by Karen Harper
I recently sat down with author Hallie Ephron to discuss her latest thriller, COME AND FIND ME.
Can you tell us a bit about your new psychological thriller?
The inspiration for COME AND FIND ME came to me while I was procrastinating, wasting time on the Internet checking out the latest great buys from Costco. I came across an ad for a year’s supply of dehydrated and freeze-dried food. The photo showed a pyramid of cans in lovely pastel colors. Chirpy ad copy explained: “…this package will give you variety, nutrition, and peace of mind.”
Now, maybe if I lived in earthquake central or a flood plain I might have ponied up $999.99. But I’m a writer, so instead I sat there trying to imagine who in the world would see 84 gallon-sized cans with a shelf life of up to 25 years as the ticket to peace of mind?
My answer was a recluse–someone who is afraid to leave her own house, someone who’s been traumatized. Within a day or so, the book’s main character, Diana Highsmith, started to take shape. She was a former hacker who once ventured out into the world fearlessly. Her trauma, I decided, was the sudden death of her lover and best friend who fell when they were ice climbing in the Swiss Alps. When she returns home alone, she barricades herself behind locked doors with video surveillance, security alarms, and electronic fire walls to protect her–though even she isn’t sure from what. She “lives” on the Internet in a virtual world where she conducts business meetings, investigates security breaches, hangs out with other avatars, and “climbs” Alpine mountains without ever leaving home.
When her sister disappears at an improv event at Copley Square, Diana has to face her demons and brave the outside world. That’s when she finds herself wondering if she’s become a character in someone else’s game.
Booklist’s excellent review of COME AND FIND ME calls the book “a suspenseful tale of high-tech skullduggery that even low-tech readers will appreciate.” Was that a challenge?
That was just what I’d hoped reviewers would say. Of course the challenge in writing high-tech is to make it seem uncomplicated. To do that, I needed to research Second Life, a real virtual world like the fictional one I put in the book. So, armed with enough information to be dangerous, I created an account in Second Life. Then I created an avatar.
So far so good. But I’m pathetically inept at the fine art of using a mouse and arrow keys, so even though I knew my avatar could walk, run, fly, sit, and teleport, I couldn’t keep her from bumping into furniture. It was exhilarating when I finally got her aloft, watching like I was perched on her shoulders (think Harry Potter on riding Buckbeak the hippogriff) as she soared over the island at the entrance to Second Life. Not so exhilarating, seconds later, was when she plunged into the blue (very blue) ocean. I actually found myself gasping for breath, then panicking when I couldn’t figure out how to get her out.
So, most of what I learned about Second Life (I call my version of it OtherWorld) was gleaned by riding shotgun beside a few generous souls who let me watch as they went about their business in virtual reality. I learned that even bucolic corners of the virtual world can be infested by “griefers,” mischief-makers who enjoy raining down toasters or flying phalluses or dropping cages to trap the avatars of unsuspecting players. It can turn from safe to scary in a hearbeat, which was perfect for the book. And, of course, you never know who you’re dealing with. Just for example, it turns out that a good percentage of the female avatars in Second Life have been created by male players.
Your previous thriller, AND BABY WILL FALL, became a Lifetime TV movie. That exciting fact and your great reviews indicate you are getting the thriller genre right. What elements do you think makes your work so compelling to readers (and a TV producer)?
They did a great job bringing NEVER TELL A LIE to the (small) screen–perfect for the claustrophobia that builds in the story.
My books are all about suspense, and what I like to play with is that an ostensibly “safe” place–like a Victorian house in the suburbs or your own backyard–could turn terrifying. The thrill comes from the potential of something very bad happening when you let down your guard, when the person who might betray you is the person you most trust.
Your bio also reveals you come from a “Hollywood family.” Your parents were both successful screenwriters and you are the third of four Ephron sisters who are writers. Was it “nature or nurture” that brought you to a writing career?
Certainly both. I grew up in a house filled with books. Competition to be heard at the dinner table was fierce. At first having so many writers in the family made my shy away from it — I’d rather not compete and risk losing. But after a few decades, knowing that I had the right genes gave me the courage to try.
You have written in a variety of genres, two dynamite suspense novels, two books about books, two about writing and a 5-book mystery series. Has the success of your thrillers decided your writing future for now or will you continue to diversify?
I love to teach writing, so I hope I’ll continue to do that, and also write about writing, while focusing on writing thrillers. I feel like I’m just getting the hang of it.
As a writing teacher, what advice would you give an unpublished thriller author, not about getting published but about finding a high concept hook for the book? How do you come up with your fiction topics and themes?
High concept–worry too much about it and you’ll never write a thing. My advice: write what you fear.
What are you working on next? Hopefully, another thriller!
It is I don’t want to say too much about it, just that it was inspired by a neighbor who was discovered (still alive) on the floor of her kitchen where she’d been lying, apparently days. Firefighters arrived to find a hoarder’s nightmare with cats (and fleas) everywhere. They could barely find my neighbor among the piles of stuff she’d accumulated. I thought, what if that were me? Talk about frightening.
Hallie Ephron’s new suspense novel “Come and Find Me,” from William Morrow, follows her “Never Tell a Lie” which was a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award and for the Salt Lake Libraries Readers Choice Award, and won the David Award for best mystery of 2009. It has been made into a “And Baby Will Fall,” a movie for the Lifetime Movie Network. A book lover, Hallie is also an award-winning crime fiction book reviewer for “The Boston Globe.” Her “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel” was an Edgar finalist.