Before I became a writer, when I was in my teens, I loved to draw and paint in an old chicken coop my father had converted into an art studio. This is a drawing I did of a recurring dream I had. I would fly high above the city, then down into my house through an open window and into my room, where I would see myself sleeping.
Dreams inspire writing.
I grew up in a small farmhouse in the shadow of high-tension wires, surrounded by red maple woods and runoff ponds full of trembling tadpoles.
20 years later, I lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood with a single window facing an interior corridor. I had a sofa-bed and one plant. One night, I had a dream about finding a dead body immersed in one of those rust-colored ponds. When I woke up, I felt such sorrow for the dead girl, she inspired me to tell her story. She became Melissa D’Agostino, the young victim in my psychological thriller, “Darkness Peering.”
A few years later, my husband and I lived in an apartment building on the fabled Sunset Strip. We had a pool on the roof. In a dream, I had a memory of the two of us driving through Oklahoma and nearly getting caught in a tornado. We sought shelter in a fast-food joint and watched the sky turn green. In the dream, we didn’t escape--the tornado hit and tore us apart. I woke up shuddering and wrote the first chapter of my second thriller, “The Breathtaker.”
I see things more clearly through the filter of dreams.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mysteries: Surviving a Trifecta of Traumas
A damaged woman takes on a cold case--the abduction and murder of her younger sister.
By Tom Nolan
April 6, 2018
Boston's Kate Wolfe, the 32-year-old child psychiatrist at the center of Alice Blanchard's terrifying thriller "A Breath After Drowning" (Titan, 441 pages, $14.95), endured a grim childhood. Her mother was committed to an asylum when Kate was 10--and later committed suicide. Kate's younger sister was kidnapped and murdered in a horrific way. Her father retreated into solitude soon after.
But Kate survived her "trifecta of traumas" to devote her adult life to a career helping young people negotiate similar crises--in part as a way of assuaging the guilt she still feels for having left her sister alone the night she was abducted. It is all the more distressing, then, when an emotionally vulnerable teenage patient hangs herself as soon as Kate prepares to leave on a long-deferred vacation. "None of this was your fault," her old mentor tells her. "Sometimes the darkness takes over." In this case, the darkness won't let go. At her patient's funeral, Kate encounters Palmer Dyson, a retired police detective from her hometown back in New Hampshire. Palmer shares his doubts that the man convicted of killing Kate's sister--and soon to be executed--is actually guilty. After meeting the condemned man, Kate begins to have doubts of her own. It could be that the real killer is still at large.
With the ex-cop's guidance, Kate is soon acting like a detective in her own right: poring through old police files, considering alternative scenarios and using her psychiatric training to deduce the identity of someone Palmer is convinced is an undetected serial killer.
Bizarre coincidences and shocking revelations concerning former neighbors and Kate's own family members, as well as the murder of the mother of another one of her patients, cause Kate to question her own hard-earned sanity. But she'll need all her wits about her, and then some, to eventually do battle with one of the most memorable genre villains since Hannibal Lecter.
"We passed the joint around, and as it got easier to inhale, I started noticing how the leaves seemed to be falling in slow-motion from the trees. I laughed with my mouth full of smoke. I got all caught up in the way my dark hair rested against my shoulder, like a photographic negative of snow blowing through an open door. My eyes fixed on my friend’s necklace, something I hadn’t noticed before—a tiny gold chain with a gold word at the base of her neck. Aires, gold lassoes for letters, riding her pulse. My thoughts felt about thumb-sized."
THE SMELL OF ROTTEN APPLES
Writer’s rituals have always intrigued me. Stephen King starts his day by eating a piece of cheesecake. Charles Dickens combed his hair obsessively while he wrote. Victor Hugo wrote naked, wrapped in a blanket. James Joyce wrote “Finnegan’s Wake” on pieces of cardboard, using crayons. Truman Capote considered himself a “completely horizontal author” because he couldn’t write unless he was lying down.
My favorite writer’s ritual is Friedrich von Schiller’s. He was the pop star of his time, an 18th-century German poet and the author of Ode to Joy, which Beethoven set to music in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony. Friedrich couldn’t write unless he smelled rotten apples. He hid the fruit in his desk drawer and let it go bad. His wife was appalled by the sweet stench permeating his office, and even his friend Goethe thought it was messed up. But Schiller claimed the aroma heightened his creativity.
I decided to conduct an experiment and see if the smell of rotten apples would be a fruitful or futile contribution to my writing process. Here’s what happened:
Monday, April 2nd:
I buy two Cortland apples and place them in a drawer of my writing desk. I’m excited to try this. It feels like resurrecting a small, odd piece of history.
Wednesday, April 4th:
I open the drawer before I start writing. The apples smell slightly sweeter.
Thursday, April 5th:
Hm. No change. Same color. I smell Graham Crackers, maybe???
Sunday, April 8th:
It’s been a week and they’re still bright red. Still not rotten. I don’t know what they put in apples these days—chemicals to increase their shelf-life, for sure.
Wednesday, April 10th:
I decide these apples are no good, and throw them out. I’m buying new ones.
Thursday, April 11th:
I buy two Macintosh apples. See how this goes.
Friday, April 12th:
A faint woodsy smell from inside the drawer.
Sunday, April 14th:
A slight discoloration. A sweet, cidery tang. Now we’re talking.
Wednesday, April 17th:
This cloying fragrance pulls me east, back to my childhood… long-lost sunsets in late August when school is just over the horizon.
Friday, April 18th:
Nectar-y grainy smell. Down by the ocean, bulrushes, seagulls. Summers on the Cape.
Wednesday, April 19th:
I see brown spots on both apples. Are they shriveling? I might be imagining the shriveling.
Thursday, April 20th:
Okay, if nostalgia has a smell, then this is it—falling leaves, Halloween pumpkins, candy corn, picking apples with my family at the local orchard.
Tuesday, April 23rd:
Tart. Vaguely distracting. Maybe not Schiller-level rot yet. I don’t think this is it—but it’s the smell of playing outdoors. Dusty hot feet. Large hazy moons. Falling asleep with the windows open. Barn owls hooting back and forth. Crickets.
Sunday, April 28th:
I see a pattern of bruised spots over both apples now. Should I be worried about ants?
Monday, April 29th:
Here we go. Funky now, almost like tobacco. Barn-y. Cidery. Reminiscent of hay dust, cow manure, and siloes of fermenting grains. Totally Schiller-esque.
Friday, May 4th:
When I open the drawer, I’m hit with a disturbing puckery smell. Officially offensive. Both apples have silver-dollar-sized mushy brown spots with fissures running through them. Like leftovers you’d find in a serial killer’s fridge. Fuzzy baloney-ish, black banana-y.
Saturday, May 5th:
I don’t want to open the drawer. I really don’t.
Monday, May 7th:
I open the drawer. Rancid pulpy smell. I try to imagine what Schiller found so inspiring about this, because it makes me want to throw up. And it’s spring. I don’t want to throw up. The dogwoods are blooming.
Tuesday, May 8th:
I’m done with this. I’m no longer intrigued. I throw the rotten apples away.
I don’t like input when I write—I need the world to disappear. I wear earplugs to block out sound. I sit in a corner with no windows or sunlight. I don’t listen to music.
The smell of rotten apples was distracting. It only inspired me to clean out my desk drawer with disinfectant wipes.
Centuries later, few remember Friedrich von Schiller for Ode to Joy, but people like me remember him as the rotten-apple guy.
Too bad, because in Ode to Joy, he wrote this:
Joy, joy moves the wheels
In the universal time machine.
Flowers it calls forth from their buds.
Suns from the Firmament,
Spheres it moves far out in Space,
Where our telescopes cannot reach.
Photograph by Polly Grice
“Nothing about the delicately rendered psychological terrors of Alice Blanchard's debut novel, ''Darkness Peering,'' could have prepared us for the howling horrors of THE BREATHTAKER. Set in a region of rural Oklahoma known as Tornado Alley, this gale-force thriller charts the warped progress of a serial killer who strikes only during tornadoes and models his handiwork on their devastation. That should be enough of a charge for one book, but such is Blanchard's artistry that she whips up even more excitement by taking us joy riding with storm chasers who jump into their trucks and ride into the path of the big twisters. ''Heroin for the heartland'' is their catchphrase for storm chasing. As one enthusiast puts it, ''When you chased the wind, the ground fell away from under your feet and you were transported someplace else.''
Charlie Grover, the seasoned police chief of Promise, Okla., joins these daredevils when his 16-year-old daughter is kidnapped by the killer and driven into the eye of a majestic storm -- a plot development that satisfies genre conventions but seems superfluous in a story that gets more blood-pumping effects from its spectacular weather reporting. In truth, Blanchard writes so well that even her quiet descriptions of desolate towns and lonely people are good enough to rattle the rafters.”
By MARILYN STASIO, NY TIMES
My Interview with 'Criminal Element’
Q: You’ve taken some time off from writing, how has this hiatus shaped “A Breath After Drowning?” What made you want to write this particular story, and what did you set out to accomplish with your return to writing novels?
A: Life can knock you sideways. The main reason I took time off was that I was deeply affected by the death of my father, who took his own life. At the time, I wasn’t prepared for the effects of such a primary loss, which lasted for years. He was such a sweet, vulnerable man. Recovering from his death was like crawling out of emotional quicksand. When I write, I dig very deep, and the process stirs up pain. It’s like therapy. And sometimes you don’t want to face that pain.
Q: Describe “A Breath After Drowning” in 5 words.
A: Someone has been watching you.
Q: What are you currently reading?
A: Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge. She wrote the most amazing fiction about young women fighting darkness and corruption. Flannery developed lupus, like her father, and ended up living with her mother in Georgia where she raised peacocks. Her epiphanies about human weakness, our mistakes and dysfunctions, are some of the most enrapturing moments I’ve experienced reading books. I just love her.
Q: What draws you to writing psychological thrillers? What do you think drives their popularity?
A: I’m fascinated by the fear of the unknown. We fear the ferocity of the universe. We fear being swept away in the blink of an eye. We fear that the people we love aren’t who we think they are. Psychological thrillers give us a powerful, primal experience without having to live through it.
Q: How much do you draw on contemporary events in your writing?
A: Life is infused with contemporary events. You can’t avoid them. As a writer, I draw on my own life—that’s how I tell a story. I write from my dreams and my fears and things I’m passionate about. My fears and my dreams are contemporary.
Q: What do you hope readers will take from this novel?
A: I’m just honored if they buy my book.
Q: Give us a teaser: what’s next?
A: I’m writing a witchcraft thriller.
Mood. Cupcake and a bad book.
Chasing Storms and Serial Killers
PW Talks with Alice Blanchard
by Melissa Mia Hall
PW: Your novel Breathtaker takes place during tornado season. Have you ever seen, or been in the path of, a tornado?
Alice Blanchard: No. I'm from New England, but my husband and I were driving cross-country to Los Angeles, and it was fascinating to see the landscape change, especially when we came to Oklahoma. Suddenly the land got so flat. It started raining buckets, and we drove past a stream that was almost up to the road, so we pulled into a gift shop and the people said there was a tornado warning. When I write, I start with some sort of image that haunts me or I'm obsessed with.
PW: What was the key image for Breathtaker?
AB: We were on a road driving between two farms. The vast expanse, the distance between the two farms, the flatness of the land, the incredible sky and then the sky slowly turning green. I also had another image that was totally unrelated, about a man who is grieving over the loss of his wife, but I kept thinking, most of us can sort of hide our grief and hold it within us, but he had these burn scars that represented some sort of pain, some loss. I like a hero who has it all out there and has to deal with it and can't run away from it.
PW: Charlie Grover, Breathtaker's police chief, is the man with the scars. What inspired you to pit him against a storm-chasing serial killer?
AB: I try to let the character become the story, rather than thinking up a story that I want to tell and then imposing it on the characters. I'm very interested when a person is confronted with something huge, when a character rises beyond what he thinks he's capable of. When someone murders, they rip through someone's life like a tornado will rip through a land and tear everything apart, so the metaphor of that is very organic to me, and that's how I put the two ideas together.
PW: Have you experienced an earthquake and thought of writing about a serial killer who only kills during earthquakes?
AB: [Laughs.] Yes, I was in the Northridge earthquake in '94. Close to the epicenter. It's very disturbing. The feelings might find their way into another story. I don't know. I like not knowing.
PW: What's more frightening: nature or man as killer?
AB: Man. Because we have a choice, to be productive and good or to be destructive and evil. It's frightening that some people choose to be destructive.
PW: What about people who feel they don't have a choice? This book's serial killer is corrupted at an early age.
AB: That's one of the things we need to address when children are abused, neglected or betrayed by parents who are supposed to be taking care of them, loving them. When we as a society allow that to go on, we reap the result. We need to find ways to educate people to prevent the cycle of violence.
PW: Is it difficult to describe gory scenes and violence?
AB: Yes. Some of the forensics are tough. I also like the idea of not glossing over murders. When you're glib about murders, you're doing a disservice because murders are horrific. We get into trouble when we don't think about the victims. When we don't think about the lives of the people who are gone, we could lose that moral line between what is good and what is evil.
FANTASTIC REVIEW OF "A BREATH AFTER DROWNING" IN THE CRIME REVIEW
A BREATH AFTER DROWNING is a stand-alone novel by accomplished writer Alice Blanchard. The novel follows Dr. Kate Wolfe as everything she thought she knew about her family and her sister’s murder gets turned upside down.
I won’t give away any more plot details, as this novel is far too well-constructed to spoil. However, Blanchard does a fantastic job of creating enough twists, turns, red herrings and ambiguous clues that this novel will keep you guessing right until the killer is revealed. Like other great novels, however, you believe the entire time that you know who it is (but you keep being proven wrong)!
Part of that effect comes from the superb pacing of the story. Subtly, Blanchard ratchets up the tension in tiny increments, from an exquisite slow burn that fills you with dread, to a furiously fast pace that rivals that of action thrillers. However the shift is so gradual that you don’t notice it happening until you are frantically turning pages at the end! Blanchard has done a masterful job handling this aspect of the novel.
She has also written an incredibly strong and nuanced protagonist in Dr. Kate Wolfe. While this novel is not particularly character-focused, Blanchard has captured both the strength of Dr. Wolfe and her vulnerability. This makes her a particularly appealing, human character to follow on her journey into the secrets of her past.
A BREATH AFTER DROWNING goes from strength to strength and is well worth a read if you are a fan of well-constructed, beautifully paced psychological thrillers!
Sixteen years ago, child psychologist Kate Wolfe’s young sister Savannah was brutally murdered. Forced to live with the guilt of how her own selfishness put Savannah in harm’s way, Kate was at least comforted by the knowledge that the man responsible was on death row. But when she meets a retired detective who is certain that Kate’s sister was only one of many victims of a serial killer, Kate must decide whether she can face the possibility that Savannah’s murderer walks free. As she unearths disturbing family secrets in her search for the truth, she becomes sure that she has uncovered the depraved mind responsible for so much death. But as she hunts for a killer, a killer is hunting her…
I found this doll in a yard sale, and bought it for fifty cents.
If you squeeze her, air comes out of a tiny hole at the top of her head and she squeaks.
She’s very old and very beautiful, and it’s something about the fairytaleness of her existence that I love.
Or perhaps it’s the rabbit, or her patent leather shoes, or her serrated collar.
Her eyes are excited about life, and also innocently blank.
She makes me think about Alice in Wonderland, my namesake, and therefore of rocking-horse flies and wormholes to the Underland.
I see blue streaks on her dress and running down her back, and I think part of her used to be blue.
She stands on my desk, leaning against the wall, heels on a tray full of seashells, watching me as I work.
She is lost. She is found.
"El aliento de los ahogados" ("The Breath of the Drowned") presenta una historia aterrorizante, oscura, escalofriante y compleja. ¡Ya está a la venta!
In the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” the Wicked Witch of the West has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams—she has a castle and everything. She even has her own damned horde of flying monkeys. She holds dominion over her dark empire.
As viewed through the lens of 1930s male-dominated Hollywood, the Wicked Witch of the West—played with scene-stealing panache by Margaret Hamilton—is pure green-skinned evil. She brandishes a broomstick like a broadsword, and the thing she cherishes above all else is her “beautiful wickedness”—in other words, her ambition, verve and drive.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the rainbow, Dorothy longs for a world where she can express herself more freely than the black-and-white society she’s trapped in, where men can succeed and women cannot.
Dorothy is plagued by self-doubt. All roads in her small Kansas town lead nowhere. Her last name is Gale, but she’s far from gale force. Instead, she sings songs about soaring beyond the clouds like the birds do. She wants to break free but doesn’t know how.
Back in the 1930s, women weren’t supposed to want freedom. They were supposed to stay at home, rear their children and cook things like smothered cabbage and mashed potato cakes. Women who wanted more than that were considered heretics or worse—they were wicked.
So, what happens when Dorothy’s dreams collide with the ambitions of the Wicked Witch of the West?
First, her house lands on the witch’s twisted sister from East Oz, killing her instantly. Then Dorothy gets the ruby slippers. But these aren’t any ordinary shoes. C’mon, look at these things—they come with their own lightning.
However, Dorothy didn’t choose these shoes. Glinda, the supposedly Good Witch, forced them on her, which immediately put a target on our hero’s back. And from that point on, “The Wizard of Oz,” is about two women fighting over a pair of shoes.
Think about that a second.
But more importantly, Dorothy finally finds a road that leads somewhere. Eventually, through a combination of luck, innocence, hard work and friendship, Dorothy outwits the Wicked Witch, who melts upon contact with water (one presumes she never bathed) and bemoans the destruction of her “beautiful wickedness.”
Dorothy is hailed a hero in the Land of Oz. Ding dong, the witch is dead!
But it’s a hollow victory. Because when Dorothy taps her heels together, as instructed, she doesn’t wish for “girl power.” She doesn’t want rainbows anymore. Instead she asks to return to her colorless world, where one assumes she won’t go looking for liberation, equality or self-fulfillment.
So what’s the lesson here? The lion found his courage. The scarecrow found his heart. The tin man found his nerve. The Wicked Witch found her doom, and Dorothy found out that there’s no place like the kitchen.
Things have changed dramatically since 1939. We don’t need glittering shoes to find our way home. We don’t need good witches and bad witches. We don’t need magic wands. The curtain has fallen, and we can see the small man behind the smoke and mirrors.
We’ve found our courage. We’ve found our heart. We’ve found our nerve. We’ve found our beautiful wickedness.
Bio: Alice Blanchard’s new psychological thriller “A Breath After Drowning” (Titan Books) is out now.
HOW MY BOOK CAME TOGETHER
Before I can sit down and write a 350-page novel, I need three things—a dream, a memory, and a true story that fascinates me. Only then can the alchemy begin.
1. The Dream:
Each one of my novels was inspired by a dream. Before I wrote “A Breath After Drowning,” I had a dream that my husband and I came home and couldn’t get our front door open. I slid the key into the lock but it wouldn’t turn. Inside, the phone was ringing off the hook, and I knew in my heart something horrible had happened. That dream was the seed that grew into my new novel.
Dreams contain an underlying truth. What did this one mean? I was suddenly homeless. I’d lost my identity. An unknown force was threatening everything I held dear. I’d been locked out of my own home—this ignited my imagination, and I became obsessed with its literary implications.
2. The Memory:
My father was admitted to a psych ward after his first suicide attempt. I remember visiting him there when I was sixteen years old. The clocks in the waiting room told the wrong time, and the magazines were three years old. Dad shuffled toward us in his pajamas and bathrobe. He looked washed away. His eyes were faded. He talked to us as if he’d forgotten who we were. As if something alien had replaced him. This memory still haunts me, and it inspired the pivotal scene in “A Breath After Drowning” where, as a young girl, Kate visits her mother in the asylum.
3. The True Story:
The murder of Jessica Lunsford effected me deeply. She was a nine-year-old girl from Florida, who was murdered in 2005. Her body was found 150 yards from her home. She’d been buried alive. Her death was so tragic and cruel, it filled me with anger and sadness. I couldn’t imagine how her parents coped with such a loss, and so I gave their terrible pain to my main character.
In my novel, “A Breath After Drowning,” child psychiatrist Kate Wolfe’s world comes crashing down when one of her young patients reveals things about Kate’s past that she shouldn’t know—things involving the murder of Kate’s sister sixteen years earlier.
In writing this book, I felt a powerful connection to Kate, a connection so strong it propelled the book forward. She took the dream, the memory, and the true story, and she put it on her shoulders—I followed.
When I was a little girl, I used to run away if a car pulled into our driveway. We didn’t have many visitors. I didn’t want to say hello. My parents were only slightly less awkward than I was.
When I was in high school, I wore too much makeup. My mother didn’t stop me. “Do whatever you want,” she said. “Just don’t tell me about it.”
When I got too excited about something or had too many thoughts crammed into my head, I’d stop in the middle of a sentence and stare off into space.
When I couldn’t express my feelings, I’d cross my arms and say things like, “No, that’s not what I mean,” because verbalizing things was difficult for me.
When I was a freshman in college, my friends thought I got stoned a lot. I didn’t.
When I was a senior, my friends thought I didn’t care about them. I did.
When I wanted to hide, I wore a Sears parka with a fake-fur hood and synthetic padding, with low-ride jeans and cute little tops. I wore my parka everywhere, in all kinds of weather. Over the years, it became frayed and worn out, but I refused to get a new one because I could pull that hood over my head and become invisible. When the hood was up, I could hide. When the hood was down, I exhausted people with my exhausted eyes.
When I was growing up, you see, there was a wolf who would snatch the words right out of my mouth if I couldn’t articulate my thoughts at the speed of light. A smiling, critical, judgmental wolf for whom I wasn’t good enough. I was a sheep in a wolf’s house.
When I felt like the world was judging me, and I didn’t know who I was, why wouldn’t I hide?
When I took myself seriously, nobody else did.
When I understood this, I became a writer.
"Words count" is the opposite of "word count."