Author Carter Wilson’s writing career started with one macabre question: “If three people are murdered in the exact same way, at the exact same time, in different parts of the world — what’s the connection?”
Wilson was not a writer at the time. In fact, at that moment, he was in a continuing education class for real estate. To save himself from death by boredom, Wilson started pondering this question. He worked on it during class, and it still tugged at him when he got home. As he started assembling the story, a couple sentences turned into a paragraph, which eventually grew into chapters. Within three months, Wilson had written a 400-page manuscript.
“I had never done anything like that before,” he says. “It just poured out of me. When it happened, I definitely focused on it and [thought] maybe this is something I should be looking at.”
Sixteen years and six books later, this process seems to have served Wilson well. In his newest book, The Dead Girl in 2A, Wilson asks, “What if two strangers met on a plane, yet had an inkling they knew each other?” The story unfolds in a twisty, turny fashion as two strangers piece together a fragmented, tumultuous past, leading them on a creepy journey that forces them to question memory, identity, life and death.
Wilson grew up in California but has lived in Colorado since the ’90s and now resides in Erie in a Victorian house, which he jokes isn’t haunted… “yet.” In the last decade, he’s written books that have topped the USA Today and Denver Post best-seller lists, and has won multiple accolades, including three Colorado Book Awards.
Before Wilson’s epiphanous writing moment in class, he was in the business world and had never been interested in writing. But after that first story came to him, he followed his gut and knew it wasn’t just a fluke. He quickly learned about the world of publishing and found an agent. Four books were rejected before his first book, Final Crossing, came out in 2012.
Most of Wilson’s novels live in the psychological thriller realm, each a stand-alone story that varies wildly from the others. Sometimes his ideas appear to him, other times they stem from his daily life and even true crime, like his last book, Mister Tender’s Girls, which drew from the Slender Man stabbing in Wisconsin.
Conflict is the main lure for Wilson. He says thrillers provide the opportunity to put characters in peculiar circumstances that then push for character development.
“I’m very intrigued with the idea of taking regular everyday people and putting them in situations that are beyond their ability to cope with and see what happens,” Wilson says. “I love to take someone who would be perceived as weak and see what would have to be done to make them come out and become strong. Sometimes they never become strong. Sometimes they fail.”
Over the years, Wilson still utilizes the same style he did when he first began. When inspiration strikes, he follows the trail, letting it guide him to find the story.
“I kind of think of an opening scene, and I have no idea what the context of the scene is or who these people are or why they’re doing what they’re doing. I just think it’s a cool scene,” Wilson says. “And then I spend the rest of the book trying to answer those questions.”
With The Dead Girl in 2A, Wilson was drawn to the idea of strangers meeting on a plane. But what if they knew each other viscerally? What would happen? What could happen?
“What would I say if that were me? How weird would it get before it got too weird?” Wilson asks. “I just loved writing that scene and [figuring out] how these people know each other.”
As Wilson wrote the scene, the woman confesses that she’s on her way to the Colorado mountains to commit suicide. Suddenly, Wilson’s story had drama and conflict.
“Now what does that do to this relationship that started three hours earlier? Is there responsibility involved? And if so, what is that? Now their relationship has stakes,” he says.
This is the first time Wilson has used Colorado as a prominent location in his books. He usually gravitates toward places he isn’t familiar with, but when the story called for a mysterious location, Wilson chose the Maroon Bells.
“I knew I wanted to have one of the locations in the book be kind of mystical, like the island in the TV show Lost, whether it was true mysticism or just the appearance of that, I wanted there to be that special element,” he says. “The mountains of Colorado have that. They’re kind of beautiful and scary at the same time. … You can get lost very easily in a good way and a bad way, and it can happen in moments. You can create fear very easily, about as easily as you can create joy. I like that contrast.”
Wilson uses this tension throughout the book, as the characters frequently struggle against their minds, trying to decipher what they actually remember. Repressed memory is a common theme in Wilson’s books, but in The Dead Girl in 2A he wanted to take a deeper dive into the phenomenon, exploring lost childhood memories.
“There’s something fascinating about memory; [sometimes] it’s a cage that won’t open,” he says. “Your own mind, you can’t escape out of it. That can either be sublime or horrifying.”
The topic hits home with Wilson, who lost his dad to early onset Alzheimer’s. While The Dead Girl in 2A doesn’t deal directly with Wilson’s past, he says it’s one of his most personal and emotional books.
“I have themes of life and death and what it means to be happy and have memory,” he says. “I wanted it to be an emotional book with tension and [to be]scary but, to some degree, uplifting.”
Throughout all of his books, one of Wilson’s biggest goals is to keep the reader surprised. He fights against any story that feels predictable, straying away from classic tropes in favor of nuanced characters.
“I’d rather have someone say this book was too unbelievable, but at least it was different. I’d [prefer] that than someone who thinks it’s a good book but thinks it’s formulaic,” he says. “That’s what I’m attracted too, when I’m watching a TV series or something. Like, ‘Woah, that’s out there. I hadn’t thought of that before.’”
His writing style helps him achieve this goal. Wilson doesn’t like to plan his stories, instead preferring to see where the story takes him, even if it’s completely unexpected.
“I’ve had a book where all of a sudden this person [needs to] die, and I don’t know why, I just want to kill them, and they were a major character,” Wilson says. “But what if this person died right now? What does that do for the rest of the story? So I just wrote it in, and it opened my eyes. Like wow, [there are] so many interesting implications of doing that.
“And sometimes it doesn’t work,” he continues. “But that’s the fun part, throwing that stuff in there and trying to be as wild as possible with your ideas and seeing what feels right.”
He’s honed his skills over the years, and just like every writer, some days are harder than others. Wilson acknowledges there are times writing feels like “data entry,” with the singular task of just getting words on a page. But he always has faith the story will reveal itself.
Through Wilson’s choose-your-own-adventure-esque writing process he manages to keep the reader, and himself, guessing.
“You’re continuously surprising yourself. You might think of a great idea that you hadn’t thought of yesterday. If I had outlined it, I probably never would have thought of it,” he says. “Because of this I surprise myself, and hopefully I surprise the reader with like, ‘I didn’t see that coming!’ Well, neither did I!”
ON THE BILL: Carter Wilson — ‘The Dead Girl in 2A.’ 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 23. Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder.