Aesthetic Press has posted this audio of me discussing my inspiration for my novel Not Your Mary Sue and reading the opening pages. Click the video to listen, or read the transcript below.
Hello everyone. I am Rebecca Frost. I am the author of my debut novel Not Your Mary Sue, which is coming out next June from Aesthetic Press, and I’d like to start out by telling you a little bit about what inspired me to write this book so you can kind of see where I’m coming from.
I wrote my dissertation about American true crime, and this was something that I seriously had to limit so the dissertation itself only looks at American true crime – it doesn’t look at any other countries – and it only looks at written true crime because I already had enough to go through from about the 1600s to the present without including television shows or podcasts or movies or any of that kind of thing. And it was already a couple of hundred pages long and my committee didn’t want to read any more than that. But what that really means is that I can pull these facts off the top of my head.
For example, if you yourself read a bunch of true crime, you’re probably already aware that the book will usually open with what’s called “the body discovery scene.” The crime has already happened, somebody has already been murdered, and it’s the description of somebody walking in and realizing what has taken place. Now this is not a recent phenomenon, actually – it dates back to 1783, something called The Beadle Narratives which tells the story of how William Beadle murdered his wife and children and then committed suicide. And it’s the first time that one of these written stories brings you into somebody’s private home and introduces you to the scene as the very first thing.
So, as you can probably tell at this point, I’m lots of fun to have around at parties because of those tidbits.
The other fun thing that happens it that somebody will come up to me and ask me “Oh, so you do true crime, so you know about Ted Bundy?” and the answer is “Yes, I know actually a lot about Ted Bundy. Do you want to narrow that down a little bit?” And one of the more fascinating things to me about Ted Bundy, which has bearing on my book Not Your Mary Sue, is the fact that one of the most well-known true crime authors got her start writing her book about Ted Bundy.
Of course I’m talking about Ann Rule. And if you walk into a bookstore nowadays and you take a look at the shelves of true crime, her books take up more than a single shelf. It just keeps going, all of these books by Ann Rule. She kept writing up until her death, and it’s just really fascinating to me because the origin story of Ann Rule becoming such an essential true crime figure is entwined with Ted Bundy.
In case you didn’t know, Ann Rule’s first book is called The Stranger Beside Me, and it was first published in 1980, so this was after Ted Bundy’s trial but she wrote it with different updates, for example after his execution and that kind of a thing. Ann Rule herself had been writing true crime beats previously – she’d been using a pseudonym – but this was the first time anyone had asked her to write a book.
What happened was, there were these murders happening in the pacific northwest, and they were called “the Ted murders” because of an event on Lake Sammamish where somebody heard this guy give his name as “Ted.” This was the day when two women disappeared and they were assumed to be victims of this so-called Ted character. And so Ann Rule was asked if she could write the book about these crimes. She knew she couldn’t finish it until the guy was caught and put on trial and all the rest, but she went and she was able to tell her friends and her family and, say, her former coworkers that she had this book deal. And one of her former coworkers worked with her at a crisis center hotline, and this friend was named Ted Bundy.
So what really you get in this book is the fact of how Ann Rule’s whole life changes when she discovers that her book about “the Ted murders” is actually about her friend. And so it’s not just the story about Ted Bundy and his crimes, as horrific as they might be. It’s how she knew him and he even knew that she was writing this book prior to even his first capture. (Of course one of the things about Ted Bundy is that he escaped from prison more than once.) And so she knew him and she had this expertise then because she knew Bundy before he was the Ted Bundy. Before he made headlines. Before all the rest of this.
And so that has been really interesting for me because you’re seeing how the true crime genre really works around this idea of the author having privileged knowledge of the subject, right? It’s not – you’re not just reading books about the person. You’re not just reading the newspaper reports. She actually knew him, you know – they went to Christmas parties together. She had sort of the inside view. And it’s somebody that you would think, being in the position of writing a book about the Ted murders and having her policing background, you kind of wonder “Well, shouldn’t she have known?” But the answer of course is that well, hardly anybody knew. The suspicion had to build. It really took a while before Bundy could be identified and then captured.
And so The Stranger Beside Me is really instrumental for me not just in writing the dissertation but in coming up with the idea for my own book. So we kind of put a pin in the true crime thing for now and switch over to another of my favorite authors in discussing the fiction side.
So this would be … Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, and in 2010 he published a novella called “A Good Marriage.” And in this story a woman discovers that her husband is a serial killer. And in the afterword to the story when Stephen King is talking about what inspired him to write it, he mentions the real-life serial killer Dennis Rader, also known as BTK. Rader picked this nickname for “Bind, Torture, Kill.” He wrote multiple letters to the police, he was in constant contact with them, he would taunt them … and he had also been married for decades at the time he was caught.
And so Stephen King looked at this case and he said “All of these people are really upset with the wife. Why didn’t she know? How could she have been married to this man for so long over the course of so many murders and not know about it?” And so he sort of did his own “what if?”, okay, taking on the point of view of the wife. What if you were a woman who discovered this about your husband? And this is even a case of a woman who hasn’t even been following the murders that closely. She knows the nickname but it takes her a little bit of time to connect everything together. But how would you feel and what would you do if you encountered this serial killer?
After reading “A Good Marriage” I ended up giving my first conference presentation about Stephen King’s relationship to seral killers. So this wasn’t just about his fictional [I meant supernatural] serial killers. IT is a fictional [supernatural] serial killer, whatever IT is – alien, monster, creature – that’s killing children, but I was looking specifically at any of King’s realistic stories of serial killers.
One of them that kind of gets ignored a little bit because the serial killing isn’t the central part of the story is his book Misery. It’s one of my favorites of his. And like I said, the serial killer isn’t specifically central to the story, because if I’m summing it up for you – if you’ve never seen or heard of Misery – it’s basically … an author gets into a car accident and his rescuer basically decides to kidnap him and keep him in her house. She’s a nurse so she sort of binds his wounds the best she can and then keeps him prisoner in this isolated Colorado house for months.
And she only discovers after she gets him home that he’s actually her favorite author. She’s reading the most recent story that he’s written about his main character, Misery, and he is very glad to be done with Misery because he killed Misery at the end of that book and he is so happy that he never has to write another Misery novel in his life. She, unfortunately, does not like this. Misery is her absolute favorite character and so she tries to strike a sort of bargain with him: if he can write her the next Misery novel, then she will let him go. And he’s very much a prisoner in this because both of his legs are broken. He eventually gets access to a wheelchair, but there’s no way for him to leave the house. Even if he could leave the house, it’s all muddy.
So you have this story that’s basically these two people. You have the author and the nurse who’s kidnapped him. They’re stuck in a house together and they’re sort of battling over this written document. She wants the story. He doesn’t want to write it – he wants to be done with it.
You find out later on in the book that Annie, the nurse, is a bit scarier than she’s even already appeared because she is a serial murderer. As a nurse, working with children … she killed a number of old people and a number of babies. She was caught and put on trial for the murder of these babies, but never convicted. So Paul, our poor author, is stuck and slowly realizing exactly how bad a situation that is.
And so I was kind of thinking about just this really interesting situation of [how] you only have these two people. It’s just these two people and the four walls of this house. How can you tell a story like that? How does that really work if you only have these two voices to tell? Maybe you can focus on the book that’s being written.
But then I sort of combined that with this idea of Ted Bundy and Ann Rule, right? So if you have two people together, one of whom is a serial killer, what if that serial killer knew he was about to be caught? And what if he had a very clear idea of how he wanted his story to be told? But he also knows that he’s not a writer. He doesn’t know the genre. He basically knows about Ted Bundy and that’s it. He doesn’t have any other information or any other knowledge.
And so, instead of accidentally kidnapping his favorite author, what if he purposefully tracks somebody down and kidnaps her so that she is stuck with him so he can tell her his life story? And his whole goal is that, when they leave the island, whenever that’s going to be, when he’s arrested, what if she can then go and write his story and turn it into a bestseller?
So that is how I came to this thought experiment for writing Not Your Mary Sue. And I’m going to read you the opening pages of Not Your Mary Sue.
I groan and clap a hand over my eyes. Stupid hotel room curtains. You can never get them closed. But at least it’s light enough that I’ll be able to find my way to the bathroom, because I really need to go.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed, but I’m tangled in the twisted blankets. And it’s not a hotel room – it’s my own private island getaway, except …
My hands drop from my eyes, and I freeze for a second, because it’s not just the blankets. There’s a manacle around my right ankle, attached to a chain with a small padlock. The chain snakes off to the door of my bedroom and disappears underneath it, which is curious. There’s a space for it. Either the carpenter who went to work on this place made a mistake, or it’s all part of some master plan.
I can’t ponder this for long, though, because my bladder tells me I have bigger problems right at this very second. There’s a door on the other side of the room, this one standing open, and I can see the toilet from here. The chain is long enough for me to stumble inside and sit down, but the door doesn’t close all the way. It has the same gap as the bedroom door, so it can clear the chain, but I didn’t push hard enough. Which really doesn’t matter right now, because it feels like I haven’t gone to the bathroom since …
Wait. This is the dress I put on yesterday. Dress and coordinating cardigan on top. Yesterday, when I first came to this island. At least, I don’t think it could have been more than yesterday. I’m weak, and shaky, and I bet my bladder was at full capacity, but I didn’t wet the bed. At least I made it all the way over here, so I can flush and wash my hands like it’s any other day.
Except … my toothbrush is in the wrong spot. I always put my toothbrush on the right side of the sink. Everything is here – toothbrush, floss, toothpaste, comb – but it’s on the wrong side. I reach for a towel, still frowning at my toothbrush, and then fumble for the light switch to get a better look around.
There’s no tub, and the shower is weird. It has a curtain on a curved rod, and there’s a rubber lip on the floor to keep water from going everywhere, but it doesn’t seem like a proper shower. It looks more like a thing you might find in the hospital.
A thing someone who did the doors might choose. The chain can slip under all the doors, and I can easily shower without having to pull it up and over the edge of the tub. I’ve crossed my arms without realizing, broadcasting my feelings in a moment of weakness, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this. I’m in a luxury cabin on a private island where the doors don’t touch the floor and the shower looks like it belongs in a hospital.
It makes little sense. I can change my dress just fine – that comes off over my head – but what about my underwear? Is someone going to come in every morning, unlock the cute little padlock, and wait for me to change into fresh panties? Ridiculous.
My shampoo, conditioner, and body wash are all on a shelf in the shower. The curtain’s pulled back, so I can see them. I slowly turn around and open the cabinet under the sink, trying to do a quick inventory of everything that’s there.
I don’t remember putting any of it there.
And my toothbrush is on the wrong side.
There’s a plastic cup sitting next to the faucet, and I fill it up with water. I have a headache, and I don’t think it’s only from dehydration, but I can pretend for a while longer. Pretend, and try to think, but this headache …
I remember the pontoon boat, and the man who had his three sons help me with my luggage. I’m here all summer, stuck on this island, so I ended up bringing quite a lot with me. They met me at the dock, or the pier, or whatever you’re supposed to call it, back on the mainland, but I don’t actually remember arriving here. Seeing the bedroom somewhere other than in photographs on the website.
The manacle. The chain. Neither of them makes any sense. I’m supposed to be alone on this island, and I can’t swim. It’s intended to be my own private retreat for meditation and healing, surrounded by Lake Superior and nothing else.
If I have everything I brought with me, though, then maybe … Still in a daze, I go back into my bedroom and start looking for my knitting supplies.
I’m cross-legged on the floor, the skirt of my dress pulled down to be as demure as possible, when I hear someone turning a key in the lock. And then undoing another. Apparently the one in the doorknob wasn’t good enough. I don’t look up, though, because I’ve almost got the padlock freed and I need just another moment of concentration.
There. The little lock was simple, and it comes off in my hands. I look up – and up; this man is over six feet tall – and recognize Jay Michael Robinson, the caretaker of this place. His picture was also on the website. “Have you already written the ransom note?” I ask him. My voice is a little rough – I could use some more water – but it comes out cleanly enough. Even if he doesn’t quite seem to know what to say. I remove the manacle and set it aside. “Or,” I suggest, throwing him a lifeline, “did he pay you extra to do this?”
It’s like his mouth has forgotten how to close.
I get to my feet, automatically smoothing my dress to make sure it doesn’t ride up. “Which is it? Is he paying extra for everything” – there are even bars on the bedroom windows – “or are you hoping he will?”
This man, whom I suppose I must’ve met yesterday even if I don’t remember it, keeps staring at me. In the website photos, when he’s posed and confident, he looks attractive, but right now his reddish hair is messy instead of purposely tousled, and he’s still having trouble with the hinge on his jaw. Then he takes a breath, straightens his shoulders, and nods once. “There’s no use in trying to escape. We’re on an island and you can’t swim.”
I blink. It’s like he’s reciting a line from an action movie. And also like he thinks I’m stupid. “So … he did pay extra? This is part of a package deal?”
“This …? No, you …” He shakes his head like he’s trying to find his spot in this carefully prepared mental script. “I’m your caretaker. Jay Michael Robinson.” Then he bows, putting one hand on his stomach and the other on the small of his back as though he’s recently re-watched The Three Musketeers and I’m handmaiden to the queen of France. “You are my guest.”
Maybe he thinks that whatever he gave me to knock me out has scrambled my brains. “Yeah, you inherited this place from your uncle. You rent it out over the summer to pay the taxes on it. Lots of rich people stay here.” I tilt my head. “Funny, though. None of the reviews mentioned the chains.” Maybe I shouldn’t be joking with him, but these things slip out when I’m nervous.
He gestures suddenly, a quick jab at my hands. “What’s that?”
I hold it up, a short wire with a loop on one end for a handle. “The key for my interchangeable knitting needles. It’s how you hold the cord steady when you screw the tips on. And look,” I add, bending to put it away so I don’t lose it, “I already know I’m stuck here, okay? Three months of nothing but rest and reflection, no cell phone service and no Wi-Fi, not to return to civilization until I’ve had a nice long time to think everything over.” And yes, the fact that I can’t swim absolutely factored into his choice of an island.
Jay blinks. “What do you mean?”
Oh, this could be bad. I look at him, not entirely straight on because I’m only 5 foot 4, but as directly into his blue eyes as I can manage. What does he know? It seems like he doesn’t know what I think he should know, if I’m waking up in chains, but then … what other reason could he possibly have for this? I’ve said nothing that could betray the secret – I haven’t had time to say anything – but if he doesn’t know, and that’s not the reason … “Why don’t you tell me why you went through all this trouble for me?” I suggest, slowly feeling my way through the words.
“Because you’re the last one. The most important one.” And he smiles, which lights up his entire face. He takes a step forward, bending down at the same time to lessen the height difference between us. “You’re where this all ends.”
So that is the opening of my debut novel, Not Your Mary Sue, out next June from Aesthetic Press. I really look forward to introducing you more to Marcy and Jay and exploring some of my beloved Upper Peninsula of Michigan, even if it’s just a tiny little island surrounded by Lake Superior. In the meantime, while we’re waiting for next June, if you want to get in contact with me I am krakengoddess on both Instagram and Twitter and my website is rebeccafrostwrites.com. Thank you.