The Bookshelf: Novelist Lisa Gardner

Feb 3, 2017

The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features New Hampshire author Lisa Gardner. Gardner has made a career out of writing about death. Murders, in particular. In her novel Right Behind You, FBI profiler Pierce Quincy and officer Rainy Connor are hunting through the Oregon woods for a young man who has gone on a killing spree. The twist: that fugitive could be the brother of the girl they’re about to officially adopt. The novel looks at the mind of two children forever changed by a traumatic event, and it also follows the parents who want to keep them safe. Lisa Gardner spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello from the studios of WMWV in North Conway. Scroll down to read her top five reading recommendations and the transcript of her conversation.

Lisa Gardner's Top Five Reading Recommendations

1.   The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen. “It actually shows how they sued to steal cadavers to do the research needed. It’s a medical thriller. It goes into stealing of corpses 200 years ago to advance medical science.” 

2.   The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz. “It’s about an assassin who has left that life behind but is now trying to redeem his life of killing people for money by doing good works, by being the mysterious man who comes out of the smoke and makes your problems go away. Kind of the assassin with heart.”

3.   Following Atticus by Tom Ryan. “If you hike the White Mountains, if you know New Hampshire, if you love dogs, you should absolutely be reading this memoir.”

4.   Anything by Karen Slaughter. “If you’re a thriller reader, the ‘Slaughter’ in her last name says it all. She has a detective who is functionally illiterate, Will Trent, and how he has used the techniques to hide his own illiteracy is actually what makes him such a great detective. His observation skills have to be that much higher.”

5.   Anything and Everything by Sarah J. Maas. “My daughter has got me into young adult novels. Moss has kind of taken over the Hunger Games market. The kick-ass heroine, the girl who needs no one, besides herself, to save the day.”

This fugitive that Rainy Connor and Pierce Quincy are trying to hunt down is described as a rampage killer, which is a specific kind of killer. Could you tell us more about what it means to be a rampage killer?

Absolutely. One of my favorite parts of my job being a thriller writer is to do the research, particularly into criminal minds. We’ve had debate over the past five years. We’ve had all these mass casualty events. There are serial killers, there are spree killers, there are mass murderers, and now there’s a growing trend of just calling it a rampage killer.

Essentially it means someone who has killed more than one person at more than one location. We all now the colloquial term “going postal.” You walk into maybe a work place or a domestic situation and the person loses their temper or has a plan, but all the casualties are enclosed in that one location. And a rampage killer, that’s just the beginning, unfortunately, as Rainey and Quincy discover in Right Behind You, where it probably started as a domestic situation: a teenager killing his foster parents.

But after that, many of these shooters experience what’s called a psychotic break. And then all bets are off. They now have their gun, they’re on the run and they will literally shoot and most likely kill anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path. And that sets up the scene for Right Behind You.

And part of the fun of this novel I found is not just the cat and mouse element, but figuring out exactly what the stress was that caused the killer’s psychotic break.

One of my favorite things about writing is the psychology. That’s the part of the suspense of the criminal mind that’s fascinating to me. I think like a lot of readers, like a lot of people out there, we see these horrible crimes now on the nightly news. They get major press, major media. And you’re always left wondering: who could do such a thing? How do these terrible things happen?

I think one of the advantages of a suspense novel is that it can really delve deeply into these questions and really provide some answers. I worked with FBI profilers, I interviewed a probation officer for juveniles, I talked to two child psychiatrist experts. What goes into setting off a 17 year old boy? Particularly someone with Telly’s background: he was born into a household of addiction, he suffered abuse, he witnessed a great deal of violence. But on the other half of the equations, he did clearly have a loving relationship with his younger daughter. There were signs that he was working hard with his probation officer to try to be a better person, but then still these shootings happened.

It’s hard not to think of family when reading this story—what it means, how strong the bonds can be between all these different characters. To what extent was the concept of family on your mind when you were writing this novel?

Thank you very much, Peter. It’s funny, as a crime novelist that’s what comes to me first. I wanted to explore spree shooting, I wanted to explore the psychology because I have two FBI profilers that will be working this case, but I also wanted to make it closer to home. And that brought up the concept of two profilers on the eve of adopting their foster daughter, of becoming at long last a family only to be called to the crime scene of this terrible shooting where it looks like her strange older brother is the prime suspect.

It’s not so much that I had a plan, but at a certain point writing the novel it became clear family really is what this book is about. A spree killing is just a trigger to bring out a lot of issues a lot of secrets, a lot of guilt. I mean, you have a family situation with a 13-year-old girl is about to get her life together. She’s going to be adopted by a great family, she’s getting all the resources and help she needs, and the there’s her brother who’s about to time out of the foster care system, no support network, has been expelled from school, has a problem with his temper. Two kids, same beginning, very different end points are looming for them.

You have a pretty high level of engagement with your readers so much so that you’ll allow them in some way shape the choice of your stories and shape where your stories will go. How is that working?

It’s true. In the case of Right Behind You, when I knew I needed to start the next novel, I wasn’t sure who I wanted to write about so I put it up on Facebook. Do people want the FBI profilers, I’d written some books with them? What about Boston detective D.D. Warren? What about Tessa Leoni? I really thought it would be between those two characters, so I was as surprised as anyone to have the readers chose the FBI profilers even though I hadn’t written those books in a good eight years.

So it was homework for me. I got to re-read my whole novels, and to catch up on my own characters. It was a lot of fun though. It was a lot of fun to go back to almost like old friends, and I would assay for readers if you’ve never read the FBI profilers books, given this plot, it’s not necessary. It’s a spree book. They’re hunting an armed and dangerous killer. The entire book takes place in 36 hours. Nobody’s past matters. It’s all about what’s going to happen next. So you can definitely pick up this book up, dive in and you’ll be fine.

What do you think is the key thing authors should know when they’re trying to maintain a suspenseful narrative like the kind you’re writing?

For me it really comes back to the research. When I go to someone like the fugitive tracker that helped me in the case of Right Behind You, I’m going to have gun men running the woods of Oregon, I need techniques for how to find this person. But the better question to also ask why you have the expert on the phone is, “And what are the steps you would take if you were the criminal to evade capture?” And getting those kinds of information, now you’re starting to see the cat and mouse, and that’s how you keep suspense high in a novel, when you have law enforcement doing everything exactly wright that they should be doing, but the criminal is just a little bit more ahead, which forces your FBI profiler, your tracker to rise up to even that next level of intelligence. So I think getting out, talking to real world experts, and letting the playbook cops and robber can often lead to the better suspense.