'Bright Young Women' author Jessica Knoll says she found the "lore and legend" surrounding Ted Bundy to be "grossly exaggerated"
"It seems like everything that could be said has been said," the author, 39, tells PEOPLE, "but actually, a lot of things have been repeated over the years that aren't really backed up in fact."
Knoll's latest novel, Bright Young Women, out now, revisits the Bundy case from the survivors' points of view. It's a fictionalized take on the true story backed by extensive research.
Bundy, a convicted rapist and murderer, was executed on Jan. 24, 1989, in Florida at age 42. His life and crimes have been chronicled in countless documentaries and dramatizations, including a 2019 film starring Zac Efron.
Bright Young Women, though, covers "everything you don't know about the story you think you do," teases Knoll.
Here, Knoll — who previously wrote Luckiest Girl Alive and The Favorite Sister — tells PEOPLE about the most upsetting discoveries she made while researching for her latest novel.
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Of all the real-life cases out there, why did you feel compelled to write about the survivors of Ted Bundy?
There was a docuseries in 2019 with previously unheard audio recordings from Ted Bundy. I'm exactly the type of person whose algorithm is going to serve me that show, so I watched it.
In one of the episodes we saw the judge who sentenced Ted Bundy in the Miami murder trial and the remarks that he made to him after he sentenced him to die. He told him that he was a bright young man. I was just floored that the judge had the audacity to compliment someone like Ted Bundy. And he didn't so much as mention any of the victims.
The thing that started happening when I was researching the case is not only was it egregious that the judge kind of admired Bundy in his sentencing remarks, I also found that everything that had proceeded that — Bundy had been allowed to speak for about 45 minutes before the judge sentenced him to die.
He wasn't making a whole lot of sense. He didn't have well-researched or well-formed legal arguments. He was rambling. It didn't make any sense.
I'm like, so not only did you compliment him, but did we hear the same thing? Because this guy just sounded like a con to me. He didn't sound like he had any "bright" future to look forward to.
So there was that component I wanted to dig into as well, which is does he really deserve the lore and legend that surrounds him for being so handsome, so intelligent, so talented at the law? I very quickly found all those things were grossly exaggerated.
How did you balance fact and fiction for this novel?
I wanted it to feel like an episode of The Crown, where when you finish watching it you immediately go to Wikipedia and you're like, “How much of this is real? Do they have confirmation that these conflicts or tensions actually took place? How much of this is dramatized for a show?”
To have that level of engagement with someone where you're like, “Oh my God, I have to watch this and now I have to read up on everything about it.” I thought it would be really cool if I could induce that feeling in a reader. That was my goal.
I have heard from some people who are like, “I ended up down a deep, dark rabbit hole late into the night researching this case.” I'm like, “Great, that's what I was hoping to do here!”
How much research went into the making of the book?
One of the easiest and best tools I used was I signed up for newspapers.com. You can go through and read any old article from any decade, going all the way back to the 1910s. They're all digitized now. That was a very helpful, useful tool.
In terms of getting actual transcripts from the trial and transcripts from depositions and interviews, that was something my assistant was a really big help with. It was the height of the pandemic and she was emailing people at the Florida archives and people were barely in the office. We were getting them slowly — they had to scan 80 pages of trial transcripts for one witness. That was something I read very slowly and collected slowly over the course of the summer of 2020.
It was absolutely fascinating to get my hands on the actual documents and not just be reading what was reported at the time, but to make up my mind about the case and about him and whether or not he deserved to be remembered the way he was remembered. I was able to do that on my own.
What else surprised you in your research?
Truly, one of the things I could not get over, and I do think this was one of the deciding factors when I was like, “This is it, this is what I want to write my next book about,” is the fact that Ted Bundy actually deposed these sorority sisters. That was a real thing that happened, and that was legal and allowed to happen.
I really worked hard on that scene between him and Pamela to imagine what that would be like, how terrifying, and also how enraging to have to sit across from someone who was being treated as though he was your equal when she knew she was leaps and bounds smarter and ahead of this guy in life.
That one really stuck in my craw, that this guy dragged these girls into a jail setting to depose them with his s----y questions was an indignity I couldn't get over.
How did you avoid being exploitative while also making the book entertaining?
I think what's entertaining and gripping is women's interior lives, or anyone's interior life. I find those to be really fascinating stories. It wasn't hard for me to focus on who these women were, what their dreams were, what their struggles were, and, ultimately, how their lives were affected by this event, but affected in a way where they were different but not necessarily worse. Their quality of life wasn't worse because of what happened to them. It might have been different, but they still went on to live and have great lives. That's a really compelling story.
So I didn't have to worry so much about not being exploitative because I felt there was so much here that's entertaining without being gratuitous.
You spoke with Kathy Kleiner, a survivor from Bundy’s 1978 attack on a Florida State University sorority house. What did you learn from her?
She was one of the first people I spoke to very early on in the research process. She was very generous with her time and with how much she shared with me. I found her to be really remarkable in terms of how she carried on with her life in the aftermath of something so terrifying and horrific.
She really made a decision from a young age that this was not going to define her and she would not live her life in fear. I just thought, what a fascinating woman. That story, to me, is so much more interesting than what we've been getting.
Why did you decide to never use Bundy’s name anywhere in the book, instead referring to him only as The Defendant?
It was always a question of what will I call him if I'm not going to name him? “The Defendant” was derived from the transcripts. One of the things about him was that he was really obsessed with the idea that people perceive him in a certain way, which was that he had this experience and talent at the law and that he represented himself at his own trial.
He was one of those people who flitted around from major to major. He got six or seven months of law school here and there. He had to even falsify his transcripts to be admitted to law school in the first place because he was a notoriously poor student and test-taker.
This idea that he was remembered as a law student or even an attorney or part of his team of counselors was pretty quickly debunked by just reading the transcripts where he is referred to as The Defendant and the other attorneys on his team are referred to by their full name. I was like, “You couldn't fool the court reporter! Her job was to accurately depict the proceedings of the court, and in those proceedings you were the defendant and not an attorney.”
I thought that was, in a way, a choice about diction that I hoped put him in his place a little bit.
Did writing this change how you view the true-crime genre?
Something that has been clarified for me in working on this book is that I'm really drawn to cases and stories where we think a certain narrative has been cemented over the years but there's a suggestion that there's more to it. I'm drawn to why certain narratives form — especially if they're false — and then kind of correcting that narrative. There's something that feels very personal to me in that.
I detected a hint of that here as soon as I got the initial trial transcripts with Bundy's comments that preceded the judge's remarks. I was like, "Whoa, there's a lot more to this case."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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