10 Questions with Kevin O’Brien
It’s about a Portland-based airline pilot, Stephanie Coburn, coping with her older sister’s suicide. She’s baffled when her brother-in-law suddenly remarries. Stephanie doesn’t even get a chance to meet his new bride, because shortly after the wedding, the woman, the brother-in-law and Stephanie’s niece and nephew are brutally murdered. It appears to have been a house-robbery gone haywire. But later Stephanie reads about a somewhat similar case—of a recently-widowed Chicago financier shooting his new bride, his two children and then himself. Teaming up with the surviving son of the Chicago incident, Stephanie begins to uncover the pattern of a clever, relentless serial killer with a grudge. But will she be the next to die before she can stop this killer? The story moves at a fast pace—all over the US map: Portland, New York, Boston, the Washington, DC area, Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Rapid City, Spokane, and of course, Seattle. I loved writing scenes in all these different cities. And I think Stephanie is one of my favorite heroines.
My editor deserves the credit for this one. At least, he planted the seed. He often shares his plot ideas with me. It’s great to get an email from him with the subject line: “Story Idea.” Usually, it begins, “I had an idea on the subway coming to work this morning…” In this case, he had a notion about merging the themes of Black Widow, The Stepfather and Fatal Attraction. We bounced some ideas back and forth—and then I started writing. My editor and I have been working together nearly 20 years.
3. How did it happen that you landed on The New York Times Bestseller list?
Bribes, extortion and intimidation. No, seriously, Ethan, I think my first New York Times Bestseller, THE LAST VICTIM (2005) came at just the right time. It was about a political campaign in Portland. There were all sorts of interesting ingredients: dirty politics, family secrets, a serial killing, teenage angst, and a bit of I Know What You Did Last Summer. When the book made the bestseller list, I heard from so many people with my publishing house and my agency—including the publisher’s sales director, who was actually crying when he broke the news to me on the phone. How wonderful is that? THE LAST VICTIM was the start of a string of New York Times Bestsellers. Once you make the list, it says that in front of your name on all your books. It’s pretty cool. People start to take you seriously when that tag comes with your name!
4. What are your writing habits? Outline or not?
A great, big Yes to Outline. My first two books were general fiction, and I didn’t use an outline. When I started my first thriller in 1996, it went in several different directions. It needed to be completely revised and rewritten twice—and took nearly three years to finish. The result was THE NEXT TO DIE. It was a hit, and a USA Today Bestseller. But after that, I decided I needed a precise idea of the book and its path before I started writing it. So I started outlining my books. I always write my outline like a mini-novel—with details and dialogue—so my editor gets a clear idea of what he’ll be getting with the finish product. My outlines are always very long. I just turned in the outline for my 2015 book, and it was 98 pages. Here’s hoping my editor likes it!
5. What is the single most important thing you have learned during the writing process of crafting a novel?
Keep rewriting and fine-tuning along the way. I’ll go over what I’ve written until I’m sick of the book—and then I’ll fine-tune some more!
6. A word of advice for new writers?
See the above! Also—join a writing group or take a class so you can share your first drafts with people who will give you honest, useful feedback. In a good group, you can also share helpful information about agents and seminars. Writing is a lonely process. Authors need a support group.
7. What are your thoughts on the latest publishing industry developments, mainly the rise of self-publishing? Did you ever consider it or might you consider it in the future?
Well, Ethan, I’m extremely lucky that nearly all fifteen of my books are available in print or on ebook. Only one of my books—my first, ACTORS—is currently unavailable. Unless my publisher dumps me (God forbid), I don’t have any plans to self-publish. However, I know several authors who have done extremely well self-publishing. We have a lot more publishing options now, and for the most part, that’s great for writers and readers.
8. What are your favorite pastimes?
Watching movies, walking around Seattle, working out, and getting together with other authors.
9. How do you connect with your fans?
It’s great to get emails and Facebook messages, but meeting people at book signings is the best. I get to shake their hands and thank them for reading my books. And it’s great for them to see I’m not nearly as creepy as my books!
10. What’s your next book going to be about?
If my editor likes my new outline (fingers crossed), it will be about a short-order cook who gets a job catering on a film set in Seattle. The film is based on an infamous murder from 1970—and it’s being shot in the actual murder house. Creepy things begin to happen on the set—matching incidents from forty-five years before. I won’t say anymore!
Thanks so much, Ethan, for all the terrific questions! It’s been fun!