Interview with Tony Wirt

See full issue for 2016 05-30

Tony Wirt's debut novel, A Necessary Act, is a gripping psychological thriller about the moral dilemma a sixteen year old boy faces when he realizes the school bully shows every early sign of becoming a serial killer. Should he do something to stop him before it's too late? Here, Tony tells us where the idea for A Necessary Act came from, and whether or not there is likely to be a sequel...

Can I ask you about the idea behind A Necessary Act; where or what did it evolve from?

The entire story came from the question that's on the cover - "Can you stop a killer before he starts?" Ever since I saw Silence of the Lambs as a kid, the psychology and profiling of serial killers - especially the idea that most of these monsters share the same traits from an early age - fascinated me. If we see these characteristics early, what can be done? Anything? And if so, should something be done?

I started exploring that in my writing, and ended up with a 20,000 word story I had no real plans for. It was way too long to be a short story and not near long enough to be a novel, so I figured it was destined for the drawer. But something about it kept me thinking, and I never put it away. Eventually I realized it could make a great second act. If I told what led up to it and what happened as a result of it, that could be an interesting novel.

This is your first novel. Are there others in the pipeline and if so, are they going to be in the same genre?

I have a head full of ideas and a few different chapter 1s written down, but I don't have a second book officially teed up yet. Good writing time is hard to come by during the summer, so I don't plan on officially starting my next book until the fall. When it comes, however, expect it to be another thriller.

Tell us about the writing process behind the novel. Did you plot the novel first, or did the events reveal themselves to you as you wrote it?

I can’t write in my house, because every time I get stuck for more than four seconds, laundry or some other chore starts calling my name. And no matter how much I insist that I can “think it over” while doing something else, it never comes true. If I get up from the keyboard, I may as well pack it in for the day. So I work at the local coffee shop. That way, even if I run into a roadblock, I have to sit there and work through it. More often than not that extra few minutes gets me through. Writing in public brings its own challenges, but it is nothing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and some LCD Soundsystem can’t cure.

As for plotting, I started with a very rough idea of where I thought things would go, but whenever I found myself trying to force certain actions on my characters, they always rebelled. Eventually I had to let them take the lead and they got me through it. The final ending was a surprise even to me, and didn’t reveal itself until I was about 75% of my way through the first draft. It was a real “eureka” moment.

The novel had a surprise ending, but was also left wide open in the final you have plans for a sequel?

As I was writing this book I never thought about a sequel, but as people read it I keep getting asked if there will be a Book #2. My goal was to tell the story, to answer all the questions I posed, and I think I did that. Of course that doesn’t mean the reader is going to know everything. I hope my book sticks with readers for a bit, gives them something to chew on for a few days after they have read the final chapter.

So I have no plans for a sequel. That said, if a truly interesting idea were to pop up while I’m doing laundry someday…

How did you get into the mindset of a character like Scott? Did you have to research the subject of serial killers, and if so, how did your research influence your writing?

I did a lot of research on the internet about serial killers, which led to some freaky webpages. Every now and then I would have to give my wife a warning. “OK, so I was doing research today just in case you come across something in the browser history about dumping dead bodies.”

Scott was definitely my favorite character to write. I’ve always loved great bad guys… Hannibal Lechter, Anton Chigurh, Darth Vader, so getting to play with a character like Scott was a blast. Basically, I just kept thinking ‘what would creep me out’, then have Scott do that.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve been writing since I was a kid. My parents recently dug a few boxes of my childhood stuff from their basement, and one was full of stories I had written in elementary school. One particular gem was entitled “Scared Stiff” about a group of kids who were scared to the point of petrification and could only be cured by a potion made with the hair of a panda. Gripping, isn’t it? I also found a series I wrote called “Murder on Maple Street”, which for legal purposes was in no way a cross between the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th movies written by a kid who was allowed to watch neither.

What genres do you usually read in? And can you tell us what books and authors have influenced your own writing, if any?

I go in streaks, but pretty much read anything. I’m a big music guy, so I just started Carrie Brownstein’s memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. I listened to a fair amount of Sleater-Kinney while writing A Necessary Act.

When I was in 7th grade I read Misery by Stephen King, and have been a fan of his ever since. His storytelling abilities have always been an inspiration. More recently, I read Caroline Kepnes’ You and was so impressed with her character Joe that I almost felt like quitting because there was no way I’d ever write a bad guy that good. Her follow-up Hidden Bodies was also amazing, and is the best example I’ve seen of a writer growing and adapting for Book #2. She could have tried to just write You again, and it probably would have been fine but nothing special, but she tweaked a few things that made You great but would have been stale in a sequel. The end result was a Empire Strikes Back-level follow-up.

What made you decide to take the indie route and how have you found it so far?

I tried the agent query process for almost a year and got about as good a response as I could get without getting signed. I’d repeatedly have agents ask to read my manuscript, then give me the “I like it, but without a ‘name’…” speech. Eventually I realized that self-pubbing was not only an option, but probably a better one. It’s hard work, but you get to be in control. My book’s been out for just over a month now and it’s been a great process.

What advice would you give to anyone writing their first novel? Do's and don'ts? What have you learnt during the process?

The first draft is all about effort. You have to treat it like a job. Block aside whatever writing time you can afford and protect it above all else. It doesn’t have to be a lot – when I first started it was three hours every Wednesday. But stick to it and get that first draft done. It doesn’t have to be good (and, no offense, it won’t be) but it will be the framework for your story. You can make it pretty and clever and exciting during the re-writes. Think of the first draft as building a house - you’re just getting a frame up. Your re-writes are decorating (and often remodeling) it.

Once it’s done, the two most important things are editing and cover design. If you don’t have professional help in each, you’re book will read/look amateurish. I originally thought I could get by with a few good beta readers and my own keen eye. I eventually realized I needed a professional set of eyes on my manuscript and it saved my book. I’d been trying to edit with bandages when I my manuscript needed surgery. After a twirl with Eschler Editing, I went from instant rejections to agents asking to read my book immediately. My beta readers noticed the difference too. All I needed was someone to stand up to me and tell me to cut 10k words that I’d assumed were essential.

Tell us three interesting things about yourself.

The town A Necessary Act takes place in, Lake Mills, IA, is a real town. I grew up there. My early drafts had a made-up name, but it was obvious I was drawing from all my childhood memories anyway, so I may as well just go with it. Most of the locations are real, except when I needed something else for the story. Then I just made it up. I’m trying to convince my dad to buy a bus and lead a Seinfeld-esque “Reality Tour” of all the locations used in the book.

I’m taking the time between novels to write a middle grade book for my two daughters. My grandfather had a cat who got out of the house and was missing for almost a month. We all assumed she was gone for good, until one day she was found. I’m writing about all the adventures she had while gone, and how she got back home. It’s WAY out of my writing wheelhouse, but that’s made it a perfect literary palate cleanser for when I start my next “real” book. It’s been a lot of fun, and if it ends up being as fun to read as it has been to write, I may end up publishing it. I’d use a different name, though, so as not to confuse any of my other readers. I wouldn’t want readers who liked my kitty book to be accidentally introduced to Scott Alston.

I was a sportswriter for the Daily Iowan during my four years at the University of Iowa. That newsroom has also produced two of my favorite authors in recent years - Chelsea Cain (Gretchen Lowell Series, Kick Lannigan Series, Marvel’s Mockingbird) and Justin Cronin (The Passage Trilogy).

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Chantelle Atkins

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