I have way too much of a guilty conscience to ever be a successful criminal. The only thing I ever shoplifted was a pack of Fruit Stripe gum when I was seven. My mom said she wouldn’t buy it for me, so into my pocket it went. But the thing is, when I got it home, I felt so terrible, so guilt ridden, I couldn’t bring myself to chew it. And I knew that the right thing to do was confess, return the gum even, but I was too afraid of the repercussions. (Leg irons, maximum security prison where I’d end up with a tattoo…) So I did the only thing I could think of: I got rid of the evidence. I took the unopened pack of gum out into the woods and buried it. Deep. Then I sprinkled leaves over the freshly turned earth and ran home.
Having no real criminal nature myself, I get my kicks reading and writing about how other people deal with crimes. I tend to favor books about ordinary, average Joe (or, better yet, Josephine!) kinds of people who are faced with extraordinary circumstances. Give me a story about a baker or a carpenter who accidentally stumbles into something sinister over one starring a seasoned cop or lawyer any day.
So why is it that the kid who was once sick with guilt over stealing a pack of Fruit Stripe gum is now drawn to read and write books that center around crimes? Because for me, a novel is most satisfying when something dire happens. I want someone to end up dead or missing. Some twisted little part of my brain gets a happy endorphin jolt when I read or write about something terrible happening. But I’m not satisfied with that alone – I want to see the ripple effect of that event on the characters involved. I want to see (and create) ordinary people pushed to their limits.
In the opening of my novel, Promise Not to Tell, the narrator, Kate Cypher, confesses, “I killed someone tonight. I have always believed myself to be a person incapable of murder. Suicide has crossed my mind once or twice, but murder? Never.”
Kate’s a somewhat reserved school nurse who’s had an average life (other than her childhood friend being slain). So the question the book sets out to answer is what would make her pick up a gun and pull the trigger.
What would make any of us do such a horrendous thing? What are my limits? What are yours? How far would we go to test them? And for who, or what, would we keep going, no matter what?
This is why I write what I write. (That and I gave up my career as a thief at the age of seven. What else am I going to do to get my thrill fix?)