Tea Tonic and Toxin: Mystery and Thriller Podcast and Book Club

Carter Wilson – The Father She Went to Find

Carter Wilson - The Father She Went to Find - Interview with Tea, Tonic & Toxin Book Club and Podcast (Carolyn Daughters and Sarah Harrison)
Carter Wilson - The Father She Went to Find - Interview with Tea, Tonic & Toxin Book Club and Podcast (Carolyn Daughters and Sarah Harrison)
Tea, Tonic, and Toxin
Carter Wilson - The Father She Went to Find

The Father She Went to Find by Carter Wilson

Colorado psychological thriller novelist Carter Wilson joins Sarah and Carolyn to discuss his book The Father She Went to Find.

Learn More: Read more about Carter Wilson.

Get Excited: Check out the 2024 book list.

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TRANSCRIPT: The Father She Went to Find by Carter Wilson

Sarah Harrison
Welcome to Tea Tonic & Toxin, a book club and podcast for anyone who wants to explore the best mysteries and thrillers ever written. I’m your host, Sarah Harrison.

Carolyn Daughters
And I’m your host Carolyn Daughters. Pour yourself a cup of tea, a gin and tonic, …

Sarah Harrison
… but not a toxin …

Carolyn Daughters
And join us on a journey through 19th and 20th century mysteries and thrillers, every one of them a game changer. We have a great episode today.

Sarah Harrison
I know it’s gonna be really cool. Our guest is Carter Wilson.

Carolyn Daughters 1:01
I’d love to introduce today’s sponsor. Our sponsor is Grace Sigma, a boutique process engineering consultancy run by our own Sarah Harrison. Grace Sigma works nationally in such industries as finance, telecom and government. Grace Sigma uses lean methods to assist in data dashboarding storytelling training, process visualization and project management. Whether you’re a small business looking to scale, or a large company whose processes have become tangled gray sigma can help you can learn more at gracesigma.com.

Sarah Harrison 1:41
We have such a cool guest today.

Carolyn Daughters 1:43
We have an author that we have wanted to talk to for a while now.

Sarah Harrison 1:47
And this is our first on-location interview.

Carolyn Daughters 1:51
Now, this on location is outside Boulder, Colorado. What we’re envisioning is further like in the future, traveling around the country and around the world. We’re gonna go wherever these authors are.

Sarah Harrison 2:04
Wherever they want to fly us to.

Carolyn Daughters 2:07
That was a key part missing from what I was talking about. You do have to get us there. Our author today is Carter Wilson. Carter is the USA Today bestselling author of eight critically acclaimed standalone psychological thrillers. He’s an ITW thriller Award finalist, a five-time winner of the Colorado Book Award, and his works have been optioned for television and film. He lives as we said, outside Boulder, Colorado. Dynamic and compelling, he now hosts his own podcast, Making It Up, interviewing authors like S.A. Cosby, Daniel Handler, Stuart Turton, and Julie Clark to talk shop and riff an original story live. The result is a charming, authentic peek into the writing process. And I think that podcast is in its third year now.

Carter Wilson 3:02
Welcome, Carter. So happy to be here. Thanks for coming all the way up to my home.

Sarah Harrison 3:07
Your home is awesome. I have the pleasure of summarizing the book we’re going to discuss today, The Father She Went to Find. Penny has never met anyone smarter than her. That’s par for the course when you’re a savant, one of fewer than 100 in the world. But despite her photographic memory and super-powered intellect, there’s one mystery Penny’s never been able to solve. Why did her father leave when she was in a coma at age seven? And where is he now? I’m finished 21st birthday she received a card in the mail from him just as she has every year since he left. But this birthday card is different. For the first time ever. There’s a return address, and a goodbye. Penny doesn’t know the world beyond her mother’s house in the special school she’s attended since her unusual abilities reveal themselves. But the mystery of her father’s disappearance becomes her new obsession. For the first time ever, she decides to leave home to break free of everything that has kept her safe and to use her gifts to answer the questions that have always eluded her. What Penny doesn’t realize is she might not be able to outsmart a world for more complicated and dangerous than she’d ever imagined.

Carter Wilson 4:29
Thank you for reading.

Carolyn Daughters 4:30
This book has not come out yet.

Carter Wilson 4:34
Nope. April 2, 2024.

Carolyn Daughters 4:38
And it’s getting a lot of good press.

Carter Wilson 4:41
I think it’s getting received pretty well. I don’t track it too closely because there’s only so much you can do about it.

Sarah Harrison 4:49
Does it make you crazy to like, read people’s reviews? It would stress me out.

Carter Wilson 4:54
You get used to it over time. Coach writing as well, that’s one of the things that I always talk to my students about is to embrace rejection, embrace, criticism because it’s going to make you better. If you let it get to you, it will get to you, and you will, it will stop you in your tracks as a writer. I know people who just can’t. Sharing your work is the hardest thing a writer has to do. The more you do it, the easier it gets. You’re producing a commodity. So it’s important what people say about it. If everybody hates the ending of your book, that informs you, maybe, for the next book.

Carolyn Daughters 5:31
Here are two reviews. Hank Phillippi Ryan, USA Today bestselling author, writes “A Beautiful Mind takes a life and death road trip in this battle of wits, maze of psychological suspense, and heartbreaking family drama. I was riveted to every page.” And then Kirkus Reviews has a starred review, “Buckle your seatbelt. This is one wild ride.”

Carter Wilson 5:57
It was exciting to get that one. Starred reviews are very hard to come by.

Sarah Harrison 6:02
What is a starred review. I listened to one of your podcasts before coming here, and that one also contained a starred review.

Carter Wilson 6:09
A few trade publications like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly review some books. A lot of books they don’t review. So you’re happy just to get a review, hopefully a good one. If they star it, that means they really are calling it out. And that’s important to an author because this all happens pre-launch, right? So that means Barnes and Noble is looking for starred reviews as they decide which titles to buy. Kirkus is notoriously stingy. I’ve never had a starred review from Kirkus until this book. That was a big get for us.

Carolyn Daughters 6:45
Congratulations. You started this journey with this book with a question: Who the hell is Penny Bly? Can you walk us through a little bit about where this character came from and how this character evolved? And how did you end up with this book with this character?

Carter Wilson 7:10
That’s a good question. This was my pandemic book. If you talk to different authors, they’re all gonna have a pandemic book. And maybe their thoughts around that book might be a little bit different than some of the other things that they write. But I don’t outline, so I never know what the book is. But I usually know the opening scene. I have this very clear vision of the opening scene, even though I don’t know who these people are or why they’re doing what they’re doing. But that was not the case with this book. Usually about three-quarters of the way into a book, something will start occurring to me about a next book. And in this case, I thought of this woman. Aall I knew is that she was 21 years old, and I knew she was a savant and that she had become a savant through physical trauma, which is called Acquired Savant Syndrome. And I knew that she was living basically in this institute. I didn’t know anything else about her. I didn’t write anything down about her. Every day, I would think about her. And six months later, when I sat down to write, I’m like, Okay, I’m still thinking about her. So that begat that question, who the hell is this person, and what’s her story? So I wrote an opening scene without really having anything in mind. And it felt, right. So I write that opening scene, and then what? And that’s how I write books. So I don’t know the ending or anything like that.

Carolyn Daughters 8:38
She stays in this facility the entire book.

Carter Wilson 8:42
Not much happens.

Carolyn Daughters 8:43
Arts and crafts, she reads some books herself, she wanders the grounds. Now, that’s not what this book is. So that’s the launching point of of this bigger story that you’re going to tell. So you’re going to start her here. And then how did you figure out what happens next?

Carter Wilson 8:57
Well, the other thing I knew, I guess, is that it was going to take place in 1987. And I think that ties into it being a pandemic book. And I think if you talk to a lot of authors, while they were writing in 2020 and 2021, a lot of us had this yearning for nostalgia, right. I was 17 in 1987. That felt safe. And that felt good to me. I wanted to write about that period. And as you start writing you realize that that period was just as messed up as any other, which is great if you’re a thriller writer. But this book in particular had a lot of changes. One thing that I really suffered from in this book is I typically write first-person present tense. That’s how I found my voice, and I connect to the characters that way so much better. And I second-guessed myself on this book. I was like, I don’t know if I can be in this person’s head that much.

Sarah Harrison 9:59
Because she’s a savant?

Carter Wilson 10:01
She’s so unlike me. She’s turning 21.

Carolyn Daughters 10:15
She’s female, it’s 1987. So there’s a lot going on. And then she’s a savant.

Carter Wilson 10:24
So I wrote the whole thing in third-person past tense. And then my editor is like, I am not connecting to this character at all. And I realized, she’s already hard enough to connect to, and then I made it that much more difficult. So I ended up ultimately rewriting the entire manuscript and changing it to first-person present tense, which is a lot more than just changing the verb tense. The voice completely changes. That was a four-month-long process. But in doing so, a lot of the scenes changed. Some of the connective tissue became a little bit more solidified. This is why it has been two years since my last book has been out. This one was particularly challenging, made so by myself.

Sarah Harrison 11:10
That’s interesting. Do you often come up with characters that are similar to you, different from you?

Carter Wilson 11:17
It’s interesting, because I most often write from a female point of view.

Sarah Harrison 11:23
Oh, that is interesting. Why is that?

Carter Wilson 11:25
Well, my first few books, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was really fortunate to be published, I got a lot of feedback from family and friends, like, Oh, this guy sounds just like you. And that would really annoy me. So I wrote, I think, my third novel from a female point of view, and the world opened up to me. I’m like, This is amazing. I feel connected to this person. And I don’t feel like it’s that difficult, because I try not to overthink it. And then a couple books after that I did first-person present tense, solitary figure, female point of view. And I loved it. I alternate, but most of my books now are from a female point of view.

Sarah Harrison 12:12
How do you access the female point of view? And you would naturally write from yourself? Is it even different, or is it just you female-ized?

Carter Wilson 12:23
I think that’s a good way of putting it. Because if you overthink it, if you think, well, what would a man do in this situation? I think that’s the wrong way to go about it? I think it’s like, what would a human being do when faced with this situation? And I try not to overthink it. My partner is the person who first reads my manuscript. She’s a woman and my agent is a woman, my editor is a woman, my critique group has female members. So I get great feedback. But I think it’s usually not calling out specific differences. That’s important. At least to me. But I really enjoy it.

Carolyn Daughters 13:05
We talked last month with Barbara Nickless.

Carter Wilson 13:07
Oh, she’s great. I love Barbara.

Carolyn Daughters 13:09
She said the same about you. And in the book that we read of hers, her character has dwarfism. I think that’s how you say it. We were talking about coming from a human perspective, instead of saying, Okay, this character is very different from me. How do I figure that character out? It’s like, okay, I’m building this human being, basically from the ground up.

Carter Wilson 13:33
Totally. And I think it also depends on each individual author’s natural wells of empathy. I think if you have deep wells of empathy, it’s easier to write from a different perspective, easier to write first-person present tense, for example. But then you’ve got to be careful about what perspective you write from because you don’t want to represent something that has lived in experience so different than yours, that you think you can speak for them. But I will watch a show with a female protagonist, and it usually connects to me a little bit more. I think it’s usually better written at least than a lot of the male POVs.

Sarah Harrison 14:20
Do you have a particular show in mind or generally speaking?

Carter Wilson 14:24
Generally speaking. It all depends, right? There are great shows all around, and that’s where I get a lot of — I don’t know if inspiration is the right word, but I don’t read a lot of thrillers. But I watch a lot of thriller shows, and I think that the female perspective is more interesting, but I think it’s usually better handled.

Sarah Harrison 14:49
So interesting. Well, that makes me think of Penny, on the topic of savant. Do you know any savants? How did you acquire this insight? Has a savant review this book?

Carter Wilson 15:05
Not that I’ve seen. It’s actually interesting because my copy editor, when it got to that stage in the publication process, is she has autism. And she picked up on it. She’s like, Oh, Penny’s autistic, and that’s how she’s a savant. And I’m like, No, that’s not true. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that she’s not autistic. But she definitely demonstrates or presents as autistic in certain ways, certainly, with the lack of eye contact and matter-of-factness. But it was important to me that she had Acquired Savant Syndrome.

Sarah Harrison 15:44
Why was that important?

Carter Wilson 15:46
Because it’s much more rare.

Sarah Harrison 15:50
I had actually never heard of it.

Carter Wilson 15:51
When I say Penny is one of 75 in the world, that’s pretty true. So there’s not a ton of research on it. But I remember seeing shows. Like I remember, and I even referenced in one of the books, this kid on Letterman who was a savant who stood up there and recited Pi to like the 300th decimal. Wow, that’s amazing.

Sarah Harrison 16:15
Nobody can even check that.

Carter Wilson 16:17
But I did enough research.

Carolyn Daughters 16:19
It was actually wrong.

Carter Wilson 16:23
I’m just making up numbers. I did a lot of research on it as much as exists out there. And like all authors, I took liberties with some of the abilities. Like, I really wanted her to see numbers as colors. Because I have heard of that associated with savantism. But I love that idea. I think it’s so fascinating. I wanted her to have that ability. But I also didn’t want her to be infallible.

Sarah Harrison 16:58
She is definitely not that.

Carter Wilson 16:59
Probably about 80% in I realized this book was about her fear of abandonment, essentially. And secondarily, it was about, can all the smarts in the world help you once you walk out your front door?

Sarah Harrison 17:12
Only very minimally.

Carter Wilson 17:14
No, it’s not. This is not a superpower.

Carolyn Daughters 17:20
It’s not the end all be all, like, I’m super smart, and therefore everything falls into place in my life, and everything is simple.

Carter Wilson 17:26
No. And in fact, things might actually get worse because of how smart you are. Because you don’t have the street smarts that you’ve develop over time to know when danger is right in front of your face.

Sarah Harrison 17:39
One of the things she did a lot was talk about being smart. And that really threw me for a loop. She’d be like, I’m super-duper smart. I am one of 100. And she kept bringing it up to almost every new person she met. Tell me about that tendency of hers.

Carter Wilson 17:58
That was definitely a byproduct of her being told that her entire life, and she’s so isolated in this institute where they schooled her and they study her, and they treasure her. And then she goes home and suffers the slings and arrows on her mother’s abuse. She clings to all these good things that are being said about her, and then she’s like, Okay, that’s it. She has no filter.

Sarah Harrison 18:29
I was wondering myself, is she a little autistic? Or does she just not know how to interact with people?

Carter Wilson 18:34
She’s definitely socially awkward. As a mixture of how her brain works, and her lack of social interaction for all these years. She hasn’t had a lot of practice. She says what’s on her mind. And people are like, that’s kind of annoying. That’s a challenge when you write a character like that. She can be unlikable. You want readers to care about the character. And that’s sometimes hard to do when somebody is totally unrelatable and is in your face about things.

Carolyn Daughters 19:13
That was one question that I had. Nobody likes the guy who says he’s the smartest person in the room. But I do like Penny. It sounds like abandonment issues and other challenges she’s going to undergo in this story, that these are intentional parts of her journey that you want to explore. Is this a way for readers to identify with her and be like, Okay, I get where she’s going, or I’ve felt something similar? How are you connecting readers to her? What were you doing with intention to connect?

Carter Wilson 19:45
There’s very little intention on my part. For me, if I start thinking about the readers are going to like this, or the readers need that. I lose my way very quickly, because you get so absorbed in that. First and foremost, I write the story that I want to write that entertains me and most importantly, brings me joy in the act of writing, and then you hope. But then you go back and you edit and you realize, okay, she’s a little bit distant. So you layer things in, but then it’s all about the feedback from the team around you, who tells you, I can’t connect with her at all. And then you start to make changes.

Sarah Harrison 20:26
Did you have any of that where your team couldn’t connect with her?

Carter Wilson 20:29
My editor for sure. So that’s when I went and rewrote it in first-person present tense. And then I remember I gave her 25 pages and showed it to her. She’s like, Oh, there’s Penny. And I’m like, okay, good. And I eased up her language a little bit. And I actually had her use some profanity, all of a sudden,. Not a lot. But I did make her a little bit more grounded.

Carolyn Daughters 20:59
She’s not completely sheltered as if she hasn’t been around people or had any experiences. She’s able to have conversations with people and she adapts a little.

Carter Wilson 21:10
Right. If you think of Seven from Stranger Things. She’s not that. There’s a relationship between her and Seven. She’s a little bit of that. She’s not totally different. Finding that balance is never easy.

Carolyn Daughters 21:29
Penny has this artistic ability, where she can draw someone. And in the act of drawing, she’s discerning things about that person. I had never thought of this as my desired superpower before. But I thought, this is really cool. Because you can know if a person has good intentions, bad intentions. You can know a range of things about this person. Penny’s out in this world, which can be scary. She’s trying to figure out if the people she’s interacting with are safe. Are they dangerous? Are they somewhere in between? I loved this particular characteristic. And wish I had something like that. I think that might be my superpower. If I could choose one.

Carter Wilson 22:22
The drawing was important to me. First of all, I wanted her to not know how she could do it. I didn’t want her to be I’m so smart that I can do this drawing. It happens that she literally sees dots on a piece of paper and connects the dots, for lack of a better term. And it creates photorealistic images. And then as she’s creating this image, which might not look like the person in terms of how they’re looking in the moment, she sees them in what she considers to be their true nature. Whether or not that’s their actual true nature or not, who knows, but it’s how she sees it. So it reveals it to her. And that helps give her some clues along the way. But she can be wrong, too. I didn’t want to make it like the supernatural power where she knows the absolute truth from this process. But as long as she believes it, that was interesting to me.

Carolyn Daughters 23:14
She doesn’t normally draw herself, I think.

Carter Wilson 23:17
No, she’s scared to.

Carolyn Daughters 23:20
And also not Dr. Brock, who we meet very early on in the story. To me, those two details seemed significant — knowing oneself and also knowing that this is the person she interacts with most and probably trust the most and is perhaps a father figure to her. She’s not drawing him either. Are there dangers associated with knowing too much about yourself or others? And she’s aware of those dangers?

Carter Wilson 23:49
If you had the ability, or the way that she resonates with it, if she had the ability to read somebody’s mind, would you want to do that with your spouse? All of a sudden, like, Oh, this is how they really think? I’d rather be ignorant about this.

Sarah Harrison 24:04
I would definitely read that mind.

Carolyn Daughters 24:06
You would?

Sarah Harrison 24:07
I just always want to know everything. If I could read a mind, no mind would be safe.

Carter Wilson 24:12
I think Penny is too worried. She’s so scared of being disappointed that she doesn’t want to do that. And then she is ultimately disappointed by Dr. Brock. She’s trying to cling to whatever relationships she has, and she doesn’t have many,

Carolyn Daughters 24:31
If there’s some evidence out there that maybe he’s not in her camp, she doesn’t want to know about it. She doesn’t want to know about it. But Sarah, I want to know, so you now know what your friends, your neighbors, your family, your spouse, your kids are thinking. What do you do with data that either doesn’t sync up with what you thought to be the case or is just outright devastating?

Sarah Harrison 25:05
I’d make some modifications. I am a scientist.

Carter Wilson 25:10
I’m a data junkie.

Sarah Harrison 25:13
Awesome. You get the data, and I would try to use it in a scientific way. I’d like to think that’s how I handle difficult emotions generally.

Carolyn Daughters 25:22
So you wouldn’t fall into a corner of the room and cry?

Sarah Harrison 25:26
I would at first, but then I’d take it as feedback when I behave good or bad, or evaluate who my actual friends are. I don’t think I could not do it with that kind of power.

Carolyn Daughters 25:42
For you, it would be a stepping stone to personal improvement.

Sarah Harrison 25:45
I think so. If I’m actually being terrible, and my husband secretly hated me, I would want to make some changes.

Carolyn Daughters 25:54
That’s true.

Sarah Harrison 25:56
I could then know exactly when I was the most irritating instead of being a bit clueless, which I often am.

Carter Wilson 26:03
And I think Penny already knows so much, that she’s just like, I don’t have to know everything.

Carolyn Daughters 26:09
That’s true. Penny has so much data. That maybe she needs to draw a line and say there needs to be some mystery.

Sarah Harrison 26:16
It’s hard to take that perspective. Many scientists cannot separate themselves from their processes or from their data or from their theories. And to be able to do that and say, Okay, that was all wrong. It’s a very valuable skill. But you have to practice that emotional distancing to say, I’m going to treat this social interaction like data. Whoops — that didn’t go over.

Carter Wilson 26:43
Because you’re naturally looking for that confirmation bias.

Sarah Harrison 26:46

Carolyn Daughters 26:48
Can we talk a little bit about mothers and fathers?

Carter Wilson 26:54
I had a totally normal childhood.

Carolyn Daughters 26:57
We figured you did. I mean the mothers and fathers in this book, generally speaking, are not exemplary people. There are a few exceptions. Sarah and I were talking on the way here about a character named Leo in the book. He has a father named Arthur. We won’t get too deep into this because we don’t want to spoil the book. But Arthur might be one of the better parents in this book. And that took me by surprise. Talk mothers and fathers in your book.

Carter Wilson 27:33
I think most of my books, or at least the last several, have been labeled “domestic suspense” because I do write a lot about families.

Sarah Harrison 27:39
Is that a category?

Carter Wilson 27:41
It is a category.

Sarah Harrison 27:44
Awesome. I’m learning new categories all the time.

Carter Wilson 27:48
Thrillers that are related to the family. Where the stakes revolve around the family themselves. I might have to get the squirt gun out for the cat.

Carolyn Daughters 28:00
For those who are not seeing this, we have a cat who has been stalking about.

Sarah Harrison 28:04

Carter Wilson 28:04
This is what happens when you go on location.

Sarah Harrison 28:06
Visit our YouTube channel, and you can see the cat.

Carter Wilson 28:12
But I don’t know, I find myself struggling to write happy families.

Sarah Harrison 28:17
Why is that?

Carter Wilson 28:19
I don’t know why. I think inherently I like the idea of conflict. But that’s not a blanket statement, because I have plenty of novels where there’s one parent who’s like, that’s my rock. It doesn’t come from anything in my childhood, even though my mother asks me about it all the time.

Carolyn Daughters 28:43
“What did I do wrong?” She wants that mind reading capability or that insight like, are you trying to tell me something in this book?

Carter Wilson 28:53
Penny’s mother is pretty awful. But she’s awful for a reason. The thing that interests me the least is to have a caricature. You’re looking at Penny’s mother, and you’re like, This is a terrible human being. And you find out later, well, this is a damaged human being. As we are all capable of being. But I also wanted Penny to have that much more of a reason to want to leave. Like she didn’t have that as her foundation to stay.

Sarah Harrison 29:25
It was interesting that she does seem to prefer the absent parent. She almost idolizes him and has all these interior conversations with him. Obviously, she’s going to find him. Talk about that dynamic.

Carter Wilson 29:41
Penny doesn’t remember anything before she fell down a set of stairs when she was seven. And she remembers everything by the second from that day on. Her father left while she was in a coma after this fall, so she woke up, and her father’s gone. Now all she has are these very watery memories that come to her every now and then. I think that creates this presence that is comforting, especially because her mother is awful. And even though as far as she knows he abandoned her, he sends her a card every year and that’s enough for her to cling to this image and romanticize him. That ultimately culminates with her fear of abandonment and the reason that she leaves to go find him because at some point, she’s like, I have to do something on my own. I can’t just have my whole life with things happening to me. I need to go do something about it. He’s the MacGuffin in the story, that thing that she’s chasing.

Carolyn Daughters 30:48
He’s the Maltese falcon.

Sarah Harrison 30:50
Don’t say that. Julie Rivett said it’s not a MacGuffin, remember?

Carter Wilson 30:55
I thought that was where the term came from?

Sarah Harrison 30:59
We talked to Dashiell Hammett, granddaughter, Julie Rivett, and she said it’s not a MacGuffin.

Carter Wilson 31:07
Wow. That’s cool. My cat is named MacGuffin. We call him Guff?

Carolyn Daughters 31:14
That’s amazing. So the MacGuffin, this is big thing that Penny is going to seek. She has this letter from her father, and she wants to go find her father. And this is going to motivate her journey in this book. The book to me feels a bit like a bildungsroman. We’re getting this sense of her in this starting place, where she’s been in this facility. She can leave the facility whenever she wants, she can go home or whatever she wants to do. But the facility has been her safe place for a very long time while she’s been studied and maybe cultivated or nurtured by this team, who are trying to pull insights out of her. And then she’s going to start this journey of self-discovery, I would say. It’s hard to talk because MacGuffin is trying to help me. It’s a journey of self-discovery. She’s going to be different at the end of this book than she was at the beginning.

Carter Wilson 32:23
I think that’s true. That wasn’t necessarily my intention. Because I don’t like that idea that your character has to change. I don’t believe that.

Sarah Harrison 32:32
More about that. That’s interesting.

Carter Wilson 32:34
I don’t like rules like that. You’re like, oh, it’s got to be a three-act structure, it’s got to be a hero’s journey, that they have to change. If they do change, that’s interesting. But you can read a book and be like, oh, this person was really trying to follow the rules. And to me, that becomes very two-dimensional because I don’t care about the character or what happens to them. If Penny changes, great. If not, I’d like to know why.

Carolyn Daughters 33:01
The potential for change, then they don’t have to change by the end of the book. But if they’re static from page first to page last, then I think we, as readers, might ask why we’re following this journey.

Carter Wilson 33:14
100%. Totally. I think if they do change, it has to be an organic process. Otherwise, I think it tends to come across as a little bit flat. And does she change a whole lot? I think she’s changed enough to know different things about the world. But she’s still who she is, for better for worse.

Sarah Harrison 33:40
That’s interesting. That reminded me of a review I heard a while back of Bill Murray characters and Chevy Chase characters. Like Bill Murray’s characters always tend to have growth. Chevy Chase almost always stays this terrible person from beginning to end.

Carolyn Daughters 33:59
Or the same delightful person. Like in Christmas Vacation.

Carter Wilson 34:08
That is interesting. Ultimately, it’s what works. I think you you read a bunch of rules about fiction. And I was just having this discussion about point of view, for example. You’re never supposed to shift point of view within the same chapter. But I was just revisiting a James Clavell novel the other day, and he totally does that, and it totally works. I think that’s the only thing that really matters. Does this work? And if it doesn’t work, then you start looking at the different things. But rules are made to be broken, right?

Carolyn Daughters 34:38
Does it work? If it works, it’s right.

Carter Wilson 34:40
Right. Before we started recording, we were talking about genre. I recently interviewed Ramona Emerson, who was long listed for the National Book Award. Her book, even on the back cover, defies genre. And I’m like, well, was that a problem when you were trying to sell it? She’s like, huge problem. Huge problem. But then she found an editor who’s like, I love this book. And that’s really what matters is you have somebody who champions it, who can be in the industry. But she’s like, this is my book. I’m not going to change it, because this is very personal, and I love it. And it worked out great.

Sarah Harrison 35:20
Awesome. Speaking of genre, are you a thriller writer by intention or happenstance?

Carter Wilson 35:28
I started writing when I was 33. And I had zero background and zero aspirations to write.

Sarah Harrison 35:34
You’ll have to elaborate on that.

Carter Wilson 35:37
I was taking a class, I was a business major, I worked in hospitality consulting for decades. And I had an appraisal license, because I was appraising hotels. You have to take these continuing education classes. I was taking this eight-hour long class when I was 33, and I was bored out of my mind. To pass the time, I posed myself a riddle. I just made up this little murder mystery riddle, this stupid little thing that came into my head. I passed the time by trying to figure out the answer to this made-up riddle. I couldn’t figure it out. So I went home, and it started nagging at me. And I’m like, Okay, let me start figuring this out.

Sarah Harrison 36:17
Wait, did you make up the riddle and couldn’t figure out the riddle? That’s interesting.

Carter Wilson 36:23
The riddle is — if three people are murdered at the exact same time, in the exact same manner, in different parts of the world, what’s the connection? I don’t know why that popped into my head. So I’m like, What is the story that answers this question. I couldn’t figure it out. So I started writing and writing and eventually I was writing a book. I didn’t tell anybody I was embarrassed. But in three months, I had a 400-page manuscript. And I’d never written in my life. There are two things I knew at the end of that: (1) that the book was terrible and (2) that was something important and to be curious about. Like, why did this happen? Why am I supposed to be a writer, is that the whole thing that I didn’t know. And I haven’t stopped writing since. I got an agent with that first book. My first three books didn’t sell. But I realized that like, I love to do this. I can’t picture myself not ever doing this. I’ve been writing for over 20 years and just slugging away at it and learning and getting better and trying to figure stuff out. So that’s how all that began.

Sarah Harrison 37:37
That brings us back to the first question: are you a thriller writer?

Carter Wilson 37:42
When I got the agent with that first manuscript, she said I had written a thriller. And I said, Okay, I didn’t know. It was just a story that was interesting to me. I’ve always been labeled a thriller writer, sometimes overlapping with horror, some of my earlier stuff, domestic suspense, domestic thrillers, psychological thrillers. But again, I just set out to write something that entertains me. That’s why all my books are standalone, because I’m so excited about a whole new world, a whole new cast of characters. And I like conflict. And I like my hero, whoever they are, to hopefully prevail at the end. But I want to see them struggle to get to that point. Because when you’re writing, especially you’re writing from an intimate point of view, what you’re really doing is saying, what would I do in this situation? And it’s exciting to write really messed up situations and safely put your own brain in there. And try to figure out how you would handle that. What does that fear actually feel like? For somebody who is not used to this. Most of my characters don’t have Liam Neeson’s special set of skills. They’re not equipped to deal with these things. So I think that just becomes a thriller by default. So I’ve been told.

Carolyn Daughters 39:08
Can you share this riddle again?

Carter Wilson 39:12
If you’re gonna ask me for the answer … I don’t know if I would remember it, but it was three people getting killed at the exact same time in the exact same fashion but in different parts of the world.

Carolyn Daughters 39:23
Chaos versus meaning is actually a big theme in the book The Father She Went to Find. So this thing is part of your story, like the story you’re telling, probably in a myriad ways. But this is probably not your first time talking about chaos versus meaning in the universe, I’m guessing.

Carter Wilson 39:47
It’s funny because I tend to write the same way I wrote that first book, which was, I might know the opening and then I don’t know anything else. And I just pluck away and like, what would I do next? I love the idea of the whole Get Smart chaos versus control, the idea that you’re really not in control. It’s how you frame or view being out of control. That’s important, because that’s going to inform how you move throughout the world. Once you accept that, that gives you the confidence to make decisions that might be tough to make. That’s when I think about characters growing. That’s what I like — I like them to have those kinds of realizations. In the case of Penny, it’s a way of her looking for closure. But it’s also her realizing that control is a myth. And there’s comfort in knowing that, because if you spend your whole life obsessed with control, it’ll eat you alive. And so getting to that place of peace and letting go was important for her, almost to the extent of like, I don’t even care what happens to me, because I’m at peace with myself. So that’s her journey. And that I think that idea repeats throughout my books.

Sarah Harrison 41:10
That’s interesting that you’re in this conversation, positing chaos. And this is going to be a complicated question. So bear with me. There’s chaos in control. As Penny was thinking about chaos versus meaning, she would sometimes try to find a meaning. Control is obviously a thing that she’s thinking about. But also, is there a meaning in what’s happening to me? Or is it all chaos?

Carter Wilson 41:42
Well, I think the search for meaning is the search for control. Right?

Sarah Harrison 41:47
Oh, do you think so?

Carter Wilson 41:49
Absolutely. If you think about faith, for example, the idea that I believe in something that has this meaning is comforting to me. And that lets me control my life a little bit more. Because if you just thought that we’re all creatures on this spinning planet with zero purpose, it’s horrifying. A lot of people can’t handle that thought. So they want to exert that control a little bit. You search for that meaning.

Sarah Harrison 42:16
As a religious person, I hadn’t thought about it that way. A lot of times, it’s probably a whole spectrum of how people are religious to themselves. But sometimes when you have a faith, there’s a comfort and understanding that you don’t have control.

Carter Wilson 42:37
That you’re putting the faith in God.

Sarah Harrison 42:38
So maybe in a sense, there’s an emotional control of comfort, but not necessarily a situational control of action.

Carter Wilson 42:48
I know just enough to be dangerous with religion. The idea to me of religion almost being founded to give you comfort about what happens when you die, for example.

Sarah Harrison 42:59
Sort of ultimate control, like end-of-life control.

Carolyn Daughters 43:03
Salvational control. Like, I know I’m gonna be okay.

Carter Wilson 43:06
I’ll be okay. Because the idea of not knowing anything — and that’s the ultimate lack of control — is horrifying. You see faith grow through the idea of like, this is what happens. We’re all good. As long as you follow these rules, it’s going to be fine.

Sarah Harrison 43:24
That’s long, long game. Well, then, I want to overlay with another thing that Penny was struggling with, which seemed to be good versus bad. She would ask, Am I good? Am I a good person? Are they good? Are they a good person? Are they bad? It’s a binary category. But then also, what does “good” mean in the context of chaos and meaninglessness?

Carter Wilson 43:52
Not a lot. And the thing for Penny is Penny hasn’t experienced much nuance in her life, right? She has consumed thousands of books but not had so many personal interactions where somebody’s being mildly deceptive with you. She’s not picking up on it, or she’s picking up enough to know it doesn’t feel right. But does that mean they’re bad? Or does that mean I just don’t have the receptors to accurately judge what’s going on here. To me it was an exploration of a child coming into the world. You have all this stimuli coming at you, and you have to judge, like, Oh, that’s hot when I touch it. I don’t like that. MacGuffin is just vocalizing now. He’s an exceptionally loud cat. So hopefully he will start belting into show tunes.

Carolyn Daughters 44:50
Say the world is chaos. And we just have to maybe learn and to accept that, or Penny has to learn to accept it in this book. What do you do when “there be dragons”? How do we protect ourselves? What is Penny doing to embrace the chaos?

Carter Wilson 45:12
I think that’s the fun part of writing this. I knew she was going to go out into the world, and it was not going to go well. And that excited me, because things break down really quickly. You are not using that side of your brain, you’re not using the reason side. You’re using the instinctual side of your brain. And that’s what I wanted to explore. What are her instincts? I don’t know what she’s going to do. So I love the idea of like, okay, I am just going to become good. Her whole life, she’s one of 75. And now she’s like, I am just like everybody else. I am just meat. And I am going to die unless I do something about this. I love that idea that you’re not special unless you can survive this this situation. And I love the idea of her coming to that realization and being like, Alright, I guess this is how the world works.

Carolyn Daughters 46:14
Let’s talk Denver a little bit. Like Denver is one of the many settings in the book. City Park of course, and then there’s a place in California, Westlake Village. But there’s also a Westlake Village in Broomfield, Colorado.

Carter Wilson 46:30
Westlake Village in California is actually where I grew up. So I wanted that to be a location.

Sarah Harrison 46:43
What about the Minnesota location?

Carter Wilson 46:45
I normally write about locations I don’t know anything about because that’s most interesting to me. So this was rare in the sense that I had both Denver and Westlake Village as locations, which is fun for me. But going back to, “oh, that sounded just like you,” I don’t want to like write about things that I know. I don’t know why.

Carolyn Daughters 47:08
Because it’s more fun to dive into something new, maybe?

Carter Wilson 47:11
I think so. And I think I pushed back against the whole idea of writing what you know. I love the idea that, no, you imagine things.

Sarah Harrison 47:18
I sense a “don’t tell me what to do” vibe.

Carolyn Daughters 47:22
Exactly. I’m noticing that theme, too.

Carter Wilson 47:25
Okay, I’ll give you that.

Carolyn Daughters 47:27
And the Brown Palace is in the book. It was cool. I’ve done high tea there. Sarah, I know you have I’ve had high tea there. And you’ve stayed there.

Sarah Harrison 47:35
I did stay there once.

Carter Wilson 47:37
One of the reasons I even wanted to put Denver in there was that it was on their way. So it made sense geographically. But Denver was notorious air pollution in the 80s, it was one of the most polluted cities in the world, because of just how the geography around Denver is formed. And I wanted to write about the pollution because I think that would surprise a lot of people. You walk outside of the Brown Palace and see the brown sky.

Sarah Harrison 48:03
Makes sense. There were some cool 1980s snippets. I remember Sizzler. I loved the pudding.

Carolyn Daughters 48:13
We used to go on the weekend, sometimes, my family.

Carter Wilson 48:16
I had to edit a lot of stuff out because I had a scene in an arcade that probably went on for 25 pages. It was just so much fun to write. And I’m like, alright, that’s a bit much. I did research into how the malls looked back then. It was great.

Carolyn Daughters 48:40
The book has reading group questions at the end.

Carter Wilson 48:42
My publisher always does that. I love that. It’s great.

Sarah Harrison 48:46
Did you come up with the questions?

Carter Wilson 48:50
No, somebody who works at the publisher gives me the questions. I’m free to add some or change some. And I just take them and answer them.

Carolyn Daughters 49:01
Now, I found them really helpful. I wish every book worth reading had them. Because even if you’re not reading the book at the same time as someone else, you can still engage with the questions.

Sarah Harrison 49:13
Or just listen to our podcasts. We always have discussion questions.

Carolyn Daughters 49:19
That’s one reason why we have this book club and podcast is because we didn’t want to just be siloed readers. There’s maybe even more joy that you finish a book you love, and you’re like I have to talk to somebody about this book. That’s part of the history of mystery that we’re doing. We loved those questions. And then there’s a quote that you had about the story being ultimately about happiness. And I thought that is an interesting extension of all the ideas we’ve been discussing in this episode. We’ve talked chaos. And we’ve talked to about is there meaning or is there not, and Penny’s development or lack thereof. She may change during the book, or she may not. But talk about happiness.

Carter Wilson 50:13
I was reading a book about Churchill that was during the Blitz years of World War II in London. And there being this correspondence from a woman who had just barely survived German shelling, and her saying how happy she was. This just absolute brilliant happiness that she had, even though there was blood all around her. I love the idea of duality. I am so fascinated by that. Of course that makes sense that you’re going to be so happy because you’ve just been reduced to the basis of human nature. And from that wells the greatest emotion. And her emotion was happiness. And I just love that idea. Because in my mind, Penny has spent her whole life content, but flat, you know. She was never exposed to things that elicited strong emotions from her, if she’s even capable of strong emotions. I love the idea that you’re out in the real world, and you’re going to feel the extremes. And that might beget fear and horror, and it might beget happiness. Either of the things you’ve never really experienced before to this extreme. For her, it ultimately became a sense of wanting to know what that feels like. So it was a search for that emotion through the guise of searching for father.

Carolyn Daughters 51:46
I like that. I want to talk a little bit about your podcast and learn a little bit about what you’re working on next. Your podcast is called Making It Up. Talk about Making It Up. Naming is always interesting to Sarah and me. Tell us a little about your podcast.

Carter Wilson 52:16
It was born out of this idea that, first of all, I like talking to other writers, because I think it’s interesting. But having done a lot of interviews myself, and this interview that we’re having right now is not like what I’m about to describe …

Sarah Harrison 52:29
No, this is the best one.

Carter Wilson 52:31
Having a lot of interviews where they have very stock questions, like, name the three authors that you want to have dinner with living or dead or whatever. And I just hated that, because you’re not learning anything about me. I want to know about you. the person. That was the idea. Basically, I’m going to have you on, we’re not going to talk about your book. Instead, we’re going to talk about you, your journey, your childhood, all of those things. And how did you become a writer? And how does that feel to be a writer? What things have you gone through as a writer. And then at the end of the episode, we make up a story. I pick a book off my bookshelf.

Sarah Harrison 53:11
I listened to that. You have a jam writing session.

Carter Wilson 53:15
I did that once with somebody, and it was fun. What’s so interesting to do with other authors is to see how their brain works. Sometimes it works great. Sometimes it’s a struggle sometimes. And they’re always nervous. I’m always nervous.

Sarah Harrison 53:31
I was nervous on everyone’s behalf. He’s gonna make her do that?

Carter Wilson 53:37
To a person, they’re all great sports about it. And it’s maybe two minutes long. We make up a story, but we just alternate sentences using a sentence from a book. That’s where “making it up” comes from. But it also comes from the fact that I don’t have questions. I don’t come prepared. I’m like, hi, nice to meet you, tell me about your childhood. I just react to what they say. So it’s been great. It’s been a lot of fun.

Carolyn Daughters 54:04
I’m thinking of that, too. You come prepared to have an organic conversation. I think, as you said, we show up to a cocktail party together and like,” hey, what do you? Oh, you’re an author. Oh, tell me about that.” So you’re having this conversation. But also like making it up in the sense that you’re talking with probably fiction writers, mostly. You’re creating this thing from whole cloth.

Carter Wilson 54:27
Mostly fiction writers, but I’ve definitely had journalists, nonfiction writers, poets, historical fiction, that kind of a thing. So it’s fascinating for me. I’m always curious to see the common thread between all of them. When you start talking about like, when you were a kid, do you have a memory of like, oh, I want to be a writer. And there’s usually not that, but there’s usually a teacher who they can name, first and last name, to this day. Maybe they still keep in touch for them. They gave him some kind of inspiration. Or they were voracious readers. And there’s a lot of commonality of like, I was an Army brat, or for whatever reason we moved around a lot. Books were my friends. You see that a lot with the writers. More often than not, they pursue it, they think about it for a long time. But then they do something else because they’re smart. I feel like if you’re a writer, it’s going to come out of you one way or another, despite your best instincts. I think what happened with me. I never knew I was a writer until that day when I was 33. And that’s why I didn’t ignore those instincts. Because I’m like, I think this is important. I think if I just wrote one book and felt like, Oh, that was kind of weird. I think that would have been a waste. I think so. Because it does give me purpose.

Carolyn Daughters 55:52
And what are you working on next?

Carter Wilson 55:54
So my next book comes out in January. And it’s a podcasting book no less.

Sarah Harrison 56:01

Carter Wilson 56:02
It’s Tell Me What You Did. And it’s a really messed up and dark book. A 30-something female podcaster who’s very successful. Basically, she brings on guests she doesn’t know, and they confess something to her. And if she believes them, then they have a conversation about it. And then the episode will air and they’re totally anonymous. And she has a guest on who confesses to murdering her mother. And you find out that she actually witnessed her mother murdered when she was 13 years old. And so she doesn’t know if this is actually the podcaster

Carolyn Daughters 56:39
The podcaster experienced this?

Carter Wilson 56:42
Yes. It’s very dark. And it’s actually the first time … actually I put QR codes throughout the book. I wanted to see what she looks like. So I hired this actress to actually do scenes for me. And then you get to that scene and you read the scene. And then immediately you scan the QR code and you can see her doing that scene. It’s basically her on her podcast. It’s a lot of fun.

Sarah Harrison 57:10
Are you gonna start a podcast like that?

Carolyn Daughters 57:13
I’m scared at the idea. Wow.

Carter Wilson 57:20
So and then I’m co writing a YA,a dark YA thriller right now with a buddy of mine. I have no idea where it’s gonna go or what’s going to happen with it. But so far, it’s been a lot of fun to write.

Sarah Harrison 57:31
I’m ready to ask a bunch more questions, but we’re at the end of our time.

Carolyn Daughters 57:36
We would love to talk to you again after those books are published. I’m particularly interested in the co-authoring. That process seems fascinating. I can’t unload the dishwasher together with my husband. So that’s amazing. We would love to talk with you further.

Carter Wilson 57:56
I’d be happy to have another conversation.

Sarah Harrison 57:59
The book is called The Father She Went to Find. It’s coming out April 2. And where can people find you Carter, if they want to look you up or follow you on social media?

Carter Wilson 58:12
Visit carterwilson.com. And it’s got everything you want on there. And then links to my other site, carterwilson.com/the-unbound-writer, where I do retreats and one on one coaching. And I’m going to be launching some online classes as well.

Sarah Harrison 58:26
Check Carter out, look at all of his stuff. Get his book.

Carolyn Daughters 58:29
It’s a great book. We enjoyed following Penny’s journey.

Carter Wilson 58:33
Thanks. I appreciate the conversation.

Carolyn Daughters
You can learn more about all our 2024 book selections at teatonicandtoxin.com. You can also comment, weigh in, and follow along with what we’re reading and discussing @teatonicandtoxin on Instagram and Facebook. And you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Sarah Harrison
And until next time, listeners, be sure to stay mysterious.

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