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Interview: March 13, 2009

March 13, 2009

Gregg Olsen's latest work, HEART OF ICE, marks the return of protagonists Sheriff Emily Kenyon and her daughter Jenna, who were first introduced in last year's A COLD DARK PLACE. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Olsen explains what prompted him to resurrect these two characters despite his earlier objections to writing series, but discusses why they won't be making any more appearances in his work in the near future. He also reveals what fascinates him most about the inner workings of killers, gives his two cents on the nature vs. nurture argument, and shares details about two upcoming projects --- a true crime book due out next winter and a serial-killer thriller called VICTIM SIX. HEART OF ICE features the return of Cherrystone, Washington Sheriff Emily Kenyon, who you introduced in A COLD DARK PLACE. You have previously written nonfiction work and stand-alone thrillers. What made you decide to bring back Emily and her supporting characters in a second novel?

Gregg Olsen: I said I’d never do a continuing character, but honestly, I liked Emily and Jenna enough from A COLD DARK PLACE that they seemed worthy of a comeback of sorts. I liked the idea of Jenna being older, having survived what happened to her in COLD DARK. Look, I’m not saying that Emily, Chris and Jenna are/were living beings that I just had to bring back. We hear writers all the time talk about how “real” their creations are. Honestly, that kind of talk used to seem silly to me…until I thought about the possibilities of the people I was writing about. Hey, I might even bring Hannah Griffin back from A WICKED SNOW some day. She’s still looking for her own boogieman, or boogie mom. Maybe she should catch her in another book? What do you think?

BRC: HEART OF ICE is a chilling novel, dealing with two frightening and seemingly unconnected killers. You are actually telling two stories here. One deals with a serial killer who has targeted a specific set of individuals, including Jenna Kenyon, Emily’s daughter. You reveal his identity early on; the motive behind his pursuit is the mystery that you ever so slowly reveal, even as we learn about the killer’s tragic, horrific past. The other killer, who is pursued by Emily Kenyon, is totally unknown to the reader until the very end of the book. The difference between the two juxtapositioned mysteries provides a tautness that moved the novel along quite nicely. Did you intend to tell these two stories in such a different manner when you began writing HEART OF ICE? Or did the idea to do so come to you as you were completing the manuscript?

GO: My editor at Kensington has told me time and again that a thriller is thrilling even when you know who the killer is and who the intended victim is. That’s the point, right? The ticking of the clock as someone gets ready to pounce. Don’t go upstairs! We readers know that something very, very bad is about to happen. And yet, I find myself wanting to dig into the mystery side of things. If I’m going to have a serial killer stalking someone, I’d like to know as much as I can about him (or her). In HEART OF ICE I have the best of both worlds. To answer the last part of your question, I think I do take a more organic approach to my writing. I do a synopsis and rough outline and then let the story take me where I need to go.

BRC: The killers in your novels in general, and in HEART OF ICE in particular, are electrifying. Michael Barton, the serial killer who targets Jenna Kenyon, is unforgettable on several levels: his horrific childhood, his normal if somewhat eccentric outward demeanor, and his internal turbulence that ultimately results in his violent acting out. What characteristics does Barton share with serial murderers who you encountered in your research for your nonfiction works? In your opinion, are there a lot of Michael Bartons out there?
GO: This is a bit like sympathy for the devil, I guess. But I do think that for the most part killers are made, not born. My research and writing in true crime bears that out. People who do the unthinkable, for the most part, have had the unthinkable done to them. Not all. But most. That doesn’t mean that everyone who has been the victim of sex abuse, torture, or emotional neglect becomes a killer. We all know that. I have no idea how many Michael Bartons are really out there, but I am intrigued by the idea of the mask that some killers wear. When you think about it, aren’t the most mundane murderers the most frightening? Aren’t the killers who catch you off guard the ones who chill you to the bone? When the monster looks like a monster, we know to run as fast as we can, right?

BRC: Interestingly enough, it is Olivia Barton, Michael’s wife, who is almost as interesting as Michael himself, although in a markedly different way. She is such a good, decent person that one has the sense she could almost --- almost --- redeem him if he would just reveal more of himself to her, something that he is afraid to do, for obvious reasons. Do real-world Michael Bartons attract Olivias? Or are their significant others more likely to be passive observers who attempt to ignore the obvious?
GO: Your questions are intriguing here. I think many people are tortured by something they hold inside and wish that they could be healed, fixed, by telling someone. I don’t know that serial killers agonize over what they do, but plenty of people with dark secrets wish they could share them. Maybe sharing something could stop a compulsive behavior? Michael understands intellectually what he’s doing is wrong, but the compulsion and rage cannot be stopped. Olivia loves him for what he has revealed to her as a husband and father. There are many women like Oliva who think they can fix or change the men they love. Maybe he drinks. Maybe he’s smacked her around. Maybe he gambles and she has to work two jobs to keep a roof over their heads. Predators and victims have a knack for finding each other --- they go wherever the hunting is good.

BRC: You end HEART OF ICE on a note that could easily result in a series of several more novels featuring Emily Kenyon, although in a different capacity. What plans do you have for her? And will you continue to utilize Jenna Kenyon in future works to the degree that you have in the past?
GO: I don’t think Emily or Jenna will be back any time soon. Sometimes I feel that the serial killer thriller/mystery genre suffers from a Jessica Fletcher syndrome…just how many friends of hers can actually be murdered? Serial killers are exceedingly rare and it seems unlikely that Emily would face off with yet another. Having said that, I have considered the idea of putting Jenna in a lead role. She’s been through so much, and as a young person she could possibly reinvent herself as a victim’s advocate, working a case from the other side. I’d like to write from a young woman’s perspective --- because I have twin daughters in their 20s and I think observing them could give me a leg up.
BRC: What serial murderer have you encountered in the course of your research who has terrified you the most?
GO: I always go back to Ted Bundy. I’m from the Northwest and I will never forget the fear that swept through our region during those days. The idea that someone so seemingly normal could do so much evil is chilling. I corresponded with Ted when he was on death row in Florida. He signed his letters, “Peace, Ted.” I’m not sure if he was being ironic or not.

BRC: You have been steadily creating an enviable body of work. Is there any novel you have written that is your particular favorite?

GO: I’m sure that most authors are like me --- they love the book they are working on. When you think about it, you are investing your heart and soul (and every night and weekend!) in the creation of something that you hope will enlighten or entertain. HEART OF ICE might be my favorite for a long time because someone told me that while she didn’t condone anything that Michael did, she felt a little sorry for him. Sorry for a serial killer? That’s an interesting concept.

BRC: On a related note, I heard that your true crime work, STARVATION HEIGHTS, has been optioned for film. What can you share with us about this?
GO: Tracy Letts, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for drama, has written an amazing script. The story of Dr. Linda Hazzard and her fasting sanitarium is worthy of a movie. I hope it happens, but then again, Hollywood isn’t a sure thing. Is it?

BRC: An excerpt from your next, unnamed thriller is included at the conclusion of HEART OF ICE. Can you tell us anything about that work? What else are you working on?
GO: The new book for Kensington is called VICTIM SIX and, really, I think it is my first 100 percent serial killer thriller. While there are a few elements of a mystery, those things take a backseat to the serial killer known as the Cutter as evil unfolds in a quiet coastal town in Washington. This is the darkest book I’ve ever written. Hey, I live in a quiet coastal town in Washington and what I’m writing creeps me out. I think readers will enjoy the new novel --- I just have to get it finished! I do have some other news --- my first new true crime book in a good long while will be out in Winter 2010. The story concerns the death of a minister’s wife and the goings on at his church. Nothing, as we like to say, is as it seems. Especially in real life!

BRC: I notice that your novels are generally published in late winter, and that your titles of late --- HEART OF ICE, A COLD DARK PLACE, A WICKED SNOW --- reflect that. Is the symmetry between the titles and the release dates by accident or by design? And will we be seeing a thaw in the titles, if not in subject matter, any time in the foreseeable future?
GO: My editor, Michaela Hamilton, came up with the concept of linking the books by name and imagery as a way to give me a bit of a brand as I enter a very competitive paperback arena. Michaela and the team at Kensington are busy working on cover concepts for VICTIM SIX right now. I have no idea which way they are going. I don’t mind. I like to be in suspense as much as my readers.

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