Eli Sanders Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Eli Sanders
Photo: © Kelly O

Eli Sanders

An interview with Eli Sanders

Eli Sanders discusses how his experience as news and features editor for newspaper The Stranger led him to write his debut book, While The City Sleeps

What made you decide to cover this story for The Stranger?

I was a news and features writer for The Stranger in 2009 when the crime at the center of this book occurred. An editor there read a short account of the crime and soon I was on my way to the neighborhood where it happened. Honestly, I did not want to go. I had been a journalist in Seattle for ten years at that point and was feeling at my limit in terms of covering tragedies.

There were only sketchy details about what had transpired, who had been killed, and who had survived. I wrote a story that was set in the neighborhood, where people were dealing with intense fear, learning about the women who'd been attacked that night, and watching a police manhunt and the arrest of Isaiah Kalebu unfold. The depth of grief in the neighborhood shook me out of my reluctance. The things I learned about the women's strong connection to their community and that they had been planning a wedding before a man broke into their small house while they were sleeping—it brought the purpose of this kind of work back into focus for me. It also defied doing just one story and moving on. I began another story, this one about Isaiah Kalebu's trajectory in the months leading up to the attacks. When I look at that story now, it seems pretty perfunctory compared to what I know today. After that, I didn't write anything more about the crime until Isaiah Kalebu's jury trial, which began almost two years later in the summer of 2011.

I sat in on the trial not knowing what I might write for the paper, if anything at all. But when Jennifer Hopper took the witness stand and spoke about the love she and her partner, Teresa Butz, had shared, and what they had endured that night, it was very clear something needed to be written. My piece about her testimony won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2012. But long before that happened, it became part of a decision by Jennifer Hopper—who had been anonymous in the media during the trial, at her request—to come forward with a first-person article about her journey. The piece was published in The Stranger in August of 2011, shortly before Isaiah Kalebu's sentencing hearing.

Why did you choose to expand your reporting into a book? What did you feel was left unsaid in your reporting?

With previous crime stories, I never felt like I was able to pay attention long enough to get at the larger picture. The way we in the media cover crime often tends to be highly episodic. We write about the crime, and sometimes the trial and sentencing, too, and then we move on. It became apparent there was a lot more to say about this crime—its wide ripples, its possible antecedents, the people whose lives it dramatically changed and what we can learn from them about love, pain, forgiveness, and serious shortcomings in our mental health and criminal justice systems.

When did you start piecing together Isaiah's story more thoroughly, and what do you want readers to know about him and his past?

When I initially called Isaiah's half-sister, Deborah, to interview her for this book, she let me have it. The 2009 story I'd written for The Stranger about her brother's trajectory before the attacks had been given the headline "The Mind of Kalebu," and she said to me: "How can you say, 'Mind of Kalebu'? How do you know the 'Mind of Kalebu?' You know nothing. You don't know anything. You don't know what we went through." And she was right. I apologizied, and she decided to think about whether she would talk to me, and when she finally did talk to me, Deborah—like others who made this book possible—spoke to me with a purpose in mind: to help other people who might someday find themselves in situations like the one she and her family experienced. I also began doing a lot of digging through court records related to Isaiah's life, and all of those sources, and speaking with Deborah and Isaiah's mother, came together to create the picture I now have of Isaiah's path before, and after, his crimes against Jennifer Hopper and Teresa Butz.

I would like readers to observe Isaiah's path, which I hope this book allows them to do. Isaiah Kalebu committed terrible crimes. It is also true that for many years before he committed those crimes, he was a young man who needed help and didn't get help.

What was it like to stay with this story for years after the trial was over?

It was not easy, but I kept in the front of my mind that there are other people living with this crime in far more profound ways than myself. If they could do it—and they were, in inspiring ways—then I figured I could do this.

What surprised you the most during the research and reporting for While The City Slept?

The human capacity to endure, and conversely, the human capacity to ignore the needs of others. I was also surprised at how many chances there were to nudge—or more than nudge—Isaiah Kalebu in a different direction. He was not an easy person to deal with, but he was a person who needed help and intervention from the society around him, and over many years that help and intervention failed to materialize.

What change do you hope this book brings? What do you want readers to come away with after finishing it?

The experience of writing this book has changed me in many ways, some of which I'm sure I don't yet comprehend. One way that I do comprehend: It has changed my sense of the cost of inaction, especially when it comes to reforming our mental health and criminal justice systems. As this case itself illustrates, it is so much more costly—foremost in lives altered, but also in terms of public money spent—to ignore the most troubled people in our society, and one intention of this book is to change the way this country allocates resources for public mental health care.

Another intention is to show that while there is a long path toward a tragedy like this one, afterward there is also a long path forward for all who remain. In this case, the paths that Jennifer Hopper and others have traveled are remarkable, and I'm honored to be able to try to share them.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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While the City Slept jacket
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Read-Alikes

All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Eli Sanders but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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    Sonali Deraniyagala

    Sonali Deraniyagala was born and raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She has an undergraduate degree in Economics from Cambridge University and a doctorate in Economics from the University of Oxford. She is on the faculty of the ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    While the City Slept

    Try:
    Wave
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  • Matthew Desmond

    Matthew Desmond

    Matthew Desmond is a professor of sociology at Princeton University. After receiving his Ph.D. in 2010 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he joined the Harvard Society of Fellows as a Junior Fellow. He is the author... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    While the City Slept

    Try:
    Evicted
    by Matthew Desmond

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