Please welcome our featured March author, suspense creator extraordinaire, Kevin O'Brien!
Kevin O'Brien has consistently been putting out novels chock full of suspense and thrills, with his latest being yet one more to add to his already stunning list of heart-pounding tales. It's no wonder his fan base has led him to hit that mark that every writer dreams of: The New York Times Bestseller list. Kevin was gracious enough to spend some time answering our curious questions about his writing, his new book, and his successful string of thrillers.
Q: Welcome back, Kevin, it’s been a long time since our first interview. Naturally, one of the first things we’ve got to ask is how does it feel to be a New York Times best-selling author?
A: Pretty great! It feels like I’ve been inducted to the Hall of Fame or something. And that label, “New York Times Bestselling Author,” looks awfully impressive above the titles of my books—as well as on my web site, business cards, gym pass, shirt and towel monograms, and across the bottom of my bathroom mirror. Seriously, I feel very fortunate. It was great when I found out I’d first made the list—with THE LAST VICTIM (2005). My sales manager, editor and agent all phoned me. My sales manager at Kensington Books, Doug Mendini, who has worked so hard to promote my books, was actually crying. How sweet is that?
Q: Your previous titles, even before this ultimate honor, also have had great success, but honestly, does making THE list feel differently?
A: You bet it does. It’s terrific, but along with that exhilarating, ‘Hey, I made it!’ feeling, comes a lot of pressure, pressure, pressure! Since landing on the New York Times Bestseller list, I’ve obsessed over making it on the list again with each subsequent book. I’m constantly trying to top myself. Do you ever toss something across a room, aiming for the trash can—and wish on it? My wish is practically always: “If I can sink this shot, my new book will be on The New York Times Bestseller list!” Fortunately, each of my four books since THE LAST VICTIM has landed on the list—despite my lousy aim.
Q: Reading your bio, it’s interesting to note that before you became a full-time author, you were a railroad inspector. So looking back, how far away do you feel from that time in your life? Is there anything you miss about “before”?
A: That’s a great question. When I travel around the Pacific Northwest to promote my books, I’ll sometimes pass one of the freight train terminals I’d inspected back in my Transportation Inspector days. I often shudder, and think, “I don’t miss that at all.” Still, that job made my “struggling writer” days pretty cushy. It paid well and I was good at my job. Plus I got travel to a lot of colorful places and meet a lot of interesting people during those 17 years. It was great fodder for my books, all of which take place in the Pacific Northwest. It’s no mistake my characters often end up alone in some cheesy hotel room at some point in the book, because that’s where I spent many a night on the road. And in nearly all my thrillers, a corpse is discovered by railroad tracks. The climax of WATCH THEM DIE took place in a freight yard. One thing I do miss, and it sounds weird, but when I was working for the railroads, writing was my escape, my passion. Now it’s my job, and that takes a tiny bit of the fun out of the process. Still, it’s a pretty terrific job! I see people in cafés writing on their laptops and wonder if they’re struggling writers. Then I realize how lucky I am.
Q: It seems like most authors in the mystery/suspense genre tend to get caught up writing a series, something you’ve seemed to avoid; is this an approach you decided at the beginning, or just a result of how your writing has progressed?
A: There’s a very practical reason for me not writing a series. It’s because I’m not an expert in police-work, investigating, law, medicine or any of those things! And if you want to write a continuing thriller series with a continuing main character, they have to be an expert in something that catches criminals and solves mysteries. So I enjoy having everyday people for my heroes and heroines. They’re amateurs who must rise to the occasion in order to solve a crime—and survive. The heroine of my latest thriller, FINAL BREATH, is a TV newsmagazine feature correspondent named Sydney Jordan. When she jumps to the wrong conclusion about something or fails to isolate a crime scene, the reader can certainly forgive her—and keep rooting for her. She’s a fish out of water, and very vulnerable. I find that kind of character far more interesting than some expert who is supposed to have all the answers. Finally, I love a good ending to a book, and always strive to deliver a the best possible finale with every book I write, even if it’s a bittersweet ending or one that’s slightly open ended. I wouldn’t enjoy writing a series with several books—and only have one real ending! So I’ll probably be writing stand-alones for a while.
Q: If you had to write a series, which of your many characters would you chose to base it on and why?
A: I’m always very flattered and pleased when someone suggests I bring back one of my characters for a series. I got that a lot for Father Jack Murphy, the conflicted priest and amateur detective in MAKE THEM CRY (2002). But any sequel or series based on that book compromises the original ending for me. Spoiler alert, here, folks: At the end of MAKE THEM CRY, Jack is taking a sabbatical from the priesthood and there’s every indication that he’ll probably hook up with the heroine, Maggie and kiss the priesthood goodbye. If I did a series with Jack, he’d probably have to go back to the priesthood, because that conflicted priest/amateur detective combination worked so well for his character. So he’d have to dump poor Maggie, who had a tough enough life in MAKE THEM CRY! The love-interests always get the fuzzy end of the lollypop in series and sequels. Look at poor Franka Potente in the BOURNE series. She was so terrific in the first, BOURNE IDENTITY, but was bumped off at the very beginning of THE BOURNE SUPREMACY. And look at all those Bond girls—each one forgotten by the time the next book or movie of the series came out. You kind of wonder why James Bond and Pussy Galore broke up. They seemed so crazy about each other at the end of GOLDFINGER. Anyway, to answer your question, if I were to do a series, I’d bring back a secondary character from one of my books. I got a lot of terrific feedback on Ruth, the down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is, retired police detective, who was friends with the heroine in KILLING SPREE. I can see Whoopi Goldberg playing her to the hilt. I also loved Nick Brock, the smug, yet good-hearted, lounge-lizard private dick in THE NEXT TO DIE. He was a real fun character. I’ve been very tempted to bring one of them back in another book. It may just happen some time. We’ll see.
Q: On the same note, having personally read and loved all your titles, that while not a continuous series, each seem to have a familiar voice and tone that is identified as uniquely Kevin O’Brien; what is that particular ingredient that you’ve made sure to include in all your novels that is distinctively coming from you?
A: I like to think that I write thrillers with heart. So I spend a lot of time developing my main characters in order for the reader to sympathize with them and care about them. Most of my heroes and heroines are survivors from some horrible tragedy, and they have a host of life problems that might have nothing to do with murders occurring or the danger around them. In KILLING SPREE, my heroine, Gillian McBride, was barely eking out a living as a thriller author; she was worried about her teenage son who was struggling with his sexuality; she missed her husband who had a gambling addiction and disappeared to avoid some shady shylocks. And oh, yes, she also has a stalker who is killing people in the same fashion she has murdered characters in her books. Anyway, Gillian was a survivor, and she had a good sense of humor, too. I try to inject as much humor and humanity as I can in each one of my books. Sometimes, there’s a good friend or sidekick to the heroine in my thrillers, and they’re quick with the funny lines. In ONE LAST SCREAM, my heroine, Karen, has a part-time maid, Jessie, who used to take care of Karen’s dad in his first stages of Alzheimer’s. She’s an older woman, down to earth, sweet, and always ready with a wise crack. One of my favorite scenes with her is when she tells Karen that in one form or another, she gets a ‘visit’ from her dead son every Christmas. It’s a story this dear woman who worked with the railroads had once told me about her dead son; and apparently he’d loved Christmas. So when this wise-cracking old lady tells a story like that, it can be very moving. And later, when an intruder has that same sweet funny woman tied to a kitchen chair—and puts a knife to her throat—it can be very intense. Boy, I sound pretty pleased with myself, don’t I? Anyway, that’s what I mean when I say I strive to write thrillers with heart—and a little bit of humor.
Q: Okay, I have to say, I love the fact that you have yet to bring in a detailed description of guns and bombs, and have based your suspense on the excruciating scariness of what MIGHT happen, and what is about to happen…so do you ever scare even yourself? Do you look over your shoulder when writing?
A: Funny you should ask! Just last night, I was writing this scene in my new thriller, VICIOUS, in which a woman sits in her car, which has broken down on along a lonely stretch of forest road. She listens to the rain on the car roof and prays someone will drive by and help her. Now, I set it up so the reader knows she’ll be abducted. Finally, the rain starts to clear up, and she spots a car in the distance—through the mist hovering over the two-lane road. She whispers, “Thank God,” but the reader knows better. Hours later, her abandoned car is discovered on the roadside. I kept getting chills (and they were multiplying!) while I was writing this scene. In the middle of it, I got up to get my slang dictionary (vital for any author!), and noticed the door to my apartment was ajar. I’m usually careful about locking up, and this was around 10:30 at night. So I was pretty creeped out. I hurried into the kitchen and grabbed a meat tenderizer hammer (why I didn’t grab a butcher knife is beyond me). Then I checked the whole apartment—closets, behind doors, everything. Could I be more pathetic? So—yes, I scare myself sometimes.
Q: You continue to write your novels from a female perspective—a challenge no doubt, so honestly, how do you manage to strike the right note every time?
A: I like having a woman for my lead character. It sounds sexist, but women are more vulnerable. When a man is being stalked or threatened, it’s just not that scary. But when the same thing is happening to a woman, it’s very frightening. You might notice that most of my heroines are mothers, too. This ups the fear factor, because now a woman and child are in danger. Moreover, the woman is more concerned about her child than herself. So—that leaves to reader to sympathize with her—and care even more about this woman who is putting someone else’s well-being before her own. It is indeed a challenge getting the right perspective, but fortunately, I have a dear friend, Cate Goethals, who is a fantastic writer and a professor (she teaches a class at the University of Washington called Woman at the Top, about businesswomen in high executive positions). She has read rough drafts of all my books, and always tells me when something doesn’t ring true about a female character. In FINAL BREATH, my heroine, Sydney, has a limp from an incident in her past. In my original draft, she’d survived that incident without any visible aftereffects or scars. But Cate suggested I throw in the limp, and it really worked for the character. So Cate definitely deserves some credit for helping me get a handle on the female perspective.
Also—it helps that I have four older sisters, too! So I had a thorough, early exposure to the way women talk and think.
Q: In your latest title, you wove a bit of a ghost story in there, yet you made sure your characters remained skeptical; what inspired you to add this extra ingredient to the story?
A: One of my favorite parts about writing MAKE THEM CRY was coming up with all the subtle, creepy stuff about the haunted dormitory room, where a murder-suicide once occurred. So when I started writing FINAL BREATH and I wanted the mother and son to feel strange in their new surroundings, I thought, heck, why not make their apartment haunted and the site of an unsolved murder years before? So I started asking friends for their own personal ghost stories. You’d be surprised how many people have had otherworldly encounters—some subtle and some not so subtle. Most of the stories I heard concerned brushes with a ‘friendly ghost’ in a haunted house. I used some of these stories for FINAL BREATH. I haven’t had any ghostly encounters myself, unless that open apartment door last night was the start of something!
Q: Okay, can’t leave you without asking what books are on your nightstand?
A: LARK & TERMITE by Jane Anne Phillips was given to me by my across the street neighbor, and I haven’t started it yet. I’m currently reading (and devouring) a manuscript by Gregory Funaro, tentatively titled THE MICHELANGELO KILLER. My editor, John Scognamiglio, wanted me to give a quote for the back of the book. So far, it’s pretty terrific. Also on my nightstand I have my journal (from September, 2006 through April, 2008), a bound spiral notebook with lined pages—filled with all my bellyaching and rambling. Last night, I was looking up how far along I was with work on FINAL BREATH at this time last year—and comparing it to my progress with VICIOUS. I’m always late with my deadline and testing the patience of my dear editor. I’m doing better this year, but I’ll probably still be a bit late delivering the book. Wish me luck!
Q: And of course, what’s next?
A: VICIOUS is how you’d describe Mama’s Boy, a sadistic serial killer who terrorized the Seattle area for a number of years. He abducted young mothers in the presence of their sons, leaving the surviving child helpless and alone. In each case, the mother was later found dead, beaten and strangled. Then in 2005, the killings suddenly stopped—at least in Seattle. Four years later, a widow and her toddler son are enjoying a weekend getaway in a rustic resort town in Northern Washington. It’s where one of the Mama’s Boy murders took place. She’s there with her fiancé, who arranged the weekend trip. Suddenly, her fiancé vanishes. Our heroine suspects the trio of teenagers in a cabin down the way might have something to do with his disappearance. The more she investigates, the more she puts her child and herself in danger. And you can bet Mama’s Boy has come back. I’m not saying anymore. You’ll have to check out VICIOUS when it hits bookstores this December!
Thanks so much for the chance to talk with THE NEW MYSTERY READER. I love you guys!
THANK YOU KEVIN, always glad to talk with you!
Kevin's Suspense Titles:
For More info on Kevin O'Brien, please visit www.kevinobrienbooks.com