I would like to introduce to you my featured author of the month, Kevin O’Brien, author of “Unspeakable” and his new book “Tell Me You’re Sorry”. Here is my review for “Unspeakable” if you missed it! Check out my amazing interview with Kevin!
Sierra: When did you first start writing and when did you finish your first book?
Kevin: I was a huge Hitchcock fan growing up, and wrote some scary stories for creative writing classes in high school. When I was a Junior at Marquette University (in Milwaukee), I took a creative writing class on a lark, and loved it. The instructor, Anne Powers, was a published author—and a very encouraging teacher. She taught us not only about writing, but about how to get published. At one point, she told me, “Your stories remind me of my writers’ group colleague, Robert Block.” Yes, that Robert Block, who wrote “Psycho.” That was 1977, the start of my serious writing.
I set a goal for myself to get published by the time I was thirty (a short story, novel, screenplay, anything). I wrote my first novel, “Actors,” from 1982 -1984, then spent nearly two more years revising and trying to sell it. The book finally sold to a publisher the day after my 30th birthday, August 21, 1985.
Sierra: Tell us a little bit about your first book.
Kevin: “Actors” was a sweeping saga about a pair struggling actors, who fall in love, but they split up when she becomes a star. His career goes nowhere, but he never stops loving her from afar. The story spans three decades (1950’s – 1980’s). I used to call it jokingly, “The Thornbirds Go to Hollywood.” It was released in hardcover, then paperback—and had several foreign editions, too. But it has been out of print for decades, and isn’t available on ebook.
Sierra: How did you choose the genre you write in?
Kevin: It took a long time to sell my second book, “Only Son” (1996), but my agents didn’t give up on it. In fact, they sold the movie option before finally selling it to Kensington Books. I’m so glad I ended up there, because it’s been a perfect match. The book did very well, and was even featured in “Readers Digest Select Editions” here and in several foreign countries. But it was a long struggle. My agents surmised that we’d have better luck selling a thriller next time. “Only Son” was mainstream fiction with some suspenseful elements. And I’d always been a Hitchcock fan. So I wrote “The Next to Die,” and Kensington bought it. When it became a USA Today Bestseller, I knew I’d found my genre.
Sierra: What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write in your new thriller, “Tell Me You’re Sorry”?
Kevin: I had several “favorite” scenes in the book. I really enjoyed writing the scene with the Chicago-area teenager, Ryan, driving home in a violent thunderstorm after a distress call from his new stepmother. The reader knows he’s being set up to get killed once he steps inside that house. Will he turn back toward his friend’s house or continue on in the storm to his death? I also liked the scene in which my heroine, Stephanie, figures out someone is trying to lure her down to her basement to kill her—and her subsequent escape. The set ups for the various abductions were also interesting to write. But I guess the segment that stands out for me is the flashback to 1986, with the teenagers skinny-dipping at night—and you know something horrible is about to happen. It’s a long scene, and I tried to make it slightly titillating, funny, pathetic, poignant and pulse-pounding scary.
Sierra: Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?
Kevin: Well, that beach where the teens were skinny-dipping is based on a private beach in Glencoe, where I used to swim (in a swim suit). I also worked at a country club during the summers while I was in high school—as one of my main characters did in the book. So writing those flashback scenes was sort of fun and nostalgic.
The apparent “murder-suicide” in a North Chicago suburban home is loosely based on a true (and tragic) case that occurred at another locale—to the son of a film actress. He was caught embezzling, and rather than go to jail, he shot his wife and children. He called his lawyer, confessed to the murders, and then shot himself.
On a much lighter note, my character who is a TV news anchor has a funny slip up on the air, referring to the “Seattle Shitty Council.” That was based on a news anchor friend’s slip up when he was on the air in Oklahoma City.
You tap into all sorts of true stories when writing fiction.
Sierra: Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?
Kevin: As a kid, I was profoundly influenced by “Psycho,” first the Hitchcock movie, then Robert Bloch’s book. In college, around the time I wanted to be a writer, I read “Boys and Girls Together,” by William Goldman, and then gobbled up all his books. He also wrote the screenplay to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Marathon Man,” and several others. Goldman penned a terrific book on screenwriting, too. I consulted that book—and Ernest Lehman’s brilliant screenplay for “North by Northwest”—when I wrote two screenplays after college. Neither one ever sold, thank God. I don’t think they were very good, but they were terrific practice for novel writing.
Sierra: Do you ever experience writers block?
Kevin: You bet. It comes with the job. I usually conquer it by asking myself what my protagonist would do at that particular point in the book—and then writing all those options down in a stream-of-conscious manner. Chardonnay helps, too! If that doesn’t work, I ask what my antagonist would do next, and again I just start jotting notes on the character’s options. That usually helps me break through the block and come up with the next scene.
Sierra: Is there an author that you would really like to meet?
Kevin: I’ve met—and know—so many wonderful authors. But I still haven’t met Stephen King or Phillip Roth. It would be cool to sit down and talk with them.
Sierra: Will you have a new book coming out soon? If so, can you tell us about it?
Kevin: I’m still promoting my new thriller, “Tell Me You’re Sorry,” but work has indeed started on the next, “No One Needs to Know.” It’s about the 1970 murder of a movie star and her husband, who were staying in a rented mansion while she was on location in Seattle, shooting an occult film. Now it’s 45 years later, and they’re making a film about the notorious murders. They’re using all the real locales, too—including the mansion where the killings occurred. But strange things start happening on the film set—and people start dying. That’s all I’m saying about it for now!
Sierra: If you could go back and do it all over again, is there any aspect of your first novel or getting it published that you would change?
Kevin: It was a long, tough process. It took several revisions and nearly two years to sell my first. But I remember at the time reading that the odds of publishing a novel were about 1 in 4800. So—I’m just glad I hung in there.
If I could change anything, I would have gotten in touch with the publisher’s marketing/publicity department early on, and done whatever I could to get them working to promote the book. My publisher at the time didn’t do much at all to push “Actors.”
I’m lucky that all of my other books since then have been published by Kensington. Their marketing department and publicity team are top-notch. They’ve got my back.
Sierra: Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
Kevin: I’m a believer in writers groups. Writing is such a lonely profession, and you need the support of other writers you trust. You need someone to give you honest feedback about your work before you send it off to an agent, editor, or the general public.
The other bit of advice I have for aspiring writers is to persevere, have confidence in yourself, but also be humble enough to realize that everything you write isn’t gold. So-write, re-write, re-write again, and re-write once more!
Sierra: Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?
Kevin: Yes, thank you for your support! And be sure to spread the word about my thrillers!
And thank you, Sierra. It was a pleasure talking with you!