Friday, March 20, 2015

Confronting the Past

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
                  by Simon Wood

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


  1. We hear so much about PTSD these days . . . it’s absolutely heartrending.
    It’s difficult to be reminded that life can be fleeting and fragile; finding the insight that allows you to move forward can be supremely difficult but I’d never thought of the changed behaviors as possibly being self-destructive.
    I’m looking forward to reading your newest book

  2. We don't always get an opportunity for a 2nd chance. I'm glad you got yours.

  3. Welcome, Simon! Your book sounds absolutely fascinating. I've watched an uncle who served in Vietnam struggle with PTSD and survivor's guilt. I also think I have a bit of it myself after being an eyewitness to the events of 9/11 in NYC. (If I hear/see a low-flying plane I'm pretty much scrambled. We were in St. James Park in London on Remembrance Day and there was a RAF fly-by -- really low -- and I literally hit the dirt. And in a very nice dress and coat, I must add!

  4. Welcome, Simon - and congratulatons on the new book.

    I was just reading somewhere about this very thing, people who've been traumatized and then repeatedly either put themselves in dangerous situations, or cling to safety and become paranoid and fearful. It's only with 20-20 hindsight that you see it. And what a wonderful revelation for you to have as you started to write the book. (Dysfunctional families and neuroses are the gifts that keep giving... if you're a writer.)

    Thanks for sharing such a personal story. It just shows how much, even though we write fiction, it grows from an intensely personal place.

  5. Mornin', Simon - Thank you for this. I don't think I ever connected PTSD with a person putting themselves in dangerous situations. Scary and fascinating, and I look forward to reading your newest.

  6. Hi, Simon. I don't think I have any near PTSD experiences myself. But I am working on a project with a detective who definitely does have PTSD. Yeah, survivor's guilt. And no, he can't really see it for himself.

    I'm glad you got your second chance.

  7. Second chances, too, are always fascinating to write about--we always wonder what we'd do if we could simply have a do-over.

    Some people don't deal with the world that way at all--what happens, happens, and there's no examination, or analysis. They just go one. My cousin was almost on the Bay Bridge when it collapsed. She went on to work, and found out later it had fallen into the water behind her. What if you had left thirty seconds later, I said, my stomach churning. You would have been on that bridge!

    I suppose, she said. But I didn't. SO I wasn't. SO it doesn't matter.

  8. Simon, you book is so--graphic. Not for the faint of heart. How was that to write?

  9. PTSD--been there, done it, didn't like it.
    Even leaving out survivor's guilt, it can be devastating. It changes your life forever. For those of us fortunate to have effective therapy, it still leaves us sensitized.
    There are so many destructive behaviors that accompany the syndrome (yes, the powers that be have gotten away from calling it a disease)--drinking, illegal drug use, etc. It affects what you watch, what you read, relationships, your world view.
    Kudos to Simon for writing about such a devastating subject, kudos to Hank for a fascinating post. Diane Hale

  10. We all endure a little bit of PTSD every time we are in a fender bender (or worse) automobile accident. You drive differently as a result. Or don't drive at all.

    I had a weird year or two starting in the spring of 1978. It began when we drove past O'Hare Airport moments after a giant airplane (loaded with writers en route to the American Booksellers convention) went down. Then seven people I knew-- some well, some just casually, but all of them unlikely candidates for murder-- were killed, many in their places of business by clients/patients/customers. One was a young family friend, pulled off her bicycle in a park on a bright sunny day. I worked with her mother; I saw what that did to that family.

    Did I have PTSD after that year? You bet, but I didn't know it at the time. (There were no carry permits available in my state at the time, nor was pepper spray legal, so I carried a spray can of Easy Off oven cleaner in my purse.) It may be one of the reasons I work from home nowadays-- I don't like going outside, not beyond my yard or my block or my (neighborhood) comfort zone.

    I worry a lot about kids growing up in our inner cities, kids who see shootings, stabbings and death around them all the time. Like growing up in a war zone, that can't be good. (And perhaps daily exposure to violence on the news is almost as bad.)

  11. Hi Simon! Always lovely to see you here. Thanks for sharing such a personal story. Interesting, isn't it, what devious pathways our subconscious takes? Do you wonder now how you could NOT have seen your own connection to the story in this book?

    Which I can't wait to read!

  12. Diane--sensitized. That;s such a perfect description. Sometimes we may not even realize what's going on.

    Ellen, that makes my heart clench just to read it. Oh. that's.. Well, you know. And the idea that it's so random is difficult to juggle. I guess we have to embrace the randomness, not fear it.

  13. Wow, Simon, what a story--and sounds like a fascinating book!

    Ellen, good lord, that's a set of dreadful coincidences. Horrifying.

    In my days as a psychologist, I saw over and over people who didn't realize what aspects of past experience and relationships were driving the present. We have amazing powers to hide things from ourselves...

  14. I attend a monthly poetry reading, and several of the regular readers are Vietnam vets still struggling with PTSD. Writing is therapy for them, but I think reading it to a safe audience who listens, is better therapy. It's painful to hear sometimes, and it makes me sad to think of younger men and women just beginning this long journey that may or may not include a place and way to recover.

  15. Interesting and important subject matter, Simon. I just finished a book set in 1830 in England, and one of the characters had been placed in an insane asylum for ten years after WWI, hidden away because he returned from the war with what is now known as PTSD and survivor's guilt. How horrible for those young men who didn't have the benefit of a diagnosis and treatment. Not that PTSD today is a good thing, just that the acknowledgement and treatment of it is. But, as Anonymous pointed out, even with therapy, it is always a part of you and who you are.

    The One That Got Away sounds like a great thriller that I definitely want to read. Thanks for sharing your own personal story about PTSD in a most interesting post.

  16. Susan, how awful, to have that severe of a reaction, still. My cousin was in Vietnam, and to this day he won't talk about what happened there, but it completely changed him and the trajectory of his life.

    Ellen, I never thought of it being PTSD, but I see now that was exactly what my husband and I went through during one period of our lives. We lost, and I am not exaggerating, a dozen family members between us, and a dozen friends, in a 15-month period. I was stunned, drained, and terrified to answer the phone for well over a year. It seemed as though we couldn't stand up before the next blow fell.

    As an outcome of that experience, going from funeral to funeral, I finally get why there is a wake, and how very much it means for family members to gather together with people who mean a lot to them during a time of grief, shock, and sadness. Now I go, where before I often wouldn't.

  17. In a way it's also what drives a friend who has gone through a horrific divorce and shows up with his new fiancee, who is the spitting image of his ex-.

    He's trying to relive the failed romance and get it right this time.

  18. In a way it's also what drives a friend who has gone through a horrific divorce and shows up with his new fiancee, who is the spitting image of his ex-.

    He's trying to relive the failed romance and get it right this time.

  19. Thanks for the comments. On the whole I think have understood what I was trying to do with the book and understand Zoe's character, even if they didn't fully understand the subject. Obviously with a character like Zoe you can't have postscript saying she's acting illogically because people in this position act like this so that has frustrated some readers.

    As to Hank's question, I felt I had to walk a fine line with it came to its graphic nature. I did my best to not to shy away from the violence but at the same time not to be gratuitous. To be honest, a lot of the violence is in the reader's imagination as it tends be a person reaction to pain and not detailed explanation...which could be viewed as worse. I think the killer's weapon of choice is the most upsetting thing. Just the thought of it amps up the situation. I think with this book more than any other I really did think about what I did and didn't show because it depicted violence against women and I didn't want it to be a torture porn field day.

  20. Congratulations on the new book, Simon! I am, as always, amazed by your storytelling ability--and the experiences you've had in your life to draw upon!

  21. Thanks Tam Tam. Some people are born interesting and some people have interesting thrust upon them. :-)

  22. You know, so interesting--I was reading a big big NYT #1 book (not Girl on the Train) to see why it's so popular. and it was full of ...just as you describe, Simon, violence that was not shown, but only in the reader's imagination. And it was haunting. I said to Jonathan--my reaction to the book was that it was SO violent--but word by word, it wasn't.

  23. Karen, "afraid to pick up the phone" is such an image. I am so sorry--that's disturbing, really it is, and so sad.

    Sal, that's fascinating, too..and they probably didn't even realize. Or did he?

  24. Hank: every time a book comes out, someone tells me about a scene that didn't happen but is an extension of what I wrote. It's Psycho's shower scene. They see the knife and hear the scream but no one sees a stabbing...but they think they do.

  25. Looking forward to your book. As a psychologist working with first responders I know firsthand the grip PTSD has on its victims and their families. I also know PTSD can be cured. We call it PTSI, post trauma stress injury. Like other injuries there is hope for recovery.

  26. Dear Anon,

    I was trained to be a disaster 1st responder because of my engineering background. There was a small therapy element because of the PTSD people suffered as 1st responders having to leave people behind. So many have taken their own lives because of it.

    We are such weird creatures...

  27. Cannot deal with the topic of survivor guilt. So traumatic to see people taking it that way. In a way it's like they are cheating themselves.

  28. Wanda: you hit the nail on the head...