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Talking Craft with Thriller Author Jody Gehrman

Jody Gehrman has authored eleven published novels and numerous plays for stage and screen. Her debut suspense novel, Watch Me, is published by St. Martin’s Press. Her Young Adult novel, Babe in Boyland, won the International Reading Association’s Teen Choice Award and was optioned by the Disney Channel. Jody’s plays have been produced or had staged readings in Ashland, New York, SanFrancisco, Chicago and L.A. Her newest full-length, TribalLife in America, wonthe Ebell Playwrights Prize and will receive a staged reading at the historic Ebell Theater in Los Angeles. She and her partner David Wolf won the New Generation Playwrights Award for theirone-act, Jake Savage, Jungle P.I. She holds a Masters Degree in ProfessionalWriting from the University of Southern California and is a professor of Communications at Mendocino College in Northern California.

Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Watch Me. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?   

A: Watch Me is a dark psychological suspense novel about a professor caught up in a dangerous relationship with her charming but psychotic student. Writing this book felt important and cathartic. “Watch Me” is a dare, a command, and a plea. I was trying to put into words an experience I think many women can relate to. We go from always being on display in our twenties and early thirties to suddenly feeling invisible. The minute we hit puberty we start to feel eyes on us; we get so used to that state, we unconsciously accept it as a law of nature. When all those eyes turn away from us, it’s as if we disappear. My protagonist is thirty-eight, divorced, emotionally bruised, and disappearing. That perfect storm makes her vulnerable to an obsessive sociopath. He may be dangerous, but at least he sees her.

Q: What do you think makes a good psychological suspense novel? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?

A: I suppose this is painfully obvious, but it has to be suspenseful. The reader has to feel a sort of dread that’s at once scary and also weirdly pleasurable.

The second element is also somewhat obvious but worth mentioning: the nature of the suspense should be psychological. What that means to me is we’re drawn into each character’s secrets; we get to explore his or her dark side, and in doing so, we explore our own. The element of fear isn’t centered on the supernatural or jump-scares but rather the shadow side of human nature.

The third element I look for as a reader and strive to achieve as a writer is atmosphere. I love it when the world of the book is so palpable I can lose myself in it, no matter what’s going on in my real life.

Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A: I’m a playwright and a screenwriter in addition to my work as a novelist, so I’ve learned a lot about plotting from the screenwriting community. I’m a huge fan of the late great Blake Snyder’s book on screenplay structure and storytelling, Save the Cat. Once I got the basic idea for Watch Me I ran it through Snyder’s fifteen story beats. The overall premise came to me in a heated rush, but I was able to refine the various plotting elements by looking at it through the lens Snyder explains so beautifully. If you struggle with plotting I highly recommend his book.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing? In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A: The book bounces between two very different voices—a writing professor and her protégé. It’s funny; since I’ve worked as a writing professor for two decades, I assumed her voice would dominate the book. Nobody was more surprised than me when her unhinged student took on a voice that just exploded on the page. I guess we all have a bit of crazy in us. I’ve discovered that taking on the point of view of a sociopath is both fascinating and weirdly therapeutic.

Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A: The great thing about fiction is we get to fast-forward through the boring parts. I try to find the most dramatic, tense moments that will tell the story best.

In early drafts, it’s natural to avoid conflict to some extent. We get our characters into a tight spot, but we love them, so we want to make it easy for them to escape. In later drafts, my focus is on cutting off those escape routes and forcing the characters to sweat it out. I try to lose anything that slows the pace too much. I’m learning to put my beloved characters into impossibly tense situations and then, just when I can barely stand it, I turn the screws just a little more.

Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A: I love weather. It sounds cliché, but sprinkling a scene with just the right wind or rain or sun really can add to the tension. I’m also very olfactory. Smells play an important part in my books. It’s one of the most powerful senses when it comes to connecting with emotion. If I could write a novel with scratch-and-sniff pages that would awesome : )

Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?

A: The idea that people—especially women—feel invisible after a certain age is central to this book. It’s what makes my protagonist vulnerable to a dangerous stalker. This is something I’ve thought about for years, but wasn’t able to express until now.

Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A: I do think that’s possible, especially if you’re working with an editor who doesn’t fully get your vision. Both my agent and my editor were so completely on board with this book, though, I never worried about that. They saw ways to make it better, but the fundamental bones of the book remained unchanged.

Many writers, myself included, want to please everyone. This can be dangerous. I caution my writing students to sift through the feedback they receive with an open mind, but only act on the notes that truly resonate. The longer you do this work, the clearer you get about which voices to listen to and which ones to ignore.

Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?

A: Perseverance, audacity, but most of all a deep love of the work itself.

Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?

A: I guess that’s sort of true. I loved being a student, so I guess it makes sense that I’d want nonstop homework forever.

Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat is my Bible.

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A: It’s important to surround yourself with people who take your work as a writer seriously. Authors have enough rejection and ridicule to contend with in the public sphere; there’s no need to invite the same sort of energy into your home.

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