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Author Gina Wohlsdorf Brings Love, Horror Together With ‘Security’

Courtesy Rachel Sundheim

“John Carpenter’s 'Halloween' is my favorite horror film,” says Gina Wohlsdorf as she explains the germ of her new novel, the acclaimed 'Security.' “I wondered why it didn’t exist in book form. I’ve read really widely in horror, it’s a great genre but I’ve never seen a slasher novel. So I tried to write one and thought, ‘Well, that’s why you don’t see slasher novels. This is terrible.’”

Still, her time wasn’t wasted. She walked away from the experience with a premise that had real promise: A high-end hotel’s about to open; it will offer the latest in security and luxury; no expense has been spared and no detail overlooked. At least that’s what everyone thinks. Until the horror begins.

But that was just an idea--at least, for a couple of years. Then, one day, as Wohlsdorf sat in a room filled with fellow graduate students and discussed point of view in fiction, she solved a problem that had plagued her from the start: the point of view that this story required.

“It’s a first-person point of view experiment where the first-person narrator never uses the pronoun ‘I,’” she says. “This voice will say, ‘There are four chairs on the front porch. She is in one, he is in another. One chair is unoccupied.’ So there’s a third chair with a third person in it but we don’t who it is. So we have to assume that it’s the narrator sitting in it and talking to us, telling us the story, but he’s completely invisible. So, then I thought about the head of security at the hotel and the whole book gelled. It took off from there.”

The novel shines light on a topical issue: the idea of never being truly alone. Surveillance and security blend into one in an era where cameras capture our every move. We leave a digital trail with our telephones and debit cards. And yet people still disappear. Bad things happen. Information collected with the intention of protecting us comes to do us harm.

Wohlsdorf recalls how, when she worked for a small business, she and her co-workers were spied on by the company’s owner.

“She had audio and video surveillance in our break room,” Wohlsdorf recalls. “One day there was a new girl there, telling one of those stories you only tell in the break room, and one of the other girls put a finger to her lips and pointed toward the ceiling. I didn’t understand, so we went outside and she said, ‘She’s had this place under surveillance the entire time you’ve been here. We just found out about it, so let’s be careful.’”

She worked there for another year and more beyond that and wondered how that surveillance changed how she and her co-workers behaved.

“Really,” Wohlsdorf says, “it didn’t change us all that much.”

She adds that she wondered why someone would be compelled to spy on their employees and concluded that in addition to megalomania loneliness had to play a factor: “She wanted to be included. In a strange way.”

To set the novel in a hotel added another sense of security for the characters. They are a place of comfort, where the guest entrusts his or her well-being to strangers.

“I love being in hotels,” Wohlsdorf says, “Somebody cleans up after you. Somebody takes care of the place. You’re there and then you’re gone. It’s like a ghost of yourself is left behind. There’s a certain horror in all of that too.”

Credit Algonquin Books

Wohlsdorf points to writers such as Shirley Jackson who examine how disruption of the thin line between the living and the dead brings about a story’s most horrific elements. “Jackson writes about houses that are almost haunted by the people in them. Or Stephen King’s 'The Shining,' these are people who are the ghosts.”

Whereas a film will use a split screen to reveal the separate actions of characters in a given scene, Wohlsdorf incorporates two boxes of text in numerous places throughout 'Security.' The effect is one that allows the reader to track a kind of alternate route within the narrative. It was fellow writer Ann Beattie who provided Wohlsdorf with the idea of splitting the text.

“She said that she’d read a book where the text split on the page and it put the burden on the reader to decide which they were more interested in reading first,” she says. “That’s not really my goal with the page splits because I think everybody’s going to read left to right—I think that’s just our habit—but I wanted to add contrast.

"Any other night in the hotel the most interesting thing that would be going on would be Brian and Tessa’s reunion. The second most interesting thing would be the dissolution of Jules and Justin’s marriage. But tonight there’s something that’s going on that is so much more interesting. And it asks us to think more about that line between love and death and sex and death and the mundane and the profound and blurring the lines between those two.”

The novel is not without humor, but knowing when to incorporate that humor proved one of the great challenges in writing the novel.

“There were times where I had to say, ‘No, no, this is not the moment for a punchline.’ I grew up watching 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and that was so helpful to me because Joss Whedon is the king of taking humor and horror and putting them side by side," Wohlsdorf says. “It’s massively tricky and you have to be able to separate yourself and read the book like a reader coming to it rather than a writer who just loves to be funny.”

Gina Wohlsdorf appears at Watermark Books this evening at 6 p.m. for a reading and signing of 'Security.'


Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.