October 14, 2015

Trouble Afoot: an interview with Heather J. McAdams and Fraser C. Heston, co-authors of "Desolation Sound"

Fourteen severed feet. Twenty-two missing blondes. One knife.

Blond female runners have been disappearing lately in the lower mainland. RCMP corporal Liz MacDonald-an obsessive, ambitious, rookie detective was kicked off a case for beating a suspect. She fits the victim profile perfectly. Young, sexy, blond long distance runner. She also happens to be convinced that these disappearances are linked to the severed feet.

Seattle homicide detective Jack Harris - a depressed alcoholic, prone to violence, was kicked off the force for killing a killer. He retired to the Gulf Islands and a quiet life of fly-fishing, sea kayaking and heavy drinking, to escape his demons. Until he finds the 13th severed human foot to wash ashore since 2007. RCMP claims there are no signs of foul play, but as Jack says, "Two feet is an anomaly, three to four statistically curious, six to ten, you have to think dirty. But thirteen feet? Seriously? . . . The mistake people make is calling these guys monsters. Because they aren't some mythological bogeyman lurking in the shadows. They walk among us. They're real."

Liz and Jack team up to catch a sadistic killer before he catches them.

If the thought of a sexually twisted serial killer keeps you up at night or the idea that you could be next makes you double-check your windows . . . so will this startling Northwest Noir thriller, based on the bizarre, real-life, unsolved Severed Foot Mystery in BC.

Lock your doors, turn on your night light. Read on.

Gef: What was the inspiration behind Desolation Sound?

Heather: On a trip to Vancouver, Fraser heard about a severed human foot in a running shoe washing ashore in the news. When he got back to the States, we started doing some research on it and apparently there had been many feet washing ashore over the past few years. In fact, a 15th foot was discovered while were finishing up our novel.

The more research we did, the weirder it sounded. The working theory was that the feet naturally disarticulated due to sea creatures and because the running shoes were buoyant, they floated. Crazy theories abounded: Disgruntled mortician, airplane crash victims, tsunami victims washing all the way from Asia, boating accidents, industrial accidents . . . Big Foot. The RCMP’s storyline kept changing from— “We are exploring all avenues”—to “There is no sign of foul play”—to finally, “They are all suicide victims.” Really? It sounded too hinky.

If it were actually industrial accidents or fishing accidents, why weren’t people coming forward and saying they were missing a foot? These accidents would have been documented. Why wasn’t this happening in other parts of the world with similar geography or industries like Russia or Alaska? Why only after 2007? We’ve had running shoes since the ‘70’s. As one former detective said, “One to two feet is a coincidence. Three to four statistically curious. Five to six, you have to think dirty.” But fifteen? And no sign of foul play? The story was too juicy to pass up.

Gef: Those human feet washing up on shore several years ago really had Canadians running wild with theories over what was going on? Did your imaginations run wild with that or did you have a more analytical mindset?

Heather: We had a combination of both. We let our imaginations fly when it came to creating the storyline and the crime itself but when plotting out how things happen; you need to be very methodical so that there are not any plot holes. We worked very hard to prevent that from happening. You can’t give anyone an alibi. If you do, then people can figure out the bad guy right away. We want people to go back to the book after they finished reading and double check. We call those “refrigerator questions.” The things that pop into your head as you go to the fridge for a late night snack.

Gef: How was the collaborative aspect of the writing? Smooth sailing or some kinks you needed to work out to adjust to each other's styles?

Heather: Smooth sailing. We have been working together since 2001. We have written several screenplays together and produced a documentary called THE SEARCH FOR MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER so we have our collaborative system down.

We usually have a story meeting over coffee in the morning, one of us type up the notes. We then rehash our notes until we like them. Then once we are writing the draft, we will each read the latest, make notes, compare them and then incorporate our notes into the current draft. At this point, neither of us can tell who wrote what. And rarely is there any really argument over anything. Each of us brings something different to the table and it is just super easy to work with each other.

Some may think we divide things up based on gender but we don’t. Even though we have a male and a female protagonist, we both wrote for each character. Unless it’s about fly-fishing, it could have been either of us.

Gef: Was there anything from the film-making side of things that were able to apply towards the writing of this novel?

Heather: Absolutely. How we approached the novel was not that far different from how we approach writing a script. We created a beat sheet to outline the general plot points. Once we had that down, we were able to move forward with the book. Writing a novel is a luxury in a way. When you write a script you have so little time. You basically have 110 pages to tell the whole story. Which means, you don’t have the time or space to go into deep inner-monologues, description, or backstory the way you do in a novel. Also, since film is such a visual medium, bringing that eye to a novel helps move it along so the reader can see the story. Or so we hope.

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

Heather: Fraser’s would be: Hemingway, Patrick O’Brien, John D. MacDonald, James Lee Burke, Jo Nesbø. He loves Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and actually directed a film called CRUCIFER OF BLOOD with his father, Charlton Heston, starring as Sherlock Holmes. He also loves Stephen King and directed NEEDFUL THINGS starring Ed Harris and Max von Sydow.

JD Salinger, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald are a few of my favorite writers. In terms of thrillers, I really love Jo Nesbø, Stieg Larsson, Patricia Cornwall. I just read GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins—my favorite book this summer, bar none!

Gef: How much emphasis do you place on setting as character?

Heather: We really saw British Columbia as a character in our book. The dark moodiness lends itself to a crime thriller. You’re in a place where there is such desolate wild beauty. Where you can be completely isolated on an island but take one ferry and you’re in a major metropolis.

FBI agent John Douglas once said, “The Pacific Northwest is ‘America’s Killing fields’.” And there is something to be said for that. In Washington State (where some of the feet have washed ashore), there have been prolific serial killers like Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer. And Vancouver had Robert Pickton the pig farmer who killed 49 women. So we definitely see the Pacific Northwest as a character in our stories.

Gef: What do you consider to be the saving grace of the thriller genre?

Heather: Does the thriller genre need a saving grace? We love this genre because we like to solve things and try to figure the crime out before the end of the book. Who doesn’t want to feel like Sherlock Holmes? In a really great crime thriller, you can’t figure it out to the very end. And in a way, thrillers get short shrift in the literary world. Just because it’s a fun read, doesn’t mean it has less merit. James Lee Burke in an introduction to a Michael Connelly book said, “Terms like ‘mystery’ and to some degree ‘crime’ fiction have connotations that may not be derogatory but hardly laudable, at least not laudable in the way categorical terms ‘literary’ fiction is used.” I don’t know why that is or if it even matters. We want people to go for a ride and hope they are glad they bought their ticket.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received?

Heather: Hmmm… I’m sure I got some bad advice at some point but I don’t remember the bad stuff. It’s cliché but writing is re-writing. Fraser and I do a lot of that. I actually love the editing process. Tinkering to get it to the right place. It’s pretty fulfilling once you do. And then, on to the next project!

Gef: Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Heather: Fraser and I work more in the film world so we get a lot development notes for scripts that say things like “needs more character development.” Okay, great, but what do you mean? Vague notes are never helpful. Specifics are. Constructive notes we eat up and run with. But something vague? It’s like looking at a painting and saying, “Eh, it’s too blue.”

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Heather: Fraser and I both really enjoy crime thrillers. He reads something and then I read it right after him. We both just read Stephen King’s MR. MERCEDES and FINDERS KEEPERS. And we both liked the book THE TRUTH AND OTHER LIES by Sascha Arango. They were all good fun, fast reads.

Both of us love documentaries as well. JINXED, the HBO doc about Robert Durst was excellent and we found it compelling since there was a dismemberment component like our book.

As far as movies and whatnot, Fraser loves a lot of the HBO shows like GAME OF THRONES, SILICON VALLEY and TRUE DETECTIVE. I don’t know if those are guilty pleasures since they are so well done. The current thought today is—movies are for kids and TV is for grown-ups. Films are tent-poles about comic books and TV is starting to delve into different ways to tell stories.

My favorite show this past season was BETTER CALL SAUL. I thought the writing was terrific as well as the acting. Not to mention doing the prelude . . . how did these people get to the point of who they were in BREAKING BAD? Great stuff.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Heather: Well, as I write this Fraser is currently in Smithers, BC fly-fishing but he is also doing research and shooting B-roll for our next project RIVER OF TEARS which is the next Jack Harris/Liz MacDonald mystery. It stems from the real-life mystery of the Highway of Tears murders. There is a 450-mile stretch of Highway 16 actually called the “Highway of Tears” because native girls who hitchhike along there have been disappearing since the 1970’s. Again, has the RCMP done all that it can to investigate these crimes? Is it the work of a serial killer? Multiple killers? We will have our take on it and Liz and jack will be on the case.

Other news for us? Our documentary THE SEARCH FOR MICHAEL ROCKEFELLER is being released on DVD this fall. It is currently available on Netflix for streaming.

And for our latest shenanigans, we post all of our DESOLATION SOUND news on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, as well as, our website: www.desolationsoundnovel.com or our production company’s website www.agamemnon.com

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