Five Questions With Writer and Podcaster Sarah D. Bunting
We talk about her career, true crime and, of course, books
If you’ve ever read a TV recap, you have Sarah Bunting to thank. Sarah, along with Tara Ariano and David Cole, launched Television Without Pity in 2002. The site popularized the funny, snarky TV episode recaps found all over the web these days.
Since then, Sarah has been involved in countless pop culture-related projects. Among other things, she hosts a podcast reviewing everything Dennis Quaid has ever appeared in, publishes a daily true crime newsletter, Best Evidence, co-wrote books on “Beverly Hills 90210” and Madonna, and recently opened a true crime bookstore, Exhibit B, in New York. During our conversation, Sarah confirmed what I have long suspected: she does not sleep.
The two of us had a great interview about her career path, the true crime boomlet, her books and more. Our conversation has been edited and condensed (so much!) for clarity.
You’ve built a fascinating career with so many different projects. How did you get to where you are today?
Part of it is that when I graduated university, it was a recession. Nothing like we saw 10 or 15 years ago, but it was a recession. There were no writing jobs. I had been a creative writing major and the internet was just starting out. I thought ‘Let's just throw anything at the wall and see if it sticks.’ For creators of all kinds, that’s still where it is. You have to be doing 17 different side hustles and be prepared at any time to make one of them the main hustle.
Another part of it is — not be this person but — I’m an Aries and we like to start things. I’m also really stubborn and don’t like to quit things, so projects will just keep going. And then part of it is an ongoing theme in my life when I say, “It would be cool if someone …” and then there’s silence and I say “Fine. I’ll do it.”
Speaking of projects, you recently opened a true crime bookstore. What made you decide to take the plunge?
I've always wanted to have a bookshop, and maybe this is horrible idea, but if we've learned anything in the last 18 months it's like, nobody knows what's going to happen, so don't wait to do things. I would do it differently, but I don't regret it. It's pretty fun.
There are just so many things you don’t think about when you’re opening a brick-and-mortar space, including that this pandemic might not actually end on schedule.
But, it’s right down the street from my house and, as a former barber shop, it has all these little built-in stations to put books in. It’s small and cozy. And a long time ago, when God was a boy, I worked in antique bookstore in Chelsea. The pay was horrible, and I got no commission, but it was so satisfying to be around physical books. The smell of old books, new books, the joy that clients felt when you tracked down like this first printing of Truman Capote.
Want to get Q&A’s like this one sent straight to your inbox?
How did you get into true crime?
I was drawn to the way these stories were built, and the way that the reader was taken through them. It’s unsolved mysteries that drew me in the most — I like stories that don’t have an answer. The cases that stick with me are the ones where we know 99% of what there is to know, but that 1% keeps coming back. I want to know what happened D.B. Cooper. I would like to know the answer to the Lindbergh case. There are some things that I just want someone to have a séance about and tell me the answer.
I think the popularity of true crime connects to a more general human attraction to narrative and the way that it neatens life up, creating order out of chaos. It’s what you’re taught when you’re studying The Odyssey, which is that humans attempt to impose some kind of fundamental order on life.
As an expert in both pop culture and true crime, what do you make of our current true crime boom and where it fits into the broader culture?
Serial was when someone explicitly combined true crime, which people had been looking down on for decades, and prestige storytelling. It was a marriage of form and function. And it gave our culture permission to engage with these stories on a number of levels — an academic level, a justice crusader level and an entertainment level. Serial changed the game in terms of how we were allowed to take crime seriously, and/but expect better story telling from it.
There was much more attention being paid to how these stories were told: who got to be at the center of them and why, what do we owe the victims, how are we going to talk about racial injustice, how are we going to decide whose stories get told, and by whom. I think that’s been great.
For a few years, I thought people were going to get saturated with true crime content and it was going to ebb back a bit, but that hasn’t happened. And I think now, that’s not going to happen. You have a ton of streaming services and you have a lot people doing interesting things with the format, retelling stories we knew. Ava DuVernay blowing up the Central Park Five story is one example. I think that’s worthwhile and I don’t want it to stop.
Any books you want to recommend?
I just read The Modern Detective by Tyler Maroney. He used to work for corporate investigation companies. It’s a bit like a crime noir — here are some cases I worked on. The subtitle of the book is “How corporate intelligence is reshaping the world” and he doesn’t quite deliver on that. It’s a great read for your commute or when you’re in line at the post office. You get some dirt and there’s some process. It’s a good quick read.
And I read Last Call [a non-fiction book about a series of crimes committed against gay men]by Elon Green recently. That is really an amazing book — the way it’s built, the way it’s executed. It’s not short, but it includes exactly what it needs to do and no more. It was respectful, it centered the victims, and it’s just well written and well reported.
What to Read If is a free weekly book recommendation newsletter. Need a rec? Want to gush about a book? Reply to this email, leave a comment or find me on Twitter @elizabethheld.
If you’re reading this on Substack or were forwarded this email, and you’d like to subscribe, click the button below.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.