How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Kidnapping: Ace Atkins on Infamous
Novelist Ace Atkins is in town to promote his newst book Infamous, an account of Machine Gun Kelly and his wife Kathryn's 1933 kidnapping of Charles Urschel, an Oklahoma oilman. While the couple did get $200,000 in ransom, the kidnapping was more a comedy of errors than a precisely planned crime. Kelly had a reputation as being a violent killer (you don't get the nickname Machine Gun for no good reason, you know), he was, according to Atkins, just a guy who was nagged by his wife into committing a series of crimes, including the kidnapping that led to their eventual capture and inprisionment. Act Atkins spoke with Hair Balls and filled us in on Infamous.
Hair Balls: Infamous is a fictional novel based on truth; what draws you to mixing the two?
Ace Atkins: I could easily write some books as non-fiction, but some of the stories are incomplete. That's why I decided to tell these stories as novels so that I wouldn't have any constrictions.
HB: Even if it's fiction it has to be historically accurate. How much research did you do for Infamous?
AA: It's a pretty labor-intensive process. For Infamous the document count was 8,000 pages of FBI documents, and police records. That doesn't even include the research to make sure the clothing, music, and all those details are correct.
HB: There are two things surprising about Infamous. First, Machine Gun Kelly had never been the subject of any other major book or film like Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. Second, this is a serious story about criminals and kidnapping, but the way you've written it, it's very funny.
AA: As I started researching I found out that all the gangster clichés were not present in his story. He didn't die in a fiery gun battle to the death; he never killed anybody. When the G-men rushed the place where he was hiding, he just gave up and put his gun down. He was actually just a pretty nice guy who was henpecked by his wife. This did not lend itself to a book about gangsters. I think people who tried to write a book or make a movie about Machine Gun Kelly, those kinds of details probably stopped them cold, so they turned to Dillinger, they turned to Bonnie and Clyde.
About it being funny, I didn't start off to make it a comedy, but that's what happened. When I started researching the story of Machine Gun Kelly, my instincts were that this was going to be a very hard-edged, hard-boiled story. But the story of Kathryn and George is a comedy. Just the way things play out; it's a funny story. That why I opened up the book with the quote from Will Rogers that says, "Everything is funny as long as it's happening to someone else."
HB: Even though Machine Gun Kelly is the name we know, it seems his wife Kathryn was the driving force behind the crimes. A lot of Infamous is focused on her.
AA: This started out as a book about George Kelly, but it quickly became a book about Kathryn. And I think that's how she was in real life; she just took over things. I don't think that she was a bad person or an evil person; I think she was just a highly ambitious person. I don't think George would have gotten into all of those [problems] if she had not been so driven by money. But I do think she loved him. It's great thing for a writer is to have a character that's so complex.
HB: A character like Kathryn is almost unbelievable. So are the events that unfold in the book.
AA: The best thing about writing these books is that while you're working on research, you come up with a story that's really just so incredible, you couldn't make it up. So much of Infamous is true, but people always say oh, that could never happen. It's the really incredible things that are in the book that really did happen. It's the events that link those things, two characters having coffee or someone talking with someone else, those are the parts that I have to make up.
I've been very lucky during my research to find great moments. I'd go, "Wow, this is crazy." Machine Gun Kelly pulls off this major kidnapping and then he runs out of gas. And then he gets lost. And then he gets into an argument with his wife and I'm thinking, "All of this is too good, I've got to use it."
HB: It does seem that things weren't planned out too well.
AA: It was like something out of a Cohen brothers' movie or something out of Paper Moon. Just choosing the crime of kidnapping right after the Lindbergh trial was a mistake. At that time, you could rob banks and you would be celebrated, but kidnappers did not have a good name at all. I don't think they really had a plan. They just thought about the money and they went for it. But when they got the money, there was a moment of "Well, what now?" They had gotten what they wanted but they had become so famous that they really couldn't live their lives. When George was finally caught in Memphis, I think it was a relief.
HB: What happened to Kathryn and George?
AA: Kathryn, as Kathryn would, she got out. She spent about 20 years in prison, with her mother by the way. There were so many prison escapes during those times that they were afraid she was going to have someone bust her out of jail, so they put her mother in jail with her. But they walked out after 20 years.
As soon as the trial ended, Kathryn distanced herself from George. She said he forced her to do those things, that she was afraid for her life, and that she was just an innocent. She stuck to that story for 20 years until somebody finally believed her and let her out. But if you read her correspondence and the notes by the agents that worked the case, that just wasn't the truth at all. When Kathryn got out, she moved to Oklahoma and changed her name. I believe she was a seamstress or a bookkeeper or something like that.
George stayed in jail for the rest of his life and eventually died of a heart attack.
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