MysteryPeople Q&A with Gina Wohlsdorf

 

  • Interview by Molly Odintz

Gina Wohlsdorf has just released her debut thriller, Securityand man do we love this twisty thriller, told from the omniscient perspective of a hotel’s security cameras as a killer stalks a luxury hotel the night before opening. We asked Gina a few questions about her brilliant and oddly affecting debut for a wide-ranging conversation on gothic literature, slasher films, and surveillance. 

Molly Odintz: Security has a fascinating gimmick – the story is told through the perspective of a hotel’s security cameras, thus making manifest the omniscient narrator. How did you come up with the novel’s unique structure? Are the cameras, and the security guards watching them, our modern equivalent of an all-seeing deity? 

Gina Wohlsdorf: I’d had the premise of a killer in a hotel for quite a long time – I think three or four years – but I didn’t know how to attack it. How could I tell it in a way that was particular and unique, a way that duplicated the sustained dramatic irony of a horror film: the no-don’t-go-in-there knowledge that the viewer has and that the characters lack?

Then I was assigned a novel in grad school – Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet. It was a crazy POV experiment with a first-person narrator who never uses the pronoun ‘I’. This melded in my mind with the old horror hotel plot in a way that was very abrupt, very freaky. The Head of Security started talking, and I listened. The camera splits grew naturally from that, because that’s what he’s seeing. He became my eyes. As near as writing ever gets to easy, it was easy – the biggest problem was keeping up with him.

To be sure, the narrator shares a lot of features with a god – but a god who’s all but incapable of interfering, of hurting or helping, until he accepts his limitations, and how his strengths can survive within those limitations. When our society is assured a place is secure, we tend to believe it. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, chaos deplores our attempts to control it. Oftentimes, the safer we believe we are, the more vulnerable we are to danger, because we stop being vigilant.

“Serial killer narratives very often paint their villains as masterminds, setting an almost-equally resourceful hero or heroine opposite him. It’s cat n’ mouse. Slasher films are not. There’s a cat, and pretty much everybody around the cat is kibble.”

MO: Security is a novel, yet the story is incredibly visual; the chase sequences, surveillance motif, and depiction of space all felt like they could transition easily to film. Are there any film plans in the making? Were you inspired by cinematic style when writing Security

GW: Absolutely horror films were an inspiration. I’m pulling all over the place from cinema – the Killers’ masks and the hedge maze, to name two. I was a horror movie addict growing up; my childhood best friend and I would watch one every weekend (and very often more than one), as well as The X-Files, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, anything that tried to scare.

Now, when you watch enough of these, a sobering reality sets in: it is, in fact, surprisingly difficult to scare. Fear is very basic, which makes the genre predicated upon it very formulaic. That’s why Scream was so revelatory. That movie came out when I was 15. And it’s a movie that’s obsessed with movies – referencing them, nailing down their rules, deciding when to break those rules and calling everybody’s attention to those rules being broken. It’s ironic about irony. It’s irony squared.

As to film plans, management is hard at work on that. It’s bananas to imagine, but it really could happen.

MO: To me, Security seems as much “romantic gothic” as “surveillance noir” – tell us a bit about your gothic influences. 

GW: Ooh, Poe.The Tell-Tale Heart, The Casque of Amontillado. People often say these stories are examples of mental illness being inaccurately adapted to fiction, but I disagree. I think what made Poe amazing is that he very accurately adapted mental illness to fiction. He understood suffering at a cellular level. He was the swiss watchmaker of what made us afraid.

Du Maurier, of course. Shirley Jackson, Stephen King. It’s so tempting in horror to make up a monster and set it loose, but the best stories (horror, gothic, whatever the label) find a method to admit that the monsters are us. Rebecca is the gold standard of ghost stories, and there’s no literal poltergeist, no supernatural events of any kind. It’s a woman’s insecurity (ha!) finding expression in everything around her.

“It’s so tempting in horror to make up a monster and set it loose, but the best stories (horror, gothic, whatever the label) find a method to admit that the monsters are us.”

MO: Security brilliantly plays with archetypes and genre conventions, with an almost David Campbell-esque breakdown of antagonists into characters simply called the Killer and the Thinker. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews your attachment to the slasher genre. What drew you to writing a literary slasher novel? 

GW: Honestly, the fact that one didn’t exist. I suspect that’s the best reason to write any particular book: nobody else is going to write it.

But there’s a great reason nobody had written a slasher novel. I tried writing Security, before that was its title. Before I had the idea of this omniscient narrator; the security cameras; the hyper-realist, visual, real-time connection to the action. That initial attempt was dismally bad. I think I stopped two pages in. And I swore a hands-off policy until I could think of a better way. I’m incredibly glad I found one.

MO: There’s something quite satisfying about an attack on a luxury hotel, yet hotel staff makes up most of the novel’s body count. Why set Security before the hotel opens, rather than having a killer take down a few billionaires? 

GW: That’s a great question. I’ve never asked that of myself. But hearing it asked now, I can give a few practical reasons:

Population control would be a problem. In a hotel like Manderley, would there ever be a guest count low enough that we could get a decent handle on that many characters? They could be painted in broad strokes and forgotten once they’re asleep for the night, but broad strokes are dangerous. I’m doing that with the sous-chefs already, making them a mass – I give a thematic reason for this, but it’s a trick that would wear thin quickly.

It’s also more people to keep track of. The Head of Security is obsessively detail-oriented; he has a deep-seated need to know where everyone is, at all times. I’d wind up splitting the page twenty ways, and my designer at Algonquin would kill me.

Characters’ freedoms of movement and behavior would be inhibited. I worked in a hotel, and it’s a strange gig, because you are ‘on’ your entire shift. The more luxurious the accommodations, the more this holds true: you can’t be you when a wealthy patron could interrupt at any time, asking for anything.

But in a hotel about to open: all that space, zero risk of running into a guest. Nobody needs to keep up professional appearances. They can be themselves.

“America’s security agencies long ago figured out that the best way to receive permission from the American public to do something is to not ask. Then, if you’re found out, tell them it keeps them safe.”

MO: Forgive me for my ignorance, but what do you consider the difference between a slasher narrative and a serial killer narrative? As an abstract follow-up to that question, what is the demarcation point between a mystery/thriller and horror? 

No worries on ignorance there; it’s very much a matter of opinion, even among us fan-nerds. What I’d say is that slasher narratives include an element of the supernatural. It can be overt or covert, vague or outright stated. It’s best exemplified in John Carpenter’s Halloween, with Dr. Loomis telling anyone who will listen: this is not a man, he is evil walking, he’s not human. Now, throughout the film, we think he’s being metaphorical, and we learn, by the end, that even he thought he was being metaphorical. When Loomis shoots Michael numerous times, and Michael falls backward off a second-story deck, and Loomis runs to the rail and looks down and Michael isn’t there, the doc can’t believe it! What makes Halloween my favorite film, though, is what happens after that: a series of still shots, denoting all the locations Michael has been. He is no longer in any of them – but we hear his steady, oppressive breathing. The lesson? Evil is everywhere.

Serial killer narratives very often paint their villains as masterminds, setting an almost-equally resourceful hero or heroine opposite him. It’s cat n’ mouse. Slasher films are not. There’s a cat, and pretty much everybody around the cat is kibble.

I’d put the divide between horror and mystery/thriller pretty close to the same spot. Horror has that extra sense of the villain’s superhuman ubiquity, impossibility, unbeatability – whereas mystery/thriller is a tight contest.

Security plays merry hell with these borders, and that’s part of the fun. Du Maurier toed the line, too. So does Thomas Harris.

MO: Security brings up issues of privacy and safety that are endemic in a post-9/11 world. Just to ask you a gigantic question, how much privacy should we give up to protect our safety? 

Safety is an illusion – but for civilization’s sake, it is a necessary illusion. This has always been so.

What’s new is: modern technology has made violations of privacy so easy and universal that people have begun to accept privacy as an illusion as well. Snowden’s revelations sparked practically no reaction from the American public, because America’s security agencies long ago figured out that the best way to receive permission from the American public to do something is to not ask. Then, if you’re found out, tell them it keeps them safe.

What’s extra-new is: the American public will tweet about it, forget about it, and try to find something fresh-ish to say tomorrow.

Americans are giving up their privacy willingly. They’re fist-fighting for who can give up their privacy the most and the fastest.

“But just as nature abhors a vacuum, chaos deplores our attempts to control it. Oftentimes, the safer we believe we are, the more vulnerable we are to danger, because we stop being vigilant.”

MO: What are you working on next? 

I’m in the final stages of my second novel for Algonquin. It’s a literary thriller about a teenage girl who’s kidnapped by her ex-con father to hunt down four million dollars her mother hid somewhere out west. It’s a wild ride, but very different from Security. Fewer twists and (if you can believe it) more voice-heavy.

You can find copies of Security on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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