For her second novel, Follow Me, Kathleen Barber has written a thriller that is based on a scary but true fact: That with the right technology and software, people can be watched through their computer.
In the book’s introduction Barber explained how she learned of this alarming fact and concludes: “I was so deeply unsettled by the thought of an anonymous ratter lurking around my computer that I did two things: first I covered my laptop’s built-in webcam with a sticker, as Mark Zuckerberg and James Comey both reportedly do, and then I began writing this story.”
Barber’s first novel, Are you Sleeping, received much acclaim. The Apple TV+ series, Truth Be Told, based on Are You Sleeping, starring Octavia Spencer, Lizzy Caplan, and Aaron Paul, premiered December 6, 2019.
Scott Butki: Follow Me is a wild story based on true, scary, sobering facts. Can you tell the story of how you come to discover that some people are able to watch others through cameras on computers and other places including home security cameras?
Kathleen Barber: I was messing around online one afternoon and stumbled across an article entitled “Meet the Men Who Spy on Women through Their Webcams.” It was horrifying, to say the least.
According to the article, it was fairly easy for these guys to remotely install something called a remote administration tool (or “RAT”) on your computer, which would then grant them access to your hard drive and webcam. The men who installed the RATs (nicknamed “ratters”) had different goals. Some had the relatively innocent plan of playing pranks, while some were after credentials and financial information. And then there were the ratters who really terrified me: those who made a game of collecting “slaves” (their name for the women they spied on) and then trading or even selling access to the “slaves” amongst themselves. I was so shocked and disgusted, I had to read it a couple of times just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood—and then I immediately covered the camera on my computer.
SB: Once you got over the shock of that how did you go about turning that information into a novel?
KB: I had such a visceral reaction to the article about the ratters that I instantly knew I wanted to write about it. Moreover, I wanted to explore how it felt to be on both sides of a webcam that had been compromised like that—and so I created both Audrey, the woman who unwittingly downloads the RAT onto her computer, and “Him,” the man who uses it to spy on her. I had also been interested in doing something with oversharing on social media and the accompanying casual disregard for personal safety, and that felt like a natural fit with this story.
SB: This is a pretty mind-blowing topic. Did this ever get too wild and you needed to take a break from it?
K.B. : I wouldn’t say that I ever needed to take a break from it, but I was thoroughly unsettled. It made me think more about what I’m posting online—something that is especially important to me now that I’m a mother and have more than my own personal safety to consider.
SB: How did you go about researching this book?
KB: I used the original Ars Technica article I’d found as my primary source, and then I
continued searching for other information about these RATs and how they could be used. I have to admit, I was a little worried about getting flagged for searching things like “how to spy on women online.” Additionally, I did some research on influencer culture—which was a lot more fun than the research about RATs!
SB: Did you encounter much skepticism as you told people about this story, from folks sure that this must not be a real thing that happens?
KB: I found the opposite, actually! I’ve heard so many stories now about other wifi-enabled devices that can be used to spy on us in our own homes. I find the stories about video baby monitors being hacked particularly frightening!
SB: What do you hope readers will take away from this book, besides that they may want to cover up the camera in their computers?
KB: I hope people will think more carefully about what they post online. I feel that, as social media has become more pervasive and an integral part of our daily lives, we have become more complacent about online safety. Many of us unintentionally give away dozens of tiny details that, when put together, could reveal a starting amount of information about us and our routines. For example, in Follow Me, Audrey often posts from the same coffee shop, which enables her admirer to learn where he can find her.
SB: This is your second novel. What was it like having your first novel, Are You Sleeping, picked up and turned into the Apple TV+ series, Truth Be Told? How involved are you in that production?
KB: It was an absolute dream come true to have my debut novel adapted for the screen! I can’t properly describe what a thrill it was to see my characters reimagined and brought to life onscreen—especially by the incredibly talented cast. Octavia Spencer starred as investigative reporter Poppy Parnell, and I thought she did such an incredible job. Plus, Lizzy Caplan was exactly how I had pictured the Buhrman twins (especially Lanie) and Aaron Paul was my dream casting for Warren Cave. I wasn’t involved in the production, but I did visit the set and watch a couple of days of filming, which was an amazing experience.
SB: You come from a background as a former attorney. How did that background help you write this book?
KB: When I practiced law, I focused on corporate restructuring, so not much of that subject matter makes its way into my fiction. But the communication skills I learned in law school and while working in a law firm have definitely improved my fiction writing. Among other things, they taught me to be very precise and economical with my language—quite a change from the paragraph-long sentences I used to write!
SB: I like to end my interviews with a bonus question: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you? Here is your chance to ask and answer it.
KB: I like talking about other people’s books even more than my own, I always love to be asked what books I recommend. Some of my books that I’ve recently been telling all my friends about are Behind Every Lie by Christina McDonald, Miracle Creek by Angie Kim, Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier, and The Swap by Robyn Harding (which comes out in June 2020).
About the Author: Kathleen Barber’s first novel, Truth Be Told (formerly titled Are You Sleeping), has been adapted for television by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine. Kathleen was raised in Galesburg, Illinois, and is a graduate of the University of Illinois and Northwestern University School of Law. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and son. Follow Me is her second novel.
It’s difficult to read Don Bentley’s debut novel, featuring Matt Drake — a former ranger pulled back into a mission for The Defense Intelligence Agency. He’s returned to the place that brought about his PTSD, got men killed, and crippled his friend Frodo who now helps him out. Mr. Bentley flew Apache helicopters in Afghanistan as was awarded The Bronze Star and Air Medal. It was an honor to talk to him about his novel.
Scott Montgomery: Which came first, Matt Drake or the plot?
Don Bentley: Great question. Matt definitely came first. I wrote three books that didn’t sell before writing Without Sanction, and I like to say that each book brought me closer to Matt. I’m a huge fan of Nelson DeMille and what he does with his witty, first person protagonists, especially his John Corey series. I remember reading Plum Island the first time and telling my wife that I would read a book about John Corey going to the grocery store, just so that I could listen to him talk. I decided to give something similar a try while writing my third book, and while that book didn’t sell, it did give me Matt. Looking back, I think that was a pretty good bargain! In the military thriller/espionage genre, plot is what keeps your readers turning the page, but characters are what bring them back for the next book. Hopefully, Matt resonates enough with readers to keep them coming back for the next book.
SM: You show a relationship between Matt’s mission and a crisis in the White House. What did you want to explore with that?
DB: Thank you for noticing! The technology that connects warfighters to civilian decision makers has improved exponentially since September 11th. Even so, there’s still a dissonance between what the men and women on the ground are seeing and thinking and what is going on in a crowded situation room thousands of miles removed from danger. In the best of circumstances, decision makers give warfighters their marching orders and then stay out of the way while the professionals do their jobs. Often times this isn’t the case. Sometimes this is because the decision makers truly are privy to details that warfighters aren’t. But in the worst of scenarios, politicians make short-sighted, politically motivated decisions that result in devastating consequences for warfighters operating in harm’s way. This is what happens in Without Sanction.
SM: Frodo is a great character. How did you go about constructing him?
DB: When I started writing Without Sanction, I knew that Frodo was going to be an integral part of Matt’s story. Frodo needed to be from Matt’s world, but still wholly different from Matt. One of the things I cherished about my time in the Army was the opportunity to serve with people from every creed, color, and religion. It didn’t matter where we grew up or whether we went to church on Sunday. What mattered was that we all wore the same green uniform and swore the same oath to defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I wanted the relationship between Matt and Frodo to reflect this dynamic. Frodo and Matt are two very different people, who if not for the military, would have never crossed paths. But through love of country and a desire to serve, they become brothers in arms.
SM: As somebody who was in combat situations abroad, what did you want to convey about that experience?
DB: That’s a hard question. I don’t know that I set out to convey anything about combat as much as I wanted to give the American public a glimpse of the men and women who are fighting on their behalf. I am not Matt Drake, but I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know some people who could be. Three of my close friends are veterans of the Army’s storied 75th Ranger Regiment, just like Matt. Rangers are famous for a great many things, including their strict adherence to the Ranger Creed. Non-Rangers might mistake the six stanzas comprising the Ranger Creed for just another organizational mission statement or HR-generated set of values, but nothing could be further from the truth. To a Ranger, these simple, yet powerful words form a code which still governs their lives long after they leave the military. Less than one percent of Americans serve in the military. This means that most American’s don’t have a veteran as a close friend or family member. I would love to help bridge that gap.
SM: How do you deal with the challenge of writing about events and regions that are changing with the news on a daily basis?
DB: It’s not easy. I took much longer than I should have to lock down Without Sanction, and in an earlier version of the book, ISIS played a more substantial role. While I certainly celebrated the destruction of the Caliphate, it caused me no small amount of rewrites! That said, I don’t try to “beat the headlines” or base my story on something that could change tomorrow. My novels are character driven, so if I have to change a few details here or there, it shouldn’t adversely affect the novel.
SM: This being your first book, did you draw from any influences?
DB: Absolutely. There are so many excellent writers in this genre, and I feel lucky just to be able to share shelf space with them. People like Tom Clancy, Brad Thor, and Vince Flynn built the modern version of this genre, while authors like Brad Taylor and Mark Greaney have brought even more readers into the fold. I’m also thankful for writers like Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins who were their predecessors. The Eagle Has Landed is still one of my all-time favorites, and I grew up wanting to be Clint Eastwood’s character in the movie version of Where Eagles Dare. Still, of all the great authors I mentioned, Nelson DeMille and Daniel Silva have been particularly impactful. Nelson DeMille’s witty, first person protagonists gave me the courage to find Matt’s distinct voice. In the same vein, I think that Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series has some of the best story telling the genre has to offer. I tend to re-read Daniel’s books when I’m editing or just need inspiration. He’s a true craftsman, and my life’s ambition is to be counted as a friend of Gabriel Allon!
Thirty five years ago, Viv Delaney vanished during the middle of her shift as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel in Fell, NY. There were hints that she didn’t leave on her own–her car was left behind in the parking lot, her purse (and her money) were left behind in the office. Oddly, no one reported her missing for 4 days. The police made a half-hearted attempt to find out what happened to her, but young girls had a habit of disappearing from Fell in those days.
Her aunt’s mysterious disappearance has always haunted Carly Kirk so she travels to Fell to see if she can come up with any clues. On visiting the run-down motel where Viv worked, Carly sees a notice that the hotel is looking for a night clerk—the same position that her aunt disappeared from—and on a whim she decides to apply, thinking it might give her some insight into what happened to Viv. The seedy motel doesn’t seem to have changed at all since her aunt worked there, and Carly quickly comes to realize that there’s something very wrong with the Sun Down Motel. Lights flicker for no reason, doors fly open all on their own, and there’s a mysterious scent of cigarette smoke even when Carly is sure she is quite alone. Certain the motel holds the key to Viv’s disappearance, Carly goes back every night until she’s thinks she might have figured out what happened all those years ago. But is the motel ready to give up its secrets?
I normally don’t read books that edge toward the paranormal, but the amazing cover on this one pulled me in and once I started I couldn’t put this down. The motel itself is as much a living, breathing character as any of the people in the story. It’s seen bad things over the years, and can sense when bad people come around. St. James does a masterful job revealing the story in alternating time lines, switching back and forth between Carly’s story and that of her aunt Viv. The Sun Down Motel is a captivating and chilling psychological thriller.
MG: Not consciously. The identity of the Midnight Man gradually became clear to me as I wrote my way into the story. A bit like the way Caitlin Hendrix analyzes the unknown killer and realizes who she’s actually dealing with.
MG: I wanted to set the novel near the start of winter—to have the the nights grow
longer and colder as the story progresses. That meant it would take place in December. Christmas came along with the dark, starry skies.
SM: Particularly with the UNSUB series, you’ve developed a reputation for knowing how “to bring the creepy,” yet most of those moments aren’t gory or violent. Are there certain writer tools or things you keep in mind when writing those more unsettling passages?
The Dark Corners of the Night is available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online. And don’t forget to catch Meg Gardiner in person on February 22nd at 5PM for a discussion and signing of this featured title.
About the Author: Meg Gardiner is the critically acclaimed author of the UNSUB series and China Lake, which won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original and was a finalist for NPR’s 100 Best Thrillers Ever. Stephen King has said of Meg Gardiner: “This woman is as good as Michael Connelly…her novels are, simply put, the finest crime-suspense series I’ve come across in the last twenty years.” Gardiner was also recently elected President of the Mystery Writers of America for 2019.
The Dark Corners of the Night will be the third novel in her Barry Award-winning UNSUB series, which received three starred reviews from the major trade publications and was sold to CBS Television.
Part-time bookseller and full-time mystery enthusiast Meike reviewed one of 2020’s hottest thrillers, Liz Moore’s Long Bright River for the BookPeople blog. Check out her thoughts on the novel below.
Long Bright River is one of those genre-defying thrillers that straddles literary fiction and crime fiction with a gripping police procedural that illuminates multiple aspects of the opioid crisis.
Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a beat cop patrolling the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia—the
same streets where she spent a difficult childhood. Her younger sister Kacey lives on those same streets, turning tricks to feed her addiction.
Once inseparable—the sisters even shared a bed as children in their grandmother’s home—they haven’t spoken in years. But Mickey has always felt responsible for Kacey—
she never stops worrying about her, and always keeps an eye out for Kacey during her patrols.
When a series of mysterious murders rocks the neighborhood, Mickey realizes that she hasn’t seen Kacey in the past few months. Her worries escalate into a borderline obsession with finding her sister — and the killer. Her search forces her to come to terms with trauma that both sisters sustained as children, something that each dealt with differently.
The story is narrated by Mickey, and that makes the narrative a particular gift to the reader — Mickey is not one to share her innermost thoughts with anyone. She’s a woman of action, and keeps her thoughts and fears hidden from most. This structure conveys the bleakness of the deteriorating neighborhood in which Mickey and Kacey have spent their lives. Almost every resident has some connection to the drug epidemic, and has lost someone dear to them. Both Mickey and Kacey have lost pieces of themselves to
Kensington as well.
Long Bright River is available for purchase now from BookPeople in-store and online now!
Kathleen Kent, a well respected historical fiction writer, won over crime fiction fans with her novel The Dime, featuring Dallas Narcotics detective Betty Ryhyz. She returns with Betty in The Burn, with our heroine going rogue to figure out the connection between heroin stolen from the Sinola Cartel and confidential informants that are popping up all over town dead. Kathleen was kind enough to talk about the book and writing with Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott Montgomery.
Scott Montgomery: How did it feel writing a second novel with Betty Ryhyz opposed to the first?
Kathleen Kent: This is my first series–all of my previous historical fiction novels were stand-alone—and I had to rethink how to structure not only the book I was working on, but future books in the series. An important thing I learned from my editor was that the “Sophomore book” is crucial to keeping a reader’s interest going forward. You may like the first book, but the second will often determine whether you want to read the third, or fourth. Writing The Dime was an exercise in learning the genre of contemporary crime fiction: pacing, narrative tone, and maintaining suspense. But developing The Burn necessitated a deeper dive into not only Betty’s character, but of those who populated her world. There were a lot of rewrites to The Burn to get it right, and I had to remind myself at times to maintain a balance between the darker themes of the book, of which there are plenty, with lighter, more comedic elements.
SM: I really felt the Dallas streets and the working relationships of the narcotics squad. What kind of research did you do?
KK: I grew up in Dallas but moved to New York once I’d finished college. After living and
working in Manhattan for twenty years, I decided to move back to Dallas. Big D had changed drastically in those two decades in terms of urban development. But a lot had stayed the same and was distressingly familiar in terms of social intolerance. Once I had committed to writing a crime novel, I channeled some of my experiences of feeling like an “outsider” into Betty’s character. Doing research with law enforcement proved to be quite a challenge. While writing historical fiction, I found there were always experts willing to talk about their unique knowledge of history. Active law enforcement, especially those working undercover, can’t speak to a civilian about their operations for obvious reasons. One workaround was to talk to retired police officers, one of whom was the first female detective in Dallas. She gave me a lot of hilarious, and hair-raising stories, that I incorporated into both crime novels. My most important source, though, was a close cousin who, in his thirty-year career, worked both narcotics and vice undercover, as well as SWAT. I was also invited to several police retirement parties, and it’s amazing what you can learn by sitting quietly in a corner holding a glass of Jameson whiskey, and just listening to the stories unwind.
SM: I was happy to see Jackie’s uncle play an important part. He’s one of my favorite characters in the series. What do you like about him as a writer?
KK: He’s one of my favorites as well. There’s something noble about people who, despite their frailties and vices, continue fighting to stay afloat, to be useful, to be of service to other people. James Earle has a dignified past as he served in Vietnam as an MP, and he understands the difficulties and pressures prevalent in law enforcement. In many ways he’s a stand in for Betty’s beloved Uncle Benny, the man who was Betty’s polestar growing up. I’m happy to say that James Earle will be a constant character going forward.
SM: You wrote several acclaimed historical novels and fell into this gritty cop series where you both deliver and subvert the genre goods like somebody who has been writing this kind of book for a decade. Were you a fan of the genre before you started?
KK: I’ve always been a huge fan of crime novels, the darker, the better! My sister and I grew up reading, and watching on TV, a lot of British crime series, which our mother read as well. The three of us used to talk at the dinner table about the finer points of Murder Most Foul, often horrifying our dad with the gruesome details. Even in my works of historical fiction I never shied away from violence. The Heretic’s Daughter is based on my nine-times great grandmother, Martha Carrier, who was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. The Outcasts is set in post-Civil War Texas and has hangings, torture and murder. The themes of villainy are often the same, regardless of the time period. The challenge for me as a writer, though, was to change the way the story was presented, which is to say I had to pay close attention to pacing, keeping the reader on the edge of his or her seat. I would liken historical fiction writing to a slow and steady burn, while crime writing is often a bonfire at the beginning with liberal applications of gasoline along the way.
SM: What has writing contemporary novels allowed you to do that you couldn’t in the historicals?
KK: I think writing contemporary crime novels has allowed me to indulge in more absurdist fantasies. In my historical novels, I often tried to stay close to the actual true events of the time. This “reality” construct was used as a framework, or scaffolding, to build my fictional story. In both The Dime and The Burn I felt less constricted to that model. Some of the contemporary narrative started as a newspaper headline, for example, but I was able to move the resulting action in unexpected directions. I’ve really enjoyed bumping riiiight up against what stretches credulity.
SM: Has it presented any challenges?
KK: A lot of readers had grown accustomed to my works of historical fiction. And some were surprised at the seemingly abrupt shift to contemporary crime. So, it was a challenge to entice those people to read these latest two novels, especially if they weren’t enthusiastic crime readers to begin with. But, happily, many of those readers have now eagerly embraced Det. Betty and her adventures. I think it points to the importance of having relatable, courageous characters and compelling stories no matter the genre.
About Kathleen Kent: Kathleen Kent is the author of the Edgar Award-nominated The Dime, as well as the bestselling historical novels The Heretic’s Daughter, The Traitor’s Wife, and The Outcasts. Kent lives in Dallas, TX.
About Scott Montgomery: A legendary crime bookseller, Scott Montgomery runs MysteryPeople, the mystery bookstore within BookPeople. He also runs The Hard Word blog, covering hard boiled fiction. Always a crime fiction fan, Scott worked on the sales staff of the acclaimed and influential The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles for four years. He is a regular contributor to Crime Reads and his fiction has appeared on the site Shotgun Honey and in the anthologies Murder On Wheels, Lone Star Lawless, and Eyes Of Texas. His Bullet Book, Two Bodies, One Grave, debuted Fall 2019.
The Burn is available for purchase in-store and online now.