Interview: April 1, 2011
In Gregg Olsen's newest thriller, CLOSER THAN BLOOD, Detective Kendall Stark --- first introduced in VICTIM SIX --- investigates a former classmate who has recently murdered her husband. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Joe Hartlaub, Olsen discusses the appeal of "black widow" characters, the use of violence in his writing, and the controversial relationships between older women and teenage boys that have captivated America in recent years. He also reveals which of his novels he would most like to see made into a movie and hints at his future writing plans.
Bookreporter.com: CLOSER THAN BLOOD is somewhat different from your previous novels. While featuring the return of Sheriff's Detective Kendall Stark from 2010's VICTIM SIX, it concerns a multiple killer who is not so much opportunistic as one who uses murder to acquire material wealth...or something else. The murderer is Tori Connelly, a high school classmate of Stark's who murders her own husband in their home and frames someone else for the act. Stark and Tori are linked by a tragic occurrence that took place during their senior year, one that changed the trajectory of both of their lives. And even though the murder of Tori's husband is outside of her jurisdiction, she conducts her own investigation into Tori's past, revealing that the murder of Tori's husband is but one of a series of deaths connected to her. It is a variation on the classic "black widow" theme, and an intriguing one given a number of unusual elements in the book that we'll discuss in a second. What attracted you to the "black widow" killer as a plotline for this book?
Gregg Olsen: Who doesn't love a black widow, especially an over-the-top one like Tori? I wrote about a real-life husband killer in my book, CONFESSIONS OF AN AMERICAN BLACK WIDOW, which was about over-sexed, greedy, and cold-as-a-glacier Sharon Nelson. I tackled the same theme with my book, BITTER ALMONDS, about murderer Stella Nickell. Studying those women, and others like them, drew me to the storyline portrayed in CLOSER THAN BLOOD. Is there anything more terrifying than lying next to your future killer every night in bed? Not knowing, of course, what they are thinking, plotting? In both of the real-life books I mentioned, the women were bed-hopping narcissists. That personality type is always fun to write about. Tori is much more complicated than that, of course, and that makes her more than a one-dimensional villainess. She has lots of tentacles, don't you think?
BRC: One of the more unique elements of the book is that it slowly counts down to the occurrence of a high school reunion. Such events are time-honored traditions, experienced by some, endured by others. Stark is on the committee planning the reunion, as is Lainie O'Neal, Tori's identical twin, from whom she has been estranged for several years. I thought that the countdown provided a dark counterpoint for the acts and events that were taking place as the date for the reunion approached. How do you regard high school reunions? Do you enjoy them, or do they make you want to commit murder? Or both?
GO: You make me laugh! I actually have never been to my class reunion. Not exactly sure why that is...maybe they haven't had any or maybe I've been kept off the list for some reason! One time, I stumbled into a hotel bar where they were having a class reunion for another school, and I was able to enjoy it without being a part of it.
BRC: Lainie and Tori are identical twins, discernable only by the differences in their styles and, as becomes obvious, their moral compasses. I don't think I am telling tales out of school when I say that men are fascinated by twin sisters for any number of reasons (which we won't go into here), but the differences between the two were especially compelling here. Did you model the O'Neal sisters after anyone in particular?
GO: Thank goodness you asked that question. As the father of grown twin daughters, I'm happy to nip in the bud any notion that my own girls were models for Tori and Lainie. And if I was stupid enough to do so, the mean twin would kill me. Not that there is a mean twin.
BRC: I also noticed --- or at least it was my impression --- that you seemed to tone down the gory descriptions here as compared to your previous work, no shortage of bodies notwithstanding. Was there any reason for this other than for a creative change-up?
GO: VICTIM SIX was a dark, dark, dark book. Did I say dark? Because the villains were sexual sadists, it had to be graphic in a way that I know was unsettling for many of my readers. How do I know this? They cornered me at Costco! I've always concentrated on the psychology behind serial killers, and much of the violence in my novels takes place off the page --- in the mind --- where things are often scarier.
BRC: Another interesting element in CLOSER THAN BLOOD was the side trip that Stark took to Hawaii to investigate the death of Tori's first husband, which had occurred under mysterious circumstances a decade before. Your description of the locale seemed, at least to my eyes, to be a boots on the ground account. Did you make the trip, or base it on research? If you visited Hawaii yourself, what did you do while you were there?
GO: I love Hawaii and have visited many times, including the places described in CLOSER THAN BLOOD. I have to admit that I have a fascination with horrible things happening in beautiful places, and yes, to beautiful people. Every time a story surfaces about someone who died under mysterious circumstances on a cruise ship, I'm glued to the TV. There's something about being in a beautiful place on a happy occasion...and have it all yanked away in a terrible murder or mysterious death.
BRC: CLOSER THAN BLOOD also deals with a subject that is becoming increasingly controversial: the seduction of teenage boys by older women. Most people would agree that seduction of teenage girls under the age of consent by an adult male is forbidden, but the same act performed by an adult woman with a teenaged minor male, while also illegal, is not necessarily greeted with the same outrage. When you addressed this topic here, did you do it with some trepidation? And did you feel the need to draw back at any particular point?
GO: Having covered Mary Kay Letourneau in my book, IF LOVING YOU IS WRONG, I have lived with the questions and controversies for 10 years. I have had more than my share of emails from people who think that it's OK for a woman to "teach" a boy about love. Ugh. The truth is that sexual manipulation of a teenage boy by an adult woman is wrong on every level. Sure, the boy might boast to his buddies about what he's doing, but it doesn't address the long-term ramifications of such relationships. Many of these situations end up very, very badly. A few famous cases have involved murder of the husband by a young lover. Sex is a powerful driver, and the woman knows it, uses it. I think the situation is outrageous. We shouldn't just wink and look the other way. In the past week, we've had two more teacher/student affairs out here in Washington. Wish those ladies would focus on the classroom and not the bedroom.
BRC: Given the subject matter --- a woman uses her sensuality with a sinister and deadly twist --- I could not help but be put in the mind of Body Heat, a film that explores similar territory (though Tori Connelly makes Matty Walker look like a Girl Scout!). Which of your books would you most like to see made into a movie?
GO: I LOVE Body Heat! Double Indemnity! The Postman Always Rings Twice! I think that the character of Tori (or Torrid, as those haters behind her back call her) would be a wonderful addition to the club of femme fatales who've made it to the screen. So I'd say, CLOSER THAN BLOOD. However, if anyone was interested in making a scary slasher-type film...look no further than VICTIM SIX. Buy popcorn and close your eyes at the scary parts.
BRC: Great writers read, and great readers are always looking for something new. What have you read in the past year that you would care to recommend to our readers?
GO: So many books so little time, right? I like to read a variety of things, though most link to some kind of crime. I loved M. William Phelps's THE DEVIL'S ROOMING HOUSE (a historical true crime that tells the story behind the play Arsenic & Old Lace). I've been reading a lot more YA fiction lately and can heartily recommend the Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy. Other books that got my heart pumping this past year were Lee Child's newest Jack Reacher and Harlen Coben's THE WOODS (ok, I'm just catching up with everyone else!).
BRC: CLOSER THAN BLOOD contains an excerpt from your next book. What would you like to tell us about it? Will Kendall Stark be back? And will you continue to delve further into her background?
GO: There is a big revelation made concerning Kendall near the end of the novel, but unfortunately for those who want to know what happens with that, you'll have to wait. The novel I'm writing now takes place here in the Pacific Northwest, but does not feature Kendall. After that class reunion, I hope my readers will agree that she needs a little time off. She's earned it!
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