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Part 1 of an exclusive essay about thrillers, writing, and fear, from Alex Connor, author of Memory of Bones and the forthcoming Isle of the Dead.
Writing Thrillers- Look Behind You…
For years I wanted to write thrillers, but I was preoccupied with other kinds of books. I used to walk past thriller paperbacks in the book stores or at the airport, mesmerised by their haunting cover images and the promise of an adrenalin rush. At the back of my mind there was always that longing to be a thriller writer. I would do it, I told myself, one day I would pull it off. Scare my readers, rock them back on their heels, confuse them with plots and counter-plots and – above all – chill them.
You see, I like to be frightened. Blame my grandfather. When I was growing up I was taken to every Hammer horror film ever made. I didn’t have a photograph of Mick Jagger on my wall, I had Christopher Lee. My puberty followed the usual Goth pattern – and stuck there.
Give me daylight? Nah, I like the dark. And writing thrillers, it’s all dark. I like Edgar Allan Poe and Gustav Dore. I like Mahler and Arnold Böcklin’s painting, ‘The Isle of the Dead.’ I can see sunshine and bunny rabbits every day, but I can only imagine the abyss and the darkness of the meanest soul. Of course I’m too much of a coward to go there myself. Instead I visit – once removed – like watching Niagara Falls from the safety of the railed platform. I don’t want to become evil myself, or live, or mix, with evil people, but I want to see something of them. Perhaps to understand. Perhaps just in the hope of learning to recognise them.
We teach our children not to touch the fire or they’ll get burnt. But we can’t tell them not to touch evil, because we can’t point it out, paint it, photograph it, say – This is it. Beware. And so I have a theory that our fascination with evil and the dark side is a way we protect ourselves. What we recognise, we fear less.
On a purely thrilling level the dark side gives us a buzz. And as an author I know that if what I write makes my own heart pound, it works. I always write at night, and if it’s something that has to be particularly frightening, I work by candlelight. It flickers, it casts long shadows, it has the energy of the catacomb. Where I work, the door is behind me and I only know when my writing is effective when I can’t – can’t – resist looking behind me.
By the pricking of my thumbs
Something wicked this way comes…
Doesn’t everyone like something dark and wicked? It satisfies some atavistic urge and it makes you feel alive. A good thriller makes your heart pump that bit faster, your pulse race, and your palms go sweaty. It’s the written equivalent of being chased by a brontosaurus; the flight or fight response on which Mankind thrives.
So how does a writer go about describing fear? For myself, it helps that I know what fear feels like. Having experienced it for myself means that I can write about it. I also have a theory that most people confronted by danger don’t act like heroes. They act like humans. They get scared, panic, or run. If the better part of their nature comes into play – or if someone they love is threatened – they might control their fear and fight back.
But most of my characters are heroes by default. They find themselves backed into corners and forced into challenges. I prefer this kind of hero. Not the super cool, always with a wise crack on their lips. I like heroes who behave like real people. Who discover their bravery, conquer their fears, and triumph. After all, real people usually don’t like to be threatened, coerced, tortured, or killed. I think the reader can relate to that.
Aside from the actual writing of thrillers, there is the plotting. This I love. I like twists, counter twists, red herrings, dead ends and anything else that keeps me on my toes. Because if I’m gripped and not bored, the reader won’t be. Let people think they might have solved it – then pull the rug out from under their feet!
Or- insert a cliffhanger. Check back tomorrow for the second part of this exclusive essay from Alex Connor….