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Interview: May 28, 2010

Kevin O’Brien is the bestselling author of 10 thrillers, including ONE LAST SCREAM, FINAL BREATH, and the newly released VICIOUS. He recently spoke with’s Joe Hartlaub about the unusual inspiration for this latest novel and his painstaking yet tried-and-true method of outlining each of his books. O’Brien also gives some background information on his writers’ group, the Seattle7, explains the impact of Alfred Hitchcock’s work on his career, and hints at what readers can expect from his next release, DISTURBED. When we last interviewed you, it was at the time of the publication of FINAL BREATH. You mentioned that you were working on VICIOUS, about a serial killer who had terrorized Seattle for two years and apparently disappeared. It takes place primarily over the course of a day or so --- a very long day from the standpoint of at least a couple of the characters --- and within a relatively small area of about a square mile. And I would be amiss if I did not mention that it’s terrifying as well. What caused you to decide to paint such a vivid picture in such a small space?

Kevin O’Brien: First off, thanks for saying you found VICIOUS terrifying. That’s music to a thriller author’s ears! This book is definitely leaner and meaner than my others --- and that was a goal of mine. I think what influenced me most in this direction was a review on! A reader who has been reviewing my books on since ONLY SON (1997) commented on one of my recent books that it was tough keeping track of all the characters and subplots. He suggested I watch the film Dead Calm to get an idea of how thrilling a storyline can be when it takes place with just a few characters. Dead Calm has always been a favorite of mine. So I watched it again, and one thing I found very intense was a scene in which Nicole Kidman has the psychotic Billy Zane tied up in the boat’s cabin. That got me started on the storyline in which someone has a potentially dangerous character tied up in the basement of his family’s cabin. I knew after that, the book would have to take place within a limited locale and time frame. So --- here’s a nod of gratitude to Dead Calm, and that reviewer!

BRC: One of the more interesting set of characterizations found in VICIOUS is that of the three teenagers --- Jordan, Moira and Leo --- who play such an integral part in the book as both heroes and victims. These characters are perhaps the most realistic, or true to life, of any in the book. Are they modeled after people you know? Or is one of them perhaps modeled after you as a younger individual?

KO:I love writing about teenagers. It’s such an emotional, vulnerable and confusing time. Two of my favorite books are ORDINARY PEOPLE and BOY’S LIFE, both dealing with teenage heroes going through extremely different angst-ridden adventures. Teens figure prominently in many of my books (ONLY SON; MAKE THEM CRY; THE LAST VICTIM; the heroines’ troubled sons in both KILLING SPREE and FINAL BREATH). I’m always tapping into my own past for these characters. I think Jordan was patterned a bit after my best friend, George Stydahar (football fans, take note, his dad, Joe, is in the Football Hall of Fame). In high school, George was a jock with a pony tail (this was 1974). He didn’t give a hoot about being popular, so of course, he was. I patterned Leo after myself mostly. I was never much of a jock, and I spent my summers working at a country club --- as Leo does in the book. Moira is a combination of a few girls I knew in high school and college.

BRC: Almost all of VICIOUS takes place in a small area of Cullen, Washington, a vacation destination outside of Seattle. You describe Cullen so well that at times I felt that I could travel there and find the convenience store and abandoned factory that, among other places, figures so prominently in the story. Does Cullen have a real world model? If so, where is it? Does the place have some interest to you, sentimentally or otherwise, that caused you to set the book there?

KO: One of the advantages to having worked for the railroads for 17 years (1980 – 1997) is that the job took me all over the Pacific Northwest. I became very familiar with so many of my territory’s small towns and big cities --- all vastly different. For VICIOUS, I imagined a resort town in the San Juan Islands, but a particular subplot early on in the book --- about a woman vanishing after she drove through the area to avoid a back-up on the Interstate --- changed all that. But I didn’t go far from the San Juan Islands when I picked LaConner (about 70 miles north of Seattle) as the model for fictional Cullen. I checked out rental homes and cabins in that area as well as the tourist attractions. I invented the little convenience store (Rosie’s Roadside Sundries), as well as the abandoned factory. But I used to inspect facilities like that for the railroads. As much as that job seemed like drudgery to me, I’m really grateful for it now. It provided a lot of great exposure to so many different locales and various people. LaConner, by the way, is home to one of the Pacific Northwest’s most famous authors, Tom Robbins.

BRC: You are a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, and VICIOUS reads like the novelization of a movie that Hitchcock never made. To put it another way, it’s a totally original novel that unfolds in the manner of Hitchcock’s best work, frame by frame. Did you intend VICIOUS as an original homage when you began working on it, or did it develop in that manner as you wrote it?

KO: What a great thing to hear! Thank you! Yes, the Hitchcock influence is in everything I write. I became a big fan from watching his TV show in the ’60s. Plus my oldest sister, Adele, was afraid to take a shower while alone in the house, because of Psycho. So for years, I was dying to see it. I became a Hitchcock nut. The very first time my writing got any notice was in Mr. O’Malley’s seventh grade English class, when I wrote an essay on Alfred Hitchcock. Mr. O’Malley read it to the class, and later enrolled me in a special creative writing tutorial with four other students who showed promise. We were such brats to the poor lady who tutored us. Perhaps God forgave me, because the next creative writing teacher I had was in college, at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I took the class on a lark, and it really started me toward my writing career. My teacher, Anne Powers, was an author, and one of her writing colleagues was Robert Block, author of PSYCHO (based, of course, on the Ed Gein case --- also in Wisconsin). I adored her, and when she told me that my gory tales reminded her of her pal Robert Block’s writing --- well, that was it. I decided to be an author. So I’ve been influenced very much by the Master of Suspense, and propelled forward by at least two teachers --- and one poor, abused tutor who deserves some overdue thanks!

BRC: When I was about one-third of the way through VICIOUS, I scribbled the words “horrific whodunit” in my notes, and by the time I reached the book’s end, I still thought that those words describe the novel perfectly. Besides being a great horror story, VICIOUS is a terrific mystery with a bunch of potential bad actors, any one of whom could be the Mama’s Boy killer. Did you know who was going to be Mama’s Boy when you started writing? Or did the characters start telling you, and narrowing things down, as you got more deeply into the writing? And did you write from an outline? Did you stick to it?

KO: Thank you for those comments about the book. So far, I’m loving this interview, Joe! For VICIOUS, I worked from an 82-page outline and pretty much stuck to it. Since I started writing in the thriller/whodunit genre, I’ve always outlined my books ahead of time. I get more and more detailed as I go along in the outline. So many thrillers seem to fall apart at the end, and I think it’s because the author didn’t have an outline or s/he was rushed by their editor to deliver the book --- or both. That’s a shame, too, because the reader deserves a terrific finale! I’m always late delivering my books, so when I’m working under the gun to wrap up my manuscript, I already have the ending outlined --- with details and dialogue. All I have to do it flesh it out a bit. So I always know how a book will end before I start writing it.

BRC: VICIOUS is about serial killers and, to some extent, their motivations. You obviously do research on the topic for your novels. Who do you consider to be the expert on serial killings in the United States? Why? And what unsolved series of serial murders in the United States do you consider to be of most significance or notoriety?

KO: My across-the-street neighbor, John Simmons, is a psychologist --- and a terrific guy. For my last two thrillers, he has let me pick his brain about how a sociopath or psychopath might think and how they’d act out. I think Ann Rule’s books always give incredible insights into what motivates a serial killer. I reread THE STRANGER BESIDE ME when I was outlining ONE LAST SCREAM. For VICIOUS, I went online and read up on several serial killers, particularly the Bianchi and Buono (The Hillside Strangler) case. I also was reading Erik Larson’s THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (about H.H. Holmes) while outlining VICIOUS. Ann Rule is an old friend, and I’m just getting to know Erik, who is really cool --- and a lot of fun. I don’t know who would be the foremost authority on serial killers in the US, but if you want to get inside the head of a serial killer, I can’t think of two better true crime thrillers than THE STRANGER BESIDE ME and THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY.

Believe it or not, I don’t follow too many current serial killings. But there were a few murders that happened in Chicago, where I grew up --- some of them still unsolved --- and they left a lasting impression. Remember I mentioned earlier how I was dying to see Psycho? Well, it was supposed to make its network television premiere in September 1966. I couldn’t wait to see it. But then a few days before the movie was supposed to air, in Kennelworth, (one town away from me and my family), Valarie Percy, the daughter of our state senator, was bludgeoned to death in her bedroom --- around dawn, while the rest of her family was sleeping. The network cancelled the Psycho broadcast. They never found Valarie Percy’s killer. This happened only three months after Richard Speck had stabbed and strangled eight student nurses in a Chicago townhouse. I was 11 when these murders happened, and it scared the hell out of me.

I have four older sisters, and from them I heard about other Chicago murders --- in the 1950s. Judith Mae Andersen was a 15-year-old who disappeared in 1957, and her body parts were later found in cylinders, floating in Lake Michigan. That murder was never solved. They never found the killer of the Grime sisters, who vanished one winter night in 1957 after going to see Elvis Presley in Love Me Tender. Their naked, frozen bodies were discovered in a ditch weeks later. The murder of the Schuessler-Peterson boys (in 1955) went unsolved for five decades. All of these murders occurred in Chicago, and they had a profound effect on me --- and my writing. In fact, the Schuessler-Peterson murders were the inspiration for the disappearance/murder of three boys in THE LAST VICTIM.

BRC: Let’s pretend that you are Hitchcock for a day, and you have the opportunity to direct the film version of VICIOUS. Who would you cast in each part?

KO: We went from dead serious to kind of fun here --- and just in time! Sandra Bullock would probably be perfect to play the resourceful, gutsy widowed mother, Susan Blanchette. But I think Hitchcock might have gone with a blonde --- and another Blanchett, Cate. I love her. Either one of those ladies would take that role and be wonderful. For the three teens, I’d love to see Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air, Twilight) or Ellen Page (Juno) play Moira; Shia LaBeouf or maybe Michael Cera (“Arrested Development”, Juno) would be great as Leo; and I know this is cliché, but he’s great at playing a tortured, enigmatic guy, Twilight’s Robert Pattinson as Jordan. I think Mathew Morrison of “Glee” would be great as Allen or Tom. I have to thank you for this fun question. In the writing process, I often ask myself, “Who would I cast as this character for the movie version of the book?” And that gives me a better sense of who could embody that particular character. With your question, you went it one better by asking how Hitchcock would have done it.

BRC: While we are pretending, you wake up tomorrow morning and decide that your next book will be about anything BUT serial killing. What do you start writing tomorrow afternoon?

KO: People often tell me, “You’ve got such a great sense of humor. Why don’t you write something funny?” So I’d probably write some light-hearted, coming-of-age story, full of teen angst, humiliation and sexual confusion. But I’d have to do it under a different name, because people would be waiting for a dead body to turn up.

BRC: I noticed in VICIOUS that in one scene, Allen is reading a new book by Robert Dugoni. Interestingly enough, in BODILY HARM, Dugoni’s new book, one of his characters is reading a novel by Kevin O’Brien. Did you and Bob plan that out, or is it serendipitous?

KO: I’ve been on a few author panels with Bob Dugoni, and he’s a very nice guy. He plugged my books on his blog, so I decided to plug his books in VICIOUS --- with a character reading a Robert Dugoni thriller late at night. I saw Bob at an event for the King County Public Libraries shortly after writing that bit, and I told him about it. He laughed and said he’d give me a mention in BODILY HARM. Both VICIOUS and BODILY HARM hit bookstores on May 25th. I saw Bob just last week (at a Seattle 7 event), and we agreed --- with fingers crossed --- that there’s room on the bestseller lists for both of us!

BRC: You are associated with the Seattle7, a group of authors in the Pacific Northwest. What can you tell us about the group, and what you have done together?

KO: Well, the magnificent “7” are actually nine: Kit Bakke, Erica Bauermeister, Carol Cassella, Randy Sue Coburn, Mary Guterson, Stephanie Kallos, Maria Semple, Jennie Shortridge and Garth Stein. To explain what they’re about, I’m quoting off a bookmark I’ll be giving away at my next VICIOUS signing. Seattle 7 Writers is “a collective of Pacific Northwest authors creating connections between writers, readers, librarians and booksellers to foster and support a passion for the written word.” They also raise money for community literacy and teaching organizations, and donate books to shelters and rehabilitation facilities. My friend, Garth Stein, got it started with Jennie Shortridge, and it has grown to include Seattle 7 “Friends.” That’s where I come in --- and I’m in some pretty great company, too: Susan Wiggs, Tom Robbins, Erik Larson and Robert Dugoni, to mention a few. I’ve donated books and attended several signings and functions.

The cool thing about this organization is how much they support one another. At a signing for Jennie’s WHEN SHE FLEW, several Seattle 7 Writers were in attendance --- as was Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel Without a Cause and Rachel, Rachel. How cool is that for the bookstore --- and any readers out there attending the signing? You can go listen to Jennie, buy her book, and oh, yeah, you can buy a copy of THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, and get Garth Stein to autograph it. You can talk to Randy Sue Coburn about her novels and her screenplay for Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. You can chat with Stewart Stern about working with Brando, Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Joanne Woodward and James Dean. Recently, my publisher had me start up a Facebook fan page, and all the Seattle 7 Writers immediately became my “Friends.” They’re a very cool group!

BRC: Have you given any consideration to writing a series? What advantages and disadvantages do you see to writing self-contained, stand-alone works?

KO: I may try my hand at a series some time, but not right now. With stand-alone thrillers, it’s easier for folks to get started on my thrillers. They don’t have to read them in any particular order. Plus I enjoy developing new characters each time I start a book and giving them interesting backstories. Most series call for the protagonist to be an expert in police work, forensics, medicine, law or whatever it takes to solve a crime. But I enjoy writing about a regular person who gets thrown into a frightening situation. It’s scary when a school teacher realizes she must find the killer or be killed. Put a detective or a ballistics expert in that same situation, and it loses a lot of that intensity. But you’re limited to stand-alones when you have an “amateur detective” protagonist. You can’t bring back the school teacher heroine in a thriller series, because it’s just not believable that this school teacher would stumble upon a serial killer again --- and again, and again!

BRC: Readers love great authors and are always looking for new ones. Great authors, for their part, are also always reading. What have you read in the last year that you would recommend to our readership?

KO: I had a chance to meet John Hart at the Edgar Awards last month. He’s a very cool guy --- and very deserving of his award for THE LAST CHILD. This is his second Edgar in a row. His writing and the depth of his characters reminds me of Pat Conroy. I’d be amiss not to mention SING THEM HOME by Stephanie Kallos, one of Entertainment Weekly’s top 10 fiction books of 2009, and she happens to be a wonderful person. Ditto Jennie Shortridge, whose WHEN SHE FLEW knocked me out and broke my heart. Jennie is the coolest. And I couldn’t put down OXYGEN by Carol Cassella. It’s no coincidence these last three authors are members of the Seattle 7. And of course, next week I’m diving into BODILY HARM by Bob Dugoni!

BRC: Since you responded so well to this question the last time we talked, I will ask it again: What are you presently working on?

KO: DISTURBED is the working title of my new thriller, which will be hitting bookstores and e-books in May 2011. It’s about a scandal at a Seattle high school that leads to the firing of a beloved guidance counselor and the suicide of a troubled student. Molly Dennehy is the stepmother of a teenager who was indirectly involved in that scandal. After the guidance counselor is slain in what appears to have been a random hold-up, several bizarre incidents --- including some untimely, gruesome deaths --- begin to plague Molly’s neighbors on an isolated cul-de-sac. That’s all I’m saying for now. I don’t want to give too much away!

Thanks so much for this great opportunity and all the terrific questions, Joe. I always enjoy talking with you.

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