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Into the Wild

By Dawn Ius

Jenny Milchman doesn’t write to formula, but admits that each of her novels share commonalities—ordinary women with believable flaws, husbands that suck, the fictional town of Weedskill nestled among the mighty Adirondack forest, and the vital role that setting and atmosphere can play in creating suspense.

Those factors come together with startling effectiveness in Milchman’s latest release, WICKED RIVER, a standalone wilderness thriller that will give you pause next time you drag out that camping gear.

“It became very clear to me with this novel that I think of the environment as a character,” Milchman says, noting that while the town mentioned in the book is made up, the landscape around it is very real. “The details about the area are pretty accurate—many of them based on some spotty experiences I’ve had in my life.”

That said, Milchman’s stint as a Girl Scout, or a handful of trips downstream in her canoe, don’t fully account for the authenticity in which Milchman brings to life the potential terrors of that vast wilderness world—that depth of truth comes from what can only be described as “sinking into the story.”

For Milchman, that’s the key to a good novel.

Milchman at a bookstore appearance in Raleigh, North Carolina

And so, while she’s never paddled the labyrinth of rivers that weave through the Adirondacks, she had no trouble plunking her characters—newlyweds Natalie and Doug Larson—six million acres from civilization for an unorthodox honeymoon that quickly becomes the opposite of romantic. Frankly, it’s downright terrifying.

The fear factor is heightened still with the introduction of a wilderness-savvy villain by the name of Kurt Pierson. Readers familiar with Milchman’s other books may recognize this character from her second novel, Ruin Falls—though not in his current form, a truly formidable force of evil that wields the forest like a weapon.

“He’s a character I didn’t feel finished with,” she says. “The thing about him is that he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong—he actually thinks well of himself, and that dynamic fascinates me.”

Evil, yes. But the character also fits neatly into one of the other themes Milchman has explored with each of her books—the cultural divide between people who visit the wilderness for adventure or fun, versus those who choose—or are forced—to live in that environment year round.

While Kurt certainly embraces these circumstances, Natalie and Doug are more like fish out of water. Not only must they battle the elements—hot days, chilled nights—everything that can possibly go wrong does. And that’s long before they’re introduced to Kurt.

Couples with years together might succumb to the pressures in time, but in the case of these newlyweds, the tension quickly taps into their psyches, revealing their strengths and weaknesses, and for Natalie, the disquieting sense that perhaps she doesn’t know her husband as well as she thought.

The fact that Doug is “damaged goods” won’t come as a shock to Milchman’s readers. The women in her novels are often drawn to men who are wounded in some way—perhaps somewhat mirroring Milchman’s personal relationship experiences.

At the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA, near Pittsburgh. They have all the authors who come through sign the “Wall of Fame.”

“I have a great husband,” she says. “But he definitely came to me with a wounded past. And to a very real extent, my mom saved my father. Writers put a lot of ourselves into our characters, and in large part, we create the people we would want to see ourselves as.”

Natalie, for example, doesn’t possess super hero strength, wouldn’t dream of jumping out of a plane, and in the beginning of WICKED RIVER, isn’t even able to properly read a map. But by the end of the book, her strengths emerge—and without the terrifying journey beforehand, Milchman doubts Natalie would ever have truly found herself…or authentic love.

Authenticity is another hallmark Milchman would like to see associated with her work, as evidenced in WICKED RIVER. From the rich descriptions of the landscape and detailed methodology of paddling the tumultuous terrain to the creation of real characters that could double as your neighbors, Milchman guides the reader through the wilderness with the expertise of a seasoned guide.

A skill one might liken to the navigation of her career.

“There’s such an emphasis on selling that first novel. But very much, we, as authors, are defining our careers one book at a time,” she says. “It took years for me to get published…you can’t worry about the rejections. Write the book you want to write. Enjoy the journey.”

And though Milchman’s path has, at times, taken unforeseen twists and turns—including switching publishers after her third novel—she believes that in the end, the events of her career so far have all conspired in a serendipitous way.

Like the marriage of Natalie and Doug Larson, Milchman is just getting started.

Dawn Ius
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