Skip to main content

Interview: January 4, 2008

January 4, 2008

The author of eight novels, Kevin O'Brien is best known for his contributions to the thriller genre, such as THE NEXT TO DIE, LEFT FOR DEAD, KILLING SPREE and his most recent release, ONE LAST SCREAM.

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, O'Brien talks about what inspired the concept behind his latest chilling tale and discusses how he gave the book's details such an air of authenticity regarding his characters' backgrounds and behavior. He also explains why he turned to writing thrillers after publishing two works of mainstream fiction, shares advice with aspiring writers and names some of the authors who have influenced his own work over the years. ONE LAST SCREAM is a very complex story, a thriller that at its heart is a mystery concerning a series of murders that occurred in the past but that have very important, and dangerous, consequences in the present. Was there any particular incident --- past or present --- that inspired you to write this book?

Kevin O'Brien:That’s a great question, but a hard one to answer without a “Spoiler Alert” for folks who haven’t read ONE LAST SCREAM yet. So --- Spoiler Ahead! 

I’ve always been fascinated by twin telepathy, stories for example about how one twin feels a terrible, unexplainable pain in his arm while his twin brother --- hundreds of miles away --- accidentally burns his arm. I’ve always wanted to write a thriller exploring that phenomenon. Years ago, when I worked as a railroad inspector, a clerk at a freight station I periodically inspected told me this story about how friends claimed they’d seen her at this or that mall, or in this or that Seattle neighborhood --- only she’d ignored them. This woman didn’t remember any of these incidents. I recall her telling me: “You know, Kevin, I was adopted. And now I’m wondering if I have a twin sister I don’t know about.” Well, the next time I inspected that station, the woman told me about how she tracked down her twin sister, who had recently moved to the Seattle area. They shared a lot of the same idiosyncrasies, and her birth-twin had also been puzzled when friends claimed they’d seen her certain places she hadn’t been. That situation stuck in my head, and I used it as the springboard for the Amelia character in my book.

Of course, as a thriller writer, I needed to throw some murder and mayhem into that story. When I was working on my last thriller, KILLING SPREE, I wrote a scene with my heroine, a struggling author, walking through a darkened and nearly deserted parking lot after a book signing. A van starts to follow her, then it stops, and a man with his arm in a cast steps out of the vehicle. My heroine remembers how Ted Bundy wore a fake cast on his arm or leg to make his victims think he was stranded. She’s wary of this guy --- until his cute little daughter hops out of the minivan’s passenger side and joins her father. My heroine suddenly realizes that this guy isn’t dangerous. She ends up chatting with him and his little girl, and signs a book for his wife. But it dawned on me while I was writing the scene: What if this man is still a serial killer? What if he brings his cute daughter with him while he hunts for his victims? No one would suspect him. He uses his own daughter the same way Bundy used a fake cast --- as bait when he preys upon his victims.

To tell you the truth, it kind of creeped me out that I was capable of coming up with such a concept! Anyway, I decided this serial killer should have two daughters, twins. 

Then I decided the twins should be separated at an early age --- and the one twin we follow, Amelia, has no memory of anything before she was adopted at age four. And that’s how I started ONE LAST SCREAM.

BRC: One of the more interesting elements of the novel is the research that one of the characters undertakes in order to ascertain the background and ultimate identity of a young woman who had been adopted while still a small child. How did you research this to give your description the authenticity it has?

KO: In the book, Amelia’s therapist has a hard time tracking down Amelia’s birth parents, because there was a shooting at the adoption agency and the place was burned to the ground. I really struggled with the adoption issue, because how I wanted things to unfold wasn’t how it would realistically happen. A four-year-old with living parents wouldn’t end up at an adoption agency. The child would probably be placed in foster care. I talked to a friend who has a Masters in Social Work, and also interviewed a woman at an adoption agency here in Seattle. I kept asking them how a four-year-old in this situation could end up as Amelia did --- with records at an adoption agency. The woman I spoke with at the adoption place was incredibly helpful, and the scenario we discussed is pretty much what I used. But you might notice, I never really did explain exactly how Amelia was given up for adoption. I had a law professor friend of Amelia’s uncle explain to him possible scenarios for the situation --- and then I let my readers draw their own conclusions about what actually happened. I deliberately kept it vague. When you leave it up to the reader to fill in the blanks, what they come up with is always more solid and unshakable than any detailed (and often boring) explanation I could give as a writer.

By the way, that’s why I rarely give a blow-by-blow description of the actual murders in my books. I always take it up to a point, then pull back or cut to the next scene. I let the reader imagine what happens next. It’s far scarier than anything I could describe. When you make the reader work a little, it’s always more satisfying, intriguing and real to them.

BRC: Given the complexity of ONE LAST SCREAM, it would seem that you almost certainly created an outline of the story you wished to tell before you began writing. If that was indeed the case, how did you begin your outlining? Did you start with a synopsis, or with a description of the characters, or perhaps with something else?

KO: The outline for ONE LAST SCREAM was 82 pages long! My editor is a very patient man. Most editors want a general idea thrown at them --- no more than 10 pages, please. But I need to hatch everything out and know how the book will end before I actually begin writing it. I start out with one or a few general ideas --- like twin telepathy, the situation that happened to my friend at the railroads, and a serial killer using his sweet little girl as bait to trap his victims. It’s weird how the “obstacles” can force you to become creative.

This woman with the railroads realized she had a twin pretty early. I wondered how my character (Amelia) couldn’t arrive at the same conclusion. Here’s where I start to develop character. I figured if Amelia is young, screwed up, alcoholic and suffers from blackouts, she might interpret these episodes of twin telepathy as “lost time” during her blackouts. She wouldn’t think she might have a twin --- and neither would the reader. Instead, Amelia (and the reader) would assume that she is responsible for everything she has felt and envisioned through twin telepathy. So early plot strategizing usually helps me develop characters that will realistically push that plot forward. Then I write biographies of all the major characters to explain their present condition --- as well as their strengths, weaknesses, hang-ups and fears. A lot of stuff from these mini-biographies never makes it to the book, but it helps me understand the characters. With Amelia, I figured early on that readers would have a difficult time relating to an unsteady, unreliable central character. They’d need to latch onto someone else, and so I created Karen, a steady, reliable heroine, and Amelia’s therapist. So one thing leads to another and another, and so on.

BRC: ONE LAST SCREAM explicitly and implicitly explores some of the undercurrents, both good and bad, that exist in familial relationships as well as the psychological problems that can result from childhood abuse. Given that your vocational background is very different from medical or psychological study, how did you begin researching this field? Did you encounter any surprises? And did your research result in any change to the story by the time the book was completed?

KO: That’s a great question! Actually, I was a psychology minor in college; but that was 30 years ago. So, I needed a little help jogging my memory. My friend with the Masters in Social Work is a therapist, and I pumped him with a lot of questions. I also read a few books about twins, one of which was specifically about twin telepathy. Finally, you’ve got to love! I remember typing in “Multiple Personality” and reading several articles. Then I was able to confirm what the articles said with my therapist friend.

The only surprise for me --- and change I had to make --- was after I let a dear friend of mine, Cate Goethals, read the first draft. Cate has read the first draft (or parts of the first draft) of every book I’ve written. She is a writer and was once a reporter, covering the health beat. She told me that Karen --- in her first therapy session with Amelia --- was too aggressive and confrontational. In the original draft, Karen was practically interrogating her. But thanks to Cate, I toned it down a lot, and that gave a dose of compassion to the therapy session, which made the reader care more about both women in the scene. That scene set the tone for their relationship for the rest of the book, and I almost botched it! Anyone who thinks writers do it all by themselves is crazy. I’m very lucky to have such generous, intelligent friends helping me realize my vision for this book.

BRC: Like your previous books, ONE LAST SCREAM is a stand-alone title. Have you ever had the inclination to start a series?

KO: I really enjoy creating new characters every time I start a book. In most thriller series, the hero or heroine is a detective, private investigator, forensics expert or something along those lines. But that doesn’t interest me much. I like to write about the ordinary Joe or Jane whose life is suddenly in danger. This “amateur” detective must rise to the occasion to solve a murder or series of murders. It ups the ante for both the main character and the reader if this person is a fish out of water. In LEFT FOR DEAD, my hero, Tim, was a cop. Well, I didn’t want your standard expert cop there to solve his latest murder case. So, I made Tim a desk jockey on the police force. He got the job to put his kid brother through school. He’s far more interested in a comic strip he works on at night for a series of independent weekly newspapers. The comic has a small cult following, but isn’t making him enough money so he can quit the police force. Then suddenly, it’s up to this moonlighting comic strip writer/artist to solve the notorious Rembrandt Murders. I’ve had readers ask me to bring Tim back in another thriller. We’ll see. Never say never! 

BRC: Your first two books, ACTORS and ONLY SON, were mainstream fiction works and not thrillers. What made you turn to thriller writing?

KO: In a word, money! My agent had a tough time getting ONLY SON sold. Mainstream fiction is a very, very tough market. Once Kensington Books bought ONLY SON, my agent suggested I try writing a thriller, because that genre is quite popular. I’ve always loved thrillers and was a huge Hitchcock fan growing up, so she didn’t have to make the suggestion more than once. I wrote THE NEXT TO DIE (2001), and it became a USA Today bestseller. I’ve been writing thrillers ever since, about one a year.

BRC: I have read elsewhere that for many years you had worked as a railroad inspector during the day and wrote at night. What would you be doing now if you weren’t writing for a living? And what advice would you give to readers who are splitting their time between working and writing, hoping to get published?

KO: Back when I was in college, and I started writing short stories and screenplays (a couple of Hitchcock rip-off thrillers that never sold), I made a vow to myself to get published by the time I turned 30. My short stories --- like my two screenplays --- never sold, despite about 120 attempts at every magazine from the New Yorker to obscure little literary monthlies. I wrote my first book, ACTORS, in a creative writing class at a community college. I found my first agent through someone in that class, but she wasn’t having much luck selling the book. All the while, I was working for the railroads. The day after my 30th birthday, I got a call at 7 in the morning. I thought it was someone from the railroads and let the answering machine pick it up. I heard my agent singing “Happy Birthday” to me --- à la Marilyn Monroe to JFK. “For your birthday,” she said, after her serenading, “I’d like to tell you that we’ve sold ACTORS. And we have! Give me a call, honey…” So I was very glad I hadn’t thrown out my typewriter the day before. 

When ACTORS was released (1986), I got to know Terry Brooks (THE SWORD OF SHANNARA) and his wife, Judine. They’ve been so generous and supportive throughout my career. Terry and Judine gave me some terrific advice, too: “Don’t quit your day job until you’ve made enough money from your writing to live comfortably for two years.” In the next 10 years, I wrote a second book, which didn’t sell (I ended up shelving it), and ONLY SON. I was never crazy about my railroad job, but I did it well and the schedule (lots of hours driving around in my car, working alone, staying at hotels in little railroad towns, walking up and down between the tracks in rail yards) allowed me ample time to think and write.

I remember reading an interview with Lawrence Kasdan (BODY HEAT, THE BIG CHILL, etc.). He was asked what kind of job an aspiring screenwriter should seek --- for rent money --- while pursuing a writing career. Mr. Kasdan said they shouldn’t go for a job in advertising or public relations, because the aspiring screenwriter was bound to become creatively tapped in such a field --- with no energy to work on their screenplay or book. He said the aspiring writer will stay far more motivated if s/he parked cars for a living. My railroad job was like a glorified parking attendant job with perks: it paid well; I got to travel around the Pacific Northwest; I really enjoyed working with most of the people; and I was pretty good at the job. But I never stopped writing. So it’s hard to imagine what I’d be doing now if I weren't a writer. It’s a very scary thought! In 1997, I was offered a buy-out from the railroads. I had some money saved and had recently sold ONLY SON --- to my publisher, the movies, and Reader’s Digest  for their various US and foreign Select Editions(they put me with John Grisham and John Nance in the US edition --- pretty good company). It was a nice chunk of change, enough to live on for almost two years. (The movie version of ONLY SON never got made, but I got to keep the option money). So I echo Lawrence Kasdan’s advice to aspiring writers. Believe in yourself, keep writing and don’t get a fall-back job that you’ll fall back on.

BRC: On a somewhat related note, an author’s daily writing schedule is always of interest to our readers. What sort of schedule did you follow while you were plotting and writing ONE LAST SCREAM? Did it differ in any appreciable way from the one(s) that you followed while you were writing your other works?

KO: I’ve always been a night owl. It’s my best, most creative time. Right-brain time. In the early stages, when I’m working out the plot and characterizations for a new book, I tend to take a lot of rambling notes late at night (usually until 4 or 5 AM). Then the next day, I’ll drag myself out of bed at the crack of noon, pour a cup of coffee and revise/refine what I’ve written. This is my left-brain time. As I get closer to a deadline, I start working longer hours during the day and almost the entire night. By the last month, I’m always working like a maniac to get the book finished. It’s no mistake that the heroes and/or heroines in my books are usually sleep-deprived, frayed and haggard in the final few chapters. Those climactic chapters are always the most intense, too. It’s all a reflection of what I’m going through as I finish up a book. To keep from going completely insane, I’ll rent a season from a TV series and take a break from each night-time writing marathon, rewarding myself with an episode or two of "Seinfeld" or "Sex and the City." "My Name is Earl" was the breather/reward during the hellish last two weeks when I was writing the conclusion to ONE LAST SCREAM. I even gave the show a plug in my book.

BRC: What are you working on currently? Do you have a number of ideas for novels that you keep in reserve, or do you consider only one book at a time?

KO: After recently reading another one of my marathon outlines (86 pages), my editor has given the thumbs up for my next book. So I’m working on that right now. It’s about a correspondent for a TV newsmagazine. She does a human interest segment called “Movers & Shakers,” each week focusing on an intriguing character. Maybe it’s an inventor or an eccentric, a hero or a rebel. When some of the people she has profiled in the past start to turn up dead, our heroine realizes someone has a grudge against her and the heroes in her segments. I can’t say any more without giving it away. I always have a few ideas brewing, but I haven’t bounced any of them off my editor yet. So they’ll stay on the back burner while I work on this new book.

BRC: Your acknowledgments in ONE LAST SCREAM refer to your editors, John Scognamiglio and Doug Mendini, as your friends. How closely did you work with them in getting the book completed? Were there any changes they suggested along the way that may be of interest to our readers?

KO: I’m very lucky to be friends with my editor, John, and with my publisher’s sales and marketing guru, Doug. Aside from the fact that they’re wonderful, classy guys, they also look after my career. I always bounce my story ideas off them in the early stages, and John usually finds some way to tweak the idea, make it more compelling and page-turning. He also seems to know when I need a kick in the pants, motivating me to go into overdrive to finish a book. “Kevin, I’m putting on my editor’s cap here, and reminding you that you promised to have this manuscript done three weeks ago…” If it weren’t for John, I’d never get any of my books finished. Once I submit the book, John always comes back with helpful suggestions.

In KILLING SPREE, I have a scene with the killer picking up a hitchhiker. Then they stop at a roadside diner. I faded out later in the car, with the hitchhiker realizing he’d been drugged. Next thing you know, someone finds the hitchhiker’s body with his heart surgically removed. Well, after reading the manuscript, John suggested that I show the reader how and where the killer performed this surgery. He felt --- as written --- the murder was too vague. I added a sequence in which the villain has moved this unconscious man onto a picnic table in a closed campsite area late at night, and he’s setting out the tools and lights to perform surgery. It was one of the creepiest scenes I’ve ever written --- and yet I never described any of the cutting or bloodletting. John seems to know whenever a scene can be milked for more suspense or chills. And when something rings untrue to him, he tells me about it and saves me from making a fool out of myself.

As for Doug, he often lets me know early on if an idea is marketable. He also gives me tips about when to schedule book signings and trips. He gives me a lot of encouragement, and he busts his chops to make sure my book is in all the stores. I often hear from bookstore owners or managers, “Oh, we love Doug Mendini here.” I dedicated ONE LAST SCREAM to Doug. THE LAST VICTIM was dedicated to John. If it weren’t for them, I’d still be inspecting railroad cars.

BRC: A number of our readers maintain lists of authors who they “must read” whenever such an author publishes a new novel. Does Kevin O’Brien have a “must read” list? If so, who is on it? And what authors have influenced your own work in the thriller genre or otherwise?

KO: My agent turned me on to Tess Gerritsen three years ago, and I’ve gobbled up most of her thrillers. So a few months back, when my agent emailed me a review quote from Tess for ONE LAST SCREAM, I was honored and flabbergasted.

I’ve always been a big Pat Conroy fan and met him at a signing about 20 years ago. He was the coolest, nicest guy. My first book, ACTORS, had recently been published when I met him. To my amazement, the signing wasn’t very well attended, and Mr. Conroy spent a half-hour telling me about the ups and downs of publishing a first novel. As I was ready to take my autographed copy of THE PRINCE OF TIDES to the register, he grabbed my book off the store shelf, slapped down his money on the front counter and asked me to sign it for him. How classy can you get?

I read a lot of Anne Tyler before starting to write ONLY SON. I had to be inside my characters’ heads quite a lot through the book, and Anne Tyler is so darn good at that. Several John Grisham books, Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD and Ira Levin were very influential in my early thrillers. For ONE LAST SCREAM, I read a lot of true crime, Ann Rule’s THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, in particular. Ann is one of several wonderful writers I’ve gotten to know here in Seattle, and she’s a total doll. Terry Brooks is another, and John Saul is yet another. They’ve been very supportive and encouraging. So of course, they’re always on my “must read” list.

I’m also in a “Writers Group.” There are only three of us: Soyon Im, Garth Stein and myself. They’re on my “must read” list, too. With Soyon and Garth, I have the privilege of reading their first drafts and getting their feedback on my own first drafts. Soyon has published several stories, and I predict she’ll have her book (about an Asian girl growing up in Mississippi) published within two years. Garth has already published two books; his latest, THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, is due in stores this May and destined to be a mega-bestseller. It’s brilliant, and his publisher is giving it a very-justified, big build-up.

The writing process can be pretty lonely at times. But no writer does it alone. As I mentioned before, I’m very lucky to have friends and colleagues who are so talented and generous. I’m also grateful to all those terrific people who have put me on their “must read” list. I hope they enjoy ONE LAST SCREAM.

And on the subject of gratitude, thanks very much for talking with me!