Eric Rickstad is the author of the critically acclaimed Reap, and his second book, The Silent Girls, will be out next week. He kindly stopped by to talk about the new book, and more!
Congrats on the new book! Will you tell us a little about The Silent Girls (which has already gotten some great buzz) and what inspired you to write it?
Sure. Thanks. The Silent Girls is a dark psychological crime novel about Frank Rath, a single father and former Vermont State police detective who retired early following a violent murder so he could focus on raising his daughter and keeping her safe from the violence of his job. Now, with his daughter, Rachel, off to college, Rath is alone for the first time in years and drawn into helping a former colleague with a case when a 16-year old girl mysteriously vanishes. Trouble is (one of the troubles of many that is), Rachel ends up drawn into the case as well, and is put in grave danger.
I have to say I’m thrilled about the buzz. It’s fantastic. The novel’s been called “Vermont’s TRUE DETECTIVE” and “a must-read for fans of crime and suspense novels” and a “terrifying meditation on good and evil.” Readers are saying it’s a compulsive read they can’t put down, it keeps them awake at night and leaves them more than a little scared. I take as a compliment! I like to keep people awake, and thinking, never sure what will happen next.
I was inspired by the murders and disappearances in the northern most corner of my home state of Vermont, a place called The Northeast Kingdom—a place where “this sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen,” but occurs nonetheless. Violence knows no geographical bounds. I like exploring the nature of good and evil, and writing about the place I love, way up north along the Canadian border. I love stark, desolate, rugged yet beautiful settings, too.
Scandinavian crime writers like Hakan Nesser and Nesbo strike a cord with me for that reason. I am also inspired by my anger over injustice and loopholes in the justice system that allow violent criminals and sexual predators out of jail early, free to commit crimes again. And, on a lighter note, I am inspired to write unbearably suspenseful stories full of twists and turns and reverses that keep readers spellbound and up late at night, which is what I love as a reader.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
Yes. I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can recall. When I read books by Roald Dahl as a kid, then books by Stephen King, books like Nightshift and Skeleton Crew especially, I was not only compelled to read more but also to write! Books that impacted me most made me say, “I want to do THAT.” I wanted to use words to make people think and feel a certain way, be it frightened or amused or terrified or elated or sorrowful. Books I enjoy most now still provoke the same response, to drop everything and write.
I always loved stories and would often make them up in the morning at the start of the day in the high school cafeteria. I recall friends once asking me if I got anything while deer hunting over the weekend. I told them yes, I shot a skier. Now, these friends knew me well enough to know I was joking. But kids at a table nearby apparently did not know me so well. That afternoon after school, the police, rightfully, went to the hardware store where my mom worked and asked her about this story. It was discovered that I was just joking. The cops said to my mom, “Maybe your son should be more careful with the sense of humor.” It’s funny how a story told out loud takes on a life of its own. From then on I wrote my stories down so as not to get in trouble; though I raised eyebrows anyway in English class when I wrote a poem called Family Vacation, in which the family members all kill each other.
After high school, I majored in English at the University of Vermont, then went on to get a masters at UVA, where I was influenced by the ghosts of Poe and Faulkner, both of whom spent time there.
What makes Frank Rath such a compelling PI? Why do you think readers will root for him?
Rath is different than most other private investigators. He is a single father for one; and his way to fatherhood is mysterious and painful. I won’t spoil it, but he came into fatherhood in a very complicated, emotional, and singular manner. He’s never married, and never even dated since he started to raise his 17-year-old daughter on his own. He has put all his focus on his daughter, loves her beyond everything else. He is a good man in that regard.
He has his flaws for certain. His love for his daughter can bleed into being suffocating, and his concern for her can lead him to be less than truthful to protect her, which causes problems and, he recognizes, borders on manipulative. He is also bit of a hypochondriac but can also be really funny. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor, a dry New England sense of humor that keeps him afloat in the midst of violence and dark psychological matters. And he has a life outside his work, too. He plays in a dart league, works on his old International Scout, and deer hunts. Readers root for him because they can identify and empathize with him, especially as a parent. He reflects many of our own doubts and fears about being good parents, and the lengths we will go to raise our children as well as we can and protect them from the world while preparing them for it. And he’s damned good at his detective work!
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I’m not sure I do a lot of research, compared to some other writers at least. I spoke with a former homicide detective whose career spanned 25 years in New York City and New Jersey, and he gave me wonderful insight into the job and the peculiarities and pressures that come with it. What I got most from befriending and speaking with him was the emotional impact and toll working violent crimes takes on a person, but also the satisfaction from the work, and how important that work is to the memory of the victims and to the family and friends of victims. I love the human side of crime fiction and mysteries.
Why do you think New England makes for such a great setting for dark suspense?
The desolate, brutal yet gorgeous landscape is perfect; the dark woods, snow and cold, and the old houses and abandoned farms. Swamps. It’s New England Gothic. The Northeast Kingdom’s pastoral beauty can lull one into the sense that nothing bad can happen. And when something bad does happen it’s a shock. The small communities that offer support yet keep hidden secrets also makes for rich material. These small, tight communities add to a claustrophobic feel too. When violent crimes happen in such a place, often by someone the victim knew well, everyone feels betrayed and a bit paranoid.
What is your writing process like?
I start with an image in my head that will not go away. With The Silent Girls I grew obsessed with a terrifying scene that ended up being the very first scene. When it came to me, I was like, WHAT the hell was that? What is going on here? From there I start to write, I start to try to discover what this is all about, to hunt down the story, until it comes to me and I feel more like someone recording actual events rather than “making stuff up.”
Why suspense? What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading, in the genre?
I think every novel is a suspense novel. Think of The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird. They are now known as suspense novels, but are packed with suspense. If there is no suspense, there is no reason to keep reading, to my mind. It’s like that person we all know who tells really bad, boring stories that wander and often end with, “I guess you had to be there.” If there is no suspense we get bored. And as a reader I love that tension. I love the heightened state into which it puts my mind and emotions. I try to write so that my novels crank up as they go, so that in the last 50 pages or so readers are struck with the conflicting urges of wanting to linger on the pages at the same time that they want to barrel ahead to find out what the heck is going to happen!
What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?
I can do better than recall it. I can provide it. Below, complete with misspellings, is the first thing I remember writing, and still have it. It is written in “cursive” on a piece of line paper cut out in the shape of a ghost. I guess I was about eight. It’s called The Terrible Skeleton:
It was a cold foggy Halloween night. And in a haunted terrifying house.
There was a light on in a bed room there was a vampire sucking somebodys blood. And then he laughed. Then a skeleton stabbed him. For the skeleton was a killer. Then he ran to the graveyard and killed a little boy. Then he heard a scream. He ran to see what it was where he died. With a terrifying scream. And nobody saw him again. The End
I also wrote a story about a boy who is killed in a bubblegum-making machine. If I was an 8-year old kid writing the same stories for school now, my mom would be called in for a meeting with the teachers and principal, there would be an intervention, and they’d probably saw my writing future off at the knees and get me help.
I haven’t changed my motif much since I was eight. Not sure what that says about me.
Speaking of reading… Who are a few of your favorite authors? Who has influenced you the most in writing, and in life?
Oh God. So many. I love Carlos Ruiz Zafon right now. Dennis Lehane. Stephen King. Laura Lippman. Poe. Roald Dahl. Hakan Nesser. Ruth Rendell. Castle Freeman Jr. Patricia Highsmith. Russell Banks. Tana French. Gillian Flynn. Arnaldur Indridason. Kate Atkinson. Cormac McCarthy. Breece D’J Pancake. Should I go on? I could, easily go on…
What are you currently reading?
Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. Read it!
What’s next for you?
I recently finished a novel titled Lie in Wait. In it, a girl is murdered in the home of a prominent lawyer who represents a couple in a gay marriage legal battle. The murder unleashes the deepest prejudices and fears of people in the town, and leads to a hasty arrest that many, including the lead female detective, fear has left the murderer on the loose. I hope my publisher likes it! At the very moment, I am writing a new novel. In short: a town receives a manuscript from a man who grew up there 30 years ago and claims to know who was really behind the murders and suicide that took place on an infamous night of “misery and madness,” a night the narrator himself was supposed to have died as a boy.
Keep up with Eric: Twitter
About THE SILENT GIRLS:
With the dead of a bitter Vermont winter closing in, evil is alive and well …
Frank Rath thought he was done with murder when he turned in his detective’s badge to become a private investigator and raise a daughter alone. Then the police in his remote rural community of Canaan find an ’89 Monte Carlo abandoned by the side of the road, and the beautiful teenage girl who owned the car seems to have disappeared without a trace.
Soon Rath’s investigation brings him face-to-face with the darkest abominations of the human soul.
With the consequences of his violent and painful past plaguing him, and young women with secrets vanishing one by one, he discovers once again that even in the smallest towns on the map, evil lurks everywhere—and no one is safe.
Morally complex, seething with wickedness and mystery, and rich in gritty atmosphere and electrifying plot turns, The Silent Girls marks the return of critically acclaimed author Eric Rickstad. Readers of Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbø, and Greg Iles will love this book and find themselves breathless at the incendiary, ambitious, and unforgettable story.