Which is scarier: Reading about a horrific crime while you're home alone, late at night, and every gust of wind sounds like an ax murderer trying to bust open your front door? Or writing a book about your emotions? "WRITING A BOOK!" Karen Kilgariff, co-host of blockbuster true crime-comedy podcast My Favorite Murder, tells Bustle in an email. "Easily. Hands down. No question."
If you're a "Murderino" — the nickname for the show's dedicated community of fans — this answer probably doesn't surprise you. For the past three years, Kilgariff and co-host Georgia Hardstark have developed one of the world's most successful podcasts by doing the seemingly impossible: Combining graphic true crime stories and raw emotional discussions into 90+ very funny minutes of podcasting every week. The pair's extreme openness — about everything from mental health, to debt, to dumb fights you have with your mom — have set them apart from the true crime podcast pack, and helped them build a mini-empire that includes live shows, merch, a fan club, and a podcast network. And their first book, the "dual memoir" Stay Sexy and Don't Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide, feels like the culmination of all that frankness. So it feels natural that they'd also be frank about, you know, how hard it was to write an incredibly frank book.
"...it felt like I was writing to the person I was way back when I made decisions based on what others would think of me, instead of my own safety and happiness..."
Hardstark says speaking openly about taboo issues on the podcast wasn't any kind of plan, but simply a natural outgrowth of both host's personalities. "With Karen’s mom being a psych nurse and myself coming from a long line of anxiety-ridden Jews, we never experienced getting professional help as a stigma," she tells Bustle. "As someone who thinks everyone needs at least a little therapy, if our legacy is convincing people to get the help they need, then I’m happy."
This vibe is evident throughout the book, which is organized around themes like trusting your instincts ("Fuck Politeness") and reaching out to loved ones even when you're hopeless ("You're In A Cult, Call Your Dad"). "In a lot of ways," Hardstark says, "it felt like I was writing to the person I was way back when I made decisions based on what others would think of me, instead of my own safety and happiness — which is what a lot of our stories in the book are about."
The pair give life advice throughout, and imparts lessons through the telling of experiences that range from losing a parent to Alzheimer's, to developing an obsession with Ray Bradbury, to fighting your sister for control of the living room recliner after school. Though they go to some dark places, the stories are free of shame or self-pity — which might be a side effect of working as a true crime professional. "Talking regularly about one of the worst things that can happen to a person (getting murdered) makes talking about what meds I’m on seem mundane," Hardstark says.
Though Kilgariff says the book focuses on the personal rather than crime stories because "we figured it’d be faster and easier to write about what we actually know because we lived it," the book's big sisterly guidance feels like the logical extension of the show's ethos. Plus, "it was a little therapeutic examining the consequences of those decisions [I'd made in the past] now, as someone who gives herself permission to f*ck politeness," says Hardstark.
"Luckily, we were both reading [that book] when we met and became friends, so that was at the forefront of both of our minds."
Not that the writing process, you know, totally therapeutic. Kilgariff says she knew writing a chapter on the nightmare-ish social dynamics of middle school, "was going to dredge up a bunch of terrible feelings and memories." But writing the book offered opportunities for healing, too. Plus, says Kilgariff, writing about her adolescence "did remind me to listen to more Duran Duran, which helped me then and is helping now."
While turning the podcast into a book may not have been part of the original mission ("It’s so nice of you to think that we had a 'mission' or any kind of game plan at all," says Kilgariff), My Favorite Murder has long had a foot in the literary world. The pair hosted the 2018 PEN America Litfest Gala, and both hosts are avowed true crime readers — Kilgariff's favorite pick on the subject is The Man From the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James, while Hardstark regularly falls asleep to the audiobook of Michelle McNamara's I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, "which I should probably talk to my therapist about," she jokes.
In fact, the podcast owes its existence to a book, albeit one without much of a body count: Brene Brown's Daring Greatly. "Being open to new and scary opportunities, like making friends as an adult, or creating something and then sharing it with the world, takes so much courage and vulnerability, which is the key lesson in Daring Greatly," says Hardstark. "Luckily, we were both reading [that book] when we met and became friends, so that was at the forefront of both of our minds. The podcast probably wouldn’t exist if we had both been reading John Grisham or something."
But despite the book's focus on feelings, Kilgariff and Hardstark haven't dropped their passion for the macabre; they're still active true crime fans. Hardstark says a recent favorite internet rabbit hole involves googling “list of people who disappeared mysteriously,” while Kilgariff says "Lately, I’m been enjoying reading conspiracy theories about the Denver Airport. From what I can gather, the devil himself built it for the New World Order."
Given their fandom, it's impossible to resist asking them the one question that every true crime fan gets after they accidentally reveal that they know a little too much about Ted Bundy during Thanksgiving dinner: How did you get into this stuff?
"I blame growing up in the 1980s and all the horrors we were subjected to before there was helicopter parenting," Hardstark says. "I’m lookin’ at you, Unsolved Mysteries."