All of the Jefferson Winter novels start with a question, a single what-if that gets the ball rolling. The question at the heart of PREY is: what if Winter met himself coming in the other direction? What I liked about this idea was the way it led to a whole load of new questions … and when you’re writing a novel you can never have too many of those.
So how could Winter actually meet himself coming the other way? The obvious solution was to give him a brother. Maybe they’d been separated at birth. Maybe one had been brought up in a relatively normal family, while the other had a serial killer for a father. The nature versus nurture debate features in all of the Winter stories, and this would be perfect for exploring that idea further.
Except that was never going to happen. Giving him a brother would be too easy, too clichéd, and I’ve never been one to give myself or my characters an easy time. Where’s the fun in that? So, I wrote this off as another false start and went and worked on something else. But that question wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s one of the traits I share with Winter. Unanswered questions drive me crazy. In the end, I got my answer in the form of a bad guy who turned out to be a bad gal.
Like Winter, this woman is intelligent, and she definitely has an obsessive side. Physically, they share some similarities. They’re similar height and have the same colour eyes. Then we get into the grey areas. She’s clearly a psychopath – something that Winter gets a glimpse of in the first chapter. And she obviously has an agenda, although what that is at this stage, he can only guess.
And then there’s the question of how much her upbringing has affected her. One of the things that keeps Winter awake at nights is the idea that he might be the same as his serial killer father. Winter has killed, and he definitely has psychopathic tendencies, but does that make him a murderer? The one thing that separates him from his father is the fact that there’s a line that he won’t cross. The problem is that he keeps pushing up closer and closer to that line. So far he hasn’t crossed it, but that doesn’t mean he won’t. That will-he-won’t-he uncertainty is a powerful dynamic.
Questions drive thrillers. That’s what keeps the reader turning the pages. The trick is to get those questions firing off in the very first paragraph, and keep them coming until the final full stop. Some of those questions will be big, some small, but size doesn’t matter here. The only thing that really matters is whether a reader will care enough about the answers to want to keep turning those pages.
Prey is published by Faber