HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Whodunnit? Is a classic question in crime fiction. It’s so classic that our books are often called whodunnits. But every mystery author will tell you—it’s not only the who. It’s the—all together now: Why. We write whydunnits, right? Because that’s what’s interesting and compelling. And in exploring the whydunnit for his new book—the talented/hilarious/adorable/surprising Simon Wood found out something about himself.
I Thought I was Fine
The emotional fuel that stokes my new book, THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY, is survivor guilt, which is one symptom of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For my research into this topic, I had a series of long meetings with a psychologist at the VA. Like all my research projects, I entered the room with a bunch of preconceptions about a subject that got thoroughly turned on their head after a couple of minutes.
One symptom of survivor guilt is the desire to recreate the circumstances of the original trauma—either directly or indirectly. The reasons for this behavior are two-fold. One part is to get a second crack at that traumatic moment and hope for a better outcome. The second part is more self-destructive. Guilt is caused by surviving something others did not, so the survivor puts themselves back in the firing line with the subconscious hope that they won’t survive – since losing is the only penance they can make.
Listening to the psychologist illustrate his points, a sense of unease washed over me. It was all starting to sound eerily familiar. Rather than stay quiet, I decided to share something personal.
Twenty years ago, I’d been in an incident where I’d walked away unscathed while someone else didn’t. The event changed me, and my life. I quit my steady job and took a less stable one, I bought a racecar, I learned to fly, I traveled to unsafe countries and I skydived—all in the space of a few months.
In some ways, if it hadn’t been for that incident, I wouldn’t be in the US today and I never would have become a writer. I explained all this to the psychologist and he asked me to explain the character change. The incident had taught me a couple of lessons. One, I was living a stressful life that I wasn’t particularly enjoying. Two, life could end at any moment and I didn’t want regret not doing the things I wanted to do. Essentially, I started living life like it was my last day.
It all seemed reasonable at the time, but as the psychologist pointed out, all the life changes I made were dangerous—the racecars, the flying, the skydiving, the travel, the job, etc. Every one of them put me in harm’s way. In most cases, I involved myself in endeavors that could cost me my life at the very worst or ruin my financial stability at the very least.
That was a wakeup call, because I hadn’t ever thought of my behavior in those terms. To me, everything I had done at the time had been justified. I was following my dreams and passions and nothing else mattered. I believed in what I was doing wholeheartedly, regardless of whether it met everyone else's norms. The psychologist asked me if I ever thought of what I was doing as dangerous and reckless. I said no.
Truly, I didn’t. I was on a quest to discover what life held in store for me. I was conscious of what had happened and that it was driving me, but I thought I was on a heroic journey–not a self-destructive one. Looking back on it now, it was reckless and self-absorbed behavior. Another aspect of PTSD.
This was quite a telling moment for me and the development of the book. I had believed what I was doing after my incident was normal and justified. I really felt that there was nothing wrong with me on a conscious level. If that was true of me, then it was also true of my heroine, Zoë Sutton, and my villain, Marshal Beck. Their behaviors are damaged. The world sees it, but they don’t. Both of them feel what they're doing is just. For me, that’s when the story took on a life of its own as I knew how to treat these characters. We might not agree with their methods but hopefully we can see their struggles and understand them.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It’s how our past creates our future, right? Who’s had PTSD experiences—on any level? Simon’s in California, so he’ll be here when the time zone allows!
Graduate students Zoë and Holli only mean to blow off some steam on their road trip to Las Vegas. But something goes terribly wrong on their way home, and the last time Zoë sees her, Holli is in the clutches of a sadistic killer. Zoë flees with her life, changed forever.
A year later and still tortured with guilt, Zoë latches on to a police investigation where the crime eerily resembles her abduction. Along with a zealous detective, she retraces the steps of that fateful night in the desert, hoping that her memory will return and help them find justice for Holli. Her abductor—labeled the “Tally Man” by a fascinated media—lies in wait for Zoë. For him, she is not a survivor but simply the one that got away.
Simon Wood is a California transplant from England. He's a former competitive racecar driver, a licensed pilot, an endurance cyclist and an occasional PI. He shares his world with his American wife, Julie. Their lives are dominated by a longhaired dachshund and four cats. He's the Anthony Award winning author of Working Stiffs, Accidents Waiting to Happen, Paying the Piper, Terminated, Asking For Trouble, We All Fall Down and the Aidy Westlake series. His latest thriller is THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY due out March '15. He also writes horror under the pen name of Simon Janus. Curious people can learn more at http://www.simonwood.net.