Suspense novelist Wendy Walker guests at 'Read of THE DAY' event Tuesday
For years, impatient record company moguls, listening to yet another band's demo tape, would bark, "Where's the hook?!"
One can imagine a similar scenario happening daily in the publishing business, with agents and editors leafing through manuscripts. "Yeah, yeah, great. But where's the twist?"
Indeed. Thanks to folks like Harlen Coban, Gillian Flynn, Ruth Rendell, Dennis Lehane and — well, dozens of others — what might be called Twist Fiction has become a subgenre unto itself in the field of crime literature.
"I don't start a book without knowing the bad guy and the twist. And even then, sometimes, a few more twists might occur to me as I write. That's fun, too," says Wendy Walker, a rising star in the field of psychological suspense with an emphasis on "Never saw that coming."
In addition to popular titles such as "The Night Before," "Emma in the Night" and "All is Not Forgotten," Walker is the author of the recently published "Don't Look for Me" and appears as a virtual guest Tuesday when The Day and Bank Square Books present the October edition of the "Read of THE DAY" book club. I'll be moderating.
In "Don't Look for Me," Molly Clarke walks away from her family in an upscale Connecticut community and vanishes in the middle of a storm. Her car, out of gas, is found miles from home and, a few days later, a titular note of abandonment is found in a nearby casino hotel.
Frankly, there are reasons — if not "good," at least understandable — why Molly would take it upon herself to vanish. She can't overcome the guilt over circumstances surrounding the death of her young daughter, and increasingly feels her husband and surviving daughter and son blame and resent her. With an orchestra conductor's sense of timing and the power of a dramatic ascension, Walker spins twin narratives: What really happened the night Molly went missing and she accepted a ride from a kind stranger and his little girl, and the efforts of Molly's other daughter Nicole, whose own sense of loss and caused her to spiral out of control, to find her mom after intensive searches and investigations have petered out.
Twists? Oh, definitely. For one thing, it's what Walker does. For another, though, Walker, who grew up in Norwalk and still lives with her family in Connecticut, is fascinated by the dynamics of "the twist" just as part of her craft. She's studied the writerly possibilities and methodology with the fervor of a med school student memorizing neuroanatomy.
But the most important part of the set-up and payoff, she says, is that the characters and their interactions must be such that readers care deeply about them. Otherwise, Walker suggests, the cleverness of the twist loses impact. In "Don't Look for Me," she carefully sculpts the emotional pain and jagged edges of love with care.
Speaking by phone earlier this month, Walker says, "At the heart of the book is the theme of walking away from life. Overwhelmingly, the cause in missing persons cases is that the person simply walks away. Maybe there's abuse or despair or a variety of reasons that would make someone decide their situation has become fight or flight — and instincts take over."
Contemplating the possibilities
Walker describes an incident in her own life when, as she puts it, "I'd had a really bad day." She'd driven a considerable distance to watch one of her children's athletic events at a boarding school. The team lost, and she was struck by cruelty demonstrated by some of the students.
"It triggered a reaction where it hit me that we can't really protect our kids," Walker says. "For an instant, I felt like my life was out of control and that there were issues I couldn't deal with — and I had this flash where I remembered real stories about women who just ... leave.
"I saw the road going off into the horizon and had this wild emotional impulse. I'd never do it, of course — it's a momentary battle between your rational brain and your irrational brain. I think we all have those moments."
And the seeds of a plot idea were born. But to create sufficient tension and empathy, Walker knew she had to give Molly enough believable emotional pain to make it understandable and not unforgivable that she would abandon her circumstances.
"I was sitting at the kitchen table, and ideas were swirling around in my head," Walker says, halting her explanation to acknowledge that structuring a novel can get coldly calculating. "And I thought, 'Well, the worst thing is losing a child. BUT people have counseling and have a very hard time, but they get through it and learn to go on. And I needed to take it one step further so that other people wouldn't have sympathy. And I came up with an idea ..."
What if there was an accident that was no one's fault, but Molly was driving, and her daughter was killed? It was the backstory she needed, but Walker says writing about a family losing a child wasn't easy.
"It was very difficult to put myself in this world," she says. "There's an issue of credibility. As a mother, you tell yourself things like, 'Well, I'd never leave my child alone by the pool' or let your baby sleep on her stomach or leave a child alone in a grocery cart for even a moment. You tell yourself it will never happen to YOU, but it DOES happen. Does it mean you're a bad mother? Sometimes, things just happen that are awful."
The writing then started to roll, and Walker had a fine assembly of support characters — aka red herrings — who add a fine mix of bucolic small town eccentricities AND caring law enforcement personnel who nonetheless have issues of their own.
Then there are those twists. "Some people say the problem with plot twists is that it all becomes formulaic," Walker says. "To a degree, that's fair. I write commercial fiction, usually one book a year. And I know what my readers like. I'm not taking five years for each project to write something overtly literary. That's not what I do. But I do try to write artistically and what I want to write.
"At the same time, if you've used one plot twist, that one's gone. I can't do that again. And readers are getting smarter and more sophisticated about things like misleading timelines or unreliable narrators. So as writers we have to keep coming up with new ideas."
When it's pointed out to Walker that both critical reviews and social media comments suggest "Don't Look for Me" is her most popular story yet, she reacts with tentative excitement.
"It HAS been well received, and I'm so grateful for that," she says. "But now I'm writing the next book, and there's some pressure there. It's good pressure. But I definitely studied the possibilities for the twist: Is it to solve a crime or place a spin no one saw coming at the end of the book? Sometimes, I just drive around, obsessing about the manuscript and what's happening. And I'll ask, 'What if I did THIS?' And that's the answer. I can move ahead."
To see and hear
Who: Wendy Walker in conversation with The Day's Rick Koster
What: Discusses her latest novel, "Don't Look for Me," for the "Read of THE DAY" book club sponsored by The Day in partnership with Bank Square Books
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Via Crowdstream app' register at banksquarebooks.com
How much: Free, copies of the book purchased through the event links will receive a signed bookplate
For more information: banksquarebooks.com, (860) 536-3795