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Why I Write Thrillers (And, Maybe, Why You Read Them)

Jan 15, 2015 in Guest Posts

Give a big welcome to Gregg Hurwitz! He dropped by our site to share with us an epiphany he had while writing his novel Don’t Look Back, which was published in August by St. Martin’s Press.

OaxacaA friend of mine introduced me to the beautiful Mexican state of Oaxaca, where Don’t Look Back takes place. He gave me access to all the experts and adventures my evil thriller writer mind required. I hiked through ruins. I learned how to drink mezcal properly—with orange slices and salt made with ground-up worms. I ate crickets and desiccated caterpillar. I stepped on giant snakes. I enjoyed some fairly dangerous runs on a Class IV white-water rafting trip through the jungle. Just before we launched the raft, I got stung on the eyelid by a still-not-identified wasp which made my eye swell up to cartoonish proportion. In Mexico, this doesn’t elicit sympathy; it means you get made fun of more. I learned how to make soap and mezcal. I walked (carefully) through crocodile lagoons and got close to a few snaggle-toothed monsters. I went horseback riding across beaches. I dodged a marching line of millions of sweeper ants devouring everything in their path. You can see that this setting has everything a novelist wants. It was a great blend of adventure and manic fun. I always want the reader to have a front-row seat to the action and in order to do that for Don’t Look Back, I had to experience everything myself so I could bring to life the sights, scents, and sounds of this unique part of the world.

As you can see, I loved researching and writing this one. But this book also holds a very personal meaning for me. Smack in the middle of my last tour, my wife was told she had to have brain surgery. I remember exactly where I was when I found out: heading into a literary event in Berkeley where I was expected to address a room full of devoted readers. So the things I was called to do that night—talking to readers (which I love) and being patient (with which I have been known to have my struggles)—were even harder for me.

What was at stake if the surgery went wrong was my wife’s memory—to be precise, her short term memory conversion. So what we were looking at if things went badly was basically Memento (without the tattoos) or 50 First Dates (without Adam Sandler and a ukulele). Though I suppose in the latter instance, if one has to contend with Adam Sandler and a ukulele, one might prefer to have some short-term memory challenges.

My wife’s surgery went as well as it could have. She retained her memory—in fact, her most recent MRI noted that she has an “unremarkable brain,” which I believe is the only context in which that is flattering. I also try to remind her of this when we disagree, though it doesn’t go over quite as well as you might think. But there was a protracted period during which we didn’t know what would happen, so for a while we were really peering into the abyss. That changes you. It made me reconsider the past—how I spent my time, what choices I made and would I make them again. It made me view the present differently—each breath unique, every moment freighted only with the meaning we ascribe to it, good or bad, if we choose to notice it at all. And it made me look at the future differently, as something you can’t wait for, can’t count on, can’t plan for with any measure of confidence. Because at any moment, it can sweep in—a car crash, a hurricane, a cavernous hemangioma—and wipe out any version of your future self.

I get asked all the time why I write thrillers. And why people read them. What’s the allure? Who wants to be scared when there’s so much uncertainty and tragedy in real life? And we get the usual answers—I’ve given them myself: Order out of chaos. Finding meaning in the seemingly pointless. But going through this crisis with my family made me realize that there is something more literal about the relationship we have between the lives we live and the stories we devour.

In thrillers, we meet characters when they’re thrust into crises such that their world hums like a live wire. They, too, are reconsidering their past, the choices they made that landed them here. They are viewing the present differently, breath to breath. They are reimagining a future they hope to survive to see, and they are redefining themselves in the process. And most often, they are fighting to emerge intact for their children, their families, and themselves. Some of us have been through that ourselves. All of us have loved ones who have. And this book is dedicated to my wife for going through it and coming out the other end.

Don’t Look Back features my first female protagonist, Eve Hardaway. She’s recently divorced, is a single mother to a seven-year-old boy, and has recently switched jobs. But the daily grind is wearing her down, and she’s losing track of herself, of who she used to be. She and her ex had long-standing tickets to celebrate their ten-year anniversary, a trip to a small eco-lodge way up in the jungles of Oaxaca, cut off from civilization.

Rather than cancel the trip, she decides, nine exhausting months after her husband has left her for a younger woman, that she’s going to go anyway. She’s going to leave her son in the care of his beloved nanny for a week, travel alone, and rediscover herself in the jungle.

Now because I’m me, I can assure you: This will not go smoothly for her. On her first day, she strays from the group into the jungle and sees something she’s not supposed to see. And it involves A Very Bad Man.

He clues in to the fact that she saw him. Just as he starts to zero in on her and this small band of tourists at their eco-lodge, a tormenta blows in—a tropical storm that can dump up to a meter of rain a day. When you’re in one, it’s hard to find the air in the air. And Eve, single mother and nurse from the suburbs, finds herself pursued through the jungle in the middle of a storm by a brutal man who can outflank, out-fight, and overpower her. She realizes that if she ever hopes to get back home and see her son again, she is going to have to find that unbreakable part of herself, outlast, and prevail. As I said above, at different times in our own lives, we’re all called to do that in less obvious and more commonplace ways. But for now, I’m content to leave it to Eve Hardaway.

Gregg Hurwitz is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen thrillers, most recently, Don’t Look Back. His novels have been shortlisted for numerous literary awards, graced top ten lists, and have been translated into twenty-two languages. He is also a New York Times bestselling comic book writer, having penned stories for Marvel (Wolverine, Punisher) and DC (Batman, Penguin). Additionally, he’s written screenplays for or sold spec scripts to many of the major studios, and written, developed, and produced television for various networks. Gregg resides in Los Angeles. Find him on Twitter at @gregghurwitz

2 Responses »

  1. I am so glad I read this article. Also glad all went well with your wifes surgery. I love each of your books and look forward to each one.

    Thanks for all you go through to make sure we get our thrills without having to receive the swollen eye and other injuries.

    Just a fan,
    Renee’ Quinn

  2. I think Don’t Look Back is your best book yet – and I have read them all, what a nail biter, you had me yelling out – “no, no” every time something would happen to Eve, it was just unreal. We have been to Huatulco, beautiful spot, lovely people – we stayed at the Zashilla (sp) resort, years ago. This was an amazing book, my heart was beating fast, and I could not put that book down.
    Thank you for a great read.

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