Connecticut thriller writer Wendy Walker discusses, signs 'Night Before' today
Rock singer Chubby Checker released the hit dance song "The Twist" in 1960. It was such a success he wrote 10 more "Twist" songs over the years. That's a lot of twists — but not if you're a thriller writer trying to stay competitive in today's publishing market.
Trick endings have been around in literature since folks started making up stories, but it's arguable that, in 1986, when Scott Turow published "Presumed Innocent" and its surprise finale slammed into readers like a tsunami, authors began to increasingly try to incorporate trick denouements into the genre. Writers like Harlan Coban built reputations around the ability to construct sleight-of-hand plot spins as a sort of signature — and the film "The Sixth Sense" added to the burgeoning Twist Mania when it became apparent that "seeing dead people" went a lot deeper than viewers suspected.
Then Gillian Flynn wrote "Gone Girl" and the walls blew down. Game on, thrillers writers!
Connecticut's Wendy Walker, who grew up in Norwalk, still lives in the Nutmeg State and sets her novels in a fictional version of Stamford, is the author of psychological suspense bestsellers "Emma in the Night" and "All is Not Forgotten" — and she is an unabashed fan and devotee of "the twist ending." She's damned good at it, too, and she may have topped herself in her latest book, "The Night Before," which came out Tuesday. Walker celebrates today with a book-signing luncheon at noon in Michael Jordan's Steakhouse at Mohegan Sun. It's part of the Delicious Discussions series cosponsored by the restaurant and Bank Square Books.
In "The Night Before," Laura Lochner has had a rough time meeting men since a horrible tragedy in high school. Now 28, and after a bad breakup with her latest boyfriend, she moves from Manhattan back to Connecticut to live with her sister Rosie and her husband Joe while she tries to recover emotional equilibrium. Laura reluctantly enters the online dating market and agrees to meet a man for dinner in town — and vanishes. Told from two points of view and in hopscotching time segments — from Laura's perspective on the actual date to Rosie's search for her sister over the next few days — and with terse, cryptic excerpts from Laura's earlier sessions with her psychiatrist, "The Night Before" is a like three time bombs hidden in an echo chamber where you can't tell which is ticking most ominously at any given time.
And, no, you probably won't see the Big Reveal coming before it finally blows up in your face.
Last week, Walker called to talk about "The Night Before" and the trends in psychological suspense. She's excited about the book, of course, and anxious to see what readers think. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for space.
On the culture of online dating and how the cumulative experiences inspired "The Night Before":
I did get a long-term relationship out of it, so there is that needle in a haystack. But I was in and out of online dating for four years, and it just got to the point where I had so many negative stories. You meet so many con artists, or the man who lies and says he's not married, and it just starts to screw you up. To have someone sit across from you in Starbucks and just lie to you (to gain) intimacy or to steal money is draining. You feel violated, and then you feel anger.
Then six years passed and by then I was writing novels and, you know, the bad online dating experiences were extrapolating. It was a different world, and the culture was just like a candy store of human beings with an endless supply, and it became impossible to find out anything about the person you were going to have a date with. And it just didn't happen to me. I had all these friends in that world, and the stories just kept adding up. There are con artists with total fake identities, and this is what they do. And there's no recourse; it's not criminal to do this or whatever.
Then I had a thought: What if I wrote a story and turned the damsel-in-distress thing upside down?
On how to turn that epiphany into a book:
I had to think about it and refine that first impulse. What if there was a woman filled with rage specific to dating and men, and would that make it hard for her to trust her own instincts? Her instincts in the past have been wrong, so she's trying to sort out her feelings. This could be complicated if, as a child, she didn't get love and affection, and as such, she has this longing and desperation and doesn't know how to get what she needs? (Is) online dating (the answer)? But I had to acknowledge that there are so many of these men online who DO lie.
On where the "psychology" and the "suspense" parts respectively come into play in a psychological thriller:
(She laughs.) Well, that's where the research come in. You have to make Laura believable. I got my experts involved and found out about attachment disorders. The hardest part for me was in Rosie's search for her sister. To get the timeline and the clues. That's the fun stuff for the reader — the discoveries of the investigation — but that was hardest for me because normally I don't write whodunnits. So the reader knows something's going to go wrong because of Rosie's timeline, but Laura's point of view is different because SHE doesn't know in real time. Is there something in her drink? Does she make the mistake of getting in his car or ...?
On the intricacy of plotting and the necessity of the twist:
A lot of writers work off a very general idea or even a character, but I have to have an outline. A writer starts to build a readership, and the reality is there are certain experiences your readers want. For me, they expect psychological issues and reasons and backstories all grounded in actual psychology. That requires a lot of work. And of course then there's the twist. You have to have stuff the reader doesn't see coming, but when they look back, the bread crumbs are there. I'm not one of those writers who will blindside a reader with the "evil twin" surprise — where suddenly the explanation comes in the form of someone who's never been in the story until now. For me to not do that, I have to know in each chapter what I'm going to disclose, how I'm going to do that, and why.
In "The Night Before," I decided I wanted three different jaw-dropping moments at three different crucial times. In order to do that, I needed to lay out the first 10 chapters and build up the suspense to that point, and then do it again and then again. And all the while you're developing your characters and their relationships. The way my brain works, I need that road map.
On the publishing industry's Demand for the Twist:
My whole take on commercial suspense is that you have to keep your eye on the market. We as a society are evolving in our tastes and our attention spans, particularly with regard to entertainment. I find myself giving a TV show five minutes; if it doesn't grab me, I go somewhere else. I keep that in mind.
The book market is similarly evolving. The "Gone Girl" craze changed everything. It happened halfway through the story, and that was so different, and you were completely misled by the narrator. I found it exciting. It's like "Hamilton." There were musicals before, and now there's after "Hamilton." It changed everything. I absolutely do feel like now there has to be a twist grounded in a psychologically unreliable narrator or a character her presents him- or herself in a certain way. The thing is, now readers want that and are looking for it. You have to find a way to deliver that in a different way. I'll tell you, I wake up at 4 a.m. worrying about it. But it's also fun. I also want to deliver one more twist. I've got to find it — one more a-ha moment.
On whether the twist phenomenon is sustainable:
Well, readers are getting very smart about our tricks, but they still want more. Genre fiction is like an amusement park. There are all these different rides, and readers want a particular experience. Maybe they like roller coasters or maybe the Lazy River. But when they buy a ticket for the roller coaster, you can't give them the Lazy River. It's our job to put them on the right ride. That's genre fiction. That said, though, I feel very strongly about real psychological situations and likeable characters. Oh, and I want an ending that makes readers choke up a bit. It's OK to bond with the characters, and I'm fine with providing some heart strings and emotions.
If you go
Who: Bestselling suspense novelist Wendy Walker
What: Connecticut native signs copies of her latest book, "The Night Before," as part of Bank Square Books' Delicious Discussions series
When: Noon today
Where: Michael Jordan's Steakhouse, Mohegan Sun
How much: $45 includes copy and lunch; preregistration required
For more information: (860) 536-3795
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The museum will reopen on Tuesday, with the first week open to members only and just during the mornings, from 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.