Chris Mooney is the author of three previous thrillers and his most recent, Remembering Sarah, was nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award for Best Novel. His latest novel is The Missing (2007). He lives in Boston with his wife and son.
“Seriously, what’s wrong with you?”
One of the more interesting things about being a writer is doing book tours and answering fan mail, most of it now in the form of email, thanks to the wonders of the internet. The two questions I’m always asked are “Where do you get your ideas?” and “Why do you write these kind of stories?” Other variations of the last question include “What happened during your childhood to make you want to write these kinds of books?” and “You seem like such a nice person. Why do you want to write stories that scare people to death?” What people are really asking me is “Seriously, what’s wrong with you?”
During my childhood, before the dawn of cable television, we had an extremely popular weekend movie program called Creature Double Feature. On Saturday afternoons, they’d run the Godzilla movies along with the real cheesy black-and-white horror flicks with titles like It Came . . . FROM THE SEA! They were horrible, low budget affairs – I mean, anyone could tell the creature from the sea was a man in a scuba suit decorated with bits of seaweed – but I loved them dearly. The good stuff wasn’t shown until 11 on Saturday nights.
Fortunately for me, Saturday night was date night for my parents, and I was left in the care of the cool grandmother, Claire, who would let me stay up late and watch some of these truly scary movies. It was during one of these Saturday nights when I saw a TV commercial for a movie called The Shining. To this day, I remember sitting under my blanket, watching the elevator doors of the Outlook hotel parting open to a sea of blood. I remember watching a man holding an axe limping his way through a violent snowstorm, chasing after a terrified boy who was running through a hedge maze. I was eleven years old and had never been so scared. So I did what any normal child would have done: I begged father to see the movie.
My father was the parent you went to when you wanted something. My mother was naturally suspicious of everything that came out of my mouth, especially anything fun. So I waited until I was alone and asked my father if he’d take me to see it.
“What’s it rated?”
“That means it only for adults.”
“It also means an adult can take someone under 17 to see it. Please take me to see it.”
I suspected my father had a couple of beers in him because he smiled and said, “Tell you what. Your mother wants to see that movie next weekend. I’ll check it out and get back to you.”
The following weekend, when I heard the front doors open, I ran upstairs to talk to my father. My mother answered the question: “There’s no way in hell you’re going to see that movie, Christopher.”
I had suspected that, so I did a little investigating and found out there was a book based on the movie. My friend’s mother had the book but hid her copy so my friend couldn’t get his hands on it. But he told me it was by this guy named Stephen King. I didn’t live near a bookstore, but the Lynn Public Library was close by, so I called ahead and asked if they had a copy. They did and agreed to hold it for me.
I asked my father if I could read the book. My father was generally open to me reading anything but this time had to think about it. We had an incident over the summer, my father and I. I had got my hands on a book called Jaws (another movie he refused to let me see), and when I was reading the book, I came across a word I didn’t recognize. The rule in the Mooney household was if you didn’t know a word, you had to look it up in the dictionary. The word wasn’t listed, so I went to ask my father.
“What’s the word?”
“Humping,” I said. “What’s it mean?”
That book disappeared from my hands.
My father gave in and took me to the library. He waited out in the car and I went it to check out the book from this woman who, I’m pretty sure, babysat Moses. I gave her my library card. She looked at me, looked at The Shining, then looked back and me and said something like “Dearie, there’s no way you’re checking out this book.” I brought my father inside and the two of them got into a heated argument that ended with me getting the book. Holding it on the way home, as corny as it sounds, felt like magic.
I read The Shining straight through the afternoon and well into the night. I couldn’t put it down. As an added bonus, I couldn’t sleep that night either – I was convinced my bedroom was haunted with a ghost who looked like the old lady in the Overlook’s bathtub. It was then, at that moment, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to write books people couldn’t put down. I wanted to scare people. I’ve pretty much spent a good majority of my time trying to figure out a way to make it happen.
The Missing was the first book where I didn’t know the ending. I knew about the villain, the “man without a face.” I knew he had been abducting young women for years. I knew that they had disappeared. Their bodies had never been found. But I really didn’t know what he was doing with them. I was writing on my front porch and, truth be told, drinking a little too much bourbon when the idea hit me. I wrote over the course of a weekend and called my agent, who had been waiting patiently for me to finish the book.
“I figured out the ending,” I said.
“Great! What is it?”
I told him. When I finished, there was a long pause. (Note to future writers: when an agent or editor does this, the news is generally not good.)
“You don’t like it,” I said.
“No, I was just . . .”
“I love the ending – it’s absolutely terrifying. I was just wondering how you come up with these ideas.”
My favorite fan letter of all time is this one, and pretty much sums everything up:
Dear Mr. Mooney,
I’m writing to you in regards to your book Deviant Ways. I finished it in two days and I couldn’t sleep. You are seriously one disturbed individual to write things like that. It’s clear you have deep psychological problems, and you should have them treated, provided a therapist would treat you. The book was sick, sick, sick.
Seriously, what’s wrong with you?
P.S. When is your next book coming out?