, this whole insider view, especially in the media business. Just because we are writers and work in New York, we are supposed to be celebrities. This sense of self-importance is ridiculous. It's important to keep track of what goes on in your business, but I think it's more important to keep track of what you are writing about as a journalist.
RB: There has been such degradation in that business based on the simple principle of attendance. I was talking to a young man who was a vice president at CBS Television and he was also a fiction writer. He said that once you get a job in television you would always have a job in television. Once you crack the barrier you will keep getting jobs. I think it may be that way in New York in magazine work. It seems that it is…
RB: Tell me what it is that funnels into the informational flow that, uh, informs your worldview? Television? Live music, videos, conversations?
JK: Definitely all of the above. And none of it as much as I'd like to, certainly. I work a lot.
RB: What do you actually do?
JK: As an editor at Maxim, I am assigning stories, editing copy. It's a pretty small staff at that magazine. And it's very structured, in terms of how the workload is divided up.
RB: I was talking with someone and he told me about a piece on Harold Bloom that he read in The New Yorker. And the amazed reaction was, "He sits around and reads all day. That's his work."
JK: That'd be great. I wish I had that kind of time.
RB: Isn’t that part of your work to inform yourself?
JK: Sure, absolutely.
RB: I have a feeling that informing oneself comes lower on the list of job responsibilities than say, copy editing, or cajoling a writer to do a piece, or filling out the departmental budgets.
JK: In terms of just the shear amount of time you have to devote to it. There is usually a day or two in the middle of the week where I'll hit the mags—I read the papers every day—and try to catch up and see what's going on out there. I will definitely surf the web.
RB: Nothing personal, but it has always struck me that people who are media people are frequently the most narrowly informed. They know their own bailiwick, but ask who them president of Pakistan is…
JK: Pervez Musharraff
RB: Wow, you even know his first name! [laughs]
You went to journalism school, so I take it that has been a life-long ambition?
RB: Because you wanted to investigate things or you wanted to write?
JK: Writing was the primary ambition. Journalism school wasn't a certainty. It wasn't that I came out of college knowing what I wanted. I always wanted to write novels. Since I was twelve that's what I wanted to do. As I got older and realized what that game was…
RB: What is that game?
JK: The shear difficulty of selling a novel. And more importantly I wanted to support myself with writing. So that was the first step. I took the whole be-a-journalist-first approach. My stepmother [Isabel Allende] was a journalist and then a novelist, and she always told me that if you are a journalist first you are going to have an interesting life. You are going to meet people. You are going to learn a lot—a little about everything--and you will make a living writing. And then you can always write a novel on the side—which every other journalist is trying to do. So I took that route.
RB: I just found a copy of [New York Magazine media critic] Michael Wollf's novel White Kids published in 1979.
JK: Did you like it?
RB: Who read it? I was looking at it more as a cultural historical relic. I also have a copy of [former editor of the New York Times] Howell Raines' novel, Whiskey Man. Maybe I have the makings of a collection?
JK: That would be an interesting shelf in the bookstore. God knows what you would find.
RB: Soon you will settle back into your humdrum life as a big-city editor…
JK: Right. It's not quite humdrum. I would argue that the life of a writer is much more humdrum than a big-city editor. It's lonely. The office at Maxim is a very crazy, fun place to work. Which is why I work there— because of the absolute lunacy.
RB: There is some electricity in the air at the office of a magazine or newspaper. People are wired and excited.
JK: This place is irreverent, and a lot of the copy is humor copy.
RB: Actually, I have never read Maxim, but I have been told that it is clever and funny. But it’s like sports for me, I love reading about it more than watching. I like reading about media more than I like the media under discussion.
JK: It's like reading synopses of movies. Or watching travel shows on television.
RB: Sure. I find it mildly interesting to read Poynter online link to a London Times column by Tina Brown explaining Bonnie Fuller's success at US Weekly. What the hell is that about? JK: And who cares?
RB: You are you in your mid thirties—what are you looking forward to?
JK: I think eventually that I will write a novel. I'll try. It might suck but… I have written fiction before. I took workshops at UC Irvine with Thomas Keneally. I won a short story contest. I might have a little something there.
RB: Are you writing fiction now?
JK: No, I want to commit myself fully to it when I do it. But that might come up fairly soon. Because long form is, especially after doing this book, my first love. I like working on a magazine with all my friends, and I like the shear fun of working on a magazine like Maxim, but in terms of satisfying my narrative urgings…
RB: Well put…
JK: I need to be doing something else. Something longer.
RB: What fiction do you read? When you can read…
JK: I'm reading Richard Russo's Empire Falls. I am enjoying that immensely. I like guys out of that like John Irving; I am a big sucker for Pat Conroy.
RB: Even after Beach Music?
JK: Well yeah, that was not as good as some of his others. It was a bit over the top. Every writer has his or her weak point. I'm sure he knew that too. I hear his latest is very good.
RB: The basketball memoir?
JK: Yeah. I love his dialogue, especially with family. He gets family. I come from a very dysfunctional family myself, so I totally relate to his stuff. Even when it is a little over the top. I appreciate him because he is going for something. There is a sincerity to his stuff. If he goes over the top he is erring on the side of compassion. John Steinbeck is one of my all-time favorite greats. Cannery Row is one of my favorite books ever.
RB: I tried to read Tortilla Flats recently. I had this collection of his short works, and I had read this terrific short novel he wrote during WW II called The Moon is Down. I found it [Tortilla Flats] hard to read.
JK: That's one I haven't read. One of the only ones. I just read the one about the migrant uprising.
RB: Back to the real world—is there any good magazine journalism being practiced anywhere? Are there writers who you admire in feature writing?
JK: Sure. William Langewishce. I really enjoy his work.
RB: You quoted him in your book.
JK: I discovered him researching my book.
RB: Any thoughts on the Internet?
KJ: It's pretty exciting. There is a lot of good stuff out there. It's giving access to people who do have neat things to say. And they are out in the wilderness, they are not coming to New York living in a rathole and trying to make a living at it.
JK: They're doing it for fun. It’s really refreshing. I have found a few sites that I just love.
RB: Yeah, it could reduce road rage and high school shootings. I think it fundamental that people feel like they can express themselves. Is the success of Maxim based on the notion that while there is a presumption that we ought to have a seriously informed view of the world that in fact people really care about the drink of the day and how to impress their girlfriend in bed?
JK: Yeah it is a very service-oriented magazine with a very light tone, an irreverent tone. It's a very non-threatening magazine in that regard.
RB: It's not irreverent to the power elite and government policy is it? What is it irreverent to? Social mores?
JK: [laughs] To a certain degree. Not as much as it used to be. It's irreverent to itself. The magazine was pretty controversial when it first came out—which was surprising to us. Because there were women in bathing suits. I don't know why this was suddenly a new thing. But we always try to make sure that we make fun of men more than women could possibly do it. And we are going to be harder on ourselves.
RB: How big is the staff?
JK: The editorial staff is about twelve.
RB: How many men?
RB: The women must be pretty tough to put up with a two-to-one edge in testosterone.
JK: Oh yeah they are guys’ girls. They know how to play poker, and they are the kind of women who like guys as guys. Just being our own stupid selves. Our own pathetic selves, all the bad stuff.
RB: Well, thanks very much. Can I assume we'll be talking in three or four years for the next book?
JK: Thanks that sounds great. I had a good time.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing