“Luckiest Girl Alive” author Jessica Knoll's latest novel was inspired by Ted Bundy's murders of two sorority sisters at Florida State University in 1978.
Media coverage often mentions Bundy's so-called charm and good looks as an oxymoron to his crimes. Instead of romanticizing the killer, Knoll's “Bright Young Women" is a tribute to victims and survivors.
A docu-series about Bundy on Netflix called “ Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes," was the impetus for the novel. Knoll was floored by an episode that included the judge’s description of Bundy at his sentencing, where he was complimentary of the convicted killer. Knoll looked up the court transcripts and was disturbed by the full picture.
“He called Bundy ‘a bright young man,'" recalled Knoll. "(Bundy) rambled on for like 30 or 45 minutes before the judge said, ‘You’re a bright young man. You could have done all these things with your life, but you went another way.’ And when you read what Ted Bundy said, what he rambled on about, I was like, ‘This was your bright young man, judge?’”
“ Bright Young Women ” follows fictional FSU student Pamela, who sees a man fleeing her sorority house in the middle of the night. It's discovered that two of her sorority sisters were murdered, and two others were brutally attacked.
“The dates of the attacks, the dates of the trial, the locations, things like that are all based on real events,” explained Knoll, who also modeled a chilling scene in her book off of real-life, when her fictional defendant, acting as one of his own attorneys, deposes Pamela. Bundy also deposed witnesses in his trial.
“He brought those sorority sisters down to a jail cell and was able to depose them because he was representing himself," said Knoll. “That’s actually illegal now. It’s a violation of the victims' rights. But at the time, it would have been a violation of his rights for the women to refuse to be deposed by him.”
Knoll is also quick to clarify that Bundy was not the only attorney on his defense team believing history sometimes overlooks that fact, giving him too much credit. “He had a whole counsel. He would have drowned trying to defend himself on his own,” she said.
Bundy, who is believed to have killed at least 30 women, was executed in 1989.
Knoll's research included meeting with Kathy Kleiner, one of the women attacked by Bundy in the Chi Omega sorority house, while she was sleeping. She later testified at his trial. Kleiner is the first person thanked by Knoll in the acknowledgements for “Bright Young Women.”
“I was blown away by, first of all, how generous she was to give me her time and to speak to me," said Knoll. "She was very candid and vulnerable, but at the same time, she’s a very happy-go-lucky person, and she married her soul mate and has a beautiful life. She was really adamant from a very young age, that this was not going to define her, and she was not going to be afraid for the rest of her life."
Knoll has also demonstrated resilience to the unthinkable. Her debut novel, “Luckiest Girl Alive” is about a woman confronting the trauma of being sexually assaulted as a teen at a party. Knoll is also a rape survivor with a similar experience and says an objective of “Bright Young Women” was to say something "about the grit of survivors, which is something that I have personal experience with too.”
“Luckiest Girl Alive” was adapted into a film starring Mila Kunis that debuted last fall on Netflix. Knoll wrote the screenplay and was a co-executive producer. Her second novel, “The Favorite Sister,” will also be made into a TV series, which Knoll helped to write.
Knoll, along with authors Zakiya Dalila Harris, Jenny Han and Laura Dave, are recent examples of authors who have written their own adaptations.
“It’s my opinion that when an author is involved in an adaptation, I think it is almost always a more successful final product.”
Alicia Rancilio, The Associated Press