Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Too Tough to Write! by Vincent Zandri, Author of The Remains

Today's guest blogger is Vincent Zandri, author of the thriller/suspense novel The Remains.

Thirty years ago, teenager Rebecca Underhill and her twin sister Molly were abducted by a man who lived in a house in the woods behind their upstate New York farm. They were held inside that house for three horrifying hours, until making their daring escape. Vowing to keep their terrifying experience a secret in order to protect their mother and father, the girls tried to put the past behind them. And when their attacker was hunted down by police and sent to prison, they believed he was as good as dead. Now, it’s 30 years later, and with Molly having passed away from cancer, Rebecca, a painter and art teacher, is left alone to bear the burden of a secret that has only gotten heavier and more painful with each passing year. But when Rebecca begins receiving some strange anonymous text messages, she begins to realize that the monster who attacked her all those years ago is not dead after all. He’s back, and this time, he wants to do more than just haunt her. He wants her dead.

Too Tough to Write! by Vincent Zandri

An interviewer once asked the major American author Jim Harrison if he ever wrote himself into a corner. That is to say, had he ever uncovered a plot or story that was just too tough to write, and no matter how hard he tried, just could not move the story along?

While I’m not a big believer in writer’s block, I do however believe that there are certain stories that no matter how one goes about writing them, just cannot get out of their own way. In a word, they simply do not want to be written, no matter how much we concentrate on them, no matter how many story-line options we consider, no matter how many different angles, POVs, tense changes, or style options. Like Harrison will tell you, what’s happening here is not writing one’s self into a corner, so much as what we’re looking at is a false start.

If you’re like me, you often think about how rich you would be if you had a dollar for every false start you’ve ever attempted—every story begun and abandoned long before completion of even a rough draft. Picture the scene: you spend a sleepless night rolling around in bed with a brilliant idea in your head. In the pre-dawn you peel yourself off your mattress and sit before the typewriter bleary eyed, only to find that the story just didn’t want to be written. What’s the problem? More than likely, the problem is that your brilliant story is not yet ready to be written.

Somehow, when this happens to me, it’s always comforting to head back to past successes and to once more get a grip on how I was able to do it before. It only stands to reason that if I wrote and published novels before, I can therefore do it again, and again, and again.

But what if I want to write a novel that’s different from all the others? What if I want to go out on a limb, as it were, and embrace that old negative capability? All the more reason to allow the story to ferment in my mind prior to actually writing it.

I had a different idea about The Remains. As opposed to my other published noir novels, I wanted to write something that had a longer breath. I wanted to write something that, unlike my first four novels, was more invented than based on real events. Something with a little more depth of character. Something that, while still a dark, pulse pounding thriller, was far away from my usual gun-toting protagonists. Something that would challenge me as an author, yet still satisfy my fans. To make things even more difficult, I wanted to write the novel in the first person from a woman’s POV.

Influenced by Jim Harrison’s Dalva, one of the best female protagonist novels ever written by a man, I set about working on a story of a frustrated painter and art teacher by the name of Rebecca Underhill. Where did I get the story from? It just sort of happened in my mind one night while waiting to fall asleep. Knowing that if I bounded right out of bed and jumped onto my computer, I would risk a false start and ruining the story forever, I allowed this one to ferment in my brain for many months before penning even a single word.

I allowed the story to form in my subconscious quite naturally. Without having to think too much about it, I somehow knew that Rebecca was born an identical twin to a sister named Molly. And I knew that Molly will have died an early death to cancer by the time the story begins. What’s more, I also wanted Rebecca and Molly to be as thick as thieves, even with one of them gone, and I wanted them to share a life-long secret.

That secret took the form of a dark event that happened almost 30 years ago to the day. Back when the girls were just 12 years old, a man by the name of Joseph William Whalen abducted them one afternoon while they were exploring the “forbidden” woods behind their farmhouse. He attacked them, and kept them inside the basement of an abandoned farmhouse located in the same second growth woods. After their escape, the girls vowed never to tell a soul, for fear that Whalen would come after them again. Or worse, he would come after their mother and father, and kill them both.

When Whalen was arrested in connection with another violent crime and sent away for 30 years to life, the girls assumed they were done with their attacker for good. They gave him up for dead, but still, they kept their secret unrevealed. Now, ten years after Molly’s death, and thirty years almost to the day of the attacks, Rebecca begins receiving some strange text messages. Not knowing who they are coming from, she can’t help but think that they could be heaven-sent messages from Molly. What she doesn’t realize however until it’s too late, is that her past, in the form of the now free Whelan, has come back not to haunt her, but to kill her.

I can’t say that I made this complex a tale up from out of thin air. But what I can tell you is that it’s my most organically derived yet. For months I could not get the image of a painter out of my mind. I could not get story about anonymous texts sent to her cell phone, nor about the vivid dreams she experiences every night that reduce her to paralysis while tucked under the covers. I could not get the image of a man standing inside her bedroom in the dark, watching her while she slept. A man who abducted her as a child, and now has come back for more.

Hemingway used to say that the best stories are the made up ones. Not the ones you pluck from real life. The Remains is my most made up story. I wrote it because it wouldn’t allow me to let it go ignored. I hope that Rebecca’s tale is one that you consider one of my best stories. If not, I will be making up another one very soon.

Vincent Zandri is an award-winning novelist, essayist and freelance photojournalist. His novel As Catch Can (Delacorte) was touted in two pre-publication articles by Publishers Weekly and was called “Brilliant” upon its publication by The New York Post. The Boston Herald attributed it as “The most arresting first crime novel to break into print this season.” Other novels include Godchild (Bantam/Dell) and Permanence (NPI). Translated into several languages including Japanese and the Dutch, Zandri’s novels have also been sought out by numerous major movie producers, including Heyday Productions and DreamWorks. Moonlight Falls is his fourth novel. He is the author of the blogs, Dangerous Dispatches and Embedded in Africa for RT ( Russia Today TV) which have been syndicated and translated in several different languages throughout the world. He also writes for other global publications, including Culture 11, Globalia, Globalspec and more. Zandri’s nonfiction has appeared in New York Newsday, Hudson Valley Magazine, Game and Fish Magazine and others, while his essays and short fiction have been featured in many journals including Fugue, Maryland Review and Orange Coast Magazine. He holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College and is a 2010 International Thrillerl. Writer’s Awards panel judge. Zandri currently divides his time between New York and Europe. He is the drummer for the Albany-based punk band to Blisterz. You can visit his website at or his blog at


Vincent Zandri said...

Thanks for having me...just quick FYI: Stone House is offering The Remains at $2.99 for the week...Hope you can nab one...:)

Cheryl said...

Great to have you, Vincent. I'll definitely want to pick up a copy of The Remains at that price.

Wishing you the best.


Cheryl said...

Picked up a copy tonight. I'll let you know when I post my review.

Thanks for the heads up, Vincent.