Monday, Jun 20th, 2016 @ 10:25 am
A lovely interview with writer Elizabeth Heiter for ITW’s “The Big Thrill.”
Tess Gerritsen is one of my favorite thriller writers — someone who’s been published for nearly thirty years, penning romantic suspense, medical thrillers, a popular crime series that prompted a TV series, as well as screenplays. She’s also extremely generous to other writers, and recently, she answered my questions about writing, research, her process, getting inspired, and much more.
You’ve had eleven novels to date in your popular Rizzoli and Isles series (which was also made into a TV series). When I picked up the first book in the series, I read about half the book and then promptly went out and purchased everything else in the series (something I’ve never done before or since for any author). Can you tell us a bit about writing this series, and how you keep it fresh after so many books?
Keeping a long-running series fresh is a challenge, and my approach has been to allow my characters to change and grow. Since the very first book (THE SURGEON), Jane Rizzoli has evolved into quite a different woman. She wasn’t even supposed to survive that book! She was merely a secondary character, and an annoying one at that, and I had her death planned as part of the finale. But in the course of writing THE SURGEON, Jane the crank began to grow on me, and when her death scene came, I couldn’t finish her off. She’d fought back against her creator and survived, and I wanted to see what happened to her next. Since then she’s gotten married, given birth to a daughter (under the most horrific circumstances), and grown into a happier woman and a far more confident cop.
Her relationship with Maura Isles has also evolved over the series. At first merely colleagues, they’ve grown to know and trust each other. As with real friendships, they have their ups and downs. There are times when they’re barely talking to one another, and also times when they’d risk their lives for each other. The ebb and flow of their friendship, as well as the ups and downs of their lives, is really what has driven this series.
Your recent standalone novel, PLAYING WITH FIRE, was a departure from your normal crime thrillers, and you even wrote a piece of music to go with the book, which sounds like a fascinating challenge. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this new book and about the process of writing the music?
PLAYING WITH FIRE was unlike any book I’ve written because the entire plot revealed itself to me before I even started writing. It was inspired by a nightmare I had while I was in Venice for my birthday. I dreamt I was playing my violin (I’m an amateur musician) while a baby sat beside me. The music was dark and disturbing, and the baby’s eyes suddenly glowed red and she turned into a monster. I knew there was a message in this, something about the power of music to transform lives and awaken evil, but I had no idea what the story might be. That same day, I wandered into the old Jewish quarter in Venice and saw the memorials to the 246 Venice Jews who were deported to death camps in WWII. On one plaque I saw the names of the deportees, and the name “Todesco” transfixed me. It’s as if a voice whispered: “Here is your story. Write about the Todescos.” And so the entire plot was born, about a Jewish Italian composer named Lorenzo Todesco who composes a haunting waltz called “Incendio.” Seventy years later, that handwritten sheet of music is purchased in an antique store by a violinist named Julia, who discovers it has some strange power over her family. Every time she plays the music, her three-year-old daughter goes berserk and does something violent. Julia must track down the origins of “Incendio,” and her search takes her to Italy – and to the story of what happened to the Todesco family. It’s about how music connects us all, and how it can tell a story that’s as powerful a century later as when it was composed.
While writing the book, I had to describe the fictional waltz “Incendio” in great detail, from its haunting opening to the frantic arpeggios to the dissonant chords. All that description somehow worked its way into my subconscious because one night, I actually dreamed the melody. I woke up with the music right there in my head, and that morning I sat down at the piano and played it. It took me about six weeks to fully compose the piece. It has two basic melodic motifs which grow increasingly frantic and dissonant, and it ends in a series of funereal chords. It’s an insanely difficult piece to play on the violin, one I can’t play myself, so it was recorded by a superb concert violinist, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou. Readers can actually hear the music that the story is about.
In case writing books doesn’t keep you busy enough, you’ve also written screenplays. The most recent is a screenplay for Island Zero, which your son is directing. Can you tell us a bit about the movie and about the differences you discovered between writing books and writing a screenplay?
Island Zero started off as a playful conversation I had with my son Josh, who’s a documentary filmmaker. One day while we were both weeding the garden, I told Josh that we should make a low-budget horror movie together. I grew up loving horror films, and I thought it would be a cool and fun family project. What started off as just a lark soon blossomed into a real movie project. I wrote the script in about three months, and Josh brought on board an old high school friend who’s now a producer in Los Angeles. Even with our self-imposed low budget, they gathered together a film crew of 30, plus a crew of terrific SAG actors from NY and L.A. Josh directed, and Island Zerowas filmed over a very cold month in Maine. It’s now in post-production.
Writing for film is in many ways far easier than writing a novel. Dialogue carries the story, and so much can be communicated in an actor’s face. But if you’re writing for a low-budget indie, you have to think of things you’d never have to consider in a novel, primarily regarding the budget. I’ve learned to limit the number of locations (every camera set-up takes time and money!). I’ve learned why filming on the water can suck up a huge part of your budget (insurance!). I’ve learned why kids and dogs shouldn’t appear in scripts.
But indie films can be made for relatively little money if you figure out work-arounds. For instance, our movie ends with a house burning down. Eek – how do we do that without actually burning down a house? Well actually, we did burn down a house, but it was a house that the homeowner wanted demolished anyway. The local fire department came in to practice rescue techniques – just before they started the fire for us. We got the whole dramatic conflagration on camera.
Your first novel was published in 1987, and since then (if my count is correct), you’ve had twenty-five more books released. How has your process evolved over the years since that first book?
My process hasn’t evolved at all. I still go at it in a disorganized, completely unplanned way. With the exception of PLAYING WITH FIRE, whose plot came to me fully formed, my books almost always start with just a premise, and absolutely no roadmap as to the rest of the story. So I spend a lot of time on my first draft, trying to figure out where the story is going. Most of the time, I don’t even know who the villain is until halfway through the draft – or even later. I wish I could be more methodical about it, and I’ve tried plotting things out ahead of time, but I always end up tossing away my outlines.
My other quirk is that I continue to write my first drafts with pen and paper. That’s how attached I am to my tried and true, albeit inefficient, process. I’m just an old dog, and you can’t teach me new tricks.
Your books have featured serial killers, secret societies, ancient Chinese legends, and much more. What’s some of the most interesting research you’ve done for your novels?
My most challenging research project was GRAVITY, which was a thriller set aboard the International Space Station. The heroine is an astronaut-physician, and most of the action takes place in orbit. My goal was to write a book so accurate that even a NASA engineer would find nothing wrong with it. It required about two years to research and write. I visited Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center, interviewed dozens of NASA engineers and program directors, amassed a whole bookcase of textbooks about astronaut training and spacecraft technology, and actually started dreaming of weightlessness every night. That book was both fun and terrifying to write, because I felt the possibility of failure looming over me every step of the way.
Before writing novels, you worked as a physician. How has your medical background played a part in your novels? Besides the medical thrillers, does it still impact how you write certain characters or how you approach the forensic side, for example?
I understand how doctors think and how they approach problems, which helps when I write from the point of view of Maura Isles. I also understand the language of science, which makes it easier for me to research what are sometimes obscure topics.
You’ve used your platform as a bestselling author to bring awareness to the important issue of Alzheimer’s. Can you tell us a bit about that?
My father died with Alzheimer’s. It was a prolonged and terrible end for a man whose whole life was centered around food (he was a cook), and who at the end could not even feed himself. Almost everyone has been touched by Alzheimer’s, whether it’s suffered by a parent or a spouse, and I think it deserves the same national campaign for a cure that we had for sending a man to the moon. This is a crisis that will sap our economy, not to mention destroy countless lives.
Do you have a “book of your heart” that has yet to be written? And what’s coming up next for you?
PLAYING WITH FIRE was definitely a “book of the heart,” as were GRAVITY and THE BONE GARDEN. I don’t know what my next “book of the heart” will be; those stories come to me in unexpected ways. It’s like love at first sight — you know it when you feel it. As for what’s next for me, I’m now finishing up the twelfth Rizzoli and Isles novel. After that, my son and I are thinking of doing another film. Yes, it’ll be horror!
Over nearly thirty years, you’ve written romantic suspense, medical thrillers, and a long-running crime series and hit the New York Times bestseller list repeatedly. What advice would you give a new writer today about longevity in the business?
With indie publishing blossoming, there are a lot of new and exciting ways for writers to maintain a career. I think the important thing is to be quick to adapt and flexible enough to switch gears. When I realized that my romantic suspense career had plateaued, I wrote medical thrillers. When I saw my sales fade in that genre, I moved to crime thrillers. There’ve been several times when I thought my career was in a death spiral, yet I just kept writing. I think that’s the key: just keep writing.
Your books continue to be unique and compelling to readers. How do you keep filling the creativity well year after year, while finding a balance between writing and life?
Stay curious. You never know when some obscure bit of information blooms into the premise for your next novel. I read a lot of nonfiction as well as science magazines and multiple newspapers, and every so often I’ll encounter some oddball fact that launches a “what if.” For instance, some years ago I read about the Dugway Sheep Incident, when thousands of sheep were killed overnight in a valley in Utah because of a military nerve gas accident. I thought: what if it wasn’t just sheep who died; what if they accidentally killed a whole town? How would they cover it up? That turned into my novel, ICE COLD.
It’s also important to travel. Go someplace you’ve never been before. Being in a foreign country makes you see new things, gives you a fresh perspective.
And finally: indulge your hobbies, because they’ll feed that creativity. I could never have written PLAYING WITH FIRE if I weren’t a musician. My longtime interest in Egyptology led to my book THE KEEPSAKE. Try to live a rich, full life, because every new experience adds to the creative well.
Critically acclaimed author ELIZABETH HEITER likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range.
To learn about Elizabeth Heiter’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:
Wednesday, May 4th, 2016 @ 11:35 am
New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger is one of my favorite thriller writers. Her new novel INK AND BONE will be out June 7 — and it’s fabulous. We recently had a wide-ranging conversation about writing, life, guns, nightmares, and more. Thought you’d all enjoy what two otherwise ordinary ladies talk about when the subject turns to dark fiction.
Ghosts, Guns and Dark Places:
Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Unger in Conversation
When authors get together there’s no telling what they’ll wind up discussing. When it’s acclaimed and bestselling thriller writers like Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Unger, you better believe they’re going dark and deep. From nightmares that turn into novels, to how thriller writers are often metabolizing the things that frighten them on the page, from research war stories, to the conflict between science and the supernatural, this conversation took some wild, twisty roads – just like their novels.
Lisa Unger: A couple of years ago, when I was writing FRAGILE, I ran into a character I wasn’t expecting, psychic Eloise Montgomery. I was excited about her. I thought: Oh! A psychic! Even if she’s a fraud, that’s still interesting. My characters have minds of their own, so I was disappointed when she only had a small part to play in that book. But but she stayed with me. She’s had a couple of books since then, three short stories, and in my upcoming INK AND BONE we meet her granddaughter Finley, who has powers of her own. Eloise’s story has told itself in a way that I wouldn’t have expected, and it has led me down some roads I didn’t imagine I’d go as a writer. Which is, of course, the joy and the magic of writing. So I was struck while reading PLAYING WITH FIRE that you, too, had walked into some of the same territory. Was it a character, or a story, or curiosity about something else that led you there?
Tess Gerritsen: It was a nightmare! I was in Venice for my birthday, and after a night drinking a bit too much wine, I had a freaky dream. I dreamt I was playing my violin. A baby was sitting nearby, and as I played a dark and disturbing melody, the baby’s eyes suddenly glowed red and she turned into a monster. I woke up wondering what it meant — and knowing there was a story here. Something about the power of music to haunt and to transform people. That day I wandered around Venice and ended up in the old Jewish quarter. There I saw memorial plaques dedicated to the Venice Jews who were deported to death camps during WWII. That’s when both parts of the novel came to me — a story about a 1930s Jewish composer whose haunting melody will nearly destroy the life of a woman violinist 70 years later. I’m already a violinist (strictly amateur) with a lifelong love of music, and that knowledge helped inform the musical aspects of the story.
I find that the interests and passions we’ve developed during our lives can both inform and inspire our novel writing. Was there anything from your own life that worked its way into INK AND BONE? Some part of yourself that slipped into the character or plot?
Lisa Unger: I love that, that an intersection of your dream life and your waking one led you to write PLAYING WITH FIRE. It’s so true to the way the process works for me, this blend of waking, dreaming, and imagining. The musical elements of your story are so rich and alive that I thought you must be a musician, or someone with a deep knowledge of music. Which is where, I suppose knowledge and passion move in.
There’s some blend of all of that, as well, in INK AND BONE. I have a fascination with the the idea of psychic phenomena in the Jungian sense, that it might be considered a natural extension of normal human ability. In my other life in publishing, I had a chance to work with psychic John Edwards. And I was struck both by his abilities and how normal he was, how he could just be your cousin from Long Island. In a weird way, though this was many years ago, he was the inspiration for Eloise Montgomery. The fictional town in which INK AND BONE is set, The Hollows, first showed up in FRAGILE, which was very loosely based on a real event from my past. Though I didn’t see it at the time, The Hollows shares certain similarities with the place where I grew up. So, in a lot of ways I suppose I’m dreaming on the page, the real and the imagined get twisted into fiction.
History plays a big role in INK AND BONE, the history of The Hollows and the way the energy of dark deeds has pooled up there. For me, dark, unresolved histories always bring to mind ghosts and the haunting of the present by the past. So it’s true with PLAYING WITH FIRE. Obviously, your medical training has informed many of your fantastic novels, but did that doctor’s mind resist the idea of ghosts and haunting, or inform it any way?
Tess Gerritsen: I’m afraid my science training prevents me from straying too far into the paranormal. I always (boringly enough!) want a logical explanation for everything. In that regard, my character Dr. Maura Isles is very much like me; we both want science to give us all the answers, and we’re bothered when it can’t. Ironically, I love reading paranormal fiction, and wish I could write it, but it’s like I have a form of writer’s block about it. Just when I’m on the verge of crossing over into a paranormal tale, that nagging scientist in my head yanks me back.
That’s why I’m so impressed by writers who can pull it off, and so convincingly. Your stories manage to merge the real and the spooky so perfectly, that I sometimes feel like I’m in the middle of a feverish dream when I’m reading them. I remember racing through CRAZY LOVE YOU and my sense of reality kept shifting in different directions. It’s as if you opened a psychic curtain and let us peek through into a universe that’s invisible to most of us.
I’m intrigued by the fact your character in INK AND BONE was inspired by your work with psychic John Edwards. I love hearing about the research that writers must do to make their stories convincing. In fact, research is the part I enjoy most about writing, because I can delve into new worlds. As a writer I’ve attended autopsies, watched the CT scan of a mummy, and scouted Boston for the best places to dump a body. I’m sure you have some interesting tales to tell as well. What lengths have you gone to to get the details right?
Lisa Unger: Wait! Don’t give too much away! I’m deeply engrossed in PLAYING WITH FIRE. Of course, I had an inkling that your scientist’s mind would resist the supernatural. But I do sense more than a passing curiosity, Dr. Gerritsen! Science and the supernatural are not necessarily at odds. There is so much we don’t know about the universe and the human mind; there are more questions than answers. I suppose I believe anything is possible, which might be why I’m willing to go into the unexplained with my characters.
I’m always amazed, in all of your books from HARVEST to GRAVITY, to the Rizzoli and Isles series at the depth of your knowledge about so many things. Most writers are explorers. I like to think of myself as a spelunker, shimming into the dark spaces between things I don’t understand to try find answers. So, yes, research (and life) are an important part of the process.
I’ve taken a concealed weapons course (and absolutely hated the feeling of firing a gun). I’ve interviewed a woman who claimed to be a ghost hunter. One of my closest friends is a retired Federal Agent who, if he doesn’t know the answers to my million questions, can always find someone who does. I lived with a New York City police officer for eight years – okay, so that was a relationship, and a pretty bad one at that. So lots of research there in all areas, but in the end I just wound up with a good knowledge of police work and fantastic recipe for roast pork — which I guess is something. I’ve been lava tubing in Iceland (not sure where that’s going to turn up, but I’m guessing it will). I spent five weeks in Prague while writing DIE FOR YOU. Recently, I’ve become obsessed with birds. I’m an information junkie. I’m constantly reading non-fiction in all areas with a special focus on psychology, addiction, trauma, biology and the brain. For me, more than the nuts and bolts of procedure, it’s human nature and the mind, and where those things intersect with nurture and spirituality, that fascinate me. Much of INK AND BONE is laced through with those themes.
Are there themes that you find come up again and again in your novels? Have you ever been surprised by a recurring question or idea that surfaces without your realizing it?
Tess Gerritsen: I love your research tales! I too hated firing a gun. I was painfully aware that if I was the slightest bit careless and didn’t stay in control of where it was pointed, someone could die. I also learned how difficult it is to be accurate with a handgun. I certainly understand how cops can fire a dozen rounds — and still miss their target.
When I’m writing, I’m thinking primarily about characters and plot, and it’s only in retrospect that I understand what the theme might be. You asked whether I’ve been surprised by recurring questions that seem to surface in my books, and the answer is: yes, absolutely. Thriller writer David Morrell once told me that novelists often address their own childhood traumas in their books. For instance, a writer who never felt his father loved him may write book after book about heroes trying to please authority figures. When Morrell told me that, a light bulb went on in my head, because I realized it was true for me as well. When I was a child, I adored a family friend named Uncle Mike, who served very much as a father figure for me. He was a gentle soul who counseled me about school, life, and love. Then when I turned eighteen, Uncle Mike was arrested for murdering his sister-in-law. I was stunned because I never saw that violent side of him, and it led me to question whether anyone is who they seem to be. That’s the theme I return to again and again — which smiling face hides the monster? In a way, it’s a universal theme for crime writers, the evil that lurks in the hearts of seemingly ordinary human beings.
Now I’ve reached a point in my career (I’m much older than you!) where I yearn to branch out and try new things in my stories. I feel the pressure of time, and wonder how many years do I have left to write stories that really matter to me. Playing With Fire was a departure for me because it isn’t a crime novel, but a book about music, history, and the Holocaust. For my readers, it was certainly unexpected, but for me as a writer, it was immensely satisfying to write. I would also love to write more screenplays (we’re in production now with my indie horror film “Island Zero”) as well as try my hand at young adult novels. Most writers have a secret “book of their heart” they’d like to write. Do you ever plan to divert from crime novels? Are there any projects that no one’s expecting from you, but that you’re itching to write?
Lisa Unger: I felt exactly the same way holding a gun. I was awed by the experience, the terrible responsibility, the potential to do the ultimate harm. I was aware already from my years dating a cop what a huge role adrenaline plays in decision making when there’s a gun in your hand, how lucky you are to be anywhere near accurate even with training. Still, experiencing it first hand was eye-opening, even in a controlled environment with no potential threat or danger. I was also saddened by the thought that here in my hand was something created for the sole purpose of killing another living being. It was a deeply affecting experience for me.
Very early in my career, I heard David Morrell speak and his wise words struck a chord with me, too. When I was fifteen, a girl I knew was abducted and murdered. We lived in a small, supposedly safe town, the kind of place you move to give your kids a happy, suburban upbringing. And then, on a day like any other day, a girl walking home from school fell victim to a monster. I never saw the world the same way again. The theme of the lost girl runs through almost all of my novels in one way or another, never with my intending it and always obvious to me only after the book is done. I think most of us are metabolizing fear on the page, and looking to put order to the chaos we perceive in the world. Maybe that’s why people read crime fiction, as well — because there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end where some kind of justice is served. Not always so in the real world.
I’m writing pretty close to the bone. I follow the voices in my head, and so far they’ve all been pretty dark and twisted, wrestling with questions of identity, struggling with everything from addiction to body dysmorphic disorder to hauntings. I have a voracious curiosity about people and all the different things that make us who we are. If someone else turns up with something different to explore, I’ll certainly honor that. For me that’s the joy of writing, following character voice wherever it takes me.
Wow! I’m excited about your indie horror film ISLAND ZERO. What a great title! I’m scared already. Can you tell us a little bit about it? And I think next up for you is a new Rizzoli and Isles entitled STRANGE GIRL. Any tidbits you would like to share?
Tess Gerritsen: I grew up loving horror films, especially those old classics like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Them,” and I’ve long thought it would be fun to make just such a film. My son Josh is already a filmmaker (documentaries) and we decided to do one together. I wrote the screenplay, about a group of hardy fishermen on a Maine island who suddenly find themselves cut off from the world when the ferry stops coming. The phones are dead and every boat they send to the mainland fails to return. Then dead bodies start turning up along the shoreline, and they realize they are “ground zero” for something terrible that’s about to happen to mankind. The project is in the capable hands of Josh and his producer, and we’ve got cast and crew from NYC, Boston, and L.A. now at work here in Maine. It’s a SAG production, so the actors are truly impressive. Despite the vagaries of Maine weather, they’re now four days into the shooting schedule, and it all looks fantastic. (And rather, um, gory, thanks to the magic of our special effects guy.)
At the same time, I’m at work on my 12th Rizzoli & Isles novel, STRANGE GIRL. I can’t share tidbits yet because the story keeps changing on me and I never know how it’s going to morph. That’s the trouble with writing by the seat of my pants — I never know where the ride will take me.
Your books are really dark and twisted, yet you’re a perfectly lovely woman — and a mom. How do you answer the question that I’m sure you’ve been asked: what’s WRONG with you, that you write such frightening fiction? Isn’t your husband afraid to come home to you at night? Do your books reflect some pathology in your personality? (Yeah, I get asked the same questions.)
Lisa Unger: There might be something essentially wrong with me! I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ve always had this twisted imagination, and have always been fascinated by the dark side. You know when you go to those horror movies that you love so much, and on the screen there’s a girl creeping down the stairs into the basement (from which some eerie noise is emanating) and everyone’s yelling: Don’t go down there! Get out of the house! I’m the girl going down the stairs, just because I want to – no, NEED to – know what’s there. And I don’t remember a time before I was a writer, so I guess these two essential elements of my nature have dovetailed to make me a writer of psychological suspense.
Motherhood has only made my imagination darker. Back to what we discussed earlier, maybe those of us with those kinds of thoughts seek to metabolize them on the page. Looking at INK AND BONE (I agree that you never really understand your book until it’s done) I can see how it addresses some of my most personal, deepest fears – about motherhood, protecting your child and teaching her how to protect herself, trusting yourself and your path, and how sometimes you have to walk the darkest roads to get to the light.
Tess Gerritsen is the acclaimed and New York Times bestselling author of PLAYING WITH FIRE and the upcoming STRANGE GIRL featuring homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles (characters that inspired the TNT television series “Rizzoli and Isles.”) Lisa Unger is the author of fourteen novels of psychological suspense, including her upcoming release INK AND BONE (June 7, 2016), and the paperback release of CRAZY LOVE YOU (March 29, 2016). Her books have sold over 2 million copies worldwide, and have been published in 26 countries. Both authors have dark thoughts and very nice husbands who are never afraid to come home to them at night.
Friday, Nov 20th, 2015 @ 04:29 pm
When I was young, one of the great pleasures of reading mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie was the challenge of spotting clues and finding the villain before the fictional detective did. It required careful reading, and taking the time to ponder the evidence. I fear readers today don’t have the same patience.
I say this because of comments I’m hearing about my new novel PLAYING WITH FIRE, which has a startling “Sixth Sense” revelation at the end that completely flips the reader’s assumptions upside down. “You pulled a rabbit out of a hat!” “You didn’t play fair!” are some of the reactions. When I point out the numerous clues that are evident throughout the story, clues that should have told them all they needed to know to solve the mystery, their response is: “Oh, I missed that,” or “I didn’t realize that was important.” They had read the story so quickly that they’d simply skimmed right past the half dozen glaring clues without pausing to consider their significance.
A far cry from the days when readers would carefully ponder the evidence the way Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes did.
I don’t think this was true 16 years ago, when I first started writing the Rizzoli and Isles series. Crime readers are a pretty clever bunch, and it used to be a challenge to surprise them. I’d have to carefully disguise every clue. Now I find that more and more readers are missing those clues and even need me to point out where they occur in the story. I don’t think readers are stupider; I think they’re just not reading as attentively as they once did, and the reason may be that many are reading stories in digital format. As a result, they’re doing more skimming and less pondering.
And they skip right past vital information.
PLAYING WITH FIRE is about Julia, a violinist who buys an old handwritten music manuscript in a Rome antique store. It’s a complex piece that accelerates into some high, piercing notes. Whenever she plays it, her 3-year-old daughter Lily seems to turn violent and even stabs Julia. No one else witnesses these attacks, and Julia’s husband doubts they even happened. The search to explain Lily’s behavior leads to a series of doctors and medical tests. But soon it’s Julia’s sanity that’s in doubt.
Although the answer to the mystery may be shocking to some, the evidence is actually there all along, in the form of some pretty obvious clues. Which are….
(more comments below, after the spoiler)
*********SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP PAST THE FOLLOWING IF YOU DONT WANT TO SPOIL THE SURPRISE ENDING !!! **************
— Julia has headaches. Several times throughout the story, she complains of them.
— A pediatric neurologist discusses the possibility that Lily suffers from Complex Partial Seizures, where the patient appears to be awake, may perform bizarre behaviors, and is completely unaware this is happening. The patient has no memory of this and experiences only a puzzling gap in time. The doctor also explains that these seizures can be set off by certain high frequency sounds or by flashing lights.
— The doctor also reveals that many patients with CPS are misdiagnosed as having psychiatric problems.
— Julia loses track of a few hours and fails to pick up Lily at daycare. All she knows is that hours have passed and she can’t account for them.
— Her husband complains that lately Julia doesn’t seem to be listening to him and she doesn’t answer his questions.
— Julia later suffers another gap in time after she sees a camera’s flashing “low battery” light.
As I was writing the story, I worried that the clues were TOO obvious. Wouldn’t readers find it too easy to figure out that the problem wasn’t Lily at all, but JULIA, who turns out to be a whoppingly unreliable narrator?
But no. They didn’t see that answer coming at all. They missed the clues, so they think the answer came out of left field. All the signs were there, yet they missed the diagnosis. So they blame the writer.
(Interesting side note — I just heard from a reader who was recently diagnosed with CPS. He recognized what was going on in the story because he’d experienced something very similar.)
******************END SPOILERS *********************
So now we mystery writers face a dilemma. As the percentage of our digital readers climbs, readers who click past pages so quickly they often miss vital details, how do we adjust our stories? Do we label our clues with bright red flags? Do we insert traffic signs warning them “slow down, twists ahead”? Must we consider the shorter attention spans of an audience that seems to revel in reading faster, ever faster?
I don’t know. I just know that I miss the days when we took our time to read — and understand — books.