Brenda Novak, author of Her Darkest Nightmare, is fascinated by the inner workings of the minds of psychopaths. This fascination is what inspired her to write the Evelyn Talbot Chronicles, featuring Hanover House—a maximum security facility in a small Alaskan town.
Ms. Novak was nice enough to take some time away from her research and writing to answer some of CrimeHQ's questions about Hanover House, what exactly fascinates her so much about psychopaths, what she's currently reading, and more!
Her Darkest Nightmare is set in a small town in rural Alaska. What was your inspiration for placing Hanover House in Hilltop?
I think the setting of a story is every bit as important as the other elements. I wanted to create a town that was so distinct it could almost be conceived as another character, and I felt a town similar to what one would typically find in Alaska would be perfect. Not only does it offer an insular community where everyone knows everyone else, placing Hilltop in Alaska enabled me to create another antagonist (besides the psychopaths that reside at Hanover House). Not only must my characters face off against some pretty scary human villains, they have to do it during the kind of brutal winters that occur in such a place.
Also, the vast differences between Alaska and Boston, where Dr. Evelyn Talbot is from, enabled me to showcase her homesickness and the difficult adjustment moving to such a remote place would require for someone like her, as well as her intense determination to reach her goals in spite of that and everything else.
Hanover House is a maximum-security mental facility focused on treating psychopaths. Can you tell us a little about your research on psychopaths and serial killers for this book?
The research for this series was fascinating! I've always been a student of human behavior. I think my preoccupation with people and why they do what they do has been a great help in creating my many characters over the years.
But probably the most interesting thing I've discovered is that a lot of the research flies in the face of what most people would like to assume. Although it's so much easier to believe that someone turns into a “monster” because they were mistreated or abused as a child, that isn't always the case. Some people are simply born the way they are—so intensely narcissistic that they use others like pawns just to get what they want and feel no compunction whatsoever for doing it.
Also, many serial killers have wives and children who are oblivious to their terrible deeds. I've always wondered how that could be (how they could seemingly love a wife or a child while murdering someone else's wife or daughter), until I came across a recent study that showed psychopaths aren't “devoid of empathy,” as was once thought. They can feel empathy if they want to. They simply compartmentalize better than most people (can switch it on and off). That was revealing/groundbreaking to me. And there's so much more!
Even the question brings up a good point. It states that Hanover House is focused on treating psychopaths—but it's not! Psychopaths can't be treated. They can be studied in hopes of figuring out how to treat them, which is what Evelyn Talbot is doing.
Currently, however, all attempts to “socialize” such people (teach them how to behave with and around others) have backfired. Inmates who received such training actually had a much higher recidivism rate than those who didn't, because it simply helped them get better at figuring out how everyone thinks (and thus made it easier to conceal their crimes). Psychopaths don't feel and react to emotion the way a normal person would, so they have to fake it, or we'd find them lacking (which could potentially give them away).
What was the hardest part about writing Her Darkest Nightmare?
Now that I've finished almost 55 books, I have a little experience with creating a story. I've written easy books, and I've written hard ones. Fortunately, this was easy.
I think it's because Evelyn Talbot responds to what happened to her in the way I believe I would respond—with a gut-deep need to fight back as well as understand. Were I her, I couldn't just get over what she went through and go on with my life. I'd have to figure out why the boy who was supposed to love me (my high school boyfriend) didn't feel anything except pleasure when he started to torture me; how I could get the best of someone like that in the future so that I couldn't be treated in the same way; how and why psychopaths think like they do; and what the rest of us can do to counteract them. I identify with her anger and determination as well as the sense of injustice she feels, so this book almost wrote itself.
What's your favorite line from Her Darkest Nightmare and why?
I don't have one favorite line in particular, but because I enjoyed the research so much, I also enjoyed pulling quotes from interviews with various psychopaths, which I have used at the beginning of each chapter. These statements provide a window into the souls of some of the worst serial killers—showing how completely unrepentant they are and how they’re ambivalent to the suffering they've caused. It also shows that these men would commit the same types of crimes again, if only they had the chance. Most of those I quoted make it very clear that they enjoyed doing what they did (such a hard concept for me to grasp, which only furthers my fascination).
What do you want readers to think or feel when they finish Her Darkest Nightmare?
As a novelist, my primary goal is always to entertain. I hope that readers finish the book and say, “Wow! When will the sequel be out?” I also hope they are as fascinated by Evelyn's work as I am and are interested in how she is trying to overcome her demons and build a life with the man she loves.
So what's next for Evelyn Talbot and Hanover House?
I'm almost afraid to answer this one for fear of giving too much away. Evelyn is certainly not going to let her detractors get the best of her. She's going to continue to fight for the knowledge she believes the world needs in order to get ahead of the psychopathy problem. (And, on a more personal note, she might consider having a baby with Amarok.