Authors: Stories Behind the Books, Kevin O'Brien

March 15, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

After meeting Seattle Author, Kevin O'Brien, I had to ask the cliche question of, "How can someone so nice and friendly as you write menacing thriller novels?". To which he laughed and said, "I just enjoy it." To be honest I shouldn't have been surprised or stunned by his answer. I consider myself to be a generally friendly, happy-go-lucky gal with an excitement for a good scare just as Kevin writes. We both share a love for Hitchcock films and cat-n-mouse story lines that send audiences on adrenaline rides all for a good scare. So to recap, I still feel silly for having to ask. Kevin O'Brien gives a great interview about his influences, his near non existent sleep schedule, and a detailed explanation of how one of his books almost made it to the big screen.

Let’s start with my cliché question…In person, you are very welcoming, friendly and upbeat; so what made you choose Thrillers as your writing niche?  I guess I am leaning towards when we talked briefly about everyone having a dark side, but how is it fun to make these cat-and-mouse plot lines?

People who read my thrillers are always surprised that I’m not like Hannibal Lecter.  “You’re such a nice guy!” they say in amazement.  But even as a kid, I was interested in Alfred Hitchcock movies, The Twilight Zone, and things that scared me.  I’m still a huge Hitchcock fan.   My first two novels weren’t thrillers.  The second one, ONLY SON, was a tough sell, but once it sold, it did really well—with a film option and a deal with Readers Digest in several countries.  My agent advised me to try writing a thriller, because genre books are easier to sell.  “Plus, you love Hitchcock!”  So—I kind of tapped into that part of me that likes a good scare, and I used it in my writing.  I really had to tap into some dark places sometimes—and ended up scaring myself.  But that’s when I knew I was onto something—when I made those little hairs stand up on the back of my neck.  I wrote THE NEXT TO DIE (1999), which it became a USA Today Bestseller, and that sealed the deal. I’d found my niche.   

When you explain to a new audience of what you write about, do you get a weird look? 

Usually, it’s when I tell someone the plot of one of my books that I get the strange look.  For example, someone recently asked me about the storyline for DISTURBED (2011), and I started to describe it: “Well, the police are trying to catch this guy they call the Cul de Sac Killer, because he murders people in houses that are on cul de sacs and dead ends. He puts their bodies in closets throughout the house, and he steals the ‘No Outlet’ sign at the beginning of the block…” That’s when I got the wary look, and the guy backed away a bit.

Who or what is your inspiration for your storylines, characters, and themes?

A good author is always observing and imagining.   Often, I get a plotline after connecting a couple of totally unrelated stories I’ve read or heard (fiction or non-fiction).  My editor often throws ideas at me that same way: “I was on the subway, and thought it would be interesting to combine Black Widow and The Stepfather.”  So—I came up with this notion of a woman who keeps marrying widowers, and then ends up killing them and their kids.  From there, I had to start thinking about how she’ll pull it off, how this killing pattern fails to get the attention of the police, what her motivation is, and who will be my hero or heroine—the one to stop her.  That plotline became my 2014 thriller, TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY.

When do you do most of your writing?  What is your schedule like as a full time writer?

I’m a night owl and write mostly late at night.   This is ideal for me as a thriller author.  It’s easier to imagine creepy situations and plot developments when I’m writing at one in the morning.  Plus it’s a lot quieter—and there are fewer distractions.  During the day, I work on administrative stuff—answering emails, arranging author appearances, and self-promotion on Facebook.  As I get closer to my book delivery deadline, I write day and night to get the damn thing finished—by then, that’s what it becomes known as, “the damn book.”

You mentioned to me that one of your books was close to getting a movie deal, which I am sure is very exciting! Can you elaborate on that experience?

ONLY SON was a hard sell, and my agent decided to switch strategies. She'd been shopping it to publishers, but began to pitch it to producers, stars, and production companies, too.  We had a few nibbles and then finally, a solid bite from producer/director and writer (THE OMEN), David Seltzer.  He told us he needed to show the book to a leading man he had in mind--and if the leading man came aboard, he'd make us an offer.  He wouldn't say who the leading man was.  But apparently, the guy became interested, because Seltzer took it to MGM, and they agreed to produce the movie. 

It was then that Seltzer told us the leading man who wanted to be in ONLY SON was Tom Hanks.  This was right after PHILADELPHIA--with FORREST GUMP about to be released.  Hanks was the hottest thing around at the time.  I was ecstatic.  I never talked directly to Mr. Seltzer or Tom Hanks.  But I did get a very nice email from John Pielmeier (AGNES OF GOD) who was writing the screenplay. I had nothing to do with it.  But I did get a sizable check, which allowed me to put a nice down-payment on my condo.

Meanwhile, the movie deal got publishers (who had been uninterested for over a year) to notice ONLY SON.  Kensington bought it, and really gave me the first class treatment (I'm still with them...they're fantastic).  Meanwhile, Holly Hunter (like Hanks, she'd just won the Oscar that year) was "interested" in playing the female lead.  In interviews, Tom was referring to his next film project as very "unusual" for him--and he even told a funny story from the book on The Tonight Show. I was in heaven.  

Then it all started to unravel.  They said the screenplay needed work.  Tom Hanks decided to write and direct THAT THING THAT YOU DO.  They started going from one "interested" leading man to another, and they all eventually lost interest.  MGM had a change in hierarchy, and the project was officially dropped.

At least I got to keep the money.  It's set up so that they "option" the book--so no one else can get it--for a year to 18 months.  If principal photography had started on the movie within those 18 months, I would have gotten A LOT more money. But they let the option expire, and no one else picked it up.

I never got to see the screenplay. It's my understanding that the book writer is always the low man on the totem pole in these movie deals--unless the book is a mega-hit.  

Over what span of time did it take you to write 15 thrillers? Are you a fast writer or do you go back and forth a lot?

I wrote my first two books (one published in 1986 and the next in 1996) while working full time as a railroad inspector. I started writing full time in 1998. So—I’ve churned out a thriller practically every year since 1999. I start out slow every time I begin a book, but as the delivery deadline looms closer, I write faster and faster. There’s lot of sleep depravity close to finishing up.

How do you feel when you are due with a story and how much time do you give yourself between books?  Is it like you have to shake the previous one out of your system?

Well, I delivered my next book, YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE, in early-December.  When I turned it in, my editor emailed and asked, “Have you given some thought to your next book?”   So—I pretty much started jotting down ideas around Christmas time (Ho-Ho-Ho!).  I’m now writing an extensive outline—which is more like a condensed version of the book I’m proposing (with dialogue and description).  It usually comes in at around 90 pages.  I want to get it to my editor by the third week in March.  And of course, it’ll be tough to shake off the last book, because this week, I’ll also be going over the copyedited version of YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE, and then I’ll be writing stuff about it to promote it on my website.  No rest for the wicked!


Do you tour much around the country or mostly local?

My book tours are mostly local, here in Seattle.  I’ll also travel to different spots in Washington and Oregon.  Every year, I’ll promote a new book in Chicago, where I grew up—and I do that on my own dime.  Occasionally my publisher will pay for me to go to some big event in another part of the country—and that’s always fun.  This August, I’ll be a keynote speaker at the Killer Nashville book festival.

Anything else I forgot to mention or anything else you would like to add?

Yes, be sure to check out YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE at your local bookstore or favorite eBook venue on July 26, 2016.


To find more of Kevin O'Brien's work, please visit his website at

You can find Kevin's books available for sale at Seattle Mystery Bookshop in Pioneer Square, Queen Anne Book Company on Queen Anne Hill, The Elliot Bay Book Company in Capitol Hill and last but not least, on

I also want to thank my friends and professional peers for supporting me in this project as I continue along.


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