Q&A with Koethi Zan, author of The Never List

The Never List1.                   What made you want to be a writer? Did you always want to be a writer when you were growing up?

I was raised in a family of scientists in a house that had only one small bookcase. And unfortunately that bookcase was filled with chemistry and engineering textbooks. When I was nine, however, I found at the bottom of a drawer my mother’s Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volumes I and II, from her one required freshman English class. After that I pretty much survived childhood by reading.

If you’d asked me at twelve, I would have said all I ever wanted to be was a writer, but I lost my nerve somewhere along the way and opted for a steadier career path. I was estranged from my parents after high school and ran out of money fast, so it seemed important at the time to find a secure way to support myself. So I ended up at Yale Law School, which was a pretty great safety net.

I was drawn to the world of writers, though, so perhaps it was inevitable. I married a writer and as a lawyer I represented writers. My favourite NEW YORKER cartoon sums it up: a little boy in a cowboy costume says to his father, “Well, if I can’t BE a cowboy, I’ll be a LAWYER for cowboys.” So now I’m finally a cowboy.

2.                   Where did the inspiration for THE NEVER LIST come from?

THE NEVER LIST was inspired in part by the amazing stories of captivity survivors: Elizabeth Fritzl, Natascha Kampusch, Sabine Dardenne, Jaycee Lee Dugard. These women have suffered through the absolute worst thing I can imagine and every one of them has demonstrated incredible strength in the wake of such trauma. My own difficult life struggles paled in comparison. I was – and am – in awe of them. I wanted to create a character like that: a woman who was strong in the face of unfathomable horror, but who needed to confront her past to figure that out.

3.                   How would you describe your book to someone you’d just met?

I like to say it’s a psychological thriller about girls held captive in a basement crossed with a trauma recovery memoir – sort of as if the girl in that basement from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS ended up hunting down Hannibal Lecter.

4.                   Do you have a Never List of your own?

I don’t have an actual written list, but I do have a jumble of informal rules that my best friend and I developed in high school. We didn’t need to write anything down because we lived by them everyday as we navigated our way through our odd adventures: staying out all night, going to unsavoury clubs, hanging out with strange characters. I have written Sarah and Jennifer’s Never List, however, and expect to add to it, hopefully with suggestions from readers.

5.                   The relationships between the female characters are crucial to THE NEVER LIST – who are your favourite female characters in fiction?

As I thought about this question, it struck me that the first names to come to mind were all young girls: Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Matilda, Pippi Longstocking, Jo from Little Women, Cassandra from I Capture the Castle, Catherine of the early chapters of Wuthering Heights. These characters are all smart, tough and insightful individuals who follow their own way.

It’s telling that so many of the strongest, surest female characters haven’t yet reached maturity, while some of the adult characters I love are ruined or deeply flawed: Anna Karenina, Isabel Archer, Lily Bart. Yes, they are more complex and challenging, but in a way, my true heroes are the girls who haven’t been taught to doubt their strength yet. My life goal is to get back to that place, and to keep my daughters there.

6.                   Did you do any research before you began writing your book?

I spent the past ten or so years researching it indirectly. My unofficial hobby – one I would never put on my resume – was obsessively studying psychopaths, captives, and the criminal mind.

Also, I took a brief detour from law in the early 2000s to go to graduate school in Cinema Studies. There I studied Surrealism with the incredible Annette Michelson, who, let’s just say, has a penchant for the dark side. So in many ways it was as if I was preparing for the book for years without knowing it.

While writing the book, I did formal research into BDSM, abnormal psychology, victimological studies, statistical analysis, you know – the usual. My computer got a lot of viruses, and I saw a lot of disturbing text and images that are etched in my brain forever.

7.             Do you feel your own life experience has contributed to the book in any specific ways?

Definitely. Although I have thankfully never experienced what my characters went through, the broadest themes were drawn from my own emotional life. Sarah, Tracy, Christine and Adele each have a different response to the traumatic events of their collective past, and I’ve experienced them all for better or worse: anxiety, anger, repression, ambition. I’ve worked with a wonderful therapist on and off for a decade – our relationship is definitely not the model for Sarah and Dr. Simmons – but my own process helped me understand what it’s like to go back and face a dark past.

Specifics from my own life influenced many of the details of the book as well.  My relationship with my best friend was the model for the friendship between Sarah and Jennifer. While the story is obviously fiction, the powerful, intense nature of their friendship is rooted in ours, and their paranoia and obsession with precautions are magnified versions of our own.

Also, I went to college in Birmingham, Alabama, and my friends and I spent many weekends in New Orleans, wreaking all manner of havoc. We lived a pretty wild life – hitting the club scene, dressing up in costume, crashing with strangers. We woke up one morning to find we were staying with a guy who honestly believed he was a vampire. That was a bit of a wakeup call.

While I was in college, I also had a brush with a spiritual cult. My roommate and I went to regular meetings for a couple of months, where we were instructed in a bizarre cosmology and taught to be ‘present to the moment.’ It was an interesting life experience that we didn’t take very seriously. Then we reached the level where we were invited to attend a weekend retreat in honour of a visiting guru from New York City. We had to scrape the floors of a house we were renovating for the group, do special ‘sacred’ movements to music, and were expected to meditate for hours. I’m not ashamed to say I feigned illness, got out of there fast, and never went back.

8.                   Which writers do you enjoy reading?

Mostly I read at either one of two extremes: nineteenth century/early twentieth century marriage plot novels and dark psychological crime. My favourites aren’t especially original: Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, Wharton, Zola, Eliot, and Nabokov. And I always recommend a couple of books I think are under-appreciated: Samuel Butler’s THE WAY OF ALL FLESH and Lermontov’s A HERO OF OUR TIME.

Some of my favourite crime writers (construed broadly) are Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene, Shirley Jackson, Henning Mankell, Ruth Rendell and Dorothy Hughes. I can’t understand why everyone in the world hasn’t read WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE because it is a perfect, perfect book.

9.                   Where do you like to write – and how?

I wrote THE NEVER LIST down in a stonewalled basement, which was fitting. I got up at five a.m. five days a week and wrote for exactly one hour before my kids got up. I gave myself a minimum of five hundred words to do in that hour (which I later increased to six hundred), so there was no time for writer’s block or self-doubt. I only knew the broad strokes of the story, so each day was a new revelation, as I would find out what was going to happen as I went.

Now I’ve moved to another house, so I don’t have that wonderful basement anymore. In fact, I have a large, bright sunny office with a beautiful view of the Berkshires, where I absolutely never, ever work. I end up at the banquette in my kitchen, mostly so I can sit cross-legged.

I’m writing two books now, and I do a thousand words on each a day. On the first draft, I focus on getting the story down, knowing I will re-write each line a thousand times. For one of these books I have a relatively detailed outline that I more or less stick to, but for the other I’m letting it unfold as I go. I like to get my word count done first thing in the morning, otherwise it hangs over my head. After every five hundred words, I get a ten-minute internet break, then – provided I’m not traumatized by what I’ve found there – it’s back to work.

 

Book Overview

There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity.And then, very suddenly and without warning, there were three.Even though the fourth person hadn’t made any noise at all in several months, the room got very quiet when she was gone.For a long time after that, we sat in silence, in the dark, each of us wondering what this meant for her and for us, and which of us would be the next in the box.

NEVER GET IN THE CAR

For years, best friends Sarah and Jennifer kept what they called the ‘Never List': a list of actions to be avoided, for safety’s sake, at all costs. But one night, they failed to follow their own rules.

NEVER GO OUT ALONE AFTER DARK

Sarah has spent ten years trying to forget her ordeal. But now the FBI has news that forces her to confront her worst fears.

NEVER TAKE RISKS

If she is to uncover the truth about what really happened to Jennifer, Sarah needs to work with the other women who shared her nightmare. But they won’t be happy to hear from her. Because down there in the dark, Sarah wasn’t just a victim.

NEVER TRUST ANYONE

If you would like to buy The Never List, click here: http://bit.ly/1gC3WMQ

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