So What’s Your Novel About, Anyway?

I’m a bad writer in that I still don’t have a succinct elevator pitch for The Vanishing Season. On its face, it’s about a female police officer in Massachusetts trying to solve a set of disappearances from her small town. More broadly, though, it’s about issues surrounding identity. What makes us who we are?

Ellery Hathaway was kidnapped late at night on her fourteenth birthday by a famous serial killer. He became famous the only way serial killers can achieve real fame—by being caught—so Ellery theoretically gets to resume her normal life. However, public appetite for the sensational story lingers on more than a decade after her rescue. The killer is in jail but he still manages to follow Ellery around—on film, in books, in pop culture references ala John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy. Ellery’s abductor didn’t succeed in snuffing her out but he did take her life, the one she would have had if he’d never kidnapped her. So Ellery’s journey is largely about whether she can reclaim her own narrative from under the weight of this infamous case.

Meanwhile, Ellery’s savior, Agent Reed Markham, is facing his own identity crisis. He’d played a hunch as a junior FBI agent and saved Ellery from certain death. In doing so, he’d also solved one of the FBI’s most infamous cases and his career rocketed to stardom as a result. He wrote a bestselling book about the case and Ellery’s rescue, telling himself through the years that he is the hero of this story. (Here we already see some conflict in their viewpoints, as Reed has helped further the fame of the case and feed public fervor, which hurts the very woman he waxes on about rescuing.) But Reed’s blown a recent investigation and his marriage is falling apart—maybe he’s not the rock star he’s always imagined himself to be. He’s on stress leave from the FBI when his greatest triumph emerges from the past, asking him for help in her missing persons cases.

What’s interesting to me about putting Reed and Ellery together is that they are bonded by the events of the night he rescued her, but they experienced that time in starkly different ways. The best time in his life is the worst time of hers. They’ve each told themselves stories about how the rescue went down and built up myths about the other one in their own minds. This book is about what happens when those myths meet reality. If Ellery remains damaged by what happened to her in the killer’s closet, does that lessen Reed’s heroics? Who is he without that label? Who is she apart from a famous victim? If public perception locks them into these roles, does it even matter what the truth is?

So, yeah. That’s what it’s about. Murder. Identity. Betrayal. The past coming back to bite you in the butt. All that, plus an extremely friendly basset hound.

2 Responses to “So What’s Your Novel About, Anyway?”

  1. Mary

    Wow, I was already looking forward to reading your book. Now I am really psyched! You are exploring some fascinating questions. I have given some thought to the kind of power a criminal gets over a victim besides the obvious damage of inflicting injury and fear. Aside from suffering temporary or permanent physical effects and/or economic loss, being victimized usually changes who one is–one becomes more suspicious, fearful and restricted. Being publicly victimized, when the crime is reported or is unavoidably publicized, gives the perpetrator a huge and perverse power to keep hurting the victim. The victim’s life has been hi-jacked. There is pity for the victim, but also shame and prurient curiosity. And EVERYONE who hears about it needs to somehow blame the victim, because it is only the belief that the victim did something wrong–skirt too short, insufficient vigilance, no dead bolt on the door, driving through a bad neighborhood, etc. etc.–that allows them to comfort themselves with the illusion of safety. THEY won’t make that error. Raising the stakes to escaping a serial killer and including the effects on the rescuer–well, I’m really looking forward to this book.

    • Joanna Schaffhausen

      Thanks, Mary! I hope you like it. I agree with you that there is a lot of blaming the victim that goes on in reaction to crime, for the exact reason you state: everyone wants to believe it could never happen to them.

      Ellery’s life is marked by outsized events, but I feel like we all wrestle with our different selves and public versus private perception. Or at least I hope this is true of most people, or I am way weirder than I originally thought!


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