January 6 – 12: “Why do you read and write thrillers?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Start off 2014 in style! Join ITW Members Alma Katsu, Elizabeth Heiter, David O’Neil, Lissa Price, Kathleen George, Alison Joseph, L. J. Sellers, Brian C. Poole and Lisa von Biela as they answer the question on everyone’s mind: “Why do you read and write thrillers?”


The Descent by Alma KatsuAlma Katsu is the author of The Taker Trilogy, a highly acclaimed epic supernatural love story. The third book, The Descent, was published January 2014 (Gallery Books). She has an MA in fiction from Johns Hopkins. She is former career intelligence officer and currently works for a think tank.

A Measure of Blood by Kathleen GeorgeKathleen George lives in Pittsburgh where she is a professor of theatre and writing at Pitt. She is the author of the novels TAKEN, FALLEN, AFTERIMAGE, THE ODDS (nominated for an Edgar(R) award for best novel ), HIDEOUT, SIMPLE, and A MEASURE OF BLOOD (2014). In 2014 she will release THE JOHNSTOWN GIRLS, a non-series novel about the Johnstown Flood. Kathy is also the editor of PITTSBURGH NOIR.


Hunted by Elizabeth HeiterElizabeth Heiter likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range. Elizabeth graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English Literature. She’s a member of International Thriller Writers and Romance Writers of America.

Dying to Know by Alison JosephAlison Joseph is a London-based crime writer and radio dramatist. She is the author of the series of novels featuring Sister Agnes, a contemporary detective nun. The most recent is A Violent Act. Her new novel is a departure from Agnes, and is a crime novel about particle physics. Called ‘Dying to Know,’ it was published as an e-book in December 2013 by Endeavour Press. Alison is currently Chair of the British Crime Writers Association.

Grievous Angels_FinalBrian C. Poole is an author, attorney and all-around pop culture junkie. A Boston area native and graduate of Boston College and Suffolk Law School, Brian’s published novels include Grievous Angels and Echoes of a Distant Thunder. You may also have read some prospectuses that Brian wrote, but for your sake, he hopes not.

The Trigger_medL.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mysteries—a two-time Readers Favorite Award winner—as well as the Agent Dallas series and provocative standalone thrillers. Her novels have been highly praised by reviewers, and she is one of the highest-rated crime fiction authors on Amazon. L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon where most of her novels are set and is an award-winning journalist who earned the Grand Neal. When not plotting murders, she enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.

Enders by Lissa PriceLissa Price is the award-winning international bestselling author of STARTERS, published in over thirty countries. She has lived in India and Japan but now resides in Los Angeles.


Minding the Store by David O'NeilFrom David O’Neill: As an Artist and Photographer I started writing seriously with a series of Highland guide books. My boyhood ambitions were to fly an aeroplane, and sail a boat. As a boy my family were bombed out of our home in London. I learned to fly with the RAF 1950-52 during my National Service. I started sailing boats while serving in the Colonial Police, in Nyasaland (Malawi). I spent 8 years there, before returning to UK. Since then I lived in southern England where I became a management consultant, for over twenty years. I returned to live in Scotland in 1980, and became a tour guide in 1986. I started writing in 2006, the first guide book being published in 2007. A further two have been published since then. I started writing fiction in 2007 and have now written thirteen full length novels. I have a collection of short stories also.

THE JANUS LEGACY coverLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then left the field to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa’s first short story appeared in The Edge in 2002. Her short works have appeared in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. Her debut novel, THE GENESIS CODE, was released in 2013. Her second novel, THE JANUS LEGACY, is due out in February 2014, and her first novella, ASH AND BONE, is set for release in May 2014.

  1. I think I have always liked stories that enthralled me. I read adventure stories from a very early age and found when I was at school that writing essays came easily to me. I did not really believe that I could write a book, it seemed that books were impossibly long. I had a go during a slack period in my forties. To my surprise I found I could write quite a few words. I finished up with 19.470 words. A book that should have been 100.000 words at least. I suppose it was a precis of the book it should have been. Thrillers are still my favourite subject in books, and now I’ve discovered I can actually achieve a full length story I don’t seem to be able to stop. The fact that I can write whatever I like helps too. So whether it’s science fiction, western ,Detective or sea story, I am still reading and writing. I haven’t tried SF, or westerns yet but don’t be surprised if one appears. You can depend on it It will be a thriller.

  2. Why I write thrillers:
    It seems to be the case that making up stories is a kind of compulsion for me. And, for some reason, creating characters capable of doing really bad things is even more of a compulsion. You could try investigating my childhood as to why this might be, but in fact, a happy, eccentric, half-Jewish background in North London doesn’t really give rise to any obvious insights.
    However, it is true of me, and I think this might be true for many fiction writers, that telling stories works as a kind of refuge from the chaos of life. I would also argue that telling stories is an archetypal human need, and that even in the midst of war or famine, our forebears would still find a space to narrate, to act out, or to explain what was going on, in terms of angry Gods or vengeful ancestors.
    That said, I make no huge such claims for my own small contribution. All that really happened was that having stumbled into making a living as a writer, I chose thriller writing because I like a good strong story, with a properly resolved ending. I love it when readers say of my work ‘I couldn’t put it down’. I’d far rather be quietly telling a story, with my reader desperate to know what happens next, than declaiming something literary and obscure (and possibly tedious).
    The other thing I love about thriller writing, is that once you have that strong structure in place, you can really make a story be about anything. Once you know that the reader is engaged with the story, and interested in your characters, you can take them anywhere you like. My new novel, Dying to Know, is about particle physics, for no other reason than that I became obsessed with the work they were doing at CERN, colliding protons, and I thought it would make a good starting point for a crime story. My previous novels, featuring detective nun Sister Agnes, have been about homelessness in London, or about the damage suffered by soldiers in battle, about faith and doubt, about the evil that can be done in the name of religion.
    And reading? Of course I love reading thrillers. But the odd thing I’ve found, after fifteen or so years of doing this, is that in this genre reading and writing are very connected. It’s almost as if, once my detective is up and running and doing her investigation, I’m the reader of her story as well as the writer of it. What she gets up to is as page-turning for me as it is for the reader. There comes a point when we, reader and writer both, are going hand in hand through the dangers and the perils of the detective’s journey. And for me, that’s a privileged place to be.

  3. I’m so pleased to be able to participate in this roundtable. It’s probably easier for me to discuss why I enjoy reading thrillers, though really, those are many of the same reasons why I like writing them, too. I think a big part of it is how interesting it is to inhabit a character in a situation you, as the reader or writer, is unlikely to experience in your own life, be it a detective or a spy or superhero, getting that vicarious experience speaks to your inner adventure junkie.

    Another aspect for me is my love for puzzles. I’m a crossword fiend, I loved jigsaws as a kid and the challenge of taking disparate parts and figuring out how they connect and form a bigger whole is at the heart of why I love thrillers. I still vividly recall the rush of climactic twist in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Akroyd, getting that jolt of something that was simultaneously a big surprise and entirely logical. Looking back over the story, Dame Agatha had provided all the info a reader would need to identify the culprit, but then used the narrative form of the story itself to gull you into ignoring it. It was brilliant. A modern example would be Jasper Fforde’s deliriously inventive “Thursday Next” series; each installment features a plethora of plot strands that would seem to have little to no relation to one another, but by the end Fforde has woven them all into an entertaining tapestry. It’s a neat trick and he seems to make it harder on himself with each new book but he hasn’t failed to pull it off yet.

    That’s the thrill, seeing the pieces and getting a good “aha” moment when you finally see how they all interlock to make something you weren’t quite expecting.

  4. Why do I read/write thrillers?

    First, I think “thriller” encompasses a wide range of fiction. Did Poe write thrillers? What about Alexander Dumas? I say that thrillers are books in which events happen. In which there is often a mystery to be solved and actions that must be taken in order for events to be averted. The problem at the center of the story can be small—a man realizing that he’s been a cheat and a liar for so long that he’s cheated himself out of a life—or they can have global consequences. You might argue that Dumas’ Three Musketeers, with its political and romantic intrigues, as well as its sword fights and chases, is every bit as much a thriller than say, a Graham Green espionage novel.

    The other thing that seems to define a thriller—and what attracts me—is the can’t-put-it-down, have-to-know-what’s-going-to-happen-next quality. I love to be drawn so completely into a story that there’s no coming up, not even for air! Stories where you can’t stop reading because you can’t believe the author is going to come up with a way out of the trap she’s set up for herself. As a writer, I love the challenge of setting up the impossible quandary. Lately, some of my favorite thrillers have been mysteries: Tana French, Scottish crime writer Denise Mina, British suspense writer Elizabeth Haynes, to name a couple.

    What about you? I’d like to hear what you think are the essential ingredients for a thriller and which thriller you think everyone should read.

    1. Hi Alma (et al),

      First of all, a Happy New Year and all the best for 2014. As to your question regarding essential thriller ingredients, it’s the pacing that makes thrillers into page turners (by necessity), while still being able to bring across information and knowledge that is not usually available, on all kinds of topics. Because another aspect of thrillers that attract me to the genre (to read and write thrillers), is the great liberty of topics and literary structures that are not as constrained as other genres.

      In other words, the scope of topics thrillers touch upon is vast, offering a lot of uncharted ground, with the possibility of unexpected twists. But most of all, it seems that thrillers are somehow closer to the spirit of our times (where danger abounds, and the victims can be many and anyone), and the crimes are, ultimately, crimes to humanity. Some thrillers manage to reflect on everyday affairs, with the possibility of getting closer and allowing us to come to grips with the realities of those who are making the headlines … or working behind the scenes, in the shadows, the silent heroes.

  5. Three answers:

    1. Well, early on as I was researching, figuring out what kind of thing I was writing, I ran some plot ideas by an FBI Special Agent. He told me I had a natural (and very fine) criminal mind. I’d written one and a half novels at that point. So I kept going in the thriller vein. Was the other option to become a criminal?

    2. I’ve always liked intense involvement in things. Whether reading or writing, thrillers take me over. And that’s fun. That focus wipes out all kinds of other worries, like cleaning the basement.

    3. Some people say they read them because they know all will turn out right and justice will be served–which is better than what we get in real life, they say. But there are some of us who muck with that kind of ending, too. Nervous thrillers. Dark thrillers.

      1. Funny, Elizabeth, yes! Well, here we are, we do it. Sometimes it’s that, like little kids, we get praise,so we do it again. Good thing it isn’t crime . . . .

        1. Yes, definitely…I’m using a mug right now that reads “Don’t annoy the writer or she may put you in a book and kill you.” Grammatically, that could really go two ways… 😉

  6. There’s nothing like thrillers. I love reading them. I love writing them. I just plain love them.

    Something about that can’t-turn-the-pages-fast-enough rush and the mental workout of trying to figure out whodunit. It’s addictive, which is why my bookshelves are jam-packed with thrillers, and why my hard drive is filled with manuscripts in the same genre.

    The other thing I love about thrillers is that, at the end of the story, most of the time you’re rewarded with something you don’t always get in real life. And that’s justice. Maybe the villain gets what’s coming, or the hero(ine) wins a hard-fought battle, or sometimes it just means the crime is solved and the case closed. But one way or another, once you fight your way through the investigations or the fistfights or the spy games alongside the hero(ine), you feel satisfied. You close the book and go searching for another one, because you’re ready to jump on board your next thrill ride.

    Or at least that’s the goal, from my author’s perspective! And that’s what I hunt for, as a reader!

  7. Despite my sedentary career choice (writing novels), I’m really an energetic thrill-seeker. So I thrive on movement, tension, and adrenaline in my real life—as well as the fiction I read and write. I love stories that keep moving and keep surprising me.

    I’m also curious, analytical, and fascinated with crime. I need to understand why people do the bizarre, hurtful, or greedy things I read about in the paper everyday. And I need to explore social issues, peeling away the layers to get at the root cause. Writing crime fiction and thrillers is an excellent way to do both of those.

    Additionally, creating and solving my own crimes is a way to process my fears and establish justice—something that doesn’t happen often enough in real life.

  8. What an amazing set of comments. I’m seriously worried if in fact we are all latent criminals,or maybe detectives; whatever. I’ve often thought that I might be only writing because I have read so much, perhaps it’s a regurgitation of what I have read in slightly different language. While I don’t ignore the possibility I like to think I am original and as long as it’s fun to write I will continue. The main thing really is to have the power to influence the characters I use to do things I cannot or will not do. Having been a Police officer I do have some insight into investigations though I seldom go deeply in that direction. Amateurs have a lot more freedom to bend the law, and sometimes break it in achieving their results. Maybe that is the real reason I like writing thrillers.

  9. When I joined ITW I was not sure what I was getting into, so many sites are all show and no go. I’m happy to say that this site is all about the title. My ideas about the general concept of thriller is as I’ve said before any book that can thrill the reader, hold them, and keep them reading. Writing is a solo operation for me and I believe most authors, so much of what comes out on the page is wishful thinking, and because there is no bridle on our own thoughts we can make anything happen, no matter how outrageous. After all we can edit out what we feel we ought to, afterwards.
    I mention this because writing is a compulsion. Generating a story is an adventure in itself. A self-imposed discipline that I would be loath to abandon

  10. I agree with so much that you’ve all said. I loved Lissa’s comment about the loud gasp on the train where people turn to look – that really says it all about our relationship with our readers when we’re writing, and also about the sheer fun of being a reader of thrillers too. And certainly, so much is about making sure that what we write has a proper story, with a proper resolution. For me the tension is between making sure my characters behave in a way that is true for them, while also being an investigation about the worst that human beings can do. It may be true to say that we’re all capable of murderous rage, but in fact, very few of us actually carry that out – so for me the challenge is how I make that believable for my characters.

  11. Hello, and thank you for having me back on the Roundtable!

    I, too, enjoy being so grabbed by a novel that I nearly miss getting off the bus at the right stop. In my case, I’m a big chicken. It’s all very exciting to read these things, but there is no way on earth I’d want to actually live through the plot. For example, I recently read “Parallax View” by Allan Leverone. The protagonist, Tracie Tanner, got out of one tight spot after another. The pace was absolutely relentless and I read breathlessly, wanting to know how she’d get out of the next tight spot. But no way would I want to experience all that for real. So for me, it’s the love of a good vicarious thrill ride.

    And that is what drove me to write thrillers. I enjoyed reading them so much, I wanted to see if I could cause the same can’t-put-it-down experience for readers. Someone told me he started reading “The Genesis Code” on his vacation at midnight–and didn’t stop until 5am when he was done. I relished his lack of sleep–mission accomplished!

  12. I write thrillers because I don’t want to bore anyone. When I read a novel or go to a movie, I want a high concept that intrigues me, I want cliffhangers and rising stakes that make me turn pages, and I want major twists and reversals.

    So when I wrote my debut, Starters, that’s what I did. And my readers really respond to this. I write for the Young Adult audience (although half of my readers are adults) and they especially want the novel to start fast and not let you go. My entire story is built around a surprise reveal that lets you know no one is who they seem to be. I loved doing this, love hearing from the readers when they tell me they gasped on the train so loudly that everyone looked.

    The essence of my story is that in the future, desperate teens rent out their bodies to seniors so they can be young again temporarily. But one senior plans to do more than party, she plans to murder someone. My publisher, Random House, prefers to call it a futuristic thriller rather than science fiction or dystopian because of the thriller pacing and I think that’s the most accurate.

    When it came to my sequel, Enders, I knew that I had to deliver the same things the readers responded to – the rising stakes and big twist. And that pushed me to dig deep.

    I have to say that I learned just about everything I know about writing thrillers from ITW. I’ve been going to the Thrillerfest conferences since the first one in Arizona, where I met my Southern California writing group. I’ve also met four of my agents, three of them I still have.

    Like a lot of you, I came from a love of reading thrillers. Alma, yes, I consider Poe a thriller author. The Tell-Tale Heart was one of my favorite stories as a young reader.

    1. I’m heading to Thrillerfest for the first time this summer…really looking forward to it. I’ve hit a lot of other conferences over the years, but heard some fabulous things about this one.

      1. Elizabeth, glad to hear you’re coming to ThrillerFest this year. Be sure to look up me. I’m on the board and we like to welcome folks to the party. I think you’ll have a great time. The nice thing about ThrillerFest is that everyone is so friendly and open. The good thing about it is that everyone tries to make the panels as informative as possible. Looking forward to meeting you!

  13. I have to confess here that I also love the other sort of novel, slower and philosophical (please don’t kick me out of the club). The less bloody stuff can have plenty of narrative hooks that keep me/us going. I just read The End of the Point which took some concentration, but it was very rewarding. Don’t kick me out! Ok?

  14. Thank you Lissa. And following on from Kathleen’s point, I think the slower, less bloody stories give the reader a sort of breathing space. I like those too, and in my own work I’m increasingly tending to a slower pace. It’s what I said about making evil believable – I’m more and more interested in how a terrible action can come out of the everyday, but still have a sanity about it.

  15. Along these lines, I think it is also possible to write a thriller that has very little blood. It’s all about pacing and hooks and having characters the reader cares enough about to follow. There was really very little blood in The Genesis Code. Not a lot in The Janus Legacy, for that matter. Indeed, books where extreme blood is a crutch in place of good writing don’t interest me.

    1. I agree. The level of blood and death have little to do with pace or tension. My thrillers have very low body counts, but readers always call them fast-paced and engaging. The threat of violence is more suspenseful than the aftermath.

      1. While I’m morbidly fascinated by writers with the twisted imaginations to come up with novel ways to bring their characters to a bad end, there is absolutely something elegant about a novel with little to no blood that can still get your pulse racing. Alan Furst does a marvelous job with his World War II-set novels; there’s little overt violence, but he creates a web of tightening claustrophobia around his characters that causes a suspenseful hook all its own.

      2. I totally agree that sometimes the threat of violence can be the main source of tension in a thriller. My debut HUNTED is a psychological suspense, and while there is a body count, a lot of the suspense comes from wondering when the villain will surface again. I also think psychological thrillers derive tension from getting deep inside the emotional aspects, and unraveling the mental puzzle of “why.”

  16. When you consider all the psychological contributions that have come in since people started writing thrillers the presence of gore can be totally absent. The elements of horror without even monsters or ghosts can be far more chilling than the ‘eeriest’ Gothic novel. To me the macabre, can be just as gripping as the wrong end of a .45 Browning, in the hands of a contract killer.
    At the root of it all it’s the way the words are used, that can turn the description of a visit to the Sunday Service at the little local Church into a nightmare, or an innocent religious experience.

  17. Thanks for taking me seriously, gang. I’m thinking about how many times I can ask myself if I read something or not–in other words, it’s fun while it lasts, but then it disappears and I really don’t remember it. On the other hand there are the novels we keep remembering (maybe because we read them early), partly for the emotional content. Way back, a long time ago, I read Marjorie Allingham’s The Tiger In The Smoke and I swear it continues to influence everything I do. Interestingly (to me) it was about goodness as well as about badness.

    1. Absolutely, Kathleen. The best thrillers are about both. The villain is often who the protagonist is in danger of becoming, if the main character doesn’t become self-aware.

  18. Kathleen, I just discovered Allingham and am embarassed I’d never heard of her before. I’m starting to make a dent in the Campion series and am enjoying it immensely. Such a clever writer and a vivid character.

  19. Kathleen, hi and a Happy New Year.

    Thrillers, like other genres *and all forms of literature, really), are like a magnifying glass to focus on particular aspects of reality. So liking literary works (or other genres) is certainly not a crime, more like a way to focus on aspects that thrillers (and other genres) will keep “out of focus.”

    The great thing about thrillers is that it also allows for a lot of leeway when it comes to topics, even making it possible to get some great literary works, in terms of language and characterization, such as T. Jefferson Parker’s novels. Or explore certain topics about the goodness in us, when faced with evil, such as Steven James’ works.

    In fact, at the end of the day, thrillers are about “how to stop the greatest damage” from happening, rather on how to solve a crime that has already occurred (the realm of murder mysteries). This is one of the elements, I believe, that make thrillers stand out, because rather than dealing with isolated crimes, thrillers deal with the larger picture. In thrillers, the victims can be many, and the stakes are how to keep that from happening.

    So thrillers, in my view, can also potentially deal with the more philosophical aspects of our world, if we, as writers, care to touch upon them.

  20. Why do I read and write thrillers (and in my case narrate them as well)? Because now that I am in middle age, it hurts a lot less to live vicariously through my characters than to do it in real life … and I don’t have to explain the late nights and bruises to my wife anymore.


  21. OK, my publisher says my forthcoming THE ZODIAC DECEPTION is a thriller and I’m a member of the ITW, so I guess I write thrillers. But, in my mind, or what’s left of it on any given day, I also write romances and mysteries and fantasies and inspirationals and . . . . Problem is, I write them at the same time in the same novel.
    But it’s kosher since all of them, I hope, are thrillers.

    Let’s see: “thriller,” AKA something that thrills. Hummm. “Thrill,” AKA to bring about or cause intense sensation, excitement, emotion, pleasure or delight. Or, my favorite, to make someone tingle.
    Did I set out to write a thriller? You bet your ass—or your last late royalty check—I did! I consciously and deliberately set out to produce a work that will make readers tingle. In fact, I prefer to call my novel a “tingler.” Unfortunately tinglers aren’t accorded separate shelf space, so I’m fine with it being classified as a thriller.

    Because to me being a thriller means it’s a book with various so-called “genre” elements, one or all of which will ultimately trigger tingles.

  22. Interesting to hear Allingham quoted. The Crime Writers’ Association in the UK is currently teaming up with the Marjory Allingham Society to do a short story competition, and I have to say, it’s been a delight to re-acquaint myself with her work.

    I’m also re-reading Agatha Christie, and once again, I’m amazed at her mastery. There is something about her pared down writing, and the fact that no detail is wasted. I know that there can sometimes be a tendency to dismiss these ‘golden age’ writers, as somehow no longer relevant in a time when everyone is writing more violent stories, but in fact I would say she has lots in common with people like Elmore Leonard, where the truth of the characters is revealed with great elegance and wit, and where the story is absolutely page-turning. I think that sometimes, having a lot of violence just disguises lazy story-telling. Not always, of course.

  23. From what I have seen in the pieces above we all write stories because we need to for some reason. The fact that they turn out to be thrillers reflects the way we write our stories rather than the specific subject we set out to cover. Perhaps it’s not what we say say , it’s the way we say it. The common factor seems to be that we all have this compulsion to do what we do. Our real reward is having people reading? No! Wanting to read our work.

    1. Better yet…*needing* to read our work. I truly love it when my work is the cause of someone’s sleepless night because they simply cannot put it down. Does that make me evil? 🙂

  24. I think it’s an “evil” need we all share here, Lisa! 😉 I’ve had readers write and tell me the serial killer in my debut made them double check all their locks before going to bed or search their car before getting in…and I took that as a great compliment, too!

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