Author Q&A: Erica Ferencik, author of The River at Night

Photo: Kate Hannon

Today, I’m thrilled to chat with author Erica Ferencik about her action-adventure thriller, The River at Night (Bloomsbury, Jan. 2017)—a tense, fast-paced story about a girls’ weekend that ventures horribly off-course in rural Maine.

Erica, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me! Many action/adventure thrillers feature rugged male protagonists, but The River at Night focuses on four women who find themselves on a girls’ getaway that quickly takes a turn for the worse. What’s more, with the exception of Pia, Win and her friends aren’t the kind of people who seem naturally equipped to tackle the Maine wilderness. Can you share a little about why you chose ‘everyday’ women for your heroes?

In truth, if all the women were Pia-types, I don’t think it would have been much of a story! 🙂

I wanted the average reader, which come to think of it sounds a bit pejorative – but anyway, the average non-Pia type personJ – to be able to relate to the story. Whether or not you are aware of it, when you begin to read a novel or watch a movie, you are projecting yourself into the personage of the protagonist in an attempt to “find yourself” there, or at least elements of yourself in the protagonist that you can relate to, before you decide to stay on the journey (keep reading the book or watching the movie.) That’s what’s meant by the rather simplistic term “likeable protagonist.” She doesn’t have to be perfect, in fact it’s best if she’s more like us: imperfect, but you need to care about this person, about their fate, what happens to them.

While there is no shortage of thrills in The River at Night, it’s also a story about female friendships, specifically the kind that have developed and changed over many years. Why is that an important theme for you, and why did you choose to explore it in this type of story?

Female friendship has always intrigued me. Its very intensity can turn things inside out very quickly.

I especially love stories of female friendship gone wrong, such as in the 1992 film, Single White Female.

For me, the stakes in female friendship are just as high or higher than in romantic ones. We trust our women friends with so much intimate knowledge – why is that? Our hairdressers know for sure…isn’t that the truth. Why do I still share things with my women friends that I don’t with my husband of twenty-two years? Whatever the reasons, the higher the stakes, the more gripping the story.

Long term friendships can be a minefield. It’s such a delicate balance to keep these relationships alive, as well as intensely difficult to determine when or whether it may be time to end them, or to come to grips with the fact that – since everything changes – these cherished friendships must change as well.

So in writing The River at Night I thought: why not toss these long-term friends smack into the maelstrom of an ill-advised white water rafting trip in the Allagash Territory of Northern Maine, in the middle of 5000 square miles of unnamed lakes, forests, and rivers? How would the relationships devolve, what long-held grudges would explode to the surface? And finally, how would these women survive each other, much less an uncaring wilderness and the people they came upon in the woods who they believed would be their saviors?

The River at Night is also about people being forced to act outside their comfort zone, specifically it pits four city slickers against Maine’s vast, untamed landscape. Can you talk a little about the juxtaposition of the civil and the wild within the book?

Nature is a system of predators and prey; its concern is with its own dramas of life and death – not really so different from us at all, as we battle out our own survival of the fittest. So in this sense the natural world is indifferent to us; hopefully it will survive us. Certainly we will not survive its destruction.

I am fascinated by the thin line between the natural world and man. Of course we are a part of nature, yet with our houses, buildings, streets, cars and screens we are ever farther from experiencing the world of plants and forests and animals than ever before. Our big brains isolate us from elemental life, making us long for this primal connection at the same time we push it away for bigger faster brighter better. And we pay the price by a sense of loss we cannot define, an almost cell-level loneliness the latest gadget will never ease.

But – to answer your question 🙂 – I think many of us get that being in nature is a balm in many ways, but there is this tendency to romanticize the beauty and forget that the woods can kill you if you are silly enough to think you’re the boss.

Your descriptions of the river and the Maine wilderness are chillingly vivid. Why did you choose Maine for the setting?

I was fascinated by the fact that the farthest north I had ever been in Maine was Portland – about an inch of map space north of the New Hampshire border – in the two feet (0f map) and hundreds of miles of Maine where I had never ventured. What was up there? I googled around, became intrigued, then did my 9-day reconnaissance trip where I got a sense of the landscape and interviewed the seven off-the-gridders to get some ideas for characters. In the end, I really felt I had found the perfect place in which to set the story.

While The River at Night breaks a lot of new ground, it also seems to knowingly draw on many of the action/adventure tropes readers will be familiar with, and I wondered if there were particular books, films or authors that influenced the story (or that you might recommend to readers who loved The River at Night)?

I’ve been inhaling scary books and movies for 50+ years, so my answer cannot possibly cover all of that, but below are some favorite books. A recent favorite movie: Descent.

The North Water, Ian McGuire

A Carnivore’s Inquiry, Sabina Murphy

The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty

Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson

Stephen King: Misery, Carrie, The Shining, Delores Claiborne

In the Cut, Susanna Moore

William March, The Bad Seed

Jeffrey Thomas, Punktown

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Thomas Tryon, The Other

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger

Justin Evans, A Good and Happy Child

Joe Hill, Heart Shaped Box (the scariest book I’ve ever read,) Twentieth Century Ghosts (also v scary)

Daphne du Maurier, Don’t Look Now, Rebecca

Glen Duncan, The Last Werewolf

John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In

Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin

North American Lake Monsters, Nathan Gallingrud

Anne Rice, Interview With a Vampire

Natsuo Kirino, Out

What else do you love to read and what have been some of your favourite novels of late?

There are literally hundreds of authors who have inspired me over time, as noted above. Most recently, though, I’d have to say Peter Matthiessen, who wrote, among other things, the mind-blowing At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Lily King’s Euphoria, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, James Dickey’s Deliverance (0f course) and Stoner, by John Williams.

On a more practical note, can you share a little about your writing process? Do you plot all the details in advance or improvise as you go?

After many half-written I’ll just let the words take me where they will novels shoved in the drawer in frustration, I am an outliner and, as you say, a planner. Creating a book is no less complex than building a house – I would argue it’s usually a hell of a lot more complex – and so for me anyway, I need a blueprint.

A novel for me starts with an idea. Not just any idea, but one that has the depth and complexity novels demand, and one that I feel I can actually pull off. But even this stage is tricky. So many times I’ll come up with some brilliant idea, and I get super excited, and I go to bed some kind of freaking genius. I wake up an idiot, however, when I realize what a lame idea it is. But every now and then an idea sticks with me, stands the test of several nights’ sleep, and still feels like it has legs.

Then I bang out a rough outline that can take months to flesh out. I refuse to actually start writing the book until I am clear on most of the elements: what happens, characters, subplots, the ending.

The shortest to write and complete rewrites for a book for me has been a year, the longest is four.

What does a perfect writing day look like for you, and do you have a favourite place to write?

I’m kind of a gym rat, mostly because excerize clears my head and enables me to actually sit at a desk for hours at a time. So I start off there, do whatever errands life demands, then I’m at my desk from 1 till 5, take a break, and most nights put in another 2-3 hours after dinner. I’ve rented a studio which I love. Writing in my house is a possibility but most often I find it impossible to do the sort of deep thinking/conjuring I need to do in my home.

This one’s perhaps a little premature, but I (and I’m sure many other readers) can’t wait for your next book! Can we expect to see another Erica Ferencik title soon?

My next novel is a survival thriller set in the Peruvian Amazon about a young American woman who falls for a local man and goes to live in his jungle village. There she experiences the joys of family for the first time, only to be devastated by a mysterious illness as well as the warring tribe that holds the cure.

This means I am planning a trip to the Peruvian Amazon this June to do research. I’m terrified and excited at the same time :).

Finally, what advice would you offer to the aspiring thriller writers out there?

In terms of keeping your sanity as a writer: I would say: PERSISTENCE!! Do NOT give up. I’ve written seven books, dozens of screenplays, countless essays, self-pubbed many books, but it took me over twenty-five years to become traditionally published. It CAN be done! 🙂

To address craft: you need a great story, first of all, with complex characters who actually want something, and – cliché I know – but they must undergo some change at the end of the book.

I think dread is super important. You need to create a sense of unease that doesn’t let up. Leave enough questions unanswered to keep the suspense going, but not so many that the reader gets annoyed or confused.

For me, most important is that I need to be emotionally involved with SOMEBODY in the story, usually the protagonist, in order for me to care enough to keep reading. I enjoy being intellectually engaged, but I don’t care about solving some sort of puzzle – that’s where I think some thrillers really are mysteries in disguise.

I like short chapters – both reading and writing them. Cliffhangers at the ends of chapters are a great idea, they don’t have to be something crazy each time like will she fall off the cliff or not, they can be much more subtle, but still impel the reader to say to herself: okay, I’ll read just one more chapter before I go to sleep…

That’s what you want: a reader who wants to read your next sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, and ultimately your next book.

the-river-at-nightErica Ferencik is a Massachusetts-based novelist and screenwriter. She holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Boston University and has taught writing for years. Her essays have been featured in Salon, the Boston Globe, and on National Public Radio.

The River at Night is published by Bloomsbury. To find out more, take a peek at my review

— Margot xo

Like what you see? Get the latest from Lectito delivered to your inbox.