Gregg Hurwitz, author of the new thriller You’re Next, wrote his first book while he studied for a B.A. from Harvard and a Master’s from Trinity College, Oxford, and he’s been multi-tasking ever since. In addition to serving as writer and consulting producer on ABC’s science fiction series V, he has written comics and movie scripts, taught fiction writing at the college level, and published academic articles on Shakespeare’s tragedies. His main job, though, is writing the fast-moving, character-based thrillers that regularly make bestseller lists around the world. Recently he talked about his new novel and his life as a writer.
Could you describe the process you go through in creating a novel? What inspired You’re Next? How did you build on that inspiration to develop a complex story with believable characters? Which required more thought, the plot or the characters?
Each book seems to be its own animal. What inspired You’re Next was a scene that occurred to me late one night when I couldn’t sleep. A four-year-old boy dropped off at an unknown playground by his father and told to get out of the station wagon. His father seems nervous and the boy notices a drop of blood on his father’s sleeve. He gets out and plays on the playground, and as morning turns to afternoon, it slowly dawns on him that he’s been abandoned. That was the only thing I knew about the book, but I wanted to figure out what happened to that kid once he grew up, and what reason was behind his father’s abandoning him there. Everything grew from that moment. In this case, the characters were there fully formed in my mind and I spent a lot of time thinking through the plot, trying to figure out what had happened to that boy, Mike Wingate. And what would happen to him as a man with a family of his own to protect.
Your prose style is lean and clean, perfect for thrillers, but it’s also emotionally evocative and creates a bond between your characters and the reader. Have you worked consciously on developing your style? How do you think it has changed and improved over the years?
First of all, thank you. I think my prose has changed a bit as I’ve gotten older. I’ve become more interested in dynamics between characters and delving into the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of the people I write about. I think I’ve become more conscious of the ways in which everybody can be scared or intimidated, and I try to come at these emotions from an angle—I try to evoke the emotion rather than name it. I hope that’s something I’m better at now than when I was younger.
Some crime fiction authors say that after becoming parents they were no longer able to write stories about children in danger because the subject aroused too many personal fears. Would you say that becoming a father has changed your writing in any way?
Yes—it has engaged me more vigorously in writing about fears and vulnerabilities. Once you have kids, there’s much more surface area to protect, so to speak, from all the unpredictable ways the world can slide off its axis. Nowhere have I felt as engaged as when I was writing about Mike Wingate as a parent.
You must do a lot of research for your books. What has been your single most fascinating and enjoyable research experience?
Probably when I went undercover into cults. It was ceaselessly fascinating. I had to make a conscious choice to stop researching and start writing because I could have researched cults for a decade!
When you were working on a master’s degree in literature at Oxford, did you plan to become a teacher? Does the academic life appeal to you?
I always wanted to be a novelist. And I was fortunate enough to have some luck early which meant I was able to do this full-time from a young age. When I was supposed to researching my master’s, I was really spending most of my time rewriting my first book. Academics were certainly appealing though as well. I loved reading and learning about literature. My academic work focused heavily on Jung (which makes sense in hindsight since most of what he wrote about was narrative) and applying Jungian analysis to Shakespearean tragedy. What I was really doing, I suppose, was figuring out how narrative functions—learning the guts of storytelling.
How did you go from studying Shakespeare to writing crime novels? Were you always a mystery and suspense fan?
Shakespearean tragedy is very close to genre fiction. Plot-driven tales of lust, murder, and intrigue, bound by strict structure and convention. Great training for a crime novelist. Yes, I always loved mysteries and suspense. Stephen King was a huge inspiration to me, and I still remember climbing my parents’ bookshelves when I nine to pull down Peter Benchley’s Jaws. That cover still makes me shiver.
Has studying the psychological underpinnings of Shakespeare’s tragedies helped you develop characters for your crime novels?
Absolutely. Especially that the tragic flaw must be located inside the character. I have no interest in writing stories about when bad things happen to good people for no reason. I believe that every person is flawed and that in the shadows between right and wrong—where we ALL live—that’s where compelling story comes from. I write about real people struggling to make the right choices and do well by each other, but who are also imperfect, as we all are. And it takes only a tiny moral misstep to open the door to unforeseen blowback.
You’ve written thrillers, science fiction, comic books, black comedy, screenplays for movies and TV, and you’ve published scholarly articles on Shakespeare’s plays. Can you see a common denominator in these varied interests, something they share that attracts you?
Character. It all grows from there. I don’t care how compelling a plot is in any medium—if it’s not hung on a good set of characters, no one will care.
You wrote several novels featuring U.S. Marshal Tim Rackley. Do you think you’ll write about him again at some point, or do you prefer stand-alone thrillers? Did you find writing a series restrictive in any way?
Right now, I’m loving writing stand alones. The Rackley books were terrific and a huge part of my education as a novelist. I no longer hear Tim and Dray talking in my head, which doesn’t mean they won’t pipe up again some day. But for now, I feel I’ve moved on. I didn’t find the series restrictive when I was in it. All four books functioned very differently and tackled different worlds, from mind-control cults to outlaw biker gangs. But I do like picking up an average character in a stand-alone on the worst day of his or her life and being able to set them down wherever the story leaves them.
What are you working on now?
The next thriller, of course!
To learn more about Gregg, please visit his website.