Up Close: Alison Gaylin

Kidnapping, Killing, and the Search for Closure

By K. L. Romo

You never truly know anyone. Every human being who has lived long enough to make mistakes has secrets stashed away in the back of a locked closet… a moment of weakness that they’ve worked their whole lives to hide… especially from those they love most.

Podcasts are the new rage in audio entertainment. But what if the podcast’s host is a relative whose life was ruined by a mass murderer? In Alison Gaylin’s newest thriller NEVER LOOK BACK, podcast producer Quentin Garrison investigates a 40-year-old murder spree that quickly turns secretive and deadly.

The year is 1976. Two teenagers go on a killing spree in Southern California and then die in a fire. Or so everyone thinks.

The families of the victims, left behind by April Cooper and Gabriel LeRoy’s murderous rampage, still need closure after living with the aftermath for 40 years. Producer Quentin Garrison will investigate the murders for his podcast—aptly named Closure—hoping to find answers about the brutal killing of his mother’s four-year-old sister, which led to his family’s self-destruction.

The murder left Quentin’s mother emotionally damaged—launching a drug habit that would last until she died—and his grandfather wanted nothing to do with him.

Why did events unfold the way they did? What had motivated April and Gabriel’s killing binge that had destroyed so many families just like his? As his research continues, a man contacts Quentin who swears a woman he saw on a recent New York City news show is April Cooper, but now goes by the name Renee Bloom.

Gaylin with her fellow nominees for the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. (Lori Rader-Day, Naomi Hirahara, and Lisa Unger)

How could that be when April and Gabriel died in a fire at the site of their last murders, the Gideon survivalist compound? Quentin’s investigation takes him to NYC where he confronts facts he’s not prepared for and becomes entwined in a murderous plan to protect the secrets of the past.

In NEVER LOOK BACK, Gaylin uses a true-crime story and a handful of “what-ifs” to weave a tale of love and loyalty gone terribly wrong.

The spark for the storyline came from the Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate murder spree of the 1950s.

“It’s always fascinated me how, in everything from Badlands to the Bruce Springsteen song Nebraska, Fugate and Starkweather are depicted as equal partners in the killings. She was 14 years old, and he was 19, and from her accounting of events, she was a kidnapping victim. When they were apprehended, she expected to be rescued, but instead she was tried and convicted as an accessory to murder. I’ve thought about that case a lot, about how I would feel in Caril Fugate’s position. I was also interested in showing how a brutal crime like murder can affect lives, not just in the moment but for generations.”

Gaylin celebrating her Best Paperback Original Edgar Award for If I Die Tonight.

It’s interesting that Gaylin focuses on the families affected by the murders, those left behind to deal with the trauma.

“When I tell a certain type of story, I often like to come at it from different angles. Quentin, who wasn’t even alive during the murders but has still been damaged by them, is going to have a different perspective than his grandfather, who was there to witness them, or April, who was playing an integral role in them as they happened. Renee Bloom’s daughter, Robin—who doesn’t really know about the murders or her family’s possible involvement—has a different perspective than Quentin. I feel like all these points of view are essential to get to the heart of this particular story.”

Gaylin blends her love of podcasts into the narrative, using the medium of a podcast as the impetus for the story.

“I love podcasts like S*town and the chilling, brilliantly structured Dirty John, where the host is so impacted by the story that he becomes a part of it. There’s a personal element to podcasts that isn’t there in straight journalism, where the aim is to be objective and stay out of the story. Also, Quentin records his feelings—keeping a type of audio diary for his podcast—and he’s very aware of the surrounding sounds. No spoilers, but this all plays a role in the plot.”

Well-versed in writing thrillers and novels of suspense, it comes as no surprise that Gaylin used a thriller to learn about pacing for her plots.

Gaylin with her husband, Mike.

“Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are The Children is what I consider to be the first modern-day psychological thriller. And it’s probably taught me more about pacing than any other book.”

NEVER LOOK BACK is not only addictive entertainment, but there’s a message nestled within its pages.

“The book says a lot about the relationship between grown children and their parents—how much credit or blame we give them for the state of our lives. I think the message is probably to let it go, realize your parents are human beings with flaws and secrets and moments of nobility and shame that you’ll probably never know about. To stop worshiping or blaming them and take charge of your own life. But if people just find the book entertaining, that’s fine too!”

Alison Gaylin
Photo credit: Franco Vogt

Although an expert in writing stories based on the question of “what if?” Gaylin’s talent stretches beyond writing suspense and thriller novels—she also enjoys writing plays.

“I studied playwriting when I was in college and won a couple of one-act play competitions. It was what I wanted to do long before I thought about writing a novel. I’d love to someday write a play again.”

Reading NEVER LOOK BACK makes us wonder: How well do we know our family members? How well do we know anyone?

Everyone has secrets, but which should remain buried and which should be unearthed to the light of day?

Photo credit: Michael Gaylin (homepage)

K. L. Romo

K. L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues, loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets, but HATES the word normal. Visit her website or @klromo.
K. L. Romo

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