“Wilson turns the creep factor up to 11, balancing his prose on a knife’s edge. A highly satisfying high-tension thriller.”
I agree. Wilson’s latest is a heart-pounding tale told by a storyteller who possesses a live-wire (and dark) imagination.
Carter Wilson’s last two books each won the Colorado Book Award in the thriller category–Revelation in 2017 and The Comfort of Black in 2016.
It’s not hard to imagine that he’s going to need a bigger shelf for the awards headed his way for his latest.
Full review below but, first, Carter was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail.
(NOTE: Carter Wilson will be at The Tattered Cover (Colfax store) one week from tonight on Tuesday, Feb. 13 for a launch event. 7 PM.)
Question: What was the spark for Mister Tender’s Girl? Something that actually happened (I certainly hope not)?
Carter Wilson: The book is loosely inspired by the true-life Slenderman stabbing in 2014. I remember reading the article about these two girls who stabbed a classmate out of tribute to a graphic-novel character, and it chilled me. Then I read how the victim survived and I immediately stopping reading, because I knew my next book was going to be based on this. But I didn’t want to know more. I didn’t want to be driven by the actual story. Instead, I became very focused on the life of Alice, the victim in my story, and what struggles she has nearly fifteen years after surviving a horrific attack.
The Slenderman crime became culturally very significant and even was the focus of an HBO series, but to this day I haven’t seen or read anything more about it than about four paragraphs from the initial news story.
Question: Why New Hampshire and Massachusetts and back east for the setting of this one? And did you go to London and to research the quite atmospheric scenes over there?
Carter Wilson: I knew my story was going to take place over the last two weeks in October, culminating at Halloween. I wanted a setting that provided the right atmosphere, and I knew New England could do that. But I didn’t want a big city like Boston, so I settled on Manchester, NH. I spent a few days out there and skulked about a bit, and it was just perfect. I also liked the ties of New England to Old England, and the link of Manchester, NH to Manchester, England. I’m a big fan of Manchester Brit rock from the 80’s, and that’s carried through to Alice’s coffee shop, the Stone Rose.
I didn’t visit London for the purposes of this book, but I’ve been there several times so was confident I could capture the feel.
Question: Both Revelation and Mister Tender’s Girl rely, in very different ways, on stories-within-stories. In the case of Mister Tender’s Girl, in fact, several stories. It’s an interesting approach. Conscious? Unconscious?
Carter Wilson: Yeah, it seems a lot of my books end up like that. The Boy in the Woods had that as well. It’s not necessarily conscious, I don’t think, since I don’t have a fully formed idea of plot when I start something. But clearly something is rattling around in my head about making my stories a bit on the meta side. In the case of Mister Tender’s Girl, I had a sudden moment of writing where I envisioned Alice receiving an unpublished Mister Tender graphic novel in the mail, and it just felt nice and creepy to me. And there were the stories of Chancellor’s Kingdom, an idea taken directly from childhood stories I made up for my kids at bedtime.
Question: One of the troubling, underlying ideas in Mister Tender’s Girl seems to be the whole issue of how we watch one another and make up stories about people we don’t even know. A feature of the modern age, no? Do you have something you’d care to say about the dangers of our online reputations?
Carter Wilson: I think we have moved on from the idea we can somehow hide as individuals. You really can’t. You can be as conscious as you want about being anonymous, but in reality it’s very difficult to do. If someone wants to find you, they can. If someone wants to spread information about you (true or not), they can. For Alice, she learned the struggle wasn’t how to remain hidden, but how to fight once she’d been found.
Question: The last time we had you here for questions about Revelation, you called yourself the “quintessential pantser,” which we know means you don’t sit down and plot out your books. But in the case of Mister Tender’s Girl, was there a touch of plotting? It seems like you must have needed to be very careful as you built this one. Yes? No?
Carter Wilson: Mister Tender’s Girl was definitely a pantser effort. I knew who Alice was, what had happened in her past, and then set the opening scene where she finds someone calling himself Mister Tender on her dating app. From there, I wrote willy-nilly, throwing as much as Alice as I could for about a hundred and fifty pages. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. But in that process I came up with the backstory of Chancellor’s Kingdom, Alice’s father, and the character of Mr. Interested. Then I spent the next two hundred and fifty pages tying everything together.
Being a pantser requires a lot of rewrites, because some storylines end up going nowhere or not making any sense, while others suddenly become much more interesting. But it allows for surprises, which I think it a great weapon for a thriller writer. I had no idea where the last fifty pages of Mister Tender’s Girl where going to go until I got to writing that part of the book.
Question: Okay, “Alice.” There is one famous Alice in fiction who is to sort through a fair amount of crazy stuff and is also constantly wondering what is real. Conscious choice? And, related to that, you seem to like fairly common given names—Alice, Jack, Richard, Charles, Thomas. And so on. Is this also a conscious choice?
Carter Wilson: No, using the name Alice wasn’t a cognizant tribute to Lewis Carroll, although it certainly plays nicely along those lines. I wanted a simple, English name. In fact, I wanted classic names throughout the book, names that didn’t distract. I’m a big fan of common names, and I tend to avoid shortened versions (Thomas instead of Tom).
A bit of a weird thing I often do when looking for a name idea is search databases of U.S. Civil War infantry registries. There are some tremendous names in there.
Question: The notion of making victims a fetish—is this a subject you researched and/or have observed? Is this something more likely in today’s world given social media, do you think? Do you set out to write a cautionary tale?
Carter Wilson: I didn’t set out to write a cautionary tale but rather a story I just thought was intriguing. But certainly the idea of becoming obsessed with a famous victim is much more plausible today than, say, a couple decades ago. Just about anyone can be the subject of someone’s obsession these days. I didn’t research whether victim festishism is real concept or not, mostly because I’d be too creeped out to realize it was. But it probably is.
Question: How are you going to top this? No, that’s not the right question. What I meant to ask is, what’s next?
Carter Wilson: I’m always writing. I’ve been working on a new book for some time now that focuses on lost memories. I think I’m almost done, but I’ve pantsed the hell out of this thing and there are re-writes aplenty in my near future.
Aside from that, I’m very busy with the launch of Mister Tender’s Girl, and have a good number of appearances and marketing efforts to undertake over the next several months. We’ve also recently optioned the rights of Mister Tender’s Girl for the possible development of a television series, so fingers crossed we could see the story translating to the screen.
Carter Wilson’s website.
Alice Hill has done everything she can think of to leave her past behind.
She’s an ocean away from where it all happened. She’s changed her name, kept her head down, hoped that time and distance would disconnect her from a nasty, grizzly event that nearly took her life.
When she was fourteen and growing up in England, she was stabbed by two “friends” who were convinced they were being commanded by a graphic-novel character named Mister Tender.
That character, it turned out, was created by Alice’s father. Her parents split up in the aftermath of the near murder. Alice’s mother, after gaining sole custody, brought Alice to the United States. Years later, after her own self-described “descent into darkness” with a drug dealer named Jimmy, Alice buys a coffee shop in southern New Hampshire. It’s called the Stone Rose. Alice has developed a hard external shell. She likes how she’s changed on the outside, but it’s her insides that froth and churn with anxiety. Alice, for good reason, makes sure her work and home world are knife-free.
Mister Tender’s Girl is a taut, punchy thriller that’s constructed like a Matryoshka Doll of stories. (All the threads and inter-weavings are a snap to follow). First, there’s the Mister Tender stories themselves. Mister Tender was a bartender—“part human, part demon.” Mister Tender was a master bartender—with an evil twist. He would listen to his customers like the most sympathetic mixologist who has even slung a cocktail, but then convinced those very same customers to do “very bad things.” Second, there are the stories Alice recalls that her father recounted, on the spot, at bedtime when Alice and her brother Thomas were kids. In fact, Mister Tender was born as a character in the fanciful “Chancellor’s Kingdom” where the stories took place.
The chills in Mister Tender’s Girl come early, fast and often. Alice is much like a more famous namesake in a bizarre wonderland. But Wilson’s Alice is not looking for anything other than privacy and to keep her secrets secret. And someone has found Alice. Searching a rarely-used dating app one night, she is matched with a certain “Mister Tender.”
Found, that is, and followed. Stalked. Alice, needless to say, is jumpy. And getting jumpier. Did I mention her father was later murdered and the killer was never caught? And now there is a mysterious package with an unpublished (or is it new?) Mister Tender story and an elaborate website and ample proof that Alice Hill’s true identity is well-known. Someone out there names himself “Mr. Interested” and suddenly Alice feels like her whole life is being viewed like she’s the salacious subject of one dark peep show.
In a few brisk pages we’re off into a dark, gripping page-turner told with a cool, matter-of-fact style. Alice, shaking off her role as victim, is forced to take matters into her own hands. There’s an edgy section in England when Alice revisits the scene of the crime in Gladstone Park and finds the sisters, The Glassin Twins, who attacked her. Secrets abound. Alice extracts them in grim, persistent fashion. Alice’s troubles are many—including a troubled relationship with her mother, an uncertain relationship with her brother, a wary relationship with a neighbor, and the fact that she hasn’t completely shaken a crime committed during her time with Jimmy.
Sound rich? It is. Sound complicated? It’s not. Carter Wilson deals these cards in a straightforward manner. In the midst of a creepy, sometimes bloody thriller (the events come to a tense climax on Day of the Dead, if that gives you a clue), there is a strong morality tale about victim fetishism and how today’s technology makes it easy to unmask anyone’s backstory and haunt them like a demonic ghost.