August 20, 2013

Carla Norton

A real-life abduction inspires a debut thriller
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"Girl power" doesn't quite cut it when describing Carla Norton's debut thriller, The Edge of Normal.

Reeve is a former abduction victim, suffering from PTSD and making small steps in recovering from her four years in captivity. When Reeve is asked to mentor a little girl named Tilly who was rescued from a similar situation, Reeve quickly becomes the only barrier between Tilly and the predator who still watches, and she may be the only one who can save the two little girls who are still missing.

Norton is also the author of a true crime bestseller, Perfect Victim: The True Story of the Girl in the Box, which details the story of Colleen Stan, a 20-year-old girl who was kidnapped and tortured in captivity for seven years. With The Edge of Normal, Norton drew on her experiences, her research and her true crime expertise to create a psychological thriller with a horrifying premise and a truly indomitable heroine.

This is your first crime novel, and it’s dedicated to Colleen Stan, the “Girl in the Box” who was the subject of Perfect Victim. What are you able to accomplish with a novel that you weren’t with true crime? Did you feel there was something unfinished that The Edge of Normal could fulfill?

My first book was a true account of horrible crimes, and I drew inspiration from that, but with The Edge of Normal I was free to explore hypotheticals: What if a former victim, struggling to come to terms with her past, must overcome her fears in order to save other victims? What kind of person would she be? What are her strengths and weaknesses? How can she fight back? That’s what I wanted to do: empower a victim—correction, a survivor—of kidnapping, and make her tenacious as hell.

And yes, there is some unfinished business. I’m appalled that Colleen’s abductor, Cameron Hooker, is already scheduled for release. He’s a sadistic criminal who should never be set free. The beauty of fiction is that villains can be made to suffer a swift and final justice.

Your research for Perfect Victim sounds downright traumatizing. You’ve visited the scenes of the crime and even put on the “head box” Colleen wore. What have been the most disturbing parts of your research process?

Maybe it’s not surprising that writing both books gave me nightmares. In writing about terrifying events, you really try as much as possible to inhabit the story, and this is true for either genre. I put on the "head box" and descended into the basement, but it’s hard to imagine for even an instant what Colleen endured for years.

Most research is easy in comparison. I just visited the FBI Field Office in Seattle last month, and I talk with forensic psychiatrists and other experts whenever I get a chance. I’ve come to consider psychopaths evil. Others call them opportunists, narcissists or reptilian, but experts agree that they’re wired differently than most of us. Psychopaths lack empathy in a way that can be seen as an untreatable impairment, similar to the way a colorblind person can lack the ability to see red.

How was writing Perfect Victim different from writing The Edge of Normal? What new liberties/constrictions did you encounter in the fiction process?

One big difference was that, when I woke up with my heart pounding, I was thrilled while writing The Edge of Normal, because I’d think, “Hey, I can use this.” Whereas when you’re writing about true events, you wake up thinking, “God, that really happened.”

[Writing true crime is] a completely different process: attending a trial, listening to testimony and trying to reconstruct events. With nonfiction, you do your best to do justice to the story. People genuinely suffered, and there’s no room for levity. And in terms of storytelling, facts are facts, so they dictate the direction of the narrative. But fiction has no map or boundaries. The writer has to determine the path to take, the point of view, the characters. And you’re in pursuit of a different kind of truth.

"You write as a means of expressing your fear and your anger, and you try to transform it into a story that is more socially acceptable than ranting on the street corner."

Do you look at the world any differently after writing these books?

I suppose writing about crime heightens your paranoia. And while some of my characters may not like certain legal institutions or members of law enforcement, I have tremendous respect [for] those who give up their time to do their civic duty and those who risk their lives in law enforcement. When a killer comes through your window, who do you call? Who is going to come to help? Seriously, those people face dangers we don’t even want to see on the page.

Also, true confession: I keep a copy of Perfect Victim in my car. When I spot the occasional female hitchhiker, I offer a ride on the condition that she’ll read the book, and then I lecture sternly about the perils of hitchhiking.

You’ve attributed your fascination with abduction cases to an “abnormal interest in the nature of evil.” It’s clear that many other writers share this interest, as kidnapping and torture thrillers have become very popular in the last two years. And clearly readers share the interest as well, because they’re reading these stories. Why this collective fascination?

I think people are always fascinated by what frightens them, but I don’t think this is anything new. If we’re looking specifically at kidnapping and captivity, sure, there are recent cases—Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart and the three women rescued in Ohio—that come instantly to mind. But looking at a broader timeframe, you’d want to include lots of other literature. The Collector, that prescient novel by John Fowles, was published in 1963. Then there’s Misery by Stephen King, published in 1987, and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, released in 1988. In fact, abduction stories go all the way back to the myth of Persephone.

A major issue for Reeve in The Edge of Normal is how the media and society exploit the victim. Are abduction thrillers exploiting the stories of victims? Why or why not?

I’m glad you asked that, because it’s something I’ve given some thought. If you write about a patient fighting cancer, are you exploiting the victims of that disease? If you write about the Holocaust, are you exploiting the Jews? We write about what moves us. It’s not a coldly calculated decision. I can’t write about vampires or wizards or courageous freedom fighters named Katniss.

Anne Rice and Stephen King talk about how they were simply compelled to write in their particular genres. It’s not a choice so much as a compulsion. And I think most writers tap into something deep within them and write as an outlet. Maybe they had horrible childhoods. Maybe they’ve overcome addiction. Maybe they’ve lost a child. You write as a means of expressing your fear and your anger, and you try to transform it into a story that is more socially acceptable than ranting on the street corner. Writing takes a lot of time and dedication and effort; it damn well better be about something you care about.

The Edge of Normal is far less graphic in its depiction of torture and rape than many other abduction thrillers currently on the market. Was this a conscious choice?

A friend of mine just made the same comment, and I’m so relieved to hear this. The book deals with dark subjects, but I try to keep the pain and suffering offstage. There’s no point in dwelling on the gritty details. The reader gets the idea without being dragged through every sadistic episode. Just mentioning a scar can be sufficient.

It’s often said that a writer must have compassion toward all of their characters, but Duke is a villain of the vilest sort. How were you able to write about a person who will elicit absolutely no empathy from the reader?

This might be the biggest difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. I found Duke very entertaining, so maybe it’s not a question so much of having “compassion” for your characters as it is enjoying some aspect of them. Hannibal Lector would have been repulsive in real life, but he’s fascinating on the page.

While you wouldn’t personally want to spend time with these people, you want to create fearsome villains to drive the story. Character is revealed through conflict, so you want to set your protagonist in opposition to a frightening antagonist—a David-and-Goliath-type dynamic—and that’s what I was aiming for with Reeve and Duke.

What are you working on next?

I’m neck-deep in the sequel to The Edge of Normal. And I’m at the point now where it’s all coming together, where I’d rather keep writing than stop to eat or bathe. Reeve is consuming all my attention. She’s damaged and flawed and struggling with inner demons, but she’s a fighter.

Get the Book

The Edge of Normal

The Edge of Normal

By Carla Norton
ISBN 9781250031044

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