Author Kevin O’Brien on His Influences – Matheson, Serling and Hitchcock
Thriller craftsman Kevin O’Brien went back to his influences for his contribution to this year’s Humanities Washington Bedtime Stories event.
The theme of the Oct. 12 gala, “Red Eye,” got O’Brien – author of killer suspense novels including Vicious (2010), Disturbed (2011) and his latest, Terrified – thinking about the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” written by Richard Matheson. (You remember: The one with William Shatner on a plane.)
YOU CAN GO
What: Bedtime Stories Seattle 2012
When: Oct. 12, 2012 Registration, author signings and book sales, 5:45-6:45 p.m. Dinner begins at 7:10 p.m.
Where: The Spanish Ballroom at The Fairmont Olympic Hotel, 411 University St., Seattle
Contact: (206) 682-1770 x103 or email@example.com
“My story, ‘Shrinking Herb,’ owes a lot to Mr. Matheson’s tale of terror in the sky – with tongue firmly planted in cheek,” O’Brien says. “I hope it’s a hit!”
The Seattle author grew up on Matheson, Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock and the like – mid-century masters who refined suspense on the page, on film and on the TV screen. The apprenticeship has served him well, landing his thrillers on the New York Times bestseller list and drawing attention from Hollywood. (His 1997 novel Only Son was optioned for film rights, but never shot.) O’Brien set aside a career as a railroad inspector to pursue writing full time, spinning intense tales of killers on the prowl throughout Seattle and environs.
Humanities Washington: The Pacific Northwest seems fertile ground for serial murderers. Is that just perception, or is there really something about the Puget Sound region as a setting that inspires murder and fictional tales thereof?
Kevin O’Brien: I think it has something to do with the landscape and the rain. We have a lot of woods and water here in the Pacific Northwest. So – if you needed to get rid of a body, where would you go? You’d bury it in the woods or dump it in a lake. I’ve written eleven thrillers. Six of my book covers show something in a forest; and two show bodies floating in water.
HW: Genre-wise, what’s the difference between a “thriller” and a “mystery?” At what points do they overlap?
O’Brien: For me, a mystery is a “Who done it?” and a thriller is “Who’s next?” One is an intellectual experience, compelling the reader to analyze and calculate. The other is an emotional journey, where the reader is put through the wringer – terrified, elated, unhinged, you name it. If you know “who done it” before the end of a mystery, it’s spoiled. But with a thriller, sometimes when you know “who done it,” the suspense factor is ratcheted up even more. Halfway through Silence of the Lambs, the reader knows who the killer is, but it doesn’t matter. They’re compelled to read on. That’s a true thriller!
HW: You studied journalism before turning to fiction. How much research – in terms of the pathology of murderers and the criminology involved in their pursuit – goes into a given novel?
O’Brien: Thank God for the Internet and the library, because I do a lot of research. I’m also very lucky to live across the street from a psychologist, who’s an avid reader. We’ll go out to eat, and I’ll ask him about the motivation for the killer for my next thriller. He’s always full of fascinating examples and suggestions: “Well, Kevin, your killer could strike on the anniversary of a significant event in his life….” These conversations have gotten us some pretty weird looks from wait-people and folks at nearby tables.
HW: Every writer can think of an ur-text behind their own work – a story they encountered that colors everything they do. What’s the book or the other piece of art that you try to equal or better in your own writing?
O’Brien: I’ve always been in awe of Alfred Hitchcock. The three films he made in a row, Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960), have a huge influence on my writing. When I was a kid, my oldest sister wouldn’t take a shower if no one else was in the house, because of Psycho. So I was just dying to see this movie that scared my big sister. This was in those pre-video and DVD days. So I had to wait years and years before it aired on TV. From then on, I was hooked on Hitchcock. I wrote scary short stories for a creative writing class while at Marquette University, and I was totally floored when the instructor told me, “Your stories remind me of the way an old colleague of mine, Robert Bloch, used to write.” Robert Bloch wrote the book Psycho. Music to me ears!
HW: A crime thriller by its nature is about the darkness in human beings. What do you think people enjoy about reading these confrontations with the grim sides of themselves?
O’Brien: I think people enjoy a good scare – like on a roller coaster ride. It’s very cathartic. After a good scare, most people have a good laugh. Hitchcock used to point out: “What’s the first thing you say to a baby? Boo!” In my thrillers, I think people know they can go into a dark place, but there’s always a safety net for them. Also, in fiction, we get to see justice served, which isn’t always the case in real life.