A New Prince of Horror: Twisting the Norms
The Big Thrill Interviews Tony Wirt
JUST STAY AWAY, Tony Wirt’s dynamic debut traditionally published novel, plays with constrictive societal norms and stereotypical gender roles, twisting them around until we’re trapped in our worst nightmares.
In our society, we still congratulate dads for “babysitting” their children while mom goes out for an evening with her friends. Men who choose to stay home with their children are seen as an anomaly. Men who decide to work in preschools or daycares receive eyebrow raises and suspicious glances. On the other hand, children are seen as angelic innocents. There’s never any malicious intent, only tragic accidents.
So, it’s no wonder when a stay-at-home dad runs afoul with the parents of the nine-year-old boy showing up at his house to play with his seven-year-old daughter. People assume he’s the predator. The two are locked in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game, where the stakes are raised to a fever pitch, delivering a finale the reader doesn’t see coming.
The Big Thrill was happy to sit down with Tony Wirt to discuss gender role biases, hitting Number 1 in the horror genre on Amazon, and why I’ll never play croquet again.
How did it feel to have JUST STAY AWAY chosen as an Amazon First Reads for September?
I remember going to bed that first night [September 1] and seeing that [JUST STAY AWAY] had made it to number two [in the Horror category] behind Stephen King. And that was just mind-blowing. And then the next morning at 5:30, my phone starts blowing up, and I’ve got texts from my agent and friends with screenshots showing that it’s number one, and I just…it was something I never even considered. It’s been it’s been a wild month. It’s been crazy.
Why make your hero a stay-at-home dad, and how did you manipulate society’s assumptions on gender roles to create the building tension in JUST STAY AWAY?
I am a stay-at-home dad and I’m not that creative. [laughs] So, I thought I’d like to play around with it because there are a lot of things you can do with the stay-at-home dad. It’s a job where you get an unbelievable amount of undeserved credit for doing [regular things]. I don’t know how many times I’ve been checking out at Target with two kids [and getting kudos] and you’re like, no, I’m just checking out at Target.
There’s a lot to play around with because it can be very lonely. You know most stay-at-home parents are moms and I will say from experience the moms club is very exclusive. One time [at a kinder music appreciation class], I introduced [two moms] to each other and within five minutes, they were making a playdate without including my daughter. [Dads] get excluded from that kind of stuff and it’s just—it is what it is. But I thought about the isolation and how I could work with that.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been checking out at Target with two kids [and getting kudos] and you’re like, no, I’m just checking out at Target.
I mean, even the gender stuff aside, as a man versus a small boy, he can’t hit him. You can’t have the big show where the guns come out. That was interesting to write because a lot of times when it gets to the final showdown, it’s going to end up being a physical. But in this equation, that can’t happen or shouldn’t happen.
Because you couldn’t make the ending a physical fight, did you end up playing with different finales (no spoilers)?
It was pretty much the only ending I ever had. I had to have some sort of confrontation. I was worried as I was writing the first draft, knowing I didn’t know where it was going and I just kept putting myself in his shoes. What could you do to get out of this without there being a physical fight?
Levi reads like a textbook sociopath. What kind of research did you do into child sociopaths to create his character?
I did research to look at behavior patterns of sociopaths and that kind of thing. One of the first things I saw, and this was before I had truly decided that this was something I was going to pursue, was an article in The Atlantic. It’s a very long article about child sociopaths, and it was fascinating and frightening. After reading that, I knew I could do something with [child sociopaths].
I love the creepy kid trope. Baby Teeth [by Zoje Stage] is one of my favorite books of all time. That book messed me up. My oldest daughter was the same age as Hannah when I read it. It’s one of the few books I actually almost put down because it was disturbing me so much, which made me love it.
So, I kicked around the idea of a psycho kid for a while, and then I wrote this during COVID when I was trapped in a house by myself with kids. The very first scene was a little bit of my situation, and I thought, “What if I had made the absolute wrong choice every step of the way?” Craig makes as many bad choices as possible, and we get into this spiral. He keeps doubling down on bad choices.
Croquet hasn’t been this sinister since the 1988 movie Heathers. Why select a croquet mallet as your Chekhov’s Gun?
I needed something [to be a weapon] and since part of the book involves the kids outside playing and keeping themselves busy, I thought, “Well, Craig’s going to buy a lot of outdoor toys so he can get [his writing] done.” So, what’s the most dangerous lawn game? Lawn darts. And since lawn darts aren’t legal anymore, I decided to choose croquet and the hammers.
Pike Island is my next book, coming out next September. It’s about a woman who works for a young upstart congressman. They started getting some weird mail and she has to dig into his past to figure out who she’s actually working for. It’s told in a dual timeline with flashbacks to a group of high school boys right around graduation taking a vacation up to a lake in Minnesota to a family cabin. They find an abandoned house on the island and horror ensues.
I’m also having a book tour for JUST STAY AWAY with Jess Lourey, Lori Rader-Day, Erica Ruth Neubauer, and Shannon Baker. We start going around the Midwest on October 10. Dates and locations are on my website.
The Big Thrill Interviews Tony Dirt