Ask the Author: Rebecca McKanna

Rebecca McKanna is a UI alum and associate professor at the University of Indianapolis. For the release of her debut novel, “Don’t Forget the Girl,” McKanna will return to Iowa City for a launch event and book signing at Sidekick Coffee & Books on June 20.


Contributed photo by Rebecca McKanna

Charlie Hickman, Arts Reporter

Rebecca McKanna is an associate professor at the University of Indianapolis and a graduate of the University of Iowa. Throughout her career, McKanna has written for New York Daily News and the Cedar Rapid Gazette, as well as The Daily Iowan. Her debut novel “Don’t Forget the Girl” — a thriller set on the UI campus — will release on June 20, for which McKanna will return to Iowa City for a launch event and book signing at Sidekick Coffee & Books.

The Daily Iowan: What was your reasoning behind setting Don’t Forget the Girl at the University of Iowa?

Rebecca McKanna: I think I wanted to write about the place that I knew the best in a lot of ways, and also, I was writing about a place I really miss because I haven’t lived in Iowa City since 2012. I went to grad school and was teaching in different places, but Iowa City sort of loomed so large partly because I wrote for the DI. I was a city council reporter, I was a cops reporter, and so you know so much about the town in a way that, if you aren’t a writer or reporter for a newspaper, you are not engaged in the same way. I just really knew Iowa City and just missed it so much and this book was a way to bring it back for me.

DI: To touch on your previous experience writing about true crime, did true crime cases like the Sarah Ann Ottens murder influence this story?

McKanna: I don’t think that was the biggest inspiration. It’s definitely referenced, but I think the bigger influence was one of Ted Bundy’s victims. I always liked watching true crime things, reading about true crime, and always wanted to write about a serial killer. But as I immersed myself in it, I started to second guess that impulse and judge that impulse about myself because I kept realizing there are all these victims, and we don’t remember their names; we don’t pay attention to them, but then there’s Ted Bundy, and he’s infamous. The project sort of changed and became me wanting to follow one victim and really make them real, make their loved ones real, and show the impact on the people we don’t normally think about with a crime like that.

DI: How did writing characters and values that embody the Midwest influence the stories?

McKanna: Well, I teach a Midwestern crime literature class at the university I’m at, so I think a lot about the Midwest as a place and its values. No place is a monolith, right? There are so many regions even within the Midwest. But thinking about the types of crimes that are committed, it did seem like because of the whole Midwest “nice” thing, there is this sort of shock when something crime-related does happen, which is silly because stuff like [the murder in the novel] happens everywhere. So I do think there can be a particular shock when setting a story in the Midwest.

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DI: Throughout the book, there’s a lot of emphasis on the media and the effects that attention can have on victims and their friends and family. Was that a prominent theme that motivated this story?

McKanna: While I was writing the book, I was continuing to consume true crime, and I remember there was a particular podcast, which is sort of satirized in the book, that made me uncomfortable and kind of sad. The worst thing that ever happened to one person or their family is just this thing we casually consume while we go to the grocery store. And again, I’m guilty of it — I understand the impulse. But it does feel ethically complicated. There is the former reporter in me that remembers how these types of stories are talked about. I definitely saw colleagues at the [Cedar Rapids] Gazette who were excellent and empathetic and were good at helping people set boundaries. But no matter what, like as a reporter or when reading it, there is this sort of voyeur kind of dynamic that can be ethically challenging which I wanted to understand.