Interview: January 16, 2009
January 16, 2009
In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Joe Hartlaub, Kevin O'Brien --- author of 10 novels, including ONE LAST SCREAM, KILLING SPREE and THE LAST VICTIM --- credits his sister and brother-in-law for the inspiration and first-hand research behind his latest thriller, FINAL BREATH, and discusses how his childhood love for television series like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "The Twilight Zone" helped shape his writing style. He also reveals the origins of some of his books' supernatural elements, describes why his hometown of Seattle is so conducive to creative endeavors, and shares details about his next project, tentatively titled VICIOUS.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read FINAL BREATH yet, you may want to proceed with caution as some plot details are revealed in this interview.
Bookreporter.com: FINAL BREATH proceeds along a couple of very interesting and very different tracks. One concerns Sydney Jordan, who hosts “Movers & Shakers,” a television news feature that spotlights everyday people who have selflessly performed a heroic act, just as Sydney herself once did. A serial murderer is going after people who have been featured on “Movers & Shakers,” killing each of them in a way that bears a relationship to the manner in which they saved another’s life. This is a fascinating, if horrific, concept, and one that provides --- as you so often do --- a new twist on an old theme. Was there any particular incident, real-world or fictitious, that started you on this plot line?
Kevin O'Brien: At least once a week, someone tells me, “I have a terrific idea for a thriller novel and you should write it!” Some of those ideas are pretty good, too. But I can’t use them, even with the person’s written permission. It’s just too risky --- a lawsuit waiting to happen! But when a family member throws an idea my way, I figure that’s safe. My sister, Mary Lou, came up with the original idea for FINAL BREATH. [SPOILER ALERT HERE, FOLKS!] A friend of hers had saved a boy from drowning, and Mary Lou had a weird “what if” notion about the incident. What if that rescued boy had abusive parents, a thoroughly miserable life, and he’d been trying to drown himself? He’d wanted to die, and this “hero” ruined that. Several miserable years follow, and the boy --- now grown up --- has become more and more bitter toward his rescuer, and heroes in general. The boy’s rescuer becomes a police detective. When heroes start dying violently, it’s up to this detective to hunt down the “hero killer.” I really fell in love with the idea.
So, for FINAL BREATH, I took my sister’s notion and altered it a little. I made the hero a woman. Maybe it sounds sexist, but it’s always more compelling when a woman --- rather than a man --- is being stalked. Instead of having her be a police detective, I made her a correspondent for a prime time TV newsmagazine called “Movers & Shakers.” That’s where another one of my family members comes in. My brother-in-law, Mike Leonard, is a correspondent for NBC’s "Today Show." He creates fascinating, often quirky and funny vignettes about everyday people. I didn’t have to go far researching Sydney’s job and all it entailed. Anyway, most of the credit for the idea behind FINAL BREATH goes to my wonderful sister, Mary Lou, and for the TV connection setup, I can thank my brother-in-law, Mike. Here’s hoping neither of them sue me!
BRC: The second track you follow in FINAL BREATH involves Eli Jordan, Sydney’s son, who is disturbed and heartbroken over his parents’ separation and moving with his mother from Chicago to Seattle. Their new residence is reputed to be haunted, and indeed, Eli seems to be visited by the spirit of a boy his age who was murdered there. Eli doggedly begins to personally revive the long-dormant investigation for the boy’s killer. As I read that plot track, I was reminded of some of the boy detective stories I read when I was younger, such as The Hardy Boys and Ken Holt. Did you read any of these series? And did you intend that plot track of FINAL BREATH as an homage to them?
KO: I hate to admit it, but I never read The Hardy Boys when I was growing up! Until late high school, I didn’t do much pleasure reading at all. I was a TV lover, especially thrillers. "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "The Twilight Zone," "Thriller" and "One Step Beyond" were my favorites as a kid. They scared the hell out of me to the point that I slept with a baseball bat at my bedside. Still, I tuned in to these programs every week, and even switched off all the lights in the TV room to make it an even scarier experience! How sick and twisted was I?
Anyway, in answer to your question, I created Eli’s story because I’ve always enjoyed writing about teenagers and their growing pains. Nearly all of my books have a main character who is a teenager --- feeling alienated from his parents, struggling at school, worried about his sexuality or whatever. They’re usually my favorite characters, too: from Sam in ONLY SON (realizing that his loving dad had abducted him from his true parents when he was an infant) to Eli in FINAL BREATH. I’m always happy when I receive emails from teenage readers who relate to these characters. It’s especially gratifying when they tell me that I helped them get more interested in reading.
BRC: On a related note, Eli solves the mystery with dogged detective work and a bit of deceit. Many of your earliest influences were in the science-fiction/fantasy and horror genres. What mystery writers and/or characters have influenced and continue to influence you?
KO: I didn’t know it when I was a kid, propped in front of the TV, but those shows were penned by some of the best authors of the 20th century: Ray Bradbury, Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain), Roald Dahl, Robert Block, Sterling Silliphant, Cornell Woolrich, Phillip Roth, John Cheever, Richard Levinson and William Link, and of course, Rod Serling. Their work still influences me today. As for contemporary thriller/mystery authors, I’m a big fan of Stephen King, John Grisham, Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Jackson. And of course, there are a ton of wonderful fantasy/thriller/horror authors here in Seattle, and many are friends of mine, including Terry Brooks, John Saul and Gregg Olsen.
BRC: The supernatural aspects of FINAL BREATH beg the question: Do you believe in spirits? Have you had any personal encounters? Does Seattle have any well-known haunted residences?
KO: I’m a sucker for a good ghost story. I’ve never had any ghostly encounters myself, but when people start swapping stories about their brushes with the supernatural, I’m all ears. I’m especially intrigued by the more subtle, spooky stuff. When I was researching MAKE THEM CRY, I spoke with an ex-priest, who in his travels, had stayed overnight at another rectory. While trying to sleep, he heard a woman’s muffled crying in the empty bedroom next door on the first floor. When he asked the host priests about it the next morning, they nonchalantly told him the other bedroom was haunted. Years before, the priests had allowed a young, homeless woman to stay the night, and she’d killed herself in that bedroom. Ever since, guests who stayed in the rectory’s first floor bedrooms mentioned the mysterious sobbing. That story gave me the idea for the “haunted” room in the boys’ dorm in MAKE THEM CRY.
For FINAL BREATH, I borrowed ghost stories from several friends. So those disturbing, otherworldly sensations Eli experiences at night in his bedroom (the feeling that someone sat down on the side of his bed while he was in it; the weird disturbances next door in the bathroom, etc.) are all based on actual incidents.
In answer to your other question, yes, there are some well-known Seattle spots that are allegedly haunted. One of the more famous is the Harvard Exit Theater, only a few blocks from where I live, and the location for the first murder in FINAL BREATH. It’s a terrific, old three-story brick building that houses two movie theaters. They show a lot of independent and foreign features. But apparently, it’s also haunted. According to this acquaintance of mine, her boyfriend used to work there, but found it too creepy closing the place at night because of the “ghosts.” The Harvard Exit is included in a “Haunted Seattle” tour, and you can check it out on www.spookedinseattle.com.
BRC: Part of FINAL BREATH takes place in Chicago, your original hometown, but the majority of the book takes place in Seattle, where you now reside. Why do you think that so many authors find Seattle attractive as a place of residence, in general? And what, specifically, do you find attractive about the city?
KO: I moved to Seattle in 1980. I’d been working as a clerk for the Association of American Railroads in Washington, DC, and writing Hitchcock rip-off screenplays at night. I had it pretty cushy, living with my folks in my own little suite in the basement (we’d moved from Chicago to Fairfax, Virginia in 1974). But I was 24, the only child still living with Mom and Dad, and afraid of becoming the block’s Boo Radley. So when they told me at work about an opening for a transportation inspector in Seattle, I bid for it. I fell in love with Seattle right away. It has a gorgeous landscape, relatively mild weather and a liberal attitude. Everywhere you go in Seattle, there are beautiful views --- of the mountains, the water or the cityscape. As for the attitude, my niece, Kate, had an experience here that sums it all up. During one of her visits, she was at the supermarket, standing in the checkout line behind a young mother with her toddler, who was dressed in a pink ballet outfit, complete with tutu and a princess crown. My niece smiled at the child and said, “My, that’s a very pretty outfit!” The mother gave Kate a wry smile. “Yes, he loves it. He wears it all the time.” As Kate said later, “Welcome to Seattle!” Could you ask for a better environment to encourage creativity and individuality? Plus, there are so many colorful Seattle locations that can be weaved into fiction --- especially thrillers. I think the rain inspires a lot of writing, reading and movie-going, too.
The authors I’ve meet in Seattle are incredibly helpful to one another --- at least, in my experience. When my first novel, ACTORS, was published in 1986, I met Terry Brooks and his wife, Judine. Judine got me my first author’s gig. I was one of seven authors at a Waldenbooks Convention in San Francisco. I sat at the authors’ banquet table --- right beside Anne Rice. My first author event, and there I was, chatting away with Anne Rice. How cool is that? Through Terry and Judine, I also met John Saul, who in turn introduced me to his agent (now my agent, too). Thanks to writers’ conventions and author parties, I’ve gotten to know Ann Rule, Gregg Olsen, Donna Anders, Debbie Macomber, Susan Wiggs, Earl Emerson and Mary Daheim. I’m in the same writers group with Garth Stein, whose novel, THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, was on The New York Times Bestseller list for most of the summer. Through Garth, I’ve recently met Stephanie Kallos, Randy Sue Coburn, Jennie Shortridge and Mark Lindquist. Several of the writers here show up at each others’ book signings to show their support. It’s really very nice. From time to time, I’ve considered moving away from Seattle, but then I tell myself: I can’t leave here, I’m a Seattle author.
BRC: FINAL BREATH, as readers have seen with your other novels, follows a complex plot. Have you ever found yourself to be working on two separate novels and decided that the direction in which they were going worked better as one, longer novel? Conversely, have you ever found that you had plot lines in a novel that seemed to diverge from each other and worked better as separate novels?
KO: Well, I’ve never tried working on two novels at the same time. I don’t think I could handle the pressure! I have a tough enough time getting one 400-page thriller written by the publisher’s deadline every year. Plus, my books seem to get longer and more complex as I go along. I always start out thinking, “I need to make the next book shorter, and keep it simple, for God’s sake!” But then things usually get more complicated as I develop the characters and create their backstories. But that’s the fun part --- all the baggage these characters bring to the overall story. It helps explain how they get in the jams they’re in. So I’ve never meshed two separate novels into one. But I’ve taken scenes, side stories and even character idiosyncrasies that were dropped from one book and then used them in another. In ONE LAST SCREAM, Karen, the therapist who got dumped by her longtime boyfriend, went through a bitter phase in which she resented every happy couple she set eyes on. She loathed stepping aside for them on the sidewalk, and she sneered at them in the supermarket checkout line, thinking: “Go ahead and get your stupid boyfriend to pick up eleven more last-minute items while you stand in line in front of me. I really don’t mind…” I liked that little bit of characterization, but it just didn’t work for Karen. So I dropped it. Then when I was writing about the suicidal, severely-burned-in-love Chloe Finch, in FINAL BREATH, that brand of bitterness was perfect for her character. So I used it there. I realized early: Never throw anything out!
BRC: You mentioned that you were a huge fan of such shows as “The Twilight Zone,” “Thriller,” “One Step Beyond” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” What elements of these shows have most influenced your own work?
KO: I recently watched online an episode from "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" called An Unlocked Window, written by James Bridges. (If you Google: “hulu, an unlocked window,” you can watch the whole thing). It’s about two nurses stranded in an old, dark house (actually, the Psycho house) on a rainy night while a nurse-strangler is at large in the neighborhood. The show is a bit dated, and today’s sophisticated viewers will probably figure out early the surprise twist in the horrifying finale. But, when I saw An Unlocked Window in my family’s darkened TV room in 1964, it scared the hell out of me and left a lasting impression.
Watching it again recently, I realized how similar my writing style is to this TV program! The show opened with a nurse walking home alone late at night from a house call, and she’s attacked and murdered. I almost always open my thrillers with a murder --- or the discovery of a dead body. The show then introduced the two nurses in their patient’s bedroom in this creepy old house. They’re watching a TV news broadcast about the latest nurse murder. We get the background on them, and the threat slowly builds. Every commercial break left the viewer hanging --- usually with a shot of an unlocked basement window flapping in the rainstorm. This is the only unlocked entry into that old, dark house where the two nurses are stranded. I must have learned from TV shows like this how to keep the reader wanting more at every chapter end. The story built to a very scary climax --- with a sudden twist. I try to deliver that in my books, too. Of course, this is all classic thriller-writing stuff, but I learned it from TV. By the way, after watching An Unlocked Window back in 1964, I slept with the lights on and a bat at my bedside that night. The program was the talk of the school playground the next day.
BRC: You dedicate FINAL BREATH to your brother-in-law. Can you share why you did that?
KO: Denny Kinsella is a teacher, and a very cool guy. He’s been married to my sister for 40 years. My parents moved from Chicago’s North Shore to Fairfax, Virgina two weeks before I started at Marquette University in Milwaukee. I used to take occasional weekend breaks from school and catch the train (a two-hour trip) to the Glenview station to visit Denny, Mary Lou and their two daughters, so their house became my home away from home. I still stay there whenever I visit the Chicago area. I figured the least I could do for Denny was dedicate a book to him --- after he has put me up and put up with me all these years. Plus, he helped me figure out a lot of the Chicago locations for FINAL BREATH. And he reads about three mystery-thrillers a week. How could a thriller writer not love a guy like that?
BRC: Are there any novels, in any genre, that you have read in the last six months that you would recommend to our readers?
KO: Well, I’d be a total jerk not to plug my friends’ books. In the case of THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN by Garth Stein, it’s such a good book --- so heartfelt, smart and involving --- I can’t even be jealous of the tremendous success Garth has had with it. I loved this book. Garth introduced me to Jennie Shortridge a while back, and she’s a hoot. So I had to check out her new novel, LOVE AND BIOLOGY AT THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE, about a devoted, 45-year-old wife and mother making a fresh start after her husband dumps her. It’s a delicious book, and I fell in love with Mira, the main character. John Connolly’s THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS is wonderful. I also gobbled up John Saul’s latest thrill ride, FACES OF FEAR. I recently talked at length with author Mark Lindquist at a party at Garth and Drella Stein’s house. Mark’s wife, Chelsea, was telling me how my last thriller, ONE LAST SCREAM, terrified her. How much did I love hearing that? So the next day, I went out and bought Mark’s book, THE KING OF METHLEHEM. That’s next on my reading list.
BRC: What are you currently working on?
KO: The tentative title for this next one is VICIOUS (my wonderful editor, John Scognamiglio, comes up with all my book titles). It’s about a serial killer who terrorized Seattle for two years. The police called him Mama’s Boy, because his victims were all mothers --- abducted in front of their sons. In every case, the women were later found dead. Then in 2005, the killing stopped. Or at least, it appeared to have stopped. Four years later, Susan Blanchette, a widow with a toddler son, has come to a rustic resort town in the San Juan Islands, north of Seattle, for a weekend getaway with her fiancé. When her fiancé suddenly disappears, Susan suspects that the trio of seemingly nice college students in the cabin a mile down the road might have something to do with it. And you can bet that Mama’s Boy has something to do with it, too. That’s all I’m going to say for now.
Thanks so much for all those terrific questions. It’s always a pleasure to talk with Bookreporter.com.
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