Q & A
Revelation | The Comfort of Black | The Boy in the Woods | Final Crossing | Writing Process
How did you come up with the idea for the story?
I've always been curious about how much more difficult it would be to start a religion in modern times as opposed to two thousand years ago. I wanted a group of characters to pursue that challenge, but more as an academic exercise than anything they truly believed in. Then, I thought, how interesting would it be if one of the characters developed a God complex in the process? That's where Coyote came from.
Why did you decide to set the story in 1989?
I wanted a modern story but didn't want access to cell phones or the internet. Plus, this is a story about college students, and since I was myself in college in 1989, I could draw on my own experiences a bit.
So there's some non-fiction in the book?
Not a lot. I went to school at Cornell, and the fictional Wyland University has some Cornell elements to it (upstate New York, bitter cold, frat-heavy). I had several roommates just as Harden does, but none of my characters share much in common with my old college roommates. I don't think I would have stayed for long in the same apartment with a person like Coyote.
Where did the concept of the Baby Faces come from?
The idea of using baby-face masks for Harden's tormentors is a tip of the hat to one of my favorite films of all time: Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Ever since I saw those masks in that movie, the chilling images have stayed with me, and I got very excited about using that same concept in my book.
The Comfort of Black
The Comfort of Black features your first female protagonist. Did you worry about being able to do that effectively?
I wanted to stretch myself and write from a woman's POV, but I admit having it feel "off" was a huge worry for me. Of course I drew from my own personal relationships and also from strong, believable female characters in books and movies. I wrote the first hundred pages and sent it to my agent, who is a woman. She gave me high marks and a few suggestions, and I took it from there. I've had high marks on the POV from early reviews, which is a big relief.
What was the inspiration behind The Comfort of Black?
It all started with wanting to write a powerful opening sex scene between a husband and wife. I decided they should be at the cusp of trying to start a family, and this scene would represent that. So I wrote the scene, and then looked at my work and tried to figure out what the hook was. Then I decided the husband should fall asleep and saying something truly horrifying in his sleep, making the wife then question everything she thinks she knows about him. Since I don't outline, I had no idea where it was going to go from there, but I spent several hundred pages figuring it out. That's the fun part, figuring it all out.
The character of Billy is pure evil. What does he represent most to you?
Billy represents hopelessness. He's the kind of parent who gives nothing to his children but pain and the bleakest of views of the world. His character was necessary to instill Hannah with a sense of fear growing up, something she would have to battle through as her marriage to Dallin begins to crumble. Hannah is forced to overcome manipulation by central, male figures in her life twice: once as a fifteen year-old, then as a woman in her thirties.
The Boy in the Woods
What was your inspiration behind The Boy in the Woods?
I'm intrigued by the idea of someone hiding a horrible secret for the perceived benefit of their family. This was accomplished quite well in AMC's Breaking Bad, for example. I wanted to see how far someone would go to protect a secret, which is what I forced Tommy to explore.
Why a female killer?
Well, that wasn't the original idea. I had set the opening scene initially to be some sort of accident that resulted in a young boy's death. After playing with it for a while, I decided a murder made things a bit more interesting. And then I thought: what if the killer is a girl? Then things blossomed.
Did you find it much different to write the killer as a female?
Absolutely. I did extensive research on female serial killers, what motives them, how they differ from their male counterparts, etc. Female serial killers are a rare breed, and what motivates them is usually quite different than what we see in, say, a Ted Bundy or Son of Sam. A sexually motivated female killer is almost unheard of, and I was intrigued to explore what that kind of person would look like.
How much do you have in common with Tommy?
Well, he's rich and famous, so those are two strikes against me. I try to write protagonists that, if not necessarily an everyman, can as least be relatable. In that sense, I share a lot of commonality with Tommy, as I expect many of my readers do. I want the reader to be confronted with the question: what would you do?
What was the inspiration behind Final Crossing?
I was traveling to Jerusalem on business, and I borrowed my co-worker's Lonely Planet guide. I read a small excerpt about something called Jerusalem Syndrome. In essence, this is a very rare syndrome where seemingly healthy people travel to Jerusalem and then cannot mentally absorb the religious significance of that city. In simple terms, they go crazy, to the point of institutionalization. They are treated for a few weeks and then are sent home, at which point they are fine.
And I thought to myself, what happens if they get home and they aren't fine? That's where Rudiger came from.
Do you identify with Rudiger?
You mean, can I rearrange words in my head and do I crucify people? Rarely.
Rudiger is a unique name. Where did it come from?
Rudiger is a name of a Mark Knopfler song. The lyrics describe a lonely man whose seemingly sole purpose in life is to wait in the rain and snow in order to get a chance for a celebrity's autograph. There's a certain creepiness associated with that, that I found desirable in a character. Of course, my Rudiger is much naughtier than that.
Is it more fun to write the hero or the villain?
Well, you have to have a good, balanced hero to thwart your villain. The hero needs to be strong but flawed, accessible but aspirational to your readers. But the fun for me is always the villain. I like exploring the depths of what we consider evil, but what evil people consider normal. I like writing villains who are just being true to their nature. There's something much scarier about a killer who thinks what he's doing is right, rather than a killer who simply doesn't care.
What's your writing process like?
Staggered. With a family and work obligations, I'm always looking for time to write and rewrite, which most often happens in the evenings. Usually, there's alcohol involved.
Do you know the ending of the book when you start?
Rarely. I mean, if I knew the ending right away, I am assuming the reader's going to see it a mile away, which is always a letdown. For me, the ending needs to evolve from the story, which itself continuously twists and turns as I write the story. I like the surprise myself.
So you don't outline?
You know, I get asked this fairly often and my answer is always "no." But it's occurred to me that my first draft really is an outline, because I revise it so much. I begin each book with a scene that I find interesting, then I build about a hundred pages around that, with really no idea of where any of it is going. I write myself into a corner, then spend the rest of the book writing myself out it. By the time the first draft is done, I have a skeletal structure for what the book will be. Sometimes it changes vastly with subsequent revisions, other times it remains fairly close to the original vision of it. But there are always rewrites. Lots and lots of rewrites.