By John Gilstrap
Remember that time you were walking across the parking lot and you got a weird vibe from the guy who was approaching from the other direction? You passed without incident, but in the fraction of a second when your last chance to run evaporated, you felt a rush of genuine fear.
How about that time you turned around in a crowd and didn’t see your child in the spot where you last saw him? Remember that fist that formed in your gut?
These moments of anxiety happen to all of us. They make our heart race, but after the moment passes and the adrenaline levels normalize, most people move on with their lives. They laugh the moment off and push it back into their memory.
I don’t do that. I can’t do that. For as long as I can remember, I’ve never been able to do that. I think that’s why I’ve always had a passion for writing stories, and why those stories have always been thrillers. My imagination churns all the time, and a disproportionate part of that churning stirs up bad thoughts, bad people and bad places.
Case in point: When I was in elementary school (we’re talking mid-’60s), a neighbor of ours—Colonel Fitzmaurice—answered the door one evening and was murdered in his foyer by a blast of buckshot at point-blank range. I remember what the walls looked like. His murder remains unsolved to this day. From that moment on—up to and including the present—a knock at the front door puts me on the defensive. Sure, we have a peephole, but if you pay close enough attention, you can catch shadows changing through the lens as someone approaches. A smart murderer knows this and would just shoot through the door. At that range, the door might as well be open.
Between the ages of ten and thirteen, I survived two devastating structure fires. In the first one, my entire family had to be rescued from the roof of my grandmother’s apartment building because of multi-alarm fire that began in the basement of the electrical supply store below. (Interesting irony: as the firefighter was helping me down the ladder, he burned my bare shoulder with his cigarette.)
As frightening as that fire was, it didn’t come close to the incident three years later when we fled for our lives in the middle of the night from an inferno at Split Rock Lodge in the Poconos. Amid the confusion in the hallway as sleep-rattled hotel guests pushed toward the exits, I became separated from my family. I think that was my first blast of true panic. We finally reunited outside. We stood there for hours, shivering in the cold as the lodge burned to the ground, taking all of our belongings with it. (Adding insult to injury, when the Red Cross finally arrived to pass out clothes, the only shirt small enough to fit me was actually a woman’s blouse. Emma Garvey’s name was stitched into the collar. That’s the day I first became aware that women’s clothes button differently than men’s. Funny, isn’t it, the things you remember?)
So, given all of that, what did I do at my first chance? I became a firefighter and EMT, and over the course of fifteen years, ran thousands of emergency calls, where my mission was to walk into the worst moments in people’s lives and bring order to their chaos. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s the most fulfilling job on the planet. That remaining one percent, though, can tear your soul right out of your body if you let it.
You don’t talk about it, because talking doesn’t change anything. You get past the bad stuff by concentrating on the good stuff. It’s the only way you can be ready to help people on the next call.
But it all stays with you.
I write thrillers about normal people who get caught up in extraordinary circumstances. I write about fathers and mothers and children who somehow find the will and the wherewithal to suck up the panic and fight on. They’re heroic, but they would never consider themselves to be heroes. Mostly, they would consider themselves to be survivors.
In At All Costs, for example, the Donovan family encounters some of my most vivid fears, from the loss of their son’s love to the prospect of imprisonment for a crime they didn’t commit. There’s a scene in the middle of the book that reflects my greatest fear from back in the days when I was a hazmat emergency responder. If you’ve ever been zipped into one of those Level A moon suits (we called it a body bag with a window), you’ll know where I’m coming from. If you haven’t, well, you probably won’t want to.
The bottom line is this: I write thrillers because they’re the only stories I know. If I exorcise a few demons in the process, that’s okay, too.