Staring into the Darkness: On Reading Thrillers and Writing One

November 15, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 3 min read

Not long after I published my first novel, my mother died. She was in her mid-60s, and her health had been declining for a while because of an aggressive cancer treatment she’d received two decades before, which had saved her life but weakened her heart and made her dependent on regular blood transfusions. The night she died, I left the hospice where she’d been in a coma for five days, went to a book club meeting where I was scheduled to give a talk, then came back to her room 20 minutes before she stopped breathing. My sister told me my mother had waited for me, but I wasn’t sure if she said this just to make me feel less guilty about leaving to give the talk.

Within a week, I was giving readings again, offering my ideas about books, although a strange thing had begun to happen in my actual relationship with books. When I picked up the kinds of novels that for a long time I’d most enjoyed, character novels about families and relationships, I felt only a kind of grayness or flatness, almost a neutrality. At first I thought it had to do with the books I was choosing, but again and again it happened, and for a time I wondered if I might have lost my taste for fiction or my sense of its importance. I’d been close to my mother, and I understood in a vague way that the loss of one of my deepest pleasures in life was tied to her death, but the intricacy of the knot as well as its closeness made it difficult to untangle.

coverI kept on giving readings. One night, holed up in a hotel room in San Mateo, where I was scheduled for an event the next day, I started reading Stephen King‘s Misery, and I began to lose myself in the story, to let myself go in a way I hadn’t been able to in the preceding months. Somewhere inside me, the switch of wonder had been flicked back on. I didn’t think about the craft of the novel, or the prose or characterization, but found myself riding the wave of the book, which I think is the sensation that turns a lot of us on to reading. I stayed up with the novel, showing up bleary-eyed to my event the next morning, but relieved, feeling in a way as if I’d been saved.

For a while after that I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries and books that focused on or orbited around violence, and I began work on a thriller of my own, which has become my second novel. But there’s this nagging question of why reading about violence and the darkest corners of human experience can be interesting or even entertaining, and why there might be something in us that turns to these books, especially during our own dark times. Wouldn’t we want to get away from all that sadness and fear? Why should we enjoy mining others’ pain and our own, and even find ourselves restored by it?

My sense is that the answer has something to do with why we enjoy reading at all, with the particular thrill of seeing our secret selves reflected in a book. Undeniably, there is a part of human experience that is sad, and a part that is frightening, and both seem bound up with our understanding of the fragility and temporariness of life. Maybe my experience of losing a parent, which is something most people face at some point, pushed me toward books that explore other types of darkness, because they allowed me to make sense of my own darkness, to stare straight down into the chasm of it. Or perhaps the distorting lens of fiction distanced the loss enough that I could look comfortably at what had been too close.

Whatever the case, these books brought me back to reading and to writing and to the books I used to enjoy, as well as to new books I’ve come to admire. I don’t know the exact reasons, and I’m not sure I need to know, since I’m convinced that the joy of fiction stems from its ambiguities and contradictions, its questions and suggestions more than its assertions, the way it completes a circle without telling you how or why.

This essay was originally published in the November 2013 issue of Writers Ask, a publication of Glimmer Train magazine.

Image Credit: Flickr/Filipe Delgado.

is the author of the novels Finny (Random House, 2010) and The Preservationist (Pegasus, 2013). A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he has published stories in Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, Boulevard, Fence, TriQuarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, and others. He has received honors from the Michener-Copernicus Society of America, Best American Short Stories, the Hawthornden International Writers' Fellowship, and the Bogliasco Foundation. His website is

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