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Interview: April 29, 2011

In Kevin O'Brien's 11th thriller,DISTURBED, a serial killer in suburban Seattle chooses homes, gains entrance, and methodically kills everyone inside.'s Joe Hartlaub talks to O'Brien about the ins and outs of writing murder --- and how television shows, social networking and communication devices all come into play, in both good ways and bad. O'Brien professes his love for Hitchcockian suspense, weighs in on bullying, offers a sneak peek of his next book, and enthusiastically discusses being a member of Seattle7Writers, a collective of Pacific Northwest authors who seek to raise awareness of Northwest literature and promote literacy. DISTURBED puts me in the mind of what would happen if Hannibal Lecter visited Wisteria Lane. The thrust of the book is that a series of murders are being committed in houses located on subdivision cul-de-sacs. While it's set in suburban Seattle, the locale could easily be any one of a thousand suburban communities (including mine). Where did this story have its start? What made you think about setting it in a suburb like this? Does the suburb where it takes place --- a quiet, planned environment area full of cul-de-sacs --- mirror your own neighborhood?

Kevin O'Brien: Wow, "Hannibal Lecter Visits Wisteria Lane". I love that description of the book! My editor, John Scognamiglio, suggested I write something that had a "Desperate Housewives" spin. I didn't quite want a Wisteria Lane atmosphere, so I went back to my past. Two of the houses in which I grew up were at the end of cul-de-sacs --- Linda Lane in Glencoe, IL (isn't it weird how so many cul-de-sacs have women's names?) and Ponce Place in Fairfax, VA. I decided to make Willow Tree Court (the cul-de-sac in DISTURBED) a high-priced housing project that stalled as the economy started hurting. It's at the edge of a forest, and they never put in a sidewalk or enough streetlights. A few unfinished houses, looking like skeletons, stand next to these sleek, modern semi-mansions. There's a sense of doom hovering over Willow Tree Court. And with these cul-de-sac killings in the Seattle area, the reader automatically knows it's only a matter of time before something horrible happens on that dead end.

BRC: Much of your past work has concerned family issues, and DISTURBED does so as well. This time, however, you deal with the difficulties of blended families from the stepmother's point of view. Molly has been married for almost a year to Jeff and is still feeling her way around her two stepchildren. They are all living in the house that Jeff used to share with his ex-wife, Angela, who in turn still lives in the area, as do Angela's friends. 

You pose an interesting and contrasting metaphor between the murders that are taking place in the neighborhood where the women live and the actions of Angela's friends, who verbally murder reputations. Was this a contrast that you created before you started writing DISTURBED, or an element that slowly evolved as you began writing the book?

KO: I really wanted Molly to feel isolated. She has no friends, and the neighbors shun her. Setting the action on this half-unfinished, lonely cul-de-sac sort of reflects how her life is in transition. This isn't her home --- it's Jeff's ex's house. Even most of the spices Molly uses for cooking had been bought by Angela months before. Little by little, she's trying to win over her stepchildren and make the place feel like her home. But it's a battle. When I'm working on an idea for a thriller, I always write mini-biographies of the major characters. So I had it all down before I actually started writing the book. I needed a good reason for Molly to cut off all ties with her past. So now, there's no one she can turn to except her husband. Unfortunately, he travels a lot, and Angela is constantly reminding Molly that Jeff's rampant infidelity is what destroyed their marriage. Can he be trusted?

BRC: There is one passage in DISTURBED where a brief but very pivotal scene takes place in an apartment complex, or, more specifically, in Apartment 3G. Our readers of a certain age will recognize your apparent reference and homage to a long-running comic strip of the same name. Are you a fan of newspaper comics? And, if so, what is your favorite?

KO: The Apartment 3-G reference was totally unintentional! I wasn't familiar with that comic strip, and quickly looked it up on Google when you mentioned it. Write-ups compared Apartment 3-G (which originated in 1961) to one of my favorite guilty-pleasure movies, The Best of Everything (1959), based on a Rona Jaffe book --- three young women (3-G…three girls?), all roommates, making a go of it in the Big Bad Apple. That comic strip sounds right up my alley! It's ironic I happened to choose that apartment number --- one of those "lucky accidents." That reminds me of an email I received from a reader who noted that I had mentioned a car's license plate: JOB607. This reader looked up the Book of Job, verse six, line seven, and found something very profound. I hated having to burst her bubble, but I threw that license plate in there as a wink to my sister, Joan O'Brien, whose birthday is June 7th!

I don't follow any comic strips now, but growing up, I was a fan ofPeanuts and Dennis the Menace. I had compilation books of those comic strips. When I was 16, I remember reading THE EXORCIST at bedtime. No matter how tired I was after reading William Peter Blatty's book, I pulled those old comic strip compilations out of mothballs and read them to take my mind off that horrific novel before going to sleep! So thank God for Peanuts and Dennis the Menace!

BRC: The murders that take place apparently left CSI and forensic teams at a total loss. It's been said that television crime programs, both fiction and documentary-styled, have made criminals smarter in the execution of their crimes. At the same time, it has also been noted that such shows heighten the awareness of the public and make people more aware of what is going on around them. What do you think? Do such shows hinder or help law enforcement? Or do they do a bit of both?

KO: That's a good question! I think these shows do a bit of both. It's smart to educate people on what techniques criminals use to break into a house or someone's on-line account. Sure, it educates criminals, but it makes it tougher for them, too. In DISTURBED, Molly and the women of Willow Tree Court have a Neighborhood Watch potluck. They ask the police officer about the cul-de-sac killings, and learn some things that aren't in the news stories. For example, sometimes before visiting a house on a dead end, the killer steals the "No Outlet" sign ahead of time as a souvenir of the killing to come. So my heroine is ever vigilant that the sign is always there at the beginning of her block.

BRC: It has been noted here and elsewhere that Alfred Hitchcock has been one of the major influences on your work. Indeed, DISTURBED has a great number of twists, turns and surprises that you strategically drop into the narrative. But there are also a number of mysteries at the heart of the book. Are there any mystery writers who have inspired you creatively?

KO: I went through a few Agatha Christie mysteries when I started working for the railroads (during those business trips, stuck in some Red Lion or Best Western, there was a lot of time to kill --- this is before the Internet). But I really prefer reading --- and writing --- mystery-thrillers. For me, mysteries appeal more to the intellect, while thrillers are an emotional experience. I sometimes read Amazon reviews of my books in which an occasional reader will comment, "I figured out halfway through the book who the killer was." Well, I do try to keep the reader in the dark as much as I can so they can enjoy the "who-done-it" aspect in my books; but that's not my first goal. Keeping them in suspense is Priority Number One. Go back to Hitchcock, and VERTIGO, in which he let the audience know halfway through the film that Kim Novak wasn't all that she appeared to be. Yes, it spoiled the surprise, but then the audience anxiously waits for James Stewart to discover the truth. Because Hitchcock let the cat out of the bag early, the whole second half of the film becomes very suspenseful, involving and quite tragic. In DISTURBED, there are indeed some mysteries, but I let the reader know a lot of things that are coming around the corner, too --- and I hope that keeps them turning the pages.

BRC: A catalyst of one of the plots of DISTURBED is high school bullying, a theme that runs through the entire book. A student is bullied at high school, with disastrous results. Later, Molly is also bullied, although the actions are more subtle. It could well be argued that the motivation behind such behavior is part of a flaw in the human condition and that we might be better off attempting to deal with it than trying to eradicate it. What do you think? Will we ever have a "bully-free" society? Or is it something that ultimately we're going to have to accept (if only to some extent)?

KO: Unfortunately, I think it's part of our nature to pick on people who are weaker, different or vulnerable. But as Kate Hepburn said in The African Queen: "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is something we were put in this world to rise above." I had my brushes with bullies in high school. I was terrified and miserable a lot of the time. But looking back, none of those bullies were very cool or popular. They were these weasel-types on the fringe, probably pretty scared and miserable themselves. Thanks to "Freaks & Geeks," "Glee" and website campaigns, I think it's become common knowledge nowadays that bullies are usually a lot more pathetic than their victims. I guess that is small solace for someone getting harassed or pushed around, but it's something. In DISTURBED, Molly's neighbors, who treat her so horribly, are actually pitiful creatures --- and that becomes very clear as the book progresses.

BRC: One of the more interesting themes in DISTURBED is the way in which social websites and communication instruments, such as texting, can be used for malicious intent and purpose with catastrophic results. What do you think should and can be done about this, short of shutting down social websites altogether? And at what point do you think it all went wrong?

KO: Cell phones, texting, and all the social websites serve a great purpose. But you see so many people becoming slaves to these communication devices. There are abuses, too. I cringe when I think about that case a few years ago, when a 13-year-old girl committed suicide after a few girls (including the mother of one of them) sent her all these messages --- supposedly from some guy who was interested in her, and then when she was at her most vulnerable, they said it was all a joke and mocked her. There was another bullying-on-the-web suicide last year, when a closeted college student's make-out session with another guy was broadcast on the web by a couple of classmates. All these web-abusers faced criminal charges, and I suppose that's all we can do for now.

In DISTURBED, a high school girl's gossip on a social network ruins a teacher's career and devastates his family. There's a bit ofThe Children's Hour in DISTURBED --- only with a 21st century twist, showing how a schoolgirl's careless lies on the Internet can destroy lives.

BRC: As we sit here, there is an investigation taking place concerning what appears to be the work of a serial killer on Long Island, New York. At this point in time, at least nine bodies have been discovered, and more are expected to be found. These killings appear to be linked to four similar murders in 2006 in Atlantic City, NJ. In both cases, the bodies of the victims have been left near water, which is a common (though not exclusive) occurrence in such murders. Based on your own extensive research for your books on the topic, what do you think the allure of water is for serial murderers in general?

KO: That's a very provocative question. I think there's a practical reason for a murderer to take a victim --- or a corpse --- to a lake, river or stream. Dumping a body in water is certainly one quick way to get rid of it --- at least, for a while. But before I go on, I need to point out that talking about real murders --- especially these ones that are so current --- makes me uneasy, so I'll focus on fictional murders here. Remember in Silence of the Lambs, all of the murder victims were dumped in rivers. I think us thriller authors have a fascination with water. After all, look atPsycho's shower murder and Diabolique's bathtub killing. I had dead bodies turn up in the Columbia River and the Strait of Juan de Fuca (LEFT FOR DEAD), on a beach in Seattle's Madison Park and in a pond in the fictional "Gorman's Creek" (THE LAST VICTIM), and the list goes on.

Often where there's a lake or river, there are woods where a body can be hidden or a murder can occur without anyone seeing it. I think there's also a killer's notion of washing away evidence of a murder by throwing the victim in a river, stream or lake. Perhaps they believe they're washing away some of their own guilt, too. In DISTURBED, one of the first scenes has a long flashback with a college couple skinny-dipping in Lake Washington late one night. There's something very sexual and scary and exhilarating to their experience in the lake. I know I felt that way the few times I went night swimming or skinny-dipping. Maybe the water at night brings out a primal thing that goes back to when we were all tadpoles or something. Who knows? Perhaps that same primal feeling is what lures killers back to the water, too.

BRC: I know you are involved with Seattle7Writers. What can you tell us about this group, and what you have been working on together?

KO: To quote from the HOTEL ANGELINE website: "Seattle7Writers is a collective of Pacific Northwest authors whose mission is twofold: to raise awareness of Northwest literature, and to give back to their community by doing good works for literary causes."

Seattle7Writers was founded by two of the nicest, funniest and most generous writers I know: Jennie Shortridge and Garth Stein. Along with Jennie and Garth, the core group of the Seattle 7 Writers includes Kit Bakke, Erica Bauermeister, Carol Cassella, Randy Sue Coburn, Mary Guterson and Maria Dahvana Headley. I've just joined this core group, and it's an honor. Until last week, I was one of the Seattle 7 "Friends," which includes Terry Brooks, Tom Robbins, Susan Wiggs, Erik Larson, Jamie Ford, Elizabeth George, Robert Dugoni, Maria Semple, Julia Quinn and many others. Some of the "good works" they've done include author appearances, panels, workshops, and book sales to promote literacy causes, libraries and education. Everyone I've mentioned has donated their books on behalf of the Seattle 7 to charity auctions, libraries, homeless shelters, women's shelters and other causes.

The "good work" we're probably proudest of is THE HOTEL ANGELINE, A NOVEL IN 36 VOICES. Thirty-six authors --- most of them previously mentioned --- got together in one week for a writing marathon. We worked in two-hour shifts, one after another, each writing a chapter of the same book in front of a live audience, with a big screen showing the progress of our writing. It was decided and well-publicized ahead of time that I would be killing one of the major characters in my chapter of the book. In a launch party before the event, NPR's Library Lady, Nancy Pearl, auctioned off "naming rights" for the character I would kill. A friend of mine had the winning bid, and we used the name of her old boss. So during the marathon, when my turn came, the pressure was on! I had to set up the scene for the maximum of suspense, pathos, heartbreak and horror. Twenty minutes before the end of my allotted time, when I still hadn't bumped off the character, the audience got restless and started chanting, "Kill him, kill him!" It was both funny and disturbing, like something out of the Roman Coliseum. My character went out --- quite literally, with a bang --- about seven minutes before my time was up. I was exhausted and exhilarated when it was over.

I really enjoyed the week we all worked on that book. It was written at Hugo House, a part-theater/part-school for writing and performing arts. It's not far from my place, so I went there every day to check out who was writing and hang out with the other writers. Plus my friends from Open Road Media, who had shot videos for VICIOUS (Luke Parker-Bowles, Danny Monico and Rachel Chou) were covering the event, and I got to visit with them. The event raised over $10,000 for literacy causes. Open Road will be publishing the eBook this May 2nd. Already it's getting some terrific reviews, and most of the proceeds are going to further promote literacy and education.

BRC: Almost every great author is also a great reader. What have you read in the last year that you would recommend to our readers?

KO: I loved THE LAST CHILD by John Hart, HEALER by Carol Cassella, THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS by Erica Bauermeister, THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by John Connolly, and THE SWEET BY AND BY by Todd Johnson.

BRC: DISTURBED, as with your other books, is a stand-alone work. Have you ever had the desire to create a series? If so, how do you envision it? And if not, what advantages do you see to writing single works?

KO: I love coming up with new characters each time I start a thriller. And I like characters who aren't master crime solvers. And those experts in law, crime, forensics, detection are the types of characters who keep a series going. In DISTURBED, Molly is an artist --- following her gut instincts to outfox a killer. It would be pretty far-fetched if I brought her back in a series to thwart another killer. However, at the suggestion of my agent, I may just write a young adult thriller sometime in the future. If it's successful, I'd bring back the characters for a series. But that would be something I'd do on the side --- "Sunday afternoons after church," as my agent joked --- in addition to my stand-alone adult thrillers. We'll see what happens. It's just a notion right now.

BRC: On a related note, what are you currently working on?

KO: Thriller Number 12 still doesn't have a title. I'm calling it VENGEANCE until my editor comes up with something better (which he usually does). It starts in 1997, when a Chicago woman fakes a suicide in order to escape her abusive husband. It appears as if she's thrown herself off a high bridge into the Mississippi. Two weeks later, a woman's severed body parts start showing up in plastic garbage bags --- in various spots along Chicago's North Shore. Though the victim's head is never found, the niece of our heroine's brutish husband identifies burn-marks on the severed section of torso as a match to scars she'd seen on her aunt. The husband is arrested and imprisoned for her murder.

Meanwhile, our heroine has started a whole new life with a new identity in Seattle. But she soon realizes she's pregnant. She wouldn't trust her unborn child with his sadistic dad, so she decides to remain a fugitive while he stays in jail. She doesn't know whose dismembered corpse that was, or if her husband had any part in it. She just knows she and her child are better off if he's in prison. For 14 years, she raises her son to believe she is a widow. All the while, she's looking over her shoulder, afraid someone will discover her real identity. Then she gets an anonymous email with an article about her husband's release from prison, thanks to recent DNA testing. She soon realizes someone is watching her and her son. I'll leave you hanging there. That's just the first third of the story!

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