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Interview: May 2, 2014

Kevin O’Brien has come a long way since his days as a railroad inspector. Now he’s the bestselling author of 14 internationally published thrillers; his latest, TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY, may be his best to date. In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, O'Brien talks about what inspires his thrillers (including movies, nimble editors and metaphorical landladies), constructing his settings from memory, and how his experience as a wannabe screenwriter is elemental to the cinematic scope of his novels. He also explains why he loves throwing in odd details that are familiar to readers (“blasts from the past”) and considers what he would do if someone bought Jeffrey Dahmer’s boyhood home --- recently put on the market --- for him as a gift. There is no getting around the point that TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY is far and away your best book to date. It is arguably your most fully realized work, with a complex plot and an extremely sympathetic, driven character at the center of it. Where was your starting point for the book? Did you begin with the overall concept --- a traveling serial killer with a method and a purpose --- or did you start with the idea of just one or two victims and work your way outward?

Kevin O’Brien: Well, thank you so much, Joe! I’m pumped TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY is getting such a great response. The book started back when I was finishing up the last few chapters of UNSPEAKABLE. My editor, John Scognamiglio, sent me an email with the subject line, “New Book Idea.” In the email, he said that while on the subway to work that morning, he thought it might be interesting to do a story that brought in elements of Black Widow and The Stepfather, with a little bit of Fatal Attraction thrown in. From there, we started bouncing ideas back and forth. John never pressures me to use his ideas. Yet he has planted the seed for the plot to many of my thrillers. After we came up with the general concept for this one, John --- as usual --- left me alone to create the characters, motivations, locales and the actual storyline. Once I figured out the “why” behind all these killings, I was on my way. Talk about a terrific muse! 

BRC: The title “Tell Me You’re Sorry” comes from an imperative delivered by the murderer, who says it to her victims just before dispatching them. The phrase is just about perfect; all of us probably heard it during our childhood at one point or another, which makes it all the more chilling in the context of the book. How did you come up with it and settle on it as a title and story cue?

KO: The credit for the title goes to (once again) my editor, John Scognamiglio. He has come up with the titles for all of my books. ONLY SON (1996) is the sole exception. That title was my idea. While I was writing this book, I think I called it UNHINGED or VENGEANCE. I figured the last few books had been one-word titles (VICIOUS, DISTURBED, TERRIFIED and UNSPEAKABLE), so this book would be another one-word title. But John pulled a fast one, and decided to call it TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY. I immediately loved that title, and decided to incorporate it into the book. So my killer whispers it to certain people, and it’s the last thing they ever hear.

BRC: While Stephanie Coburn is the primary protagonist in TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY, I found Ryan Farrell to be almost as interesting. How did Ryan, and the whole long-distance joint inquiry into the murders, evolve during the course of your writing?

KO: Thank you, Joe. Ryan’s a high school junior, patterned a bit after Finn in “Glee.” I love writing about teenagers and their angst. Everyone can relate to that wonderful, awful, bittersweet time in our lives. When the family in my book is killed in suburban Chicago, I wanted one kid --- a teenager --- to survive, but it was important that he never got a chance to meet his new stepmother. So I created this feud between him and his dad, which results in him moving in with his grandmother. 

Growing up, I had a friend whose father was obsessed with Notre Dame football, and another classmate whose dad didn’t think twice about hitting someone else’s son if he thought the kid was out of line. I really felt sorry for that classmate, because he was a nice guy, and everyone loathed his old man. So I morphed these two dads into Ryan’s insufferable father. I really liked Ryan --- and enjoyed creating that initial conflict between him and Stephanie. He has just lost his whole family, and here’s this snoopy, pushy woman who wants to know things about his contemptible father. We get her desperation, and we understand his resentment. So when they finally agree to work together, it’s gratifying (or at least I hope so). Even though they’re in different cities and only met once, they bond.  

BRC: Many of your books are set in the Pacific Coast area. While TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY is primarily based there as well, it is definitely a bi-coastal novel, occurring everywhere from New York to Illinois to Nevada. Did you take any extended trips while writing the book to get inspiration for this project?

KO: Oh, I wish I had time to visit some of the locales I use while writing my books. But usually, I have only about six months (between the approval of my outline and when the book needs to be delivered) to write about 450 pages. So when choosing my locales, I usually depend on memories of past trips and Google images and maps. I knew in TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY my killer had to move from city to city to carry out this nefarious mission (and that’s what it is for this killer, a “mission”). Seattle had to be one of those cities.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, so that was a no-brainer. I made my own high school, New Trier, where two of my victims went to school; I have a scene in the Nite ‘n Gale in Highwood, which is still one of my favorite pizza places; and the private beach where I set a lengthy, pivotal flashback is modeled after the beach where I swam as a teenager --- right down to the dilapidated pier and the winding, twisting path through the woods to the lake). My railroad days had me traveling all over. So that food court in Emeryville where a woman is abducted was the spot I’d go to eat when I had to visit railroad customers in the Oakland area. Another woman is abducted at Boston’s Long Warf, where I used to wait for the ferry to Provincetown for vacations with my editor and friends. So while I usually don’t get to explore new locales when writing my books, it’s fun to revisit in my head places I’ve been before.

BRC: I wanted TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY to just go on and on, but obviously that wasn’t going to happen. Have you given any further thought to working on a series, or do you see yourself continuing to write stand-alone works for the foreseeable future?

KO: For a series, you need a hero who is an expert at something --- law, medicine, science, aviation or whatever.  Outside of writing thrillers, the only area where I have any expertise is railroad freight car handling. If I end up writing a thriller that involves a railroad inspector, I guess it could be the start of a series. But I don’t see that happening. So you can expect more stand-alone thrillers from me --- at least for a while!

BRC: Jeffrey Dahmer was one of the most notorious serial killers of the past 30 years, someone who became a household name for all of the wrong reasons. His boyhood home --- and the site of his first killing --- was recently put up for sale. Suppose someone bought the home and gave it to you: What is the first thing you would do with it?

KO: Wow, what an interesting question. I wouldn’t want much to do with the place. I certainly wouldn’t want to spend the night there. I think I’d resell it, and give the money to the families of his victims.

BRC: On a related note, you are known for writing very dark novels dealing with serial killers that include imaginative and graphic descriptions of their actions. Not all of your books, though, are like that. ONLY SON, one of your early novels, is very good but relatively sedate when compared to your others. Do you ever have the urge to return to subject matter other than serial killers and those who love and fear them, or will we be seeing more of humanity’s darker side from you?

KO: ONLY SON is one of my favorites from among my books, and a lot of people have told me the same thing. My publisher has even considered re-issuing it as a trade paperback, but I don’t expect it’ll make much money. The problem is once you’re in a genre, people expect your books to stick to that genre. That’s why they’re buying a book by Kevin O’Brien, because they want a thriller. So I’ll probably be writing thrillers for years to come. And people will just have to settle for ONLY SON on eBook. This reminds me of Hitchcock lamenting that he could never make a musical, because people would be waiting the whole time for some dancer in the chorus line to fall over dead with a knife in her back.

BRC: It seemed to me that TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY has the strongest cinematic narrative of any of your books. I could see it unfold visually and seamlessly in my mind’s eye as I read each page...each paragraph, really. Did this come easily for you while you were writing the book, or was it something you struggled with? How did you overcome any obstacles you encountered in composing the narrative?

KO: Thank you, Joe. I hope some film folk are reading this! I’m a huge movie fan, and initially, I wanted to be a screenwriter. I wrote two screenplays in my early 20s, both Hitchcock rip-off stories. There was even a climactic chase on the Capitol’s dome in one of them. I think those early ventures into screenwriting have served me well, because the training was terrific. A good screenwriter has to think visually, come up with interesting locales, keep the dialogue crisp and real, be mindful of pace and economic in the descriptions. So I automatically think that way when I write my thrillers. The biggest challenge to this book --- as with the last --- was keeping it under 500 pages and getting it to my publisher on time.

BRC: What are you working on now? Do you ever consider taking a break from writing, or do you want to keep going while the inspiration is hot and flaming?

KO: That question reminds me of a couple of lines from Rear Window. Grace Kelly is listening to the beautiful music coming from James Stewart’s song-writing neighbor’s apartment. Grace asks, “Where does a man get the inspiration to write a song like that?” And Jimmy replies, “He gets it from the landlady once a month.” So I’ll keep inspired and won’t take any breaks from writing as long as I have to keep paying my co-op dues! Author John Saul told me early on that once you’ve written a thriller and it does well, you’ll be expected to deliver at least one new thriller every year to keep your readers happy. I’ve tried to stick by that.

While I was frantically finishing TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY, my editor tactfully reminded me, “Have you given much thought to the book after this one?” Fortunately, I had! This time, I had my own idea. I read that when they filmed In Cold Blood in 1967, they used all the actual locales --- including the house where the Clutter family was murdered. That planted the seed. So in my next book, there was a notorious murder in Seattle in 1970 (a bit like the Sharon Tate case), and now they’re using the actual murder house to make a film version of what happened. But strange things start happening on the set, and people start dying. That’s all I’ll say for now. The 98-page outline has gotten the Thumbs Up from my editor, so I’m working on the first chapter right now.

BRC: It is a truism that great authors are also great readers. Have you read anything in the last year that you would care to recommend to our readers?

KO: NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl was a terrific read. GEMINI by Carol Cassella kept me enthralled. I also got to read (and give feedback for) an early draft of Garth Stein’s brilliant new book, A SUDDEN LIGHT. It’s part ghost-story, part “intimate epic” (in the tradition of EAST OF EDEN) and a total page-turner. Look for it in October!

BRC: Lastly, I have to admit that I laughed out loud --- during an otherwise suspenseful moment --- while reading TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY. It occurred during a flashback to the event that was the catalyst to everything that happens in the book, when a group of teenagers on an evening romp pull out bottles of Annie Green Springs. I haven’t thought about Annie Green Springs wine (if you want to call it that) in decades. How did you happen to pull that out of your memory hat and give it a not-exactly revered place in the book?

KO: Oh, Joe, I have to admit, I pride myself on coming up with these little blasts from the past and odd things that people half-remember/notice (like the similarity between the Frangelico bottle and the Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle --- which comes up a couple of times in TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY). I feel if you can trigger a memory or reach a commonality about something obscure with your reader, you’ve created a bond. Annie Green Springs, Blue Nun and Mickey’s Malt were all get-drunk-quick-and-cheap drinks when I was a teenager (even though I didn’t get drunk much). So I decided to use Anne Green Springs in this flashback scene to 1986 with some teenage boys trying to seduce a girl on the beach. One of my favorite lines in the book is when one of the guys is trying to be Joe Suave with this girl, and he says, “Annie Green Springs for the lady…”

Joe, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you and You ask the best questions, sir. Thanks very much!