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Thriller writers talk fears of the monster next door

Video produced by Elizabeth Vasily and edited by Elizabeth Vasily and Danny Garfield.


The work of a thriller writer takes the author into a dark place. "We listen to the voices in our head that tell us to kill," said Lisa Gardner, one of the six world-renowned authors that spoke to a packed Salomon 101 for the library's Thriller Writer Panel. "We write it down," she said.

The thriller writer panel, consisting of award-winning writers David Baldacci, Steve Berry, Nelson DeMille, Lisa Gardner and R.L. Stine, serves as a commemoration of a new Thriller Archive to be compiled at the John Hay Library.

The discussion was moderated by Jon Land '79, a thriller writer himself, who penned his first thriller novel as his senior thesis in English at Brown. Together, the six authors have nearly one billion books in print.

The first question posed to the writers - "What defines a thriller?" - proved the most widely debated of the evening.

Lisa Gardner, whom Land called "the master of suburban terror," broached a distinction between mysteries and thrillers.

"In a mystery, the suspense is derived from what already happened. But in a thriller, the suspense is derived from what will happen next," she said.

Thriller novels, the writers agreed, revolve around suspense. "You want to be scared to turn the next page," Baldacci said.

Stine entertained the audience describing reader reaction to the one story he wrote with an unhappy ending. "The kids turned on me," Stine said to much laughter and applause, explaining that he wrote the ending, in which the wrong girl is arrested for a murder and the criminal goes free, purely for his own amusement.

Stine recounted the letters he received from fans, including one that started with "Dear R.L. Stine, you moron!"

Gardner said she believes readers look to thrillers for resolution, not happy endings. She spoke about real news stories, such as the trials of O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony, and the frustration of not knowing for sure what occurred in reality, as a reason for the appeal of escapist novels. Thrillers, she said, are satisfying to readers because "we want to know what actually happened."

Land further emphasized the movement of thriller writing from exploration of the extraordinary to everyday horror. In the world of Jerry Sanduskys, Land told The Herald, Americans are truly frightened by the demons in the house next door.

"The monsters who haunt our dreams, who create our nightmares, are the ones we worry about leaving our children with," Land told The Herald.

Gardner agreed with Land, noting that the most frightening thought is not really knowing what goes on behind the closed doors of your neighbor's house.

"Suburbia is the scariest development in modern society," and the "soccer mom" the most fearsome character in our lives, she said.

The writers then spoke about their varying sources of inspiration, from suburbia to evil twins to the Cold War.

Stine said the title of a book comes first for him because having a title always leads him to the story. He recounted one moment of inspiration when, while walking his dog, the words "little shop of hamsters" suddenly came to him. The book - about a boy who takes a job in a pet store only to discover that the hamsters are not as friendly as they seem - would go on to be the 14th in his "Goosebumps" series.

For DeMille and Berry, historical moments and events often inspire their stories.

"The genesis of thrillers goes back to the Cold War," DeMille said, noting that a good thriller should have international implications. He said he wrote thrillers dealing with the foreign and domestic tensions of the Cold War at the beginning of his career.

They offered varying opinions on what readers find so consistently captivating about the thriller genre.

Horror and thriller books, Stine said, are a means for adults to revisit their childhood nightmares and reexperience the age-old "fear that someone is lurking somewhere." He said thrillers are "a way of staying a child" for adult readers.

Land told The Herald thrillers revolve around the classic quest story. "The first thrillers ever are the Iliad and the Odyssey," he said, noting that for a thriller to be successful, the protagonist must be searching for redemption.

The six writers also discussed the changing modalities of thriller writing, from movie adaptation - which DeMille called "every author's fantasy and nightmare at the same time" - to e-books.

Gardner championed the rise of the e-book in the modern age, calling the Kindle "democracy at work." Because print publication traditionally works based on top-down strategies commanded by "five guys in New York," digital media represents a positive shift towards a bottom-up model for literary popularity, Gardner said, allowing new voices to arise in a business dominated by publishers interested only in brand-names.

Berry agreed, noting that electronic books are merely the next stage in the long historical progression from medium-to-medium - from stone carving to clay tablets to animal parchment to paper.

"It's not a bad thing," Berry said of the shift towards electronic media, noting that 70 percent of his books sales now come from electronic purchases. "More people are reading today than ever in human history."

The John Hay's Thriller Archive, sponsored by the International Thriller Writers Organization, will be the first thriller archive housed in any University, according to Rosemary Cullen, curator of American Literary and Popular Culture Collections at the Hay.

The archive will contain donated manuscripts from thriller authors in addition to previously amassed archival collections of works of Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane.


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