Megan Collins, author of The Winter Sister—which Kirkus Reviews called “bewitching”— is back with another psychological thriller Behind The Red Door, the story of a young woman, Fern Douglas, who returns to her hometown as news breaks that Astrid Sullivan, who was kidnapped as a child and returned unscathed, has been kidnapped again after the publication of her explosive memoir.
The twist: Fern thinks she might have witnessed the abduction and that repressed memories might hold the key to finding Astrid and nabbing the kidnapper. It was a delight to talk plotting and thrillers with Megan.
DD: I absolutely loved how you drop us right into the mystery on page 1. Do you naturally start there as a thriller writer or do you have to move the pieces around to get the suspense in the right place?
MC: My instincts as a storyteller are to begin as close to the inciting incident as possible. By the end of the first chapter, I want some sort of bomb—big or small—to have been dropped on my characters, so that the reader has a sense of the stakes right away.
DD: Ugh. Fern’s father Ted, the behavior psychologist and his “Experiments.” Talk about an unlikable character! At least the story is in first person from Fern’s point of view so we don’t have to be in his head. But he was in your head! How hard is it to write such a central character who is so completely unlikable?
MC: I hope this doesn’t make me sound too crazy, but…I actually really enjoyed writing Ted! In all my books, I think I’ve had the most fun writing the really unlikeable characters, because it allows me to enter a voice and perspective that’s so far from who I am, and in that, I feel a lot of freedom to let loose and experiment with the darker sides of humanity. With that said, Ted was definitely a big challenge because I had to highlight the ways in which he’s been a selfish, harmful father to Fern, but I also wanted to give the reader a sense of how he became who he is—and that means I had to have empathy for him to a certain extent, which: yikes.
DD: Because we have Fern’s story and Astrid’s story via memoir, in some ways you had to write two different books. There was a point in the excerpt from Ch. 4 of Astrid’s memoir when it struck me that you had completely nailed the two different voices that required two different writing styles. Can you talk a little about point of view and what drew you to these choices?
MC: I wanted Fern and Astrid’s voices to sound distinct from one another—so I’m so glad to hear you felt that was successful! Since Astrid’s perspective comes in the form of a published memoir, I wanted her to have a more literary voice, one that would allow me to be more graceful and lyrical with the language. Since I come from a poetry background, that was a lot of fun for me. With Fern, her thoughts are so dictated by her anxiety that I focused on making her narration a little choppier than Astrid’s. She often has short, staccato sentences, her thoughts broken into fragments, which is similar to how my own thoughts operate when I’m at my most anxious.
DD: Ted is certainly an abusive father who was an abused child himself. In your previous novel The Winter Sister you also tackle complex parent/child relationships. What is it that draws you to this particular dynamic?
MC: I’m really interested in the idea of the “bad parent.” We have such high expectations—and sometimes impossible ones—for parents in society so, as a writer, I like to push away from those expectations as much as I can. I love exploring these characters who do not treat their children the way we’d expect, and then I love exploring how that impacts the children as they try to navigate adulthood. Some questions that drive my work are: What legacy do our parents create for us? How beholden are we to that legacy? What would it mean—and what would it take—to break away from it?
DD: Ted tells Fern one story on repeat about a witch in the woods, which surprisingly doesn’t scare Fern though she is frightened by so much in her world. Do you believe this thought of Fern’s, that we “scare our children to prepare them for the world?” It really made me think about our current predicament with kids going back to school amidst a pandemic…
MC: I think we do scare children, to a certain extent, to prepare them for the world. There’s a line from Gilmore Girls where Lorelai recounts how, when Rory was a kid, Lorelai called the stove burners “the devil’s hands” and would tell her “Don’t touch the devil’s hands!” to try to scare her into not hurting herself. And I think the more frightening fairy tales—Hansel and Gretel, for instance—definitely have messages built into them that are there to safeguard children: don’t go off in the woods by yourself; don’t go into a stranger’s house. But speaking of Fern in this specific moment of the book, I think she has to believe that the way Ted treated her as a kid is acceptable, because if she admits that it isn’t, then that opens up a whole can of worms she isn’t yet ready to face—and so much about this book is her journey toward deciding what is acceptable and what isn’t, when it comes to caring for children.
DD: And then in Astrid’s memoir, she talks about the games children play that also include mysteries, dangers, and implied threats. What are we doing to our children, telling them these scary stories? What did you learn about Fear (with a capital F) while writing this novel?
MC: It really is a mystery to me where some of these children’s games come from. I only ever knew those games myself because other children taught them to me. But where did they originate? The language of the songs seems too sophisticated to have been created by a child, which means it came from an adult—and then was knowingly passed to a child. That’s chilling to me, and it’s once again why I’m so interested in exploring the impacts of “bad parenting.” In writing this book, I realized that Fear, along with our individual fears that are specific to each of us, is such a part of who we are, dictating what we do and don’t do, where we go and don’t go, and sometimes, that can actually keep us in a place that’s more dangerous than not. Despite Fern’s painful childhood, she still returns to her father at the very beginning of the book, willing to help him, thinking they can try for a different kind of relationship—all because she is so scared of the possibility she’s not willing to look at: that her father might not have ever been good for her.
DD: I was fascinated by the concept of The Break Room where Fern’s mother Mara glues down broken shards of pottery. I will admit that over the last months and years, I’ve wanted to break something to vent my rage. Where did this idea come from? Do you know of a Break Room? Can we go there?!?
MC: I wanted something that would show that Mara had also been affected by Ted’s behaviors, and from that, the Break Room was born. But she’s similar to Ted in that her work (art, in her case) is her singular focus in life, so instead of confronting him about his emotional abuse, she accepts it as a way to keep creating art. In that way, she neglects to pull herself, and consequently Fern, from it, and Fern in particular continues to become as shattered inside as the broken pottery glued to Mara’s floor. I don’t personally know of a Break Room that exists in real life, but I would love to visit one and take out some 2020-specific aggression!
DD: Like every good psychological thriller, Behind The Red Door has red herrings and misdirection that kept this reader on her toes (and on the edge of her seat when she wasn’t falling out of it). What writers in the mystery and thriller genre inspire you? What do you think the hallmarks are of a satisfying thriller?
MC: I’m very much inspired by Tana French (the master of character-driven suspense), Gillian Flynn (someone who takes unflinching looks at the darker sides of humanity), and Marisha Pessl (whose prose is as beautiful as her plots are compelling). I love thrillers that dig deep into the psychology of their characters and offer us glimpses of the darkness that lives inside all of us. Of course, I enjoy when a thriller surprises me, but most important to me is that it makes me feel something. The biggest twist in the world can easily fall flat if it doesn’t resonate with the story and character arcs in a meaningful way.
DD: I will confess that I don’t read a ton of mystery but when I do, I immediately fall into sleuth mode, looking for clues to try to figure out whodunit before it’s revealed. Do you read this way too?
MC: I think it’s completely natural (and half the fun!) to try to figure things out when reading mysteries. I do tend to read that way—I don’t know how anyone could stop themselves from doing so—but one thing that frustrates me is when people then look down on a book because they figured it all out before it was revealed. I say this all the time, but I’ll say it again: as a writer, I’m not out to surprise my readers; I’m out to surprise my characters. Hopefully, in surprising my characters, I do surprise my readers, but it’s more important to me to remain authentic to the journey of the characters who don’t or can’t see it coming because of something essential to their worldview.
DD: That’s a great writing tip: set out to surprise your characters and take your reader along for the ride! So, what are you reading? What are your writing?
Right now, I’m reading Christina Clancy’s gorgeous and page-turning debut, The Second Home, which takes place on Cape Cod and is filling the hole of the Cape Cod vacation I was supposed to take this summer, before COVID messed things up. I’m currently revising my next novel, scheduled to be out next year, which is another thriller about yet another dysfunctional family full of long-buried secrets that finally come out.
Megan Collins is the author of THE WINTER SISTER and BEHIND THE RED DOOR (Atria/Simon & Schuster). She received her B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Wheaton College and holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University. She has taught creative writing at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and Central Connecticut State University and she is Managing Editor of 3Elements Review. A Pushcart Prize and two-time Best of the Net nominee, her work has appeared in many print and online journals including Compose, Linebreak, Off the Coast, Spillway, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Rattle. She lives in Connecticut.