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.