We asked Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, author of Waking Lions (out now from Little, Brown and Company!) to tell us how her riveting new thriller came to be.
A middle-class doctor hits an unnamed refugee and leaves him to die by the side of the road. That’s not exactly the beginning of a romantic comedy. But when I had this sentence in my head—the one-line premise of Waking Lions—I didn’t know yet which direction the plot will take. No romantic comedy, ok, but will it be a domestic drama? A thriller? Eventually, what made the call was my partner’s reaction: “Please, don’t make me read a 400-page novel about a man sitting in his living room and feeling guilty!”
My partner is the first reader of everything I write. He’s also the second, third, and twelfth reader, because I make him read the drafts again and again until the novel is finished. When I saw the terror in his eyes, I understood that a domestic drama was not an option. And yet I tried: “Four hundred pages of feeling guilty worked perfectly fine for Dostoyevsky. Ever read Crime and Punishment?” He wasn’t impressed by this argument. “Exactly! Dostoyevsky did such a great job. Do you want to write a novel that somebody else already wrote?”
My partner begged for a thriller. The big difference between a moral thriller and a moral drama is the source of danger. While in a drama the danger is from within—feelings of shame and guilt that haunt the character—in a thriller there’s also an outside danger. The basic mechanism—somebody knows the secret—is what makes this wheel turn. The bigger the outside problem is, the more afraid we are for our character, and the more desperate the character becomes. Desperate characters make interesting moves, because human nature is revealed under pressure. It’s very easy to be a good person when everything goes as planned, but what happens when things start to fall apart? When we read about people in extreme situations—in times of war, disasters and so on—we discover that you can never tell who will be a hero and who will turn out to be a coward or a villain. We have a concept of ourselves as being one thing, but when we crash into reality, we find out that we’re completely different than we thought.
A middle-class doctor hits an unnamed refugee and leaves him to die by the side of the road—that’s the beginning. He comes back home, kisses his sleeping wife and children. He’s sitting in his living room feeling guilty—not much fun, but better than prison—when there’s a knock on the door. It’s the refugee’s wife and she witnessed the accident. The outsider’s eye raises the tension. Think of yourself committing any kind of transgression—the first thing you do is look around and see if anyone else noticed. Our moral principles—Freud’s superego—develop out of the fear of being punished for our passion or our aggression. The outsider’s eye makes for potential punishment. While in a drama the conflict is inside one’s mind, in a thriller the different aspects of the mind (the animal drives, the moral principles) are represented by different characters.
But of course, literature is more than mechanics, just as a person is much more than the sum of his organs. You can’t write a novel based on schematic structures, there has to be a soul in it. When the characters you’ve created start to move between the pages, when they start to talk and act, that’s when the story becomes alive. And when a character suddenly rebels and refuses to do what you planned in your plot structure, that’s when you know the book has a soul of its own.