Like her protagonist in the new thriller COLOR BLIND, author Colby Marshall has synesthesia, a neurological condition characterized by involuntary perceptions and associations—associating colors with emotions or individual people, for example. Although she had published two previous thrillers, The Trade and Chain of Command, Marshall hadn’t written about synesthesia until COLOR BLIND, the first in a new series about forensic psychiatrist and criminal profiler Dr. Jenna Ramey. Synesthesia can’t solve crimes, but it can guide Jenna in her dealings with suspects and witnesses who want to hide what they know.
In COLOR BLIND, Jenna sets aside her private practice temporarily to assist her former employer, the FBI, in solving murders committed by a team dubbed the Gemini Killers. One of the killers, Isaac Keaton, appears in the book’s opening scene, as he picks off innocent victims in a crowd. Keaton quietly surrenders. But who is his partner, and how can Jenna Ramey persuade the smooth, manipulative Keaton to talk to the police before the partner commits another mass murder? Keaton, Jenna soon discovers, knows entirely too much about her own background, and he apparently has a bond with her mother, a clear-headed psychopath who successfully faked incapacitating mental illness to avoid being tried for her violent crimes. Reconnecting with her dangerous mother is one of several avenues Jenna follows as she assists investigators.
Marshall, a ballroom dancer, choreographer, and occasional stage actress as well as a novelist, lives in Georgia with her family and a legion of pets. Recently she talked about COLOR BLIND, how synesthesia figures in the plot, and her plans for Dr. Jenna Ramey in this new series.
Synesthesia may be difficult for most people to grasp. Could you describe it from the inside—what it’s like for a person who has the condition?
Different types of synesthesia manifest differently, so I can’t claim I know what every type is like to experience. However, some types are self-explanatory. Someone with lexical-gustatory synesthesia, for instance, might taste beets when they hear the word “cake,” and that tends to be a fairly easy concept to communicate.
In the case of grapheme-color synesthesia, the hardest aspect to describe is how the associations a synesthete makes are the same as those anyone makes in the way that they manifest. If a person hears the word “cake,” the image of a cake might flash in their mind. The difference is, their word/image reference was learned. Somewhere along the way, someone or something taught that person what cake is, showed him or her what it looks like, and so the association of the picture and word developed. Color associations are not limited to known things. Often a synesthete will lay eyes on something for the very first time, and immediately have a color association for it—that’s actually why it’s so useful to Jenna when she analyzes a crime scene.
Finally, a grapheme synesthete like me or my character Jenna might imagine a piece of cake upon hearing the word, too, but the word might also trigger a color we automatically associate with it. The source of that color is completely internal (and can vary amongst synesthetes). Cake’s association, for instance, would not be pink simply because the first time the synesthete had cake happened to be at a Barbie-themed birthday party. The specific color they associate is usually random, without rhyme or reason behind it, even to the synesthete. In COLOR BLIND I often use “flash” as a trigger word to describe Jenna’s color associations manifesting, since those colors are similar to any image that might flash in any person’s brain upon hearing a word.
Have you had synesthesia all your life? When did you realize that other people don’t react to people and things the same way you do?
As far as I know, I’ve had it all my life. From a very young age, I associated colors with different things—letters, numbers, days of the week, people, emotions, et cetera. For example, I bought my notebooks in elementary school in colors that matched the ones I associated with the subjects they were for. Once or twice I had to get a notebook in a color that wasn’t the one I associated with the subject. The class felt off to me the whole year.
It wasn’t until college that I realized everyone didn’t do the same thing. I mentioned this tendency to a friend and asked her something along the lines of, “What color does that seem like to you?” She looked at me like I was nuts and told me that no, everyone doesn’t do that. I started researching and found out these associations of color with different things, as well as another strange type of associations I make—certain things I touch induce tastes of something unrelated—were different types of a neurological phenomenon called synesthesia.
How does Dr. Jenna Ramey use synesthesia in her work? Is it always a help, or can it be a distraction and mislead her?
Jenna’s synesthesia is not a superpower. She uses color associations to enhance the investigative skills and intuitions she already has in her job as a forensic psychiatrist whose role with the FBI is to work with a team charged with what most people know as “profiling” dangerous criminals to help capture them. Most often, her synesthesia associations serve to confirm a suspicion or idea she might form about the information she already has or clues in play.
Her synesthesia doesn’t tend to be a distraction. In reality, most synesthetes don’t pay attention to their synesthesia on a day-to-day basis unless the connections it brings about are somehow unpleasant (like how I taste copper when I touch velvet—yuck!). It’s just a part of their normal involuntary thought process. For Jenna, the only time her synesthesia isn’t particularly helpful is when the colors she sees don’t yet match any theories she might already have, so she has to question the validity of the theories or the colors or either catalog those color associations in her mind until she finds something later in the case that will prove or disprove what they say to her.
Like the associations of all synesthetes, Jenna’s color associations are consistent and reliable. If a synesthete associates Thursdays with the color green (I do), Thursday is always going to be green. So typically, Jenna’s associations aren’t going to mislead her.
What kind of person is Jenna Ramey? How has she developed psychologically in response to her terrible childhood and her mother’s psychopathy?
Jenna is a strong, intelligent woman with enough dry sarcasm to get into trouble, but also enough “badass-ness” to get back out again. But I wouldn’t call her someone who has everything figured out, and a lot of that has to do with the sharp curves life has thrown her. She struggles with her own identity, and it shows in the milestones in her life. Joining the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI was a course that was influenced by her childhood. But then she left that career and started a private practice. She married a man she loved, or thought she loved, then grew apart from him—and there was a strong correlation between that path and her career shift. If putting her own mother in prison taught her one thing, though, it was how to face head-on something that turned her life completely upside down, and then to adapt to the changes. In COLOR BLIND she’s pulled back into the BAU despite having had no intention to return. She takes command of that change and rides it out, albeit with more than a little justified paranoia. Her personal life takes a surprising shift, too, and again she adjusts.
While Jenna’s mother, Claudia, fakes mental illness in the book, the truth of her character is that she’s a pure sociopath (which is, by definition, interchangeable with the term psychopath). She is never truly psychotic or even dysfunctional, which is a key distinction between sociopathy and psychosis, which is mental illness with an impaired sense of reality. If anything, she’s a bit too sane for comfort. Sociopaths like her are rational and goal-oriented, and they are very aware of the definitions of right and wrong, what they should or shouldn’t do legally or morally. They simply don’t care about them. Their lack of empathy and lack of remorse is what makes them “different” from most people.
The things Jenna went through with her mother made her a vigilant, fiercely loving individual, even if she has a hard exterior at times.
I love writing about Jenna because she has a lot of depth to me as a character. She is perceptive, bright, intuitive. For someone who is so traumatized, she has an incredible objectivity about her at all times—even in situations when she probably shouldn’t have it, and that allows her to pick up on the tiniest subtleties in a case. Yet she’s never all business. Her family is always in the back of her mind, fueling her decisions in ways she might not even realize. She thinks outside the box, and that leads to her working with characters other investigators might overlook or ignore. And lastly, because of her skill set, she’s recruited to assist in taking down the baddest of the bad guys. The villains in Jenna’s books are the craftiest, most evil, malignant sons of bitches I’ve ever written.
After writing two thrillers featuring a journalist, why did you decide to write a series about a forensic psychiatrist?
A few different factors led to this decision, not the least of which was my own personal experience with a sociopath over the past several years—experience that inspired some traits of a character in The Trade. So, during the process of writing that second book in the McKenzie McClendon series, I did a vast amount of research regarding psychopathy/sociopathy aside from the books and articles I’d already practically memorized. As part of this, I interviewed an acclaimed forensic psychiatrist who used to consult with government agencies in the same capacity as does Jenna.
He became a regular source for me, and the more we talked, the more I became fascinated by what he did. He sort of “trained me” (as best as one can a layperson) in the art of behavioral analysis—“profiling”—along the way, and I found out I was pretty good at seeing those same subtleties, noticing and understanding nuances that led to individuals being profiled a specific way. It was a natural hop, skip, and a very small jump for me to decide to write a series with a main character who did this for a living. That said, I didn’t want to create just another investigator main character. I wanted this character to be different, which is where the idea to give Jenna synesthesia came into play.
What inspired the plot of COLOR BLIND? Where did Isaac Keaton, an intelligent, deeply twisted villain, come from? Did he take shape in your mind quickly or slowly?
This is one of those questions I’m always afraid I don’t know the answer to, but in this case, I do! As with my other answers, this one too has a few factors that shaped it. One of the biggest: a year or so before I the idea for COLOR BLIND took shape, I had read author Dave Cullen’s Columbine,an account of the tragic school shootings in Colorado in 1999. His book detailed the findings of the concluded investigation, which showed the two teenage killers weren’t exactly the bullied outcasts with rooms full of violent video games that the media portrayed them as. Both were gifted, had many friends, and were very social. Experts and the lead Columbine investigators concluded that the mastermind of the attack, Eric Harris, was a clinical psychopath who had coerced and led the second killer into planning and executing the attack. The profiles of the killers and the dynamic between them were so intricate and so different in contrast to each other that it was staggering, and it was a relationship I wanted to explore with villains in a story.
My concept of the villains in COLOR BLIND was a pair of killers like those two, who had become adults, and, especially in Isaac’s case, had become smarter, better at what they did, and more merciless with every year they’d matured. Isaac Keaton is a little like what might happen if Eric Harris met (the fictional) Hannibal Lecter. Brilliant, controlled, aggressive, manipulative, he plays some intricate mind games, and readers can be sure that almost anything he does has a reason, a plan it’s laying groundwork to execute. Like most of the characters in the Jenna books, his personality took shape in my mind rapidly and was very definite almost right away.
Do you have help in researching serial killers, psychopaths, and mass murderers?
Yes! No way could I ever get these things right if I did it all myself, and in my books, getting real-life details right is vital to me. After reading extensively on any mental condition or personality disorder, and so on that I’m planning to use in a story, I conduct comprehensive interviews with experts, then consult with them further as writing progresses if questions arise. I try to keep the story authentic (almost to a fault; one thing I had to change in revisions for my publishing house, well, let’s just say it was too accurate in that no-one-needs-to-know-these-things sort of way).
Does your experience in acting and the theater ever come into play as you write?
I don’t act out scenes or even speak dialogue in my characters voices, but I do think my background in the theater comes into play in my writing.
One of my pet peeves is stilted language that doesn’t sound like real conversation. Some of the older plays and shows or historical novels, et cetera can get away with this, but in a modern setting like Dr. Jenna Ramey’s books, the characters should be talking to each other the way anyone might talk to another friend, colleague, serial killer. I think theater has made me more aware of what dialogue sounds like. The other big place I think my theater training shows up is when writing action scenes. As a choreographer, movement is my job in the theater. While I don’t act out full scenes, I have been known to stand up and try to assess what movements my body might make if a car hit me in a certain angle at a certain speed or how my body might twitch or move if I was stabbed in a specific place.
What lies ahead for you and Jenna Ramey?
Jenna’s second adventure, Double Vision, will be released from Berkley next April. She’ll be teaming up with two more of those overlooked or ignored characters I referred to previously. Understanding the minds of these two unlikely eyewitnesses—a six-year-old whose intense preoccupation with numbers complements Jenna’s color-associating quirk, and an elderly man with a memory increasingly hijacked by Alzheimer’s disease—will help her get into the mind of the murderer whose killing rampage they were privy to.
I’m working on both a third installment of the Dr. Jenna Ramey series and the third book in the McKenzie McClendon series, though release dates for these aren’t set yet.
Colby Marshall is especially qualified to write about grapheme-color synesthesia as she has this rare condition. She is a member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime, and is a contributing columnist for M Food and Culture, a local Georgia magazine.
To learn more about Colby, please visit her website.