Lee Child Talks to Gina Wohlsdorf About "Blood Highway"

Chris Schluep on August 13, 2018

bloodhighway.jpgA couple years ago, when Gina Wohlsdorf's Security was published, we picked it as a Best Book of the Month. Amazon Senior Editor Adrian Liang wrote at the time that "readers who enjoy being kept in the dark while the author slowly illuminates the serpentine path ahead will find themselves white-knuckling Wohlsdorf’s debut shocker." Another big fan of Wohlsdorf's work is the thriller master Lee Child. He's called her new book (which just published last week), "a sensational hard-boiled thriller as tough and uncompromising as its main character, Rainy Cain," adding, "Don't miss this."

He's such a big fan, he interviewed Gina Wohlsdorf for our blog. Here they talk about that main character, and a lot more. Enjoy.

Lee Child: First of all, where did the idea for this story come from? Surely you didn’t pull from your own experience.

Gina Wohlsdorf: I was seventeen when I first wrote Rainy’s name. I had dropped Latin, so there was a quarter at the end of junior year where I had a free period—the only time in all of high school that I did. I remember I was sitting in this little alcove under the stairs on the first floor of Bismarck High, and I longhanded a scene between a girl named Rainy and a cop named Blaine. It was about five pages. I liked it, or, more accurately, I found it intriguing. Rainy was so sad and lost and angry. I was also sad and lost and angry, but I didn’t know why.

Five years later, fresh out of college, working three part-time jobs to pay my thirty grand in student loans, navigating the fallout from my parents’ hideous divorce, I was driving home one late-late night from job number three and that scene floated into my head again. I thought: What if her mom and dad had other lives she never knew about? What if they were bank robbers? What if there’s supposedly this huge stash of money her dad’s after and he gets out of prison? What if Rainy didn’t even know he was alive? That’s how the book was born, me driving around all night in North Dakota, bouncing ideas off the stars.

LC: Tell me about Rainy Cain. She is young—only seventeen—yet possesses a maturity and a strength that usually takes years to achieve. Is there much of you in her, and where did that very distinctive name come from?

GW: I’m not entirely sure where the name came from, but once I thought of it, I knew her mother named her that because she saw Rainy as a thing rather than a person. That she hadn’t thought of a name and she looked outside and it was raining.

Rainy’s bitter ’tude and severe cussing problem are definite characteristics of me from about ages seventeen to nineteen. I loved f-bombs back then, detonated them wherever I could. But I was a very young seventeen. Not mature or worldly at all, yet painfully self-aware: a difficult combination to say the least.

I grew up a lot when I hit twenty-two, when I wrote the first draft of this book, actually—and I like to think that process fed Rainy’s development. She has opinions and philosophies that I’ve outgrown, but I held them dear at one point or another. Her strength is my strength, though. Or mine is hers. We got each other through a lot of hell. Eventually, you lose track of who’s being the tough, undefeatable bitch on any given day.

LC: There is an intensity to this novel that is stunning, some might even say unrelenting, a sense as a reader that you are on a roller coaster that is about to jump the track, yet somehow manages to keep going forward, always on course, but at a terrifying speed. Since this is only your second novel, I have to ask, how did you maintain such tight control over the plot and the pacing, something with which even very experienced writers frequently struggle?

GW: Thank you, I do love intensity. I love my escapism to be almost overstuffed, for so many elements to be in play that it seems impossible for the writer to keep them in balance. I crank it to eleven, and I don’t let it fall too low. I never want it at a three, you know what I mean?

I was a sensitive kid. I grew up awash in too many feelings, too many perceptions, too many interpretations. My mind was always going, going, going, going. Writing didn’t stop that but did externalize it, and it was an incredible discovery that I could take a time-out whenever I needed one by picking up a pen. So if people think my books move too fast, just know they’re a tame version of what the inside of my head is like.

Structure’s important when you’re shooting for that kind of kinetic, frenetic, off-the-chain pace—and with Security, I had the wonderful device of actual spatial shifting that was constant, yet controlled by a POV that remained fixed.

With Blood Highway, I didn’t have that. We revisit only two settings. Aside from those, we’re constantly moving. Rainy’s the only fixed point—her voice anchors the whole thing—but she’s constantly moving, too. And I’ll admit, I allowed her voice total freedom. A lot of fat had to get cut, because once I let her talk, I couldn’t muzzle her. That’s where a good editor comes in.

You used a Chesterton quote about Charles Dickens in an introduction once, how Dickens didn’t write what people wanted, he wanted what people wanted. I think a lot of fiction feels inaccurate these days—it doesn’t match the pace of our overloaded lives, our overloaded minds. Some would say that’s what makes slow books more needed than ever, but to me, escapism isn’t escapism if you’re bored. So I’m writing what I want. I’m writing the books that I wish existed so I could read them.

LC: When he first appeared, I wondered how you were going to use the character Johnny Blue in your story, and even wondered if he needed to be there, but when you reveal his role in the narrative it is a breathtaking—and also very unsettling—moment. It’s like adding a new twist to “twisted.” At what point in the creation of the novel did he and his function in the story become apparent to you?

GW: He was a bad guy in the first draft. Clichéd, mustache-twisting bad guy.

I was, what, five years and as many drafts in when I was browsing a bookstore one night and this cover caught my eye. It was a biography, I won’t say of whom, but this boy’s face was so innocent, so loving. He died in a terrible way, and it was big enough news that even I’d heard about it. So I’m looking at this sweet, kind kid and my heart just burst for him. And Johnny Blue came roaring into my brain right then—I swear, it was like he bear-hugged my cerebral cortex.

Whenever I meet a character like that, and they’re vivid and wonderful and empathetic, I want to save them. I want to put them in a nice house with a nice spouse and a great job and a well-behaved dog. I want it, but it never happens.

Once I realized what Johnny had been through, I knew it would have driven him insane. But then I thought: What if he took his insanity and made it into heroism? What if he took some of the rottenest lemons ever proffered to anybody and said, “Damn it, this’ll be some twistedly delicious lemonade before I’m done.”

LC: In Sam, Rainy’s father, you have created a villain unlike any I’ve seen, a man who can woo you with his charm one moment, then drive a stake in your heart the next. Is he completely your own creation, or did you ever know such a creature?

GW: Ted Bundy and Charles Manson were guideposts. Bundy was very charming and very monstrous, but he kept his two natures divided. Manson did not; the eerie thing about him is his consistency. Both of them had high IQs (Manson’s was high-normal, Bundy’s was in the gifted range), and both were adept at getting women to do their bidding.

What I really wanted to put across with Sam is this: he believes, to the core of the core of his being, that he is a good father. I suspect he even believes he’s a great father. To the end, this is his conviction, and it’s what sets him apart from Bundy and Manson, both of whom knew, to some extent, that they were horrible people.

During college, I interned with the head homicide screener at the New Orleans District Attorney’s office. While observing a murder trial, I noticed the defendant had these flat, emotionless eyes that I’ve never forgotten. Just before I moved to France, I worked at a juvenile detention center, and there was a twelve-year-old convicted rapist: same eyes. Immediately following grad school, I researched an exhibit of court sketches at the UVA Law Library, meaning I read true crime for four months straight. I learned quite a bit about how common it is for a pleasant exterior to hide a capacity for real evil. I think Sam’s an amalgam of all the sociopaths I’ve met and read about, not all of them criminals.

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