Chris Pavone, author of The Expats, recently spoke with me about the role stalking plays in his suspense novel. While The Expats is a work of fiction, Stalking isn’t. It’s always a possibility in the internet world. Be careful!
In the cobblestoned streets of Luxembourg, Kate Moore’s days are filled with playdates and coffee mornings, her weekends spent in Paris and skiing in the Alps. But Kate is also guarding a tremendous, life-defining secret—one that’s become so unbearable that it begins to unravel her newly established expat life. She suspects that another American couple are not who they claim to be; her husband is acting suspiciously; and as she travels around Europe, she finds herself looking over her shoulder, increasingly terrified that her own past is catching up with her. As Kate begins to dig, to uncover the secrets of the people around her, she finds herself buried in layers of deceit so thick they threaten her family, her marriage, and her life.
By Chris Pavone
Let’s say suddenly you’re overcome with the urge to investigate someone. What would you do? You’d probably begin with Google. And Facebook, and Instagram, and LinkedIn. You’d jump around the linked trails of high school and college, professions and hobbies, friends and family, spouses and pets and vacations and favorite early-eighties prog-rock conceptual albums.
You’d be sitting around in your underwear—in your rattiest, dingiest, but softest T-shirt—unshowered and ungroomed, not even remotely red-carpet ready. Because why bother? What you’d be doing is staring at a computer screen, alone, talking to no one. Your only human interaction, such as it is, would be sending and receiving emails.
But what if you’re a fictional character? And you’re doing this in a book? Or a movie? Then things need to change. Because if there’s one thing that’s not compelling, it’s characters who don’t appear to be doing anything, saying nothing, moving nothing other than their right hands. Most readers and viewers would agree that this type of nonaction is unacceptably boring.
So fictional stalkers must behave in ways that aren’t exactly true-to-life. First of all, they need to get dressed and leave the house. They need to follow their subjects through streets; they need to drive fancy cars with blatant disregard for traffic regulations. They need to talk to people, chase people, flee from people. Sometimes they might need to climb out a window, high on a ledge, to break into someone else’s home. Not because this is how real stalkers act in the real world. But because this is entertaining for readers.
In fact, the same can be said about a lot of what happens in fiction: characters behave in ways that aren’t necessarily realistic. They explain their histories, and feelings, and intentions, so readers know what the hell is going on. Characters have in-person conversations that anyone in their right mind would have as an email exchange, because face-to-face dialogue is more interesting, more dramatic. And when fictional characters need to stalk someone, they put on trenchcoats and hats, and they go out into a picturesque world, ducking and hiding and running down rain-slicked cobblestoned streets, nearly getting caught.
A few years ago I started writing a book about my life as an expat in Europe. But after a couple months writing about my real life, and the real people who populated it, I realized something disappointing: I was writing a somewhat boring book. Not because my real life was boring; but simply because it was too real, and I spent too much time in my rattiest T-shirt, unshowered. So I added a CIA operative, and then a couple FBI agents, and then a Serbian arms dealer and a huge chunk of stolen money and a rich, complicated conspiracy of dishonest characters, all lying to the most important people in their lives.
And my protagonist needed to do some stalking. She began by trolling the internet, because that’s what real people do. But she ended up on a high ledge outside a window, because that’s what fictional people need to do.