Bestselling author Eric Rickstad joins us on the podcast this week to discuss his newest dark, psychological thriller, I Am Not Who You Think I Am. Eric talks to us about his unique and organic writing process, how he plots the twists and turns of his thrillers, and why he is drawn to writing stories about the aftermath of violence.
- Eric tells us about his new novel, I Am Not Who You Think I Am, what real world events and locations from his own life inspired the story, and what it was like inhabiting the increasingly obsessive headspace of his protagonist
- He explains how he inserts clues and plot twists into his novels in a way that is both surprising and natural, and he tells us when in the writing process he figures out what the big plot twist will be
- Eric discusses his writing process and how his work evolves from ideas in a notebook to final draft, and he explains how the discovery-like nature of his process works
- He tells us about his journey as a writer and author, how he overcame a long period of not being published, and why he’s drawn to telling darker stories about the human ramifications of violence
- Eric talks to us about the challenges of writing during Covid, how the pandemic affected his writing routine, and the impact the pandemic had on the release of his novel
- He tells us about his yet-to-be-titled upcoming novel and dives into the art (and occasional struggle) of coming up with titles for his books
Eric Rickstad is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of the Canaan Crime Series novels, which includes THE NAMES OF DEAD GIRLS, THE SILENT GIRLS, and LIE IN WAIT. These dark, psychological page-turners, set in remote northern Vermont, are heralded as masterful, disturbing, profound and heartbreaking. Rickstad’s first novel, REAP, was a New York Times Noteworthy Novel. His latest novel WHAT REMAINS OF HER will be published July 24, 2018.
Rickstad lives in Vermont with his wife, son, and daughter, and writes all his first drafts with a pencil in notebooks, often outside in the Vermont woods.
Eric is represented by Shane Salerno, The Story Factory
Transcription provided by Speechpad
Rachel: Hey writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Rachel, the author engagement coordinator at Kobo Writing Life.
Joni: I’m Joni, author engagement specialist at Kobo Writing Life. On today’s episode, Rachel and Shayna interviewed Eric Rickstad, who is “The New York Times” and “USA Today” best-selling author of several dark psychological thrillers. His latest book, “I Am Not Who You Think I Am,” was released on October 5th. Rachel, how was your chat?
Rachel: Our chat was great. It was really interesting. We spoke to Eric a lot about his new book, “I Am Not Who You Think I Am,” which is definitely dark and twisty, and so we talked a lot about how he plots these twists, how he inserts them into his novel, and, especially because Eric is not a plotter at all. He actually starts his books with pen and paper, and moves from there to creating these very compelling mysteries. And we also talked about why he’s so drawn to writing about the aftermath of violence and people who have to live in the wake of a violent act. So it was a really interesting conversation, and I think everyone will enjoy it.
All right. We are joined today by author Eric Rickstad. Eric, thank you so much for being here.
Eric: Thank you for having me. Thank you.
Rachel: Can you start off just by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Eric: Sure. You know, this is my sixth novel. I had three novels that were part of the “Canaan Crime” series, set in northern Vermont. One was “The Silent Girls.” That was my first New York Times, and ended up being an international bestseller. I have two other standalones. “Reap” was my first one. “What Remains of Her” was a standalone after the series. And then I have this new one “I Am Not Who You Think I Am.” I live in Vermont. I’ve got my lovely wife and two kids. We do a lot of sledding in the winter, and just really enjoy our life here in Vermont. Where I’m set is actually a cool place as a writer, because out my window, I can see the mountain that Shirley Jackson based her second novel on.
Rachel: Oh, wow.
Eric: She lived 10 minutes from here, and the town that’s 10 minutes from here, she based “The Lottery” on, and she wrote “The Lottery,” and she wrote “The Haunting of Hill House” 10 minutes from here. I drive by her house frequently when we go get groceries and stuff. So, and Donna Tartt, too, wrote “The Secret History” nearby, and so there’s a lot of lore and atmosphere here that lends to the sort of gothic novels I write.
Shayna: I’m jealous. I love Donna Tartt.
Rachel: Yeah, me too. “The Secret History” is top-notch.
Eric: Yeah, and she wrote it here, and it’s set around here, too. All the towns that are surrounding us. So that’s just an added bonus for already loving her novels anyway.
Rachel: That’s really cool. Like you said, “I Am Not Who I Think I Am” is your new book. It’s coming out this October?
Eric: October 5th.
Rachel: October 5th.
Eric: Blackstone Publishing, yeah.
Rachel: Can you tell us a little bit about the book? What it’s about, and…?
Eric: Sure. I mean, it’s really about devastating family secrets. You know, it’s very gothic. I really enjoy gothic novels a lot. And it’s about a young boy, he comes home and witnesses his father ending his life, or believes that’s what he sees, at the time, when he’s eight. Several years later, when he’s a teenager…at the time he witnessed this, he found a note at his father’s feet, which says, “I am not who you think I am.” And he hid the note. And within days, his mother rids the house of every sign that his father ever even existed. Everything goes. Everything gets hauled away. And he’s traumatized by this. And his younger sister’s traumatized, and when he’s a teenager, something happens that stops him dead and he thinks, “I don’t know who wrote this note. I assume my father wrote it. I’m not even sure it was him in this room that day.” And he begins to investigate what happened. And the more he digs, the more he jeopardizes himself, and puts himself in great jeopardy. And as a kid, he doesn’t have the perspective to realize maybe he should be just leaving this alone. And the more decisions he makes, the more he gets cornered, the less he trusts anyone around him.
Shayna: So how did you come up with the idea for the book?
Eric: So, there were two things that really inspired it. As a writer, I’m really inspired and have always have been in style and stuff by, you know, Springsteen’s “Born to Run” when I was really young, and for its romanticism, but its darkness too. There’s a real darkness to some of Springsteen’s stuff. You know, the beginning starts with “Thunder Road,” that’s, you know, sort of a very kind of hopeful, you know, song, and “Born to Run” itself, about freedom, and then, it ends with “Jungleland,” which is a very dark, dark ending. And then, Stephen King was another big influence for just sheer storytelling ability. But with this particular novel, I had two things. I had the beginning, because something very similar to what happens to this boy witnessing his father end his life happened to a friend of mine when he was young, and he never got help. His family moved from D.C. to Vermont when I was younger. And he was a few years older than me. And no one knew this about him, that he had witnessed his father kill himself.
And then, years later, after he moved to Texas, when I was in my late teens, and he was 21, I was watching on CNN, this live, very first live chase ever on CNN, of a fugitive. Someone who had just robbed a bank, armed robbery in Denver, Colorado. And I’m watching this unfold, and this police, the CNN helicopter, which was piloted by a Vietnam vet, is following this, and there’s, the only way the police could actually track this guy running through yards with this bag of cash was from this helicopter. And I was just mesmerized by it. I’d never seen anything like this. It was, like, ’87, I think, 1987. And he kidnaps a person and forces them to drive, and then he runs over a cop, live on TV, and kills him. And then he crashes that car and he kidnaps another person. And he starts shooting at the helicopter. And finally, this pilot sets the helicopter down in front of the car in the parking lot, and the police are able to converge, and the old man who he had driving this old truck is allowed to escape, and they shoot this fugitive, live on TV, kill him.
And then they show the mug shot, and it’s my friend. And I had no idea this had happened to him. In fact, he was…had been in prison for kidnapping someone, and had escaped, and was an FBI top wanted fugitive. And then he robbed this bank as he got more desperate. And I didn’t understand it. No one who knew him understood. He was charming, athletic, affable. I watched him save a cow once in a spring-flooded creek where he dove under, in this icy water, to get this cow’s foot out of the creek while the creek was rising. You know, frigid, freezing, he did, you know, he was nothing but kind to everyone I knew, and we didn’t know he’d witnessed this. That sets up the book. I knew at one point I had to write about the underlying story of what can cause people to do these horrific things, these desperate things.
The other thing was the end, I had, which was this mansion burning. In Vermont, where I grew up, there was this big, gothic mansion in this huge estate along Lake Champlain. And, you know, it was sort of secretive. And as a kid, it just had this mythic, sort of mysterious appeal to it, where, “what’s going on on this estate?” you know, with this preeminent family that’s related to the Vanderbilts? And the estate was, you know, landscaped by the architect and landscapers who did Central Park. So, one night, a barn and a home burned down, in the middle of the night, on this estate. And we live literally right across the tracks from it. And we went out in our pajamas, in this pitch, pitch dark night, and watched these two structures burn to the ground. And I knew I always wanted to write something about that. And those two things ended up, one was the beginning, this horrific thing, and one was the end. And they were both great, and terrifying, and emotional. And then I had to write, how does one lead to the other?
Shayna: That’s so interesting. I feel like when you were describing the mansion, it seemed like something that might be real, like, I was thinking, like, you know, like you’re out in the country, and there’s some weird, huge house, that doesn’t even fit in with the rest of it. And it’s interesting that you called them “Vanders.” That’s the family name, right, in the book?
Eric: Yeah, yeah.
Shayna: Like “Vanderbilt.” That’s funny.
Eric: Yeah. And, you know, the reality is different, you know. It’s a working, agricultural farm now, of, you know, for tourists and stuff, in a lot of ways that it is in the novel as well. But that, you know, that fiction, mind for fiction that I have, you know, allows it to be a great setting.
Shayna: So, I’m a writer as well, but I don’t write mysteries. So, tell us a little bit about, like, when you’re… The character’s solving a mystery throughout the book. So, when you’re writing that, like, how do you decide when to sprinkle in which clues? And, like, do you have to go back and put in more clues, because you’re like, “Oh, [crosstalk 00:09:27] figure this out?”
Eric: Right. That’s a great question. Well, I, you know, my writing is, process is a little different than some, I think, in that I’m discovering as the character discovering. I have described it before as I feel very much like I’m a witness. Like, I had no idea this boy was going to find, Wayland Maynard, was going to find a note that said, “I am not who you think I am” until he looked down and he saw the note. And I didn’t know what it was gonna say until he flipped it over and read it himself. So, in a lot of ways, I’m following these characters who just come alive for me. And I’m discovering things that they’re discovering as they discover them. When he goes to the estate, I don’t know what he’s gonna find until he gets there. I don’t know what’s behind each door. And to me, that’s exciting, and it’s fun, and it can become the challenge.
And to answer the second part, is, yeah, I go back a lot, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite. And I make these great discoveries, hopefully, they’re great, along the way, all these little pieces, and then have to sort of go back and make sure each one makes sense, and also try to bring them back around at the end in the way…I love short stories, and I try to have that sort of feel, chapter-to-chapter, short-story feel, but also for the whole novel. I love it when, not just a twist at the end, but a lot of little things at the end reflect back on the beginning of the novel, and give you a sense, a real sense of emotion, that things have really changed. You’ve gone a long ways in this novel, and things are not the same, and they’re not going to be the same ever, ever again. And I like that sense when I finish a novel, of sort of reflecting back a little bit, looping back on, not just the big things, but a lot of smaller things that sometimes can actually have a bigger emotional impact, because they’re not necessarily plot-driven, but character-driven and internally driven. So when things happen to this young boy, and who’s now a man, hopefully, it really registers for readers.
Rachel: I’m definitely gonna come back to talk about your writing process, because I think it’s fascinating. But I wanted to talk about your protagonist, Wayland. And, like you said, he’s a very different kid at the end of the story than he is at the beginning. And I was kind of wondering what it was like inhabiting that headspace of him, slowly losing trust, and kind of spiraling into this mystery in an obsessive way?
Eric: Yeah. I think I feel, hopefully, as the reader feels, that, you know, it’s one of those books where you’d like to reach in and grab him and tell him, you know, like one of the adult characters does, an old teacher of his, you know, “Don’t pursue this any farther. Let it go. You know, you might be better off believing whatever lies or myths, truths, or uncertainties you have to live with than maybe discovering something that you can’t live with, or live well with, that will haunt you.” So I was, you know, I felt for him, and hopefully, the readers will feel for him, because he does things that are extremely surprising and shocking in some ways, that you won’t expect as a reader, and it will probably jar you, and it jarred me, because, like I said, I don’t know what exactly is gonna occur. There’s a cemetery scene, in particular. But that hopefully, you have empathy for him and feel strongly for him despite, you know… I mean, I think he’s very relatable in a lot of ways. His circumstances are elevated and dramatic, extremely dramatic compared to what we live, a lot of us live as kids. But I think we can relate to his confusion and his need to find the truth, and his mistrust of adults, because there’s just a generational thing there, too, of kids mistrusting adults, because their perspective is just entirely different. So hopefully, you know, that’s how I felt as I wrote him, discovered more about him.
Rachel: Yeah, there was definitely…
Eric: I felt badly for him by the end, you know. There was no real great way for him to get out of this.
Rachel: Yeah, there were a couple times in, like, the first half of the book where I wanted to just, like, shake him and be like, “Dude. Just, like, take a breath, take a step back.” But then as he starts to become more and more obsessive, and just losing himself in this mystery, I was kind of along for the ride with him. I wanted to see what happened. And you’re right, he hits a turning point where there’s no turning back, and, yeah it’s really interesting…
Eric: And there’s parts, you know, that are psychological, have a psychological thriller bent, to where I’m not gonna give anything away, but whether or not how much of what he’s obsessing over is true, and how much isn’t. So, there’s that part of it, too, for the reader.
Rachel: I want to kind of talk about the theme of the book as well. And I’m definitely paraphrasing here, but in an interview that I was listening to you give from, like, four or five years ago, about your last book, you had said that you like to write kind of about the direct aftermath of a violent act, and how that affects people who are impacted by that event, not necessarily just solving a mystery, but the wake of violence that people can live in. And I’m just curious, what draws you to that subject matter?
Eric: I think, you know, a big thing is my friend going through that, and not realizing, because that was so shocking, I mean, that I watched, happened to just walk in and watch that live, and had no idea it was my friend I was watching, because, you know, he’s at a distance down on the ground, and the helicopter’s way in the air. You know, subsequently, it was like a Sunday night movie. And it was on, like, some show, “America’s Most Wanted Fugitives”. And I think it’s, the chase is still on YouTube, that, all of those things, the shows about him, and everything that was told about him, was just his violent act. Which, you know, is perfectly reasonable, but nothing about what he had endured as a kid. And if that hadn’t happened to him as a kid, then he doesn’t end up on TV like that. The two are inextricably linked. There’s no denying that. Doesn’t justify anything he did. It doesn’t excuse it. There’s plenty of kids that go through maybe similar tragedies and traumas that don’t end up doing that. But they’re linked, for him, and there’s no doubt about that.
So, when we learned later that this was something he kept a secret, his mother kept a secret, she never got him help, she just moved him, and said, “We’ll just, you know, put it behind us.” And he’s 15. So I think that really… And then just, you know, there’s a lot of novels I like, you know, as a writer, but there’s certain kinds that don’t appeal to me as much, as a crime writer, or a fiction…or, reader, or reader of any sort of fiction in that when it’s just a body count, and there’s no human ramifications. One of my sisters is a domestic abuse advocate, has worked with the police and universities for a long time on behalf of young women that are abused and assaulted. And she’s seen it for 25 years. And I have three sisters, and I hear stories from them. So it’s all linked to, for me, of when I read something, I wanna read about the human ramifications. You know, I really love, like, Dennis Lehane, for instance, because he really explores that. As riveting as the novels are, they have a human, tragic underpinning to them, like “Mystic River,” and books like that. Hakan Nesser, I really like. And they can be entirely entertaining, but I really wanna pursue that, that these are about human beings and what, you know, what trauma and violence can result in, and how it impacts lives permanently. Everyone else moves on but, the victims can’t.
Rachel: I think it’s really interesting. Because even just, like, in the world at large, well, you know, you watch the news, and you just hear about, you know, the violent event, or the catastrophe, but the human element is always missing. And just, like, how it forever impacts a person, like, the long-term effects. And I think it’s a really interesting, almost character study, which is a weird way to put it, but it’s a fascinating realm to look at in fiction.
Eric: Yeah, yeah. And it’s one that, yeah, I can’t really write about the sorts of events without doing that, because it doesn’t appeal to me to do it otherwise.
Shayna: Okay. So, let’s talk a little bit about your writing and publishing journey. So, when did you start writing? When did you first get your first book deal?
Eric: Yeah. So, I started writing, I mean, when I was a little kid, I was writing, and reading, all the time. All the time in third, fourth grade, I’d write, you know, they’d ask for a paragraph and I’d write two pages. And I had one teacher say, you know, approach my mom, say, “Did this really happen?” And my mom was like, “Yeah, it did.” And they’re like, “Oh, wow. You know, this is…” You know. So there was always that, and in fifth grade, when other kids, particularly boys, were doing other things for recess, I joined up with the fifth-grade literary luncheon, where we met with the principal and the librarian for, you know, “The Great Brain” and Judy Blume and “Encyclopedia Brown,” and, you know, just loved it. My mom was a storyteller, and she loved Hitchcock. And then, you know, Springsteen’s music and Stephen King’s books sort of propelled that when I was junior high.
And I just started, just kept writing. When I went to UVM, I just kept writing mostly short stories and poems, and I, you know, had a lot of rejection, like a lot of people do, and then I had some that were taken. And then, a teacher at UVM said, “You might consider an MFA.” Which I had never even, you know, considered or hardly even heard of. I was so, like, you know, ignorant of academia and stuff, because I was the first kid in my family to go to college. But, so, I went to UVA, and that just basically gave me two years to write, and be expected to write. He’s like, “You can go there and you can write, and people will expect you to write. Or you can go and you can, you know, work, and write on the side, and go into work where people look at you oddly, like, ‘What are you doing writing?'”
So, I was writing this novel, “Reap,” my first one, which was just gonna be another short story, until I sat down and wrote, like, 50 pages in, you know, an hour and a half, and was like, “Whoa, there’s…I think this is a novel.” And I was two years in before I even admitted to anyone I was writing a novel, because I thought it was very, you know, presumptuous. You know, I sort of protected it, and myself, because it’s like, “Oh, yeah, who isn’t writing a novel?” And then, you know, when I finished it, I got an agent, and he actually sold it rather quickly. And then I learned something about publishing, which was that even though I got accepted and published by Viking Penguin, it didn’t sell as they had hoped, even though it got great reviews, a full-page review in “The New York Times,” and published weekly in Kirkus and all of those places, it didn’t sell as they hoped, and they had absolutely no interest in my next novel. None, zero. No one did.
And I wrote for a decade without getting published again. Wrote short stories, wrote novels. Novels that the agent at the time said, “You shouldn’t be writing this type of novel.” And then, wrote “The Silent Girls.” It was one of a couple novels that I had written along the way, and I’d get up at 4:00 in the morning before work. And I wrote “The Silent Girl” and I said, “I think this one’s really good, too.” Then I found an agent, and that, you know, I sold probably half a million copies worldwide now. And then wrote, you know, four books in four years, and now have a great new agent, with this great new deal with Blackstone and this new book, and another book. And I just keep writing, because that’s what I’ve done since I was little, you know. And despite the publishing part of it, there’s a lot of great things I’ve learned about publishing, things, like, might have done differently along the way. But the writing is where I find the real joy and the challenge of it.
And it’s tough when you’re not finding readers through publishing. That’s tough. I won’t deny that. That was brutal. There were times where I couldn’t even go into bookstores, because I was like, “I’m never gonna publish again. But I’m gonna keep writing.” So, to writers out there, just keep writing. Just keep writing. That’s all I [crosstalk 00:21:44] That’s my biggest piece of advice. And reading. Read, read, read, read. Deep. Deep and wide. Read nonfiction, read poems, read poetry, read the back of the cereal box. You know, read everything.
Shayna: Yeah. Ten years. That’s tough. So now, with your success, you’re writing full-time, or do you still have, like, a…
Eric: Yeah. I’m writing full-time. Yeah. I’m able to do that, which is fantastic.
Shayna: Yeah, that’s awesome. And then, so, you were saying you wrote four books in four years. So, does it take you about a year to write a book start to finish at this point?
Eric: Yeah, it takes roughly about a year. Some take maybe a little bit more. Some have taken 10 months, some have taken 3 years, but overall, on average, yeah, about a year, 10 to 14 months or so, I can do it, because I just sit down and, you know, it’s…I love it, but it’s my vocation, it’s my job, and so, you know, I sit down every day, get up after the kids are gone, and sometimes before. This morning, we got up before the kids to get a couple hours in before, because I knew I was doing this. So it’s like, well, I’m gonna lose, you know, not lose, but I’m gonna dedicate some time to something else, so I’m gonna get up early and make sure that I still get that amount of time in today.
Shayna: That’s great. That’s dedication.
Rachel: I was just gonna say, that’s dedication. I did wanna kind of touch on your writing process, like I said earlier, because your writing process is a little different, where you use pen and paper, like, you use a notepad and a pencil to at least start your books. Can you kind of talk to us about how that process works for you, and how you go from notes to final draft?
Eric: Yeah. So, you know, again, that was sort of how I started out in junior high, just writing in your notebooks, scribbling things with a pencil, and then I really, there is a connection for me, physically. I like the physicality of it, I like how tactile it is. I like being able to scratch outlines and whole, you know, x out whole paragraphs. It’s very satisfying. And, you know, draw arrows here and there, and put side notes in the margins, or doodle when I’m bored, you know, trying to let something subconsciously just come through. But there’s definitely a better connection from my imagination to the page when I’m doing it physically like that. And I’ll write a good deal of a novel. Sometimes I’ll write, you know, just the first chapter and get it going. And then I’ll transpose that into a Word document. And by the time I transpose it, I’ve edited it again in my head, so it’s almost like a third draft by the time it’s transposed.
Sometimes I’ll write a lot more longhand before I start to go and transpose it. I’ve never written the entire novel out longhand first then gone back and tried to type it in. Partly because once it is in Word doc, it’s nice to have that ability to go back to something that I can tweak if I’m stuck on new stuff. If stuff’s not happening for what I hope to write fresh that day, I can go back and edit, and read through what I, you know, have in a Word document, and then that usually spurs something new and fresh, so… But the other good thing is I can go and take a notebook anywhere. I love being outdoors. I can be outdoors on the back patio, or by a stream or, you know, if I’m waiting at the car, fixed or, you know, waiting for the kids at school, or watching them at the playground. You know, laptops don’t lend themselves to being outdoors, and a notebook does, so it’s very transportable that way, too. Some, boxes and boxes of notebooks, going back decades, a couple decades. So, that’s kind of cool, too, that they’re there.
Rachel: And if anybody’s interested, you do post pictures of your notebooks on Twitter. And I’m wondering, and I mean this with all due respect, do you ever have trouble reading your own handwriting?
Eric: Yeah, I was gonna say that is the biggest detriment, as I really, sometimes, you know, over the years, looking at the books, you could see how my handwriting has changed/deteriorated into, you know, it’s like reading a 20-page prescription, you know, from the doctor. So that is… Sometimes I do have to tell myself, because I’m writing so fast, the connection’s so present, that I write faster than I should, I should, write, slow down the writing so that I can actually read what I wrote. There are times where I’m like, “I have no idea what this said.” But I can guess, you know, since I wrote it. So, I’ll figure it out. I’ll figure out something, if it’s not verbatim. But, yeah, it does get a little tricky sometimes. My handwriting is worse than my 10-year-old daughter’s, by far.
Shayna: So, were you writing this book during COVID?
Eric: No, I wasn’t. This novel, I finished up a little while ago. It was going to come out May of 2020, which was decided that this is not a good time to put out a novel. Everybody has other things on their mind, airports are shutting down, and my books, fortunately, are in a lot of airports, and bookstores were literally closing down, so…and people say, “Well, you know, reading, you know, we had all that..” I was like, “I don’t know many people who saw it as leisure time when we were…” “Oh, you know what I’ll do? I think I’ll…have all this time. I think I’ll read all those books I haven’t gotten to,” you know, now that we’re in the middle of a meltdown, and there’s no, nothing in the store shelves and stuff. It wasn’t quite that type of time, you know. So, anyway, that was supposed to come out last year, and now it’s…
Shayna: [crosstalk 00:27:37] got pushed.
Eric: So, but I did write one during COVID. I did write another one. So, but this one, no. This one was done.
Shayna: Was it, with all the stress of COVID, was it hard to get your writing done?
Eric: I sat down and wrote every day. And I think I didn’t realize how difficult it was at the time. You know, from March of ’20 to June of ’20, when our kids would normally have been in school, they were home and doing Zoom. You know, just okay, tomorrow, you’ve got, the kids are home, and they’re gonna be home. And they were home from March through September, which was great in a lot of ways. It was fantastic in a lot of ways, but it was also difficult to write. I would sit down and I would write, and I think on looking back, I realized, you know, the quality of what I was doing, the attention to it, wasn’t what it usually is, just out of necessity to having a focus on other things. But, you know, when I went back in and reworked it, you know, I got it right where it needed to be.
Rachel: I want to just take a step back. This just occurred to me, this question. So, you said that your writing process is very organic, and you kind of figure things out as you’re writing it, you’re not…you don’t really know what the next step is until you’ve put it on paper. When it comes to “I Am Not Who You Think I Am,” when during the writing process did you figure out what your twist ending is gonna be? I don’t wanna give anything away, but it’s a pretty big twist, and I’m just kind of curious, when did you know that was gonna happen? And how many revisions did you have to go through of what you’d previously written to make it work?
Eric: Yeah. Well, there’s several kind of big twists, so I’m not sure exactly which you consider the big twist. And that’s not to say that it’s complicated. I kind of refer to this one, rather than a labyrinth or a maze, which can get really confusing, it’s more like a Russian doll. You know, you keep opening these dolls, and they get…you’re surprised with each new revelation inside the next one, inside the next one, but you’re not confused or lost, hopefully. But, I always have a subconscious sense in my head. My subconscious knows, and I trust that process. But it was pretty late in the game where…well, probably about halfway through, I kind of had a real, pretty good understanding of what was taking place and what the note meant, and what the note was. And that was my subconscious at work.
That’s different from then having to figure out how to make it work. How to arrive at those revelations right at the right time, hopefully, the right time, for the reader, where you don’t feel like you’re dumped on, they feel like they come organically and naturally to the reader. And that can take a lot of work to make it, all of those little reveals, feel natural, and pay off, and not feel like they’re over the top or out of the left field, as a reader, and probably most readers don’t like that sensation when the reading, like, “Oh, that’s too much,” or, “That’s not connected at all. This is a twist ending, but it’s such a twist it snaps off from the whole rest of the book.” So, hopefully, it works.
Rachel: On your Twitter, you mentioned that you always want your books to pass the airplane test. Can you tell us what the airplane test is?
Eric: Yeah, so that’s…and I noticed this actually from being on airplanes, you know, someone would be reading a book next to me. You know, I’m always curious, especially if they had just finished it. And I asked them, “What did you think of the book?” And I realized if they say, “Yeah. You know, it was okay. It was good,” I’m not gonna read that book. Because I can tell, they just…it didn’t do anything for them. Whereas if they say, “Oh, my god, I love this book. I love it.” I’ll read that, right? Unless I could tell by the cover it’s just not a genre or something I would be interested in. But even with that, I will. And if they say, “I hate it. I hated this book. I just, I couldn’t stand it. The ending…I couldn’t, you know.” I’ll read that book, too. Because tastes vary. And what they hate might be something I really like. Maybe they hate endings that have a little bit of ambiguity at the end, or aren’t, you know, this, or they hate a certain style of writing. But it might be something I really enjoy and love.
But that they have a strong reaction either way tells me that even if they hate it, it’s going to be a book that they didn’t forget. And so, I want it… I don’t write to be contrived, but I write to leave the reader with something that really resonates, and is hard to forget and hard to shake the ending itself, but also the whole book because of how it ends and reflects on everything else. And I’ve had people tell me, readers tell me, they’ve thrown the book across the room out of, you know, loving it, but being, like, so shocked, like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this book.” Or they hated it. And either way, it’s fine with me because there’s a strong reaction there. But I think the worst reaction you can have is the reader’s, “Eh. I don’t know. It was good.” To me, that’s just death, for me as a reader, and as a writer.
Rachel: I think that’s a really good test for…
Rachel: … books. Yeah. Indifference is never a selling point.
Eric: You know, the biggest pan in the world is, “It was okay.” You know, there’s a lot of people who hate really great movies, and books, and films. “Oh, I,” you know, people that, “I hated ‘Breaking Bad’,” or, “I hated ‘The Godfather’,” or, “I loved, you know…” but there’s something, there’s a strong reaction as to why, that someone else might really, really enjoy. You know, often, people will say that, and be like, “Oh, really? Because I loved that,” you know. “You hate chocolate ice cream? Wow. Okay. That’s weird.”
Rachel: That’s weird. Who hates chocolate ice cream?. So, you did mention that you wrote a book during the pandemic, and you’ve reworked it. Can you give us a little sneak peek of kind of what’s coming next from you?
Eric: A little bit, yeah. This one is about, actually, an FBI agent who is working on a case that’s nationwide, of families that are being murdered, and it’s just been made clear to the FBI that these are connected. And he has to bring on someone to work with him that he doesn’t want to work with at all. This other guy’s approach, he thinks is out of left field. He doesn’t believe in what he’s doing. But they have to find a way to work together to solve these murders. And this FBI agent has a very dark past of his own, that’s slowly catching up with him. One of the things it does is it flips the whole profiling trope on its head, meaning, you know, the whole history of profiling, going back to, you know, “Red Dragon” in the ’70s, and “Mindhunter,” the movie, the series “Mindhunter,” which I love. I love it.
But this particular FBI agent has no use for profiling. It’s never worked. He believes it’s a pop culture trope, that it’s just implanted itself into pop culture, but really, as an FBI agent, and for the FBI, it’s really never helped them arrest anyone. Retroactively, you can look and say, “Oh, so-and-so fit that profile,” but the profile didn’t help us catch him. Ted Bundy was caught because he had taillight out on his VW bug. The Son of Sam was caught because of a parking ticket. You know, all of the sort of named serial killers, if you will, have been caught through anything except, you know, dedicated hard work, DNA, and never through, “Oh, well this guy, he…” you know, Ted Bundy was to be profiled, they would have profiled him to be a loner, loser, living in his basement, his mom’s basement, with no social skills, you know, and he would have been exactly the opposite of who he turned out to be, besides the monster he was, but… So, that’s interesting to me, to flip that entirely on its head, and have an FBI agent that’s basically debunking what we’ve loved and read for 30-some-odd years, and I, myself included, so, but I loved taking that angle in a character.
Shayna: Yeah. And definitely with “Mindhunter,” everyone’s familiar with it now, right? Because that show’s so…
Eric: Right, yeah, the start of it. Yeah. Origin of it.
Rachel: And where is that in the whole publishing…right now? Are you still doing revisions?
Eric: It’s done, and I’m not sure exactly… I know we don’t have a pub date, but it’ll be my next one. But, you know, I’m not sure exactly when, but probably next year.
Rachel: That’s exciting. It sounds really cool. I love…
Shayna: Do you have a title?
Eric: Well, you know, titles are weird, so I’m not gonna throw it… We have a working title, but who knows what will happen with that, so… It’s a good one, but I’m not gonna throw it out there, because I have no idea if it’ll stay or not.
Shayna: Does the publisher have a lot of input into, like, what the title ends up being? Have they, like, changed titles on you?
Eric: No, I’ve never… Usually, I’ve come up with pretty, pretty decent ones, and I’ve changed them on my own. And, which I do with short stories, too, or chapter… You know, sometimes, with “I Am Not Who You Think I Am,” I do chapter titles, almost like each is its own short story, and I’ll go back and change those titles. So, no. No one’s ever come to me and said “Oh….” If they did it, they’d probably be right. You know, like, this is terrible. Like “Oh. Oh, yeah. Yeah, it is, actually.”
Rachel: Do you ever have trouble coming up with titles? Because, like, I struggle to put a subject line in an email, so titles are awful to me.
Eric: Yeah, they can be tricky. They can be really tricky. Usually, I’ll read through a manuscript numerous times looking for that thing. You know, like with “The Silent Girls,” that was originally, I had originally called as a title at the time “Faultlines,” which is horrible. I mean, it, horrible for this book. And not as gripping, and I re-read it, and re-read it, and there was a moment where this invest…you know, this guy was a former cop who was investigating this missing girl, and it led to much more, is sort of going over all of their backgrounds, and, of these victims, and, you know, he’s looking at their pictures, and they can’t tell him what happened, and they’re silent. You know, and he’s tired of looking at pictures of dead girls, of these silent girls, and it just struck me, and so I picked that, and it kind of dovetailed at the time with just the very beginning of girl, girl, girl, girl, you know. Every [crosstalk 00:38:10] you know, just before, right? It was after “Gone Girl,” but was before this became a thing, so it kind of hit this sweet spot. I wouldn’t put “girl” in a title now for anything, but at the time… And it was just there. I wasn’t trying to capitalize on something that I saw coming or anything like that. It just made sense to what was going on. It was better than “Faultlines.” That’s for sure.
Rachel: All right. So, we like to kind of wrap things up with some rapid-fire book questions, if that works for you, just kind of books you like, books you’ve read.
Rachel: Is that cool? All right. Shayna, you wanna kick us off?
Shayna: Okay. What’s the last book you read and loved?
Eric: Right now, I just finished “Underland,” which is a nonfiction book by Robert Macfarlane, and it’s fabulous. It’s about everything that happens beneath the surface of the Earth, from burying plutonium, to graveyards, to potash mining in Ireland, to, you know, you name it, mining, and spelunking, and it’s a great book, and I love his writing. I could read it just for the prose alone. That was nonfiction. And then fiction, Steve Cavanagh’s “The Devil’s Advocate,” which was just…I keep coming back to the word “diabolical.” It was just fantastic. It’s just a great, gripping, super thriller. Like, I really admire the courtroom scenes. Like, I don’t…you know, that he gets hyper drama and suspense, where you can’t stand it hardly. It’s great. That was a great one.
Rachel: What is a thriller you read with a twist that absolutely shocked you?
Eric: You know, “Dark Places,” like, Gillian Flynn. Yeah, that one got me pretty good. And then, “In The Woods,” Tana French, was really great, too. I mean, there’s a lot. But those come to mind.
Shayna: Is there a specific book that inspired you to become a writer or motivated you [inaudible 00:40:14]
Eric: Well, early, early on, there were, you know, those grade-level books, but I’d say, you know, “Night Shift,” by Stephen King, and then “Skeleton Crew.” You know, it was just before “Skeleton Crew” came out, I was in the library in high school, and read, picked up “Night Shift” and was like, “What are these stories? Oh, my god, these stories are great. They’re gruesome, but there’s something about the characters and the writing,” like, you know, tens of millions of people around the world have come to find, and “what else does this guy have?” And, you know, he had oh, you know, nothing much, “Carrie,” “The Shining,” “Salem’s Lot,” you know, “The Dead Zone,” up to that point, you know, six masterpieces of gothic, you know, American Horror fiction. Then “Skeleton Crew,” I loved. So, but it was that first collection that I read of his, where, I mean, I’d read them as much, every chance I got, you know, wake up and start reading them, and then, you know, while I was listening to Springsteen’s music. So yeah, that book cracked open things wide. And he made it look so easy, which is really, really, you know, it’s not, but he makes it look and sound so easy, because they just move, he’s just this storyteller’s storyteller. So, I found out quickly, it’s not as easy to do as it looks.
Rachel: And, last question…
Eric: Unless it’s, maybe for him. Not for the rest of us.
Shayna: We can’t all be Stephen King.
Rachel: I wish. Last question is either gonna be really easy or really hard. Favorite book of all time?
Eric: Oh, boy. Yeah, that, it’s really hard. I’d have to say, if I have to pick one, “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy, if I had to pick one. And I tried, I started that book, like, four times before it stuck. I had no idea what the hell was going on. And I’d read three or four pages and, you know, see the boy, you know, and just be kind of lost, because it’s so immediate. But once it hooked me, it hooked me. I’ll go back to that again, and again, and again.
Rachel: And before we let you go, where can listeners find you online?
Eric: So, they can find me on Twitter @ericrickstad, just strung together, E-R-I-C-R-I-C-K-S-T-A-D. And then, I have an author’s page on Facebook as well, Eric Rickstad Author. I should probably get on Instagram at some point, right? That’s where it’s all happening.
Rachel: Probably should get on TikTok. That’s where it’s at.
Eric: I don’t know where it’s at. I don’t know where anything is at.
Rachel: Thank you so much for being here, Eric. And your book comes out October 5th, right?
Eric: October 5th, yeah.
Rachel: Awesome. We will include a link to that in our show notes, for sure. It’s great.
Eric: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a lot of fun.
Shayna: Thank you.
Rachel: Thank you so much for joining us.
Eric: All right. Thank you.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up Eric’s latest book, “I Am Not Who You Think I Am,” we will include a link to that in our show notes. If you’re enjoying this podcast, as always, please be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com, and be sure to follow us on socials. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Joni: This episode was produced by Joni de Placido and Rachel Warden. Co-host was Shayna Krishnasamy. Our editing is by Kelly Rowbotham, and our music is provided by Tear Jerker. Huge thanks to Eric Rickstad for being a guest today. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.