Owen Laukkanen talks about THE WATCHER IN THE WALL
THE WATCHER IN THE WALL by Owen Laukkanen is a novel with a very dark subject matter. Known for his powerful and suspenseful stories Laukkanen continues this pattern with his latest book. He has dealt with Internet targeted killings that prey on young veteran’s emotions, human trafficking of teenage girls, and now this, a predator that encourages teenagers to commit suicide on a web-cam.
Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea for this story?
Owen Laukkanen: It is based on the real-life case of online predator William Melchert-Dinkel. He is a Minnesota man whose has counseled someone online and encouraged them to commit suicide. He is suspected of entering into fake suicide pacts with at least five other victims. All killed themselves at his instruction. At the time I started to write this story the case was working its way through the courts. I was stunned and frustrated with the justice system in that it appeared he would get away with it so I wrote this book about a similar predator. On appeal it was found that he could be retried for actively assisting in a victim’s suicide. Ultimately he was convicted last fall and served just 360 days in jail. Writing this story was therapeutic for me because I was so upset with the sentence of this real-life guy, so I decided to administer my own justice, which was more fitting.
EC: Do you see it as a warning about the dangers of the Internet?
OL: The Internet is an anonymous haven for criminals. After spending time on these websites you can begin to lose faith in the goodness of humanity. Through the “tor” web browser you can access about anything. You can also find people who will tell you how to kill yourself. It is incredibly difficult to trace for law enforcement. That is why prevention is important. We need to pay attention to what our friends/students/family members are feeling, whom they are talking to online, and what is bothering them. Parents need to play a role on monitoring what their children do on the Internet.
EC: Do you think your villain, Randall Gruber, committed per-meditated murder?
OL: In a sense. People who are depressed or have been bullied are easy targets for someone like him. He gets off on the power to control and manipulate. He searches for his victims. The thrill is almost like some sick video game where he gets someone to do what he wants.
EC: What about the legal issue of talking someone into suicide?
OL: It is a grey area. I could not come into your home literally and provide tools for you to kill yourself. But on the Internet I am removed from the victim physically. I think laws have not been updated to the computer age. I think even when those are found responsible we have to question if the law will allow these predators to be put behind bars.
EC: Do you think this book sheds light on mental health issues?
OL: Yes. This story was very personal to me. I hope the story brought some awareness. I was always someone who was an outsider. There were times where I felt the whole world is against me. Depression does things to you mentally that could be really paralyzing. While writing this book I was dealing with some mental health issues, mainly depression and suicidal thoughts of my own. When depressed you feel so alone. I channeled this by writing the book. It became a release for me.
EC: Do you still feel that way?
OL: After handing in the book to my publisher I sought treatment for my depression for the first time in twenty years. I think it really changed my life. I hope I can be a positive example. The mixture of talking to professionals, friends, and family as well as finding the right medication helped me.
EC: Is there any of you in Windermere?
OL: We share some similarities. There is a scene in the book where she is outside the FBI center and she is telling herself she is not a good person and that people are better off without her. That is me to a tee when I am depressed. My reaction, as was hers, is to isolate myself from everyone who cares about me. I turn off my phone and have gone incognito for a few months. But the good news is that I had her tackle the problem instead of running away from it, which is something I forced myself to do.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?
OL: It is also based on real life events, a series of high profile murders that occurred in my neighborhood in Vancouver. Women who were vulnerable were targeted. Because they were streetwalkers, drug users, hitchhikers, and runaways not much effort was made to solve the crime against them. Stevens and Windermere will be on the trail of a serial killer in the western US who targets train-hopper children.