People always ask novelists, where you get your ideas? I think that's a great question, and I know exactly where I got the idea for my novel Every Fifteen Minutes. I happened to be thinking about the darker chapters of my past - at about the same time I heard the statistic that one in twenty-five people is a sociopath.
I thought to myself, I think I knew a sociopath.
In fact, I think I dated a sociopath.
But I didn't realize it at the time, and I started to wonder why.
So I got busy and started researching. When I research any novel, I always start with books. I learned that a sociopath doesn't have to be a psychopathic killer, like the murderous wife in Gillian Flynn’s terrific Gone Girl or the forensics expert Dexter Morgan, of the TV series based on Jeff Lindsay’s compelling novels.
On the contrary, I learned from Dr. Martha Stout's The Sociopath Next Door that most sociopaths don’t commit murder, but simply act in their own ruthless self-interest, all the time. Then I devoured a copy of an E. M. Thomas’s Confessions of a Sociopath, a memoir written by a woman who has been diagnosed as a sociopath, and I learned that sociopaths are super-smart, lucid, and even insightful. From Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, I learned that a sociopath is just as likely to be a CEO as a killer.
After I did my homework, I interviewed two psychiatrists, and I asked them this critical question: “How would you, an expert in mental illness, not be able to recognize a sociopath in your midst?”
They both answered the same way: “Because sociopaths can really fool you.”
So I knew I had the perfect antagonist.
But what about my protagonist? Who would be my hero?
I read Dr. Robert Hare, who wrote the seminal book on the subject, Without Conscience, where I learned that the sociopath’s brain is the polar opposite of the brain of an anxious person. The amygdala is the brain center of human emotion, and the sociopathic brain has an underactive amygdala, whereas a person with anxiety has an overactive one. In a thermal MRI image, the amygdala of a person with an anxiety disorder will be a flurry of colorful, super-heated activity. But the amygdala of a sociopath will be a cold, black hole.
As soon as I read that, I knew who would make the perfect protagonist.
So I developed the character of Dr. Eric Parrish, a psychiatrist who heads the psychiatric unit at a major suburban hospital, but has a personal history of anxiety disorder. Eric has worked hard at overcoming his illness and he's become a wonderful husband and father, but no one knows about his past.
In a different novel, this would be a battle between a good guy and a bad guy to see who wins - but that's not the case in Every Fifteen Minutes. Eric doesn't realize he's being targeted by a sociopath, so he can't win. He doesn't even realize he's in a very lethal game. So the question becomes, will Eric figure it out before it's too late? And at the same time, readers will try to figure out who is the sociopath in Eric’s world.
Would you know?
Or would you be fooled?
In a review of the novel, Publishers Weekly said, “Many characters who seem to be gunning for Eric are likely candidates for sociopathic diagnosis. Once the red herrings are dispatched, the identity of the culprit who plots his downfall is a genuine surprise.”
So Every Fifteen Minutes is a novel, but it's also a guessing game.