‘Kill Me Once’ is the terrifying thriller from author Jon Osborne. It is a spine-tingling race to the finish between Special Agent Dana Whitestone and cold-blooded perfectionist Nathan Stiedowe. Will Nathan succeed in recreating the mosthorrific murders in recent history? And does something much deeper than a criminal investigation tie the two so tightly together? Laura Harman goes in search of the truth…..
Hi Jon. The very nature of suspense obviously means that you can’t give away all of the information at first. However, is the steady dripping of information to the reader a deliberate parallel to Nathan’s twisted clues for Dana?
I think you’re right on point with your definition of suspense - the steady dripping of information is key. When I write, I try to put myself in the reader’s mind, to process clues as my reader would. My aim is to give the reader enough honest clues that they can, in a sense, investigate the case right alongside the protagonist.
At the same time, those clues can’t be too obvious. I try to mix up the degree of difficulty on the clues to keep things interesting. For example, what might seem like a throw-away sentence can actually prove quite important to cracking the case later on in the story. While I don’t know that Nathan’s twisted clues for Dana are a deliberate parallel to creating suspense, I absolutely believe they are a function of it.
You talk about allowing the reader to solve the case alongside the protagonist. Do you think that crime fiction is so popular because it allows people to experience things in a safe environment, that they wouldn’t otherwise?
In my opinion, the popularity of crime fiction has much to do with the fact that it allows the reader to experience in a safe environment that to which he or she may not otherwise be exposed. It’s about as close as you can get without actually being there.
As a writer, one of the major challenges is to make your reader care enough about your protagonist that he or she feels a personal stake in the outcome. For example, whenever I’m reading a Karin Slaughter book - one of my biggest inspirations in writing - I find myself not only trying to piece together the clues Dr. Sara Linton uncovers, but also mentally offering Sara advice as though she were a friend or a loved one.
The personal stake is so important. We’ve all read books where we’re actually rooting for a character to fail simply because he or she displays any number of unattractive characteristics, or gaps in logic and reasoning. It’s the old “Don’t go off into the woods, dummy! The axe murderer is going to kill you!” At the same time, conditions can’t be too safe. Where’s the fun in that?
Crime fiction affords readers the opportunity to experience risk-taking and to explore what he or she might do differently, or the same, in a similar situation. Human beings, by nature, are curious creatures. Anything unfamiliar to us that speaks to our condition and psyche fascinates us. For most of us, murder is a great unknown and, for all of us, death is the great unknown. For many people, including myself, any sort of fringe group - such as cults or ideological extremists - prove fascinating subjects.
In saying that, does it allow you to unlock a part of yourself that is maybe fascinated by what shouldn’t be, such as murder and death?
Personally, I want to know what makes these groups tick; what factors played a part in leading them to their present condition, and why he or she is putting so much effort into that particular pattern. Was it a traumatic event from childhood? A break from reality in adulthood? A defect in the brain with which he or she was born? Is the pattern somehow helping him or her deal with any one of these possible triggers? If so, how? A lot of the fun in reading crime fiction - at least for me - is in first trying to detect that pattern, and then attempting to find out the “hows” and “whys” that go along with it.
Nathan’s character is deranged in some ways but also appears to be completely rational and calm when it comes to his murders. Do you think that to be able to kill, one must be a balance of both unhinged and self-aware?
I definitely think that a lot of Nathan’s creepiness comes from this calm demeanour when he is killing. I think most people would be overwrought emotionally at the prospect of taking another person’s life. It’s scary to think that someone could do that in such a cold and calculated fashion. With psychopaths such as Nathan, I believe that they are a balance of both unhinged and self-aware. The “fully aware” part is the bit that I find most frightening.
Do you think that to be able to murder - in a calculated way - one must be separated from humanity by the gulf created by a traumatic incident?
A traumatic event, if it is horrific enough, can definitely separate someone from his or her humanity. Some traumatic events can actually rewire the brain. If that rewiring is severe enough, it may give the person the ability to commit cold-blooded murder.
Do you believe that traumatic incidents, by their very nature as a wound, separate us from ourselves a little?
I believe traumatic events both separate us from ourselves a little, and at the same time draw us closer to a truer sense of ourselves. We may feel a need to deny the trauma in the interests of self-preservation, which would separate us from ourselves, but when we address the trauma I think it gives a person a better sense of what they are made of.
There is a struggle in the book between the public and the private, such as Dana attempting to hide her personal life from an investigation that is increasingly public. Are you concerned with the different faces that we present to people?
On some level I think we all wear masks throughout life. I also think that’s a very good thing - a necessary adaptation to a particular set of circumstances that we are facing. After all, I certainly wouldn’t speak with my agent or editors in the same manner in which I would speak to my buddies around the poker table.
First of all, it would be unprofessional and this is not how I wish to be viewed by them. When it comes to writing, editing and publishing, each of us is engaged in a pursuit to which we have dedicated our lives. While I am lucky enough to enjoy an extremely friendly relationship with all of them, I also know that it is of the utmost importance for me to maintain a sense of decorum. Not only that, but these women know a lot more about the business than I ever will. I regard it as an opportunity to learn something new, and I’m never disappointed. It’s a delicate mix but by no means an uncomfortable one.
When you’re writing, you often can’t see the forest for the trees. Victoria Sanders (my agent), and Kate Elton and Georgina Hawtrey-Woore (my editors) do a wonderful job of refocusing my vision when I get so blinded by the words that I can’t see straight. I can never thank them enough for that.
In ‘Kill Me Once’, Dana’s private life directly hinders the investigation with which she is faced, so it is important that she hides this private face. Hides it, locks it away and throws away the key. While she may be battling personal demons, the general public is not going to have much sympathy while innocent lives are on the line. As it should be, Dana is tasked with a tough job - but if she can’t handle it, get someone in there who can. Many of us have doubts and fears about our abilities, including myself, but we can’t allow them to cripple us. Otherwise we’d never get anything accomplished.
The bottom line for Dana is: can you get the job done or not?
In the police environment, most of the characters are male. Is this simply a true reflection of environment?
The male-dominated police environment in the book is a direct reflection of my own experience. While working as a newspaper reporter, one of my daily duties was to go to the sheriff’s office and read through the police reports. The great majority of officers there were male.
Do you think it gives Dana more power because she is forced to stand essentially alone, a representative of women?
I absolutely think it gives Dana more power. Whenever I saw a female officer at the sheriff’s office, I immediately admired her strength for working in an environment so dominated by men. I wanted to know from where she drew her strength and self-confidence. I wanted to know what led her to seek a career in a filed traditionally populated by men. I tried to imbue Dana’s character with a sense of that strength and self-confidence, and also with a reasoning of what might lead her to such a job.
It’s interesting thatfemales seem to hold a great deal of psychological power in the text, though very little physically. Do you think that the wounds we can inflict psychologically are more damaging than physical wounds?
I believe women’s psychological power in books is a truer gauge of power. In the end, brains almost always triumph over biceps. Biceps might win some battles but brains have a better chance of winning the war. Dana’s character is small in stature but by no means weak. Nathan’s character is far larger and is also a force to be reckoned with intellectually, but his armour has many more cracks due to his unhinged mental state. As long as the physical wounds aren’t deadly or permanently maiming, I absolutely believe that psychological wounds are more damaging. Psychological wounds have the power to stay with us throughout our lives. Just ask any kid you has been called a name on the playground.
Do you think that there is something more harrowing about female - particularly female sexual - violence?
As Nathan is such a large and physically powerful character, I think the stakes are raised when he chooses victims who may be physically weaker. It all goes back to not making things too safe. I want my characters who are targeted as victims to be forced to use their mental faculties to deal with the situation.
Most of us have been subjected to situations in our lives which we have little hope of overcoming through sheer physical force - even something like sport. Our brains race to come up with possible solutions to overcome our inherent physical disadvantage. The most exciting plays in sports are often the trick plays, particularly when they work. They can mean the difference between winning and losing the game. When your actual life is on the line, obviously the stakes are much higher. I think that it is fascinating to explore what the brain comes up with as a solution in such a harrowing situation.
For most people, female sexual violence - or any form of sexual violence, for that matter - is a particularly frightening prospect. Who in the world could possibly derive pleasure from causing such pain to another? It’s sickening beyond comprehension. Yet I and many others still feel the need to try to understand. As we’re dealing with fellow human beings here we almost feel the need to understand the motivation behind the acts of savagery. Or at least try to understand.
When you are writing do you like to create complete worlds for your characters so that you can understand their motivation?
Creating full worlds for characters can definitely help a writer understand their motivation. Dana’s back-story does a lot to explain her motivation for hunting down killers, while Nathan’s back-story goes a long way to understanding what drove him to kill.
Do your characters sometimes surprise you?
The characters in ‘Kill Me Once’ evolved a lot over the writing of the book but I wouldn’t say that they surprised me. The changes came more from discussions with my agent (Victoria Sanders) and my editors at Random House UK (Kate Elton and Georgina Hawtrey-Woore). Whenever I hit a bump in the road along the way, they helped me refocus my attention on creating the most believable story I could. Writing a book is definitely a team effort, and I couldn’t ask for a better team.
Thank you very much for your time, Jon. It’s been an absolute pleasure
KILL ME ONCE Arrow, £6.99 pbk released: 20th January 2011
Extract from KILL ME ONCE © Random House 2011
Los Angeles – Friday, 12 November – 10:30 a.m.
Red, orange, yellow; green, blue, indigo, violet.
Of all the colours in the rainbow, orange was by far Nathan
Stiedowe’s least favourite, but on this morning it was
making itself blessedly useful by warming his skin.
Thank God for small favours.
He stared directly up into the blazing ball of fire in
the sky, not blinking, not feeling pain in his eyeballs like
a normal person would. Then again, he’d always been
different, hadn’t he? Different and weird – or so he’d been
told countless times since childhood by his parents and
Legend had it that he didn’t cry upon receiving the
painful round of inoculations all children received as one year-
olds. Not a single tear. The nurses were amazed – and
horrified – by his complete lack of reaction when the sharp
needle punctured his baby-smooth skin.
What the hell was wrong with him? they frantically
wondered, fear in their voices as they scurried about. We
must run more tests immediately. It was just plain weird. All
Then there was the time in fourth grade when he’d
broken his ankle in three places while playing soccer on the
playground during recess. His terrified classmates had
actually heard the bone breaking – or so they’d breathlessly
informed the playground monitors – a loud crack that had
sounded like a thick dry tree branch snapping underneath
enormous pressure. But Nathan hadn’t cried then, either.
Not a whimper. Like everything else in life pain was only a
state of mind and if your mind was strong enough you
could simply block it out. Didn’t anyone understand that?
The names had followed after that, of course. Names that
would stick with him throughout the remainder of his
schooldays. Freak. Nutcase. Weirdo.
Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will
never hurt me.
Nathan smiled sardonically. Who cared what they called
him, anyway? To paraphrase old Billy Shakespeare, what
the hell was in a name? Did a rose by any other name not
smell as sweet?
These days the hopelessly childish nickname they’d
pinned on him was ‘The Cleveland Slasher’. For Christ’s
sake, how cartoonish was that? But as usual a press corps
hungry to sell more papers had gone straight for the
jugular. With Nathan’s journalism background he understood
that better than most, even if he knew that he’d have
done a much better job chronicling a case that could surely
land the right reporter with the proper motivation a
goddamn Pulitzer Prize.
Nathan shook his head. Fuck it. In the grand scheme of
things names were of little consequence here. The only
thing anyone needed to know about him was that he’d soon
be considered the most perfect serial killer who’d ever