Pick up a copy of this week’s Entertainment Weekly (on newsstands now!) for book recs on “10 Great Summer Thrillers” perfect for the beach, including Charlie, Presumed Dead. And get to know a little more about the book and its author, Anne Heltzel, below! Anne will appear at Wellesley Books Wednesday, June 10th at 7 p.m. for you lucky folks in Massachusetts!
HMH: Charlie, Presumed Dead is a twisty psychological thriller. What drew you to this genre?
Anne Heltzel: My father is a psychologist, and I suppose that probably influenced my lifelong interest in psychology. For a period of time I entertained the idea of becoming a neuropsychologist. I don’t think this is unusual among writers—in order to understand character, you need to have solid emotional intelligence and an interest in human behavior and motivations. I can’t speak to exactly why I’ve been captivated by the darker aspects of the human psyche, but maybe it’s because they provide a more challenging puzzle to solve. I don’t like to feel mired in darkness, so I have mixed feelings about the genre as a whole; but I guess for me the allure was about needing to get answers to some basic questions about why people make the choices they do.
Kirkus compares Charlie, Presumed Dead to Gone Girl for “its elaborate twists and turns.” With each chapter, you peel back another layer of each character and hand readers another piece to the puzzle. Did you plot out the book before you started writing, or were you as surprised by some of the twists as we were?
I created a very broad outline and developed it further as I went. I definitely had specific moments and scenes I wanted to hit. A very smart writer whom I know recommended always stopping at a point when you have more to say, and I try to follow that advice when I’m writing. Often one chapter fed naturally into another, and after I stopped writing a particular chapter, I would outline the next 1-2. I was really worried about writing a novel that was so plot-driven, as my other two novels are more like psychological dramas. But I was surprised by how devious I could be once I got into that frame of mind! I did of course have to go back later and seed more clues and twists.
Have you traveled to any of the cities featured in the book?
All of them. I tried to write authentically, based on the way I experienced each city. I think you can tell which ones are my favorite, though, from how vividly I wrote about certain places as opposed to others. I lived in Mumbai for a year and a half, and it basically imprinted itself on my brain. I can recall it in more detail than I can recall Paris, even though I lived in Paris more recently.
What were the biggest challenges and rewards to writing in three different characters’ points of view?
It was really hard to distinguish between Lena and Aubrey’s voices. Lena and Aubrey are sort of mirrors of one another—they’re different sides to one personality. (Especially since the have a lot of latent personality traits that emerge along their journey.) They possess complementary qualities and could be a “perfect” pair, if they allow themselves to be. I wanted them to come together the way Charlie should have come together with one of them. They find with each other what they lacked with Charlie (minus the romance). But anyway—because I saw them as a unit, it was tough to break out their voices as distinct and separate.
Did you have a favorite?
Charlie! Maybe because I got to write Charlie so seldom, and his voice was so different from the other two. Charlie was a lot of fun to write. He’s such a weirdo. I’ve been told I write “crazy” well. That’s maybe a little disturbing to hear; but really I think it’s because it’s a no-holds-barred situation. Charlie got to reinvent himself each time he formed a new relationship or traveled somewhere new. In a sense, this is a fantasy for everyone. I loved creating new personas for him and eventually touching on his mental fragility.
What do you hope readers take away from Charlie, Presumed Dead?
I hope they see it as an entertaining read, and I hope that it’s empowering to some degree. I love the idea of friendship—a very positive relationship—emerging from something that could simply have been horribly damaging. Perhaps some readers will take from it that they should be careful with their hearts, trust their guts, and avoid letting a romantic relationship define them. I wanted Lena and Aubrey to realize, by the end of the book, that their lives are so much richer than what exists on the page (i.e. their hunt for Charlie and everything that ties into it). That’s a good takeaway, and there are also the themes of finding strength, setting boundaries, and achieving closure.