May 05, 2020

Casey Dunn

Finding the voice of a killer
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Casey Dunn meditates on fate and the importance of perspective in her debut thriller, Silence on Cold River.

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A seemingly random encounter in the woods of Northern Georgia between a defense attorney Ama Chaplin and a serial killer quickly explodes into terror in Casey Dunn’s Silence on Cold River. Ama once successfully defended the killer in court, even though she knew he was guilty. Did fate play a hand in bringing the pair together again? And how will fate play a role in how their lives go forward? The questions nag at the minds of each character and will nag at readers as well. We put some of the questions to Dunn to help us sort things out.

You previously wrote a trilogy of fantasy/romance titles (The Hightower trilogy, published under the name Jadie Jones,) but with Silence on Cold River you’ve switched gears into a mystery/thriller. What made you decide to change genres? What was the greatest challenge for you in moving to the thriller genre?
When I first began work on the Hightower trilogy, I was also a new mom, and the world, seemingly overnight, had become a more dangerous place. I felt compelled to create a kind of enemy that did not actually exist—a “big bad” that there was no reason to genuinely fear. In looking back, I was not yet ready to confront how much of a danger one person can be to another, how much of a threat a perfect stranger could be to my new little family. Then, as edits on the final book in the trilogy drew to a close, I realized that the most depraved, horrifying characteristics of my otherworldly villains weren’t supernatural at all, but utterly human, and the curiosity to create and face down a monster of a human began to grow. In writing thrillers, I am forcing my characters to face some of my biggest fears.

The two biggest differences that I noticed in switching between the genres are pacing and world building. In a fantasy story, a writer has to create a world (or aspects of it) that a reader has never considered before, then fill it with fantastical creatures that are still relatable and believable. World building is a fundamental cornerstone of any fantasy tale, because without it, the entire proverbial castle crumbles. Thrillers are often set in a world a reader understands enough of almost immediately or with very little help, and the story is built instead on the goal of a killer and the efforts of everyone else to survive it and/or stop it from coming to fruition. Pacing is the foundation of a thriller, and it is critical that it is done well.

In coming from a fantasy background, this shift in focus was my greatest challenge. There is no room for thick and heavy descriptions or physical world building beyond what is immediately and vividly sensory when you have a victim in the hands of a dangerous person and the clock is ticking. Is the water warm, cold, clear, dirty . . . ? Who cares when you have a hook through your cheek, and someone somewhere has suddenly began tugging on the other end of the line?

Who are some thriller writers you admire? What is it about their writing that appeals to you and did you try to emulate them in any way with Silence? How do you think you did?
What I admire most in a book in any genre is voice. While action is imperative in a thriller, the voice delivering every blow to the reader’s internal ear is equally important. The voice is what makes me care, and when the voice and the pacing are spot on, the result is a breathtaking ride from start to finish. Thriller writers who have done this to me include Gillian Flynn, A.J. Finn, Paula Hawkins, Gytha Lodge, Wiley Cash and Felicity McLean. Since voice is the primary make-or-break deal for me in the books I read, I tried to keep that goal present in mind in every scene, and it is also how I decided which chapters would be presented from a first-person perspective and which came more naturally and effectively in a third-person perspective. It is not for me to judge in terms of how well I think I did, but I can tell you that I tried my guts out, and I learned a lot along the way.

You were born and raised in Atlanta, but now live on a horse farm in Southern Oregon. What is it about Atlanta that drew you back to setting Silence there, rather than closer to home in Oregon?
I spent most of my life in Georgia and began writing Silence on Cold River soon after moving to Oregon. The small town we moved to is close-knit, and even though this rugged valley felt like home from early on, I felt like the outsider that I was in many ways. What people care about is different in a rural agricultural community than in a big city like Atlanta. The landscape, the weather (it rained for 100 consecutive days our first winter,) the hardships, the goals, the shopping, the culture, the history, the lingo, the politics, you name it. So, to write something that dove deeply into the psyches of all the characters who were experiencing things entirely foreign to me, I needed to build their world somewhere familiar, a place I understood from basement to roof. Now, four years after moving away, returning to the noise and crowds (and traffic) of Atlanta is a shocking experience. The newest work-in-progress in my queue is tentatively set in southern Oregon.

One of the most notable aspects of Silence is how the chapters alternate between your characters. How difficult was it to stay true to each character’s individual mindset, yet blend the overall story so seamlessly together?
In the early stages, I stumbled around through the first draft of the first act, trying to figure out where in the world I was taking the main plot. Then, while writing a conversation between Ama and Michael, a new secondary character appeared from out of nowhere (I hadn’t planned much about the story, but I really hadn’t planned on her) and I realized this story was about to take a hairpin turn. I scrapped everything I had written after the first chapter and started again, focusing on each character’s story as its own stand-alone narrative, moving forward by two or three scenes in one character’s perspective at a time. This way, I could forecast where they were going and what they were up against next, and I could develop their voice more clearly the longer I stayed inside their head. As I uncovered points of intersection with other characters, I would make notes for the other characters’ chapters, past and present, and edit/draft accordingly. Once I had everyone’s stories mostly mapped out, I placed the first page of each chapter on my bedroom floor, and then rearranged them one hundred million times. Once I had an order that felt natural, I tightened timelines and used small details or pieces of symmetry to feed one chapter into the next.

Silence on Cold River was written one scene at a time on whatever piece of paper I had on hand that day . . .”

I imagine that with a story of this scope and complexity, you must have used a detailed outline or whiteboard to keep everything straight. Did that leave any room for writing on the fly?
If it gives you any idea just how much planning and outlining and organization went into Silence, I read this question out loud to my husband as we stood in the kitchen of our century-old farm house after spending all day tilling ground and sowing seeds for a large vegetable garden. We were covered in dirt and dried sweat, skin pink from an afternoon in the sun. He was pouring a glass of water when I read it to him. He set down the glass, rested both hands on the lip of our big white sink, looked at me out of his peripheral and burst out laughing. An hour later, gathered around the dining room table, I read the same question to my mother. She glanced from me to my husband to my father, who both stared back with wide eyes, lips pressed firmly together. Then she threw her head back and cackled. Paused, drew a breath, tried to look at me and laughed until she cried.

I am, hands down, one of the least organized people I have ever met. From start to finish, Silence on Cold River was written one scene at a time on whatever piece of paper I had on hand that day, which I would transfer to a Word document on my ancient laptop once all my kids were in bed for the night. I had neither a detailed outline nor a whiteboard, but I wish that I had. For months, my purse, my truck, my desk and the kitchen counter were littered with fragments and notes as I brainstormed single conversations or snapshot moments. And I had no solid plan for how Silence was going to end. I had a rough idea for what I thought I wanted to happen (especially to Michael), but when my characters arrived at that penultimate moment on the bank of Cold River, I realized my original inclination was not how it would organically play out. So, I let the chips fall, and I am grateful that I went that route instead.

That giant garden, by the way, is not planted in rows. Or labeled. We’ll all be surprised.

Typically, a first-person narrative is reserved for the protagonist of the story. Readers most want to identify with and sympathize with the protagonist, who in this case is Ama. But in Silence, you’ve written the antagonist, Michael, in first person. Why did you make that choice? Did that make writing this story more challenging?
The opening scene is what inspired the entire story—a teenage boy standing in a courtroom, waiting for the jury foreman to announce a verdict for a serious, yet unspecified, charge, followed by his genuine surprise upon learning that he’s gotten away with what he’s done. While the rest of the story changed multiple times during rewrites and edits, the first chapter remained untouched.

There is a fine line between unfolding an antagonist internally in such a way that adds to the story, and glorifying the villain. Knowing that I would be asking the reader to experience the development of a serial killer through a first-person perspective absolutely made his chapters harder to write. Michael believes in fate, that every moment in his life has led him here, and the only way to walk that path with him was to see it through his eyes. A villain rarely sees themselves as a “bad guy,” and Michael believes himself to be a hero on his own redemption journey. That’s not to say I agree with him, but this perspective gives the reader a full, unflinching picture of what Ama and his other victims are up against. In thrillers, sometimes what the killer is able to pull off seems impossible. By walking with Michael, a reader can see how he has remained hidden all these years, why he sees proof that fate is on his side and why he was found not guilty all those years ago. There is a moment early on where Ama says to Michael, “Tell me your story,” and it is, unbeknownst to him, one of her first successful efforts to regain an inch of control.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Silence on Cold River.

Michael believes much of what transpires in his life can be attributed to fate. Do you share any of these beliefs with him? Or is fate just what we make it?
When I began touring for the Hightower trilogy, I discovered a new, paralyzing phobia of flying, certain I was testing fate each time I stepped on a plane. I had not flown in years, and I could not abide by the idea of my children facing the teeth and claws of this world without me to protect them should the flight go down. Then one day, as I shopped at a consignment store for something to wear to a signing in Oklahoma, I confided my fears to a woman who worked there. She sat down with me, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “Our days are numbered, and only the Lord knows when your last day has come. Getting on the plane, not getting on the plane, it isn’t going to change when your number comes. But for what it’s worth, I have a feeling you’ll be just fine.”

Some people may consider her advice morbid or trite or over-the-top or too reminiscent of Final Destination, but I found a strange sense of comfort in it. That is not to say I believe fate will save me from myself if I throw all caution to the wind. It is our responsibility to determine which risks are worth the cost, and to remember that it often isn’t a cost we pay ourselves, but rather a potential debt we would pass on to those who rely on us if the cards don’t fall in our favor.

Michael’s devotion to the idea of fate is a showcase of what happens when any belief system is taken to the extreme and personal responsibility becomes meaningless. I think we are each a combination of what we are made of and what happens to us along the way. We will go through things in our lifetimes that can fundamentally change the way we value ourselves, our goals and/or the world around us. I believe that we are here on purpose and for a purpose, and it is the desire of our souls to figure out what that something is. Maybe that purpose is a moment, and maybe it is a lifetime. The ripple effect of a single action is something that mystifies me. It is possible that our personalities or patterns require us to face the same trials, conflict or decisions over and over until we learn whatever lesson it is that life has been trying to make us see, which may feel a little bit like fate. I am stubborn to a fault and tend to dig in all the more when I have something to push against, as if the reward will be greater if I had to suffer or work harder to reach it. But I have learned time and time again that sometimes those closed doors or speedbumps or rejections are the universe (or whatever you want to call it) trying to save us from ourselves or from accepting the comfort of a familiar devil, rather than staying open just a little longer to whatever might be coming right over the horizon.

“My father and his siblings all have an incredible talent for music. . . . Music was our peacemaker.”

Michael also obsesses over music quite a bit in this novel. What music moves you? Do you listen to music while you are writing?
My father’s side of the family is what most would refer to as “musical.” My grandmother was a singer and a pianist, even playing for an audience only a few weeks before dying of lung and spinal cancer. My father and his siblings all have an incredible talent for music. When I was a child, holiday dinners tended toward tension when those siblings and their mother gathered around the table, but by the end of the meal, they would all invariably drift toward the piano in the corner of the room, and for an hour or so they could all get along. Music was our peacemaker.

To flip that on its head and have music serve as both the wound and the weapon allowed me to explore this obsession of Michael’s from an emotional place. I still love music, and my preferences are all over the map, although live music from a single instrument will always give me pause (and goosebumps). I will turn on the stereo and crank up the volume when I cook, clean, drive, paint, you name it. But I cannot write a single word if music is on. Music is tied to memories for me, and my brain will jump aboard a familiar song or a good beat and sail away.

Unlike your first books, which were part of a trilogy, Silence is a self-contained story. Will we see any of the characters again? What’s next for you?
It was both satisfying and a little scary to write my first stand-alone story. I knew I had multiple storylines to wrap up in a way that felt honest and natural—doors opening and closing at the same time for multiple characters. I learned a lot about Detective Martin over the course of writing Silence, and he began to understand himself and his past in a different way, too. I am not ready to be done with Martin. He has access to a closet full of cold case files and a childhood in Alaska that I would love to explore. As for the others, I guess I’ll have to see where the next stories take me.

Right now, I am working on a thriller that opens 25 years in the past on a frigid night in rural Tennessee, and am also making notes on scrap pieces of paper about a fatal accident on a winding road in southern Oregon that is a cover-up for much, much more. I should probably invest in that whiteboard. I am going to need it.


Author photo by Stephanie Schlund.

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Silence on Cold River

Silence on Cold River

By Casey Dunn
ISBN 9781643134086

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