Welcome to today’s installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be talking to creators working in horror and share and recommend various pieces of underappreciated scary media–books, comics, movies, and television–to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
Earlier this year, we were absolutely blown away by Taylor Adams’ high tension thriller, No Exit. Almost every promo blurb says that the book it’s promoting is a “page turner” or that “you won’t be able to put it down,” but Adams’ third novel is the real deal. As terrifying as it is entertaining, No Exit is one of those rare works that can potentially keep a reader glued to it from from cover-to-cover in one sitting.
Today, we are fortunate enough to have Taylor Adams talk with us about his writing process, his other books (which will also be reviewed here this month), and to dig into No Exit a little more. There will be some minor spoilers, but you should have read the book by now, anyway.
AiPT!: I’ll get the cliche first question out of the way: What inspired you to write No Exit? Have you yourself ever been stuck at rest area with some sketchy seeming folks?
Adams: Luckily, no – although in the years before No Exit, I did make the 4-hour drive from Seattle to Spokane quite often, which can be lonely after dark (and is dotted with rest areas). I’d always thought one of those rest areas would make a cool setting for a thriller, but for many years I couldn’t find the right “incident” to frame a story around. The inciting crime our heroine witnesses had to be both shocking and demand immediate action. But once I had the premise in place, I was very excited to write it. The first half, in particular, seemed to urgently write itself.
AiPT!: Is there anything you can tell us about a potential No Exit adaption for television or the big screen?
Adams: No Exit was optioned last year by 20th Century Fox last year with Scott Frank (Logan, Minority Report) producing. The director attached is Damien Power, who made the powerhouse horror/thriller Killing Ground (highly recommended and one of the most excruciatingly tense films I’ve ever seen). So it’s safe to say that I’m pretty excited!
AiPT!: Your other two novels, Eyeshot and Our Last Night (which are also excellent), have a very strong family element to them. What made you decide to go with a more isolated protagonist this time around?
Adams: I felt that to convey the isolation and desperation for this premise, it really couldn’t be a dual-protagonist story like Eyeshot was. Eyeshot was essentially about a husband and wife working to support each other for the shared goal of survival. But I knew from the beginning that No Exit needed to be smaller, lonelier, and darker. Darby must be alone, without allies or backup. It was a bit intimidating at first–I like to use dialogue and disagreement to build suspense and demonstrate character, and that’s trickier to do with a protagonist who’s operating (mostly) solo and not speaking often.
AiPT!: Something else I’ve noticed reading through your combined works is an extensive and thorough knowledge of firearms. Was this something you had to do a lot of research for to include in your stories?
Adams: Research has often helped, and I was raised around guns, so I do have a sense of their mechanics and sights/sounds. Having that baseline familiarity has certainly allowed me to work in details and observations that hopefully ring true to the initiated. Although I am certainly NOT an expert! There’s a pretty fascinating rocket-science to it (which I’m sure I occasionally botched in Eyeshot.)
AiPT!: What draws you to write “ticking clock” narratives?
Adams: I have a short attention span, so I’m a big fan of the natural tension that develops from a confined location or a ticking time limit. When the story is a situation, and the situation is one night at a rest stop, details that would otherwise be merely incidental become critically important, right down to the placement of the windows. And it’s more difficult for a story to stray/lose focus if the narrative’s central conflict is literally present in every scene.
AiPT!: Along those same lines, ‘cat and mouse’ narratives are easy to find, but you clearly have a knack for them. What are some key elements to making the push and pull between the protagonist and antagonist work without tipping the battle until the very end?
Adams: It’s a delicate balance, and a big ingredient that I believe a lot of stories miss is hope. The antagonist has to be terrifying and powerful, but we also need to glimpse their vulnerability. There needs to be a gap in their armor, however minute, that teases the reader with hope that maybe, just maybe, the hero can take them down. Seeing those opportunities arise for the hero to change the balance of power–and then get barely, frustratingly missed–are a key ingredient to keeping the suspense on high.
Also important is the hero’s level of initiative. They must be consistently active. It can’t just be the cat attacking and the mouse responding to those attacks by evading until the very end. That can work, but for me, the real fun comes from a hero who is actively resisting and upsetting the villain’s plans while occasionally landing a satisfying counter-attack along the way.
AiPT!: What are some of your favorite ‘ticking clock’ or ‘cat and mouse’ stories?
Adams: I love Dean Koontz’s Intensity, Stephen King’s Misery, and Stephen Hunter’s The Day Before Midnight.
Green Room is one of my all time favorite films–and a great template of the heroes and the villains upsetting each others’ days alike to build suspense despite the significant power difference.
Also, I can’t recommend this year’s horror/comedy Ready Or Not highly enough!
AiPT!: One thing that made No Exit such a great read was how well crafted it was. Every chapter’s ending made the book impossible to put down. Do you plot your books out in advance like that, or does it happen as you construct the narrative?
Adams: A little bit of both! I outline rigorously, then write a first draft– which always comes out discouragingly terrible. Then I rewrite the book about 5-6 times, outlining in-between, and gradually the story “hardens” as I find the right place to put each narrative beat and eliminate the clutter.
Many of the twists come in later drafts as I find the story’s best possible shape through sheer repetition. It’s a strange process, and the exhaustive rewriting sounds a bit maddening (it is), but I also truly enjoy taking a fun premise and continually refining it.
AiPT!: Despite its very grounded feel, there’s a tiny hint of supernatural in No Exit--at least in how I read it. Was this intentional (or am I just crazy)?
Adams: Yes, and I’m glad that came through! I do like to hint at that occasionally in my work–and in the case of No Exit, to make the story feel a little “bigger” than a few strangers having a violent disagreement at a rest stop. There’s plenty to be afraid of in the great unknowns of life, and it was a fun way to visualize the story’s stakes and to connect the villain’s delusions of self-importance with the heroine’s own fears.
AiPT!: What are you reading right now?
Adams: The Institute, by Stephen King. I’m loving it!
AiPT!: Any current/upcoming projects you can talk about?
Adams: I can’t give details yet, but hopefully I’ll have something very cool (and structurally interesting) to show soon!