Interview With April Henry
April Henry: My books for adults and my books for teens are not that different from each other. The main characters are the ages of the primary audience for that particular book (although I have a lot of crossover readers). And my YA books are shorter. But other than that, there’s not much difference. I don’t change the language I use or my approach to writing.
ERN: For the new book The Girl I Used to Be, where did you get the idea for the plot?
AH: It was inspired by a real 30-year-old case I read about. A family of three went out to the woods to look for a Christmas tree and never came back. Later that day, their young daughter was found at a chain store miles away, but she was too young to tell people her name, let alone what happened that day. The parents weren’t married and fought a lot. When the mom’s body was discovered weeks later, they thought she must have been murdered by the dad, who then must have dropped their kid at the store and taken off.
A few years ago a human bone was found in that same part of the forest. It ended up being DNA matched to the dad. I found myself thinking about their daughter. She had grown up being told that her dad killed her mom and was on the lam. Instead, both her parents had been victims. And even if she didn’t remember it, she had been there when it happened.
I moved the crime up in time and changed the setting to my old home town of Medford, Oregon. While I was working on the book, I was also taking care of my mom while she was on hospice. I ended up giving the girl a neighbor who was pretty much exactly like my mom.
ERN: Do you ever use real life crimes for inspiration? (Not doing them obviously, but reading about them or hearing about them.)
AH: All the time. Almost all of my recent books have either been inspired by true crimes, or a true crime informs part of the plot.
For example, in the book I’m working on now, there’s an armored car robbery. The weird thing about writing about imaginary crimes is that you have to figure out a plausible way to do them in real life. In my research, I found a crazy-clever scheme that recently let three men waltz off with $5 million in gold without hurting anyone. You can bet I’m using some ideas from that real-life heist for my fictional one.
I do a lot of research to get the details right in my novels. I know how to get out of duct tape, zip ties, rope, and handcuffs. I know how a blind character could use their cane to disarm a guy holding a gun. I know how to run in handcuffs, how to open a door with a credit card, how to pick locks, how to craft a disguise, how to get a stranger to give me a ride or let me borrow their cell phone, how to make fake IDs, how to steal a car, how to shoot a handgun and machine gun, how to photograph a crime scene, how to choke someone, how to search a building, and how to fight back if attacked in my car. I can hold my own in both jiujitsu and kung fu.
ERN: Is it hard to kill off a likable character?
AH: It is hard! It’s even hard to hurt them. But sometimes it needs to happen. In books (just like in real life, unfortunately) growth can’t happen if things are always uniformly good.
I remember once killing a (fictional) guy named Brad. He was a single dad to his nine-year-old daughter Amanda. I found myself worrying what Amanda would do now. Who would she live with? Where would she go? I finally had to remind myself that Amanda did not actually exist.
People will accept the deaths of human characters, but kill off a cat or dog and they may never read another book of yours. It doesn’t matter that that animal only existed on paper.
ERN: Do you find that you are a plotter? Or do your characters write their own way through the story?
AH: I am more of a plotter than a pantser. But even so, there have been many times when characters have refused to do what was in the outline, or when a twist revealed itself in the middle of writing a book. Even the best plotter has to leave room for new revelations. When the sequel to Girl, Stolen comes out next year, it will have a crazy twist I hadn’t plotted, but that came up as I was writing.
ERN: You tackle some serious issues such as disabilities or mental illness in your books. Is this a purposeful choice?
AH: I believe every character needs to be struggling with something or to have a secret. It makes them more three-dimensional. In real life, many people deal with mental illness, disability, or addiction. Besides, its interesting for me to learn more about something so I can write about it well.
ERN: Can you talk about what you are working on next?
AH: I’m working on the edits for the sequel to Girl, Stolen (the title is still being determined), which will come out in May 2017. And I’m just finishing writing Run Hide, Fight Back, my 2018 book, which can be thought of as Die Hard meets Breakfast Club. It’s about six teenagers who are trapped when a shooting breaks out in a shopping mall. They have to decide whether they will run, hide, or fight back.