No More Female Victims
“No damsels in distress, and no unreliable narrators.”
Such were the rules that Wendy Walker laid out for her third and latest psychological thriller, THE NIGHT BEFORE. Walker used both devices to great success in 2016’s All Is Not Forgotten and its 2017 follow-up Emma in the Night, but she was ready to trade those genre mainstays for something a little more surprising in her tale of a woman who disappears after a blind date with a man she met online. The question that drives the book is one that turns expectations inside out: who’s really in danger?
“I did not want any more female victims,” Walker says. “I wanted to flip that cliché on its head. And that’s when I decided to give the main character a dark backstory so that you’re actually more afraid of what she’s going to do if she finds out the man she’s with is lying.”
THE NIGHT BEFORE has its underpinnings in the author’s own experiences with online dating and the culture of deceit that has taken root in it. “I’ve been single for 11 years, so I’m a veteran of internet dating,” Walker says. “It’s just what everybody does. But being a newbie to it, I really did not understand the extent to which people would lie. It’s not that I have anything profound to say about it. It’s pretty obvious—online dating is chock full of danger, and you have to be careful. But I thought the stories [of disturbing encounters] were ripe for a thriller plot.”
Walker’s writer brain quickly imagined a story that hinged on one of internet dating’s darkest fears: what if a woman went on a date with a man she’d met online—and didn’t come back? That grim question mark was the beginning of a premise, but it would take another bolt of inspiration to turn that premise into a plot.
“I thought, well, what’s going to propel this story?” Walker remembers. “Someone is searching for her—is that the whole book? And that’s when I came up with the split timeframe, and that was the aha moment.”
Walker’s previous psychological thrillers were heavy on the psychology and largely powered by backstory. “The driving force in them is for the reader to try to determine which character might be unreliable, and to figure out what really happened,” Walker says. With THE NIGHT BEFORE, she wanted to write something that was “much more action-forward and much more of a page-turner, with a cliffhanger in every chapter.”
To say that she succeeded might be an understatement. By the time THE NIGHT BEFORE barrels to its conclusion, the book has traded brooding tension for relentless, white-knuckle suspense. From the moment we meet Laura Lochner as she prepares for a date with a man she knows only from his online profile, there’s a profound sense of unease. Laura has a dark past that even she does not fully understand, and that history will be parsed out in bits throughout the novel—both in Laura’s timeline, which follows her ill-fated blind date, and in a “day after” timeline that tracks Laura’s sister, Rosie, as she tries to figure out what happened to Laura. Or, more to the point, whether Laura might have happened to someone else—Rosie’s younger sister has spent her entire adult life under a cloud of suspicion after a violent incident in her teen years left a boy dead.
And though Laura has a short but significant gap in her memory of that terrible night, Walker insists she’s not an unreliable narrator. In fact, THE NIGHT BEFORE represents a conscious attempt on the author’s part to steer away from that device.
“Laura’s pretty straightforward,” Walker points out. “She tells us what happened [when she was in high school]. There’s a piece of her that wonders [about her memory lapse], but she doesn’t lie to us, and she doesn’t lie to herself. So this is really not an unreliable narrator book. If anything, the challenge was to make her likeable and sympathetic, even though she’s a little rough around the edges and you start to wonder if she has done these violent things in the past. But I fought very hard to make her understandable. She’s just out on this date trying to be a normal woman.”
Fate intervenes, of course, but to say more would be a one-way trip to spoiler territory. Walker expertly manipulates her dual timelines as Laura’s fate is slowly revealed—both in real time via first-person, hour-by-hour chapters that recount her date, and from Rosie’s perspective as she learns more and more about the man her sister went to meet.
Walker says the dual-timeline device was both her greatest tool and her biggest challenge.
“Once I plotted it out, I just knew what had to happen in each chapter,” she says. “So the plotting of it took some time, but then it was just a matter of filling the pages with the dialogue and descriptive action. Writing Laura’s chapters was very easy for me, because once I got in her head, to be in first person and be out on that date, it was pretty seamless.”
Rosie’s chapters, according to Walker, were a different story. “It was really the first time I had written an action-based plotline,” she says. “In most of my books, there’s very little description of places and movement. It’s usually conversation and thoughts and backstory and psychology. [Action] is not really my strong suit, and I had to push myself to develop that skill set to write action sequences for Rosie.”
One of Walker’s signature elements that does remain intact for THE NIGHT BEFORE, though, is her preoccupation with the corruptibility of memory. Though Laura has only lost a few seconds of the night that altered the course of her life, the missing moment is a crucial one that could have grave implications for the events that unfold in THE NIGHT BEFORE. On top of that, there are questions about how other characters remember certain events, and whether those perceptions might depart from reality.
“That goes back to the research I did with All Is Not Forgotten—that all of our memories have been altered and changed,” Walker says. “Memory and perception are at the heart of most psychological thrillers, because we’re talking about people who behave in abnormal ways, dangerous ways, violent ways, who misperceive things—the narcissists and the sociopaths and people filled with jealous rage—and all of these things are related to perception and memory and how we process information in our brains. It’s always sort of where I start, I guess. Otherwise it becomes more of a whodunit.”
Walker will return once more to the realm of psychological suspense with her next novel, which will also concern a woman who has vanished, and another woman desperate to find her. Walker’s as-yet-untitled fourth thriller will center on a young woman’s search for her mother, who has disappeared while traveling through a dying industrial town in a remote part of Connecticut. Once again, Walker will use a dual-timeline structure, and the book will be largely informed by her fascination with psychology.
“I wanted to work with the split timeframe again because I just loved the feel of the suspense, but it’s a very different story,” Walker says. “Most adult women who disappear are presumed to have walked away from their lives, and that was the original premise for this book. A woman disappears and because of a tragedy in her family’s recent past, everyone believes she’s left on her own. When a new tip comes in, her daughter decides to resume the search. So we get to be with this woman as the disappearance occurs in real time, and also with her daughter as she returns two weeks later to find her. There is an eerie feel to this story, in addition to the ramped-up suspense, which I hope everyone will love.”
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