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Interview: March 29, 2012

In Kevin O’Brien’s latest thriller, TERRIFIED, a woman believed to have been murdered by her husband is actually hiding under a false identity with her young son. Everyone thought that the body found near their former home was hers --- until now. In this interview, conducted by’s Joe Hartlaub, O’Brien discusses the source of his inspiration for creating dark, evil and twisted characters. He also shares his ideal casting for a hypothetical movie version of the novel, describes his typical process for writing books, and recommends some of his recent favorite reads. TERRIFIED, your new novel, takes a couple of familiar themes and gives them interesting twists. You start with Lisa, an abused wife in the Chicago area, who fakes her own death and reappears with a new identity as Megan in Seattle. Her husband, Glenn, is tried and convicted of her murder and winds up in prison. Meanwhile, a serial killer is obsessed with her, watching and waiting in the wings. How did you get started with TERRIFIED? Is the book that you started the same as the book you ultimately finished, or were there changes along the way?

KO: My editor, John Scognamiglio, deserves the credit for planting the idea in my head. “How about for your next book, you do something along the lines of Sleeping with the Enemy?” he asked in an email about two years ago. After several emails back and forth, we had the basic plot down. My biggest challenge was to avoid writing any scenes too reminiscent of Sleeping with the Enemy (no perfectly aligned hand-towels in the bathroom, thank you!) or too much like the spousal abuse situation in my thriller, WATCH THEM DIE. I also wove the “garbage bag” serial killings into the story. This went into my outline, which was approximately 90 pages. I write the longest outlines in the world --- sometimes with chunks of dialogue and description. John reads them and always comes back with comments. Then I keep pretty faithful to the outline as I write the book. Sometimes, I might find certain scenes or characters write themselves --- and they become stronger, creepier or funnier than I originally perceived. But there are few surprises. When John finally gets the finished book, he rarely asks for any major revisions. That was the case with TERRIFIED, because I didn’t veer from the detailed blueprint he’s already seen.

BRC: You seem like such a genuinely nice guy. Yet your novels, particularly this one, are populated by people we would have to classify, for the purposes of this discussion, as “anti-Kevins.” Where do you come up with these folks? Do you have a whole folder of them, waiting in the wings for future novels? If so, how do you decide when you are going to introduce one to the world?

KO: I’m always flattered when people meet me and say they didn’t expect me to be so “nice.” So --- thank you!  I guess from my writing, people think I must be a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Uncle Fester.

Though I’m not a huge follower of this sort of thing, I recently got my Chakra cleansed and my aura read. It was free, so I figured, “What the heck?” The woman who conducted the reading was also a beautician. So after closing her shop, she sat me in a barber chair, and waved her hands around me. She focused at the heels of my feet and said she sensed all sorts of cracks down there --- letting in certain influences. “You’re a very nice person,” she said. “But the spirit of this evil little man is getting inside you, and you actually welcome him in. He has these horrible, horrible ideas….” I told her that I wrote thrillers --- with some pretty twisted characters and macabre themes. “That explains it!” she declared. She also said that I’d met a violent death in a previous life, and I was working it out in a healthy way by writing serial killer thrillers. So --- perhaps I’m getting these malevolent characters from that evil little man!

Usually, I create the killers as I work out the plot of a new book. The most recent exception was Mama’s Boy, the creepy murderer in VICIOUS. He was originally from a book idea that never panned out. So --- Mama’s boy had been waiting in the wings for a few years before I let him loose in VICIOUS. 

BRC: You’re a huge fan of film, particularly Alfred Hitchcock. Suppose you were given a blank check and absolute power for creating a film adaptation of TERRIFIED. Who would you choose as director and producer, and who would you cast in the primary roles?

KO: Oh, how I love this question. Thank you. It sounds cliché, but Martin Scorsese would be ideal to direct a movie version of TERRIFIED. So much of the story involves the relationship between a mother and son, and Scorsese did that so well in one of his early films, ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. Plus, as a Hitchcock disciple, he knows how to unhinge viewers in scenes of suspense and violence. Since TERRIFIED spans 15 years, you can bet Scorsese would put the perfect time-guideline songs in the soundtrack, too. For the cast, I think Charlize Theron would be wonderful as Megan/Lisa. I can see her very convincingly going from age 25 to 40. Plus she’s a fantastic actress. She wowed me in In the Valley of Elah, in which she played a young mother, and more recently in Young Adult. Jon Hamm or Dylan McDermott would make a terrific Dan Lahart, the “Can He Be Trusted?” guy who comes into Megan’s life at a time when her world falls apart. Here’s hoping Marty, Charlize and Jon are all reading this!

BRC: Lisa manufactures her own death and then resurfaces to start a new life. Suppose that you wanted to disappear, for whatever reason. How would you go about it, step by step? Would you do what Lisa did or do something different?

KO: That’s exactly what I asked myself when I tried to figure out how she was going to pull off this feat: “How would I do it?” So --- I think Lisa did a pretty damn good job! She had a plan, conducted a dress rehearsal, and then carried it out. I’d probably be as paranoid as she was after arriving in Seattle to start over again with a new identity. Anyway, it was a pretty good plan --- which might have worked if she hadn’t had a secret admirer watching her every move.

BRC: TERRIFIED is a plot-driven book, very cleverly written with a number of twists and turns. And, like your last several novels, it’s also very violent. What continues to attract you to the subject of serial killers and violent crime?

KO: I usually try to avoid graphic violence in my books, and focus instead on suspense and thrills. TERRIFIED does indeed have some brutal scenes, but most of the violence is suggested. I usually take the action up to a point in which someone is attacked --- and then the next you know, their body turns up (or, in the case of TERRIFIED, their body parts turn up) somewhere. The scariest thing to me is wondering what happened in between. I like to let the reader fill in the blanks there --- and it’s far more chilling than anything I could describe. 

What attracts me to writing thrillers is how I can interact with my reader. For example, in TERRIFIED, the Garbage Bag Killer cuts up his victims, stashes their body parts in garbage bags and distributes the bags in various locations. I never describe how he cuts up his victims. But I show a bathroom in the basement of his farmhouse. It has an old claw-foot tub with a rack hanging above it --- the type of rack that dangles from the ceiling over an island in a kitchen. Only instead of holding pots and pans, this rack hovering over the old-style bathtub holds butcher knives and various saws. Once I describe that tub with the rack over it, the reader doesn’t need to see anyone dismembering a body. They know what’s going on --- and that’s all I need to communicate to them before they let their imagination take over. Then again, maybe that’s just a fancy way of saying that I like to scare the hell out of people. It sounds sadistic, but I feel like I’ve done my job when I get an email from a reader who says they can’t put my book down, and they keep checking to make sure all their doors and windows are locked. That just makes my day!

BRC: You are on what seems to be a very reliable and productive schedule. We can usually look forward to an annual Kevin O’Brien book. Could you take us through a year with author Kevin O’Brien? When do you typically start a new book? And when do you usually finish it? Or do you have a number of projects going at once, in various stages of completion? 

KO: My editor might disagree with you about “reliable.” He’s a very patient man, and the only thing he can rely on is me always delivering my finished book to him at least a month or two after its original due date. I work best under pressure. And when that delivery date (usually late spring or early summer) is looming, I go into overdrive. I feel like I’m back in college, during finals week --- only it lasts about two to three months. I live, eat and breathe the book! I’m extra-motivated by guilt for keeping my editor (and possibly the publisher’s production people) waiting. By the time I deliver the damn book, I’m so stressed out and tired --- I end up sleeping on and off for two days. Then, I’m grateful to clean out a closet or do something mundane that I’ve been putting off for the last two or three months. I just want things to be normal and orderly again. But even before I delivered TERRIFIED to my editor, he asked me in an email: “Have you thought about what you’re going to do next?” So --- there’s never much down-time. I’ll work on minor revisions for the new book --- while jotting down notes for the next one. I just turned in a 131-page outline for my next book, and I’m scheduling book signings, interviews, and trips to promote TERRIFIED. Once my editor gives me some feedback on the outline, I’ll start the new book. I’m hoping to have it delivered to him in four months. No rest for the wicked!

BRC: The use of forensics --- in the case of TERRIFIED, DNA sampling --- plays a crucial role in criminal investigation.What do you think is the single most important tool that assists law enforcement personnel in the apprehension of serial killers? And what, in your opinion, is the primary factor that most inhibits law enforcement?

KO: I have a confession. I’m no expert on forensics, criminal investigations and law enforcement. That’s why most of my thrillers involve an average person finding themselves the target of a serial killer. I think that’s a lot scarier than reading about a “pro” solving the case. I always call someone or start googling if I need to delve too deeply into forensics or police procedure while writing a book. For TERRIFIED, I did some research about DNA evidence becoming part of criminal investigations in the late ’90s. That allowed me to move forward with the idea that the dismembered remains of a woman could be mistaken for my heroine who has vanished. Anyway --- in answer to your question, I can say without any authority that I believe DNA evidence is probably one of the most important ways to capture and convict a killer. What’s holding law enforcement back? I think it’s lack of funds. I don’t mind paying a bit more in taxes when it means we can have a more efficient police force.

BRC: There are any number of crime, police procedural and mystery shows on television, not to mention true crime reenactment programs seemingly running constantly in the nether regions of the cable channels. Do you have any particular favorites that you watch regularly? If so, why?

KO: For some weird reason, I’ve never been too interested in current crime cases or detective shows. As you say, there are so many of them --- both the shows and the current crimes. I’m on AOL, and every day the AOL news has a story about a missing child, a missing bride, a missing mother or someone else you know will end up dead. It’s an everyday tragedy now. But if there’s something in the news or on TV about an old murder case, I’m totally glued to it. You go figure. Anyway, my favorite TV show is “Boardwalk Empire.” It’s just brilliant.

BRC: You have had a successful writing career by any standard, with 12 books having been published and several bestsellers. Do you have any goals that you’ve set for yourself as an author that you have yet to attain? If so, what are they? And do you have any advice for aspiring authors? Looking back, is there anything that you wish you could have done differently?

KO: I’ve been so lucky. When I was in college and decided to pursue a career in writing, I set a goal for myself to publish by the time I was 30. After two failed screenplays, several rejected short stories, and having my novel, ACTORS, turned down by scores of publishers, I wasn’t sure I was going to make that goal. My 30th birthday came and went. But the very next morning, I got a call from my agent, singing Happy Birthday to me (like Marilyn Monroe to JFK) and then she announced that ACTORS had sold to St. Martin’s Press. I seem to have made some major headway in my career for each milestone birthday. A few months before turning 40, I got my first movie option (with ONLY SON). Alas, the film didn’t get made, but the movie deal opened so many doors for me. At age 50 (gulp!), I had my first New York Times bestseller with THE LAST VICTIM. Hitting these goals while staring a milestone birthday in the face has made the “scary” birthdays easier to handle. Here’s hoping by the time I’m 60, I’ll actually have a film version of one of my books. I guess the lesson aspiring authors should take from this is that they should stick to their goals and remember that success rarely happens overnight.   

BRC: What have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?

KO: MURDER ONE by Robert Dugoni, HOUSE DIVIDED by Mike Lawson, IN THE GARDEN OF THE BEASTS by Erik Larson and GUERNICA by Dave Boling are all excellent reads. They’re also Seattle 7 Writers. When one of my friends writes a book, it automatically goes to the top of my reading pile!

BRC: What can you tell us about your next novel?

KO: We’re still bouncing around candidates for a title. So --- the “New Book Idea” concerns 16-year-old Collin Cox, who became an overnight sensation in a horror film at age eight. Now he’s 16 and considered a has-been. His drug-addicted mother has gone through all his money. When she is suddenly murdered in what appears to be a drug-related killing, Collin moves in with his grandparents on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. One night at a party with a couple of new friends, the hostess hypnotizes Collin, and something very bizarre happens. Collin is thrown into a panic, and he gets a professional hypnotist to help him. She has some problems of her own. One by one, the people around them start to die. I won’t say anything more --- except there’s a serial killer in it, along with lots of interesting Seattle locales. Just what you’d expect from one of my thrillers!

Thanks so much. It’s always terrific talking with you. always has the best-researched, most provocative questions. You guys are the best. I hope TERRIFIED is a hit with you!