April 17, 2006
Thriller writer Katzenbach shares
secrets of psychological suspense
by Michael Terrazas
John Katzenbach peered out at the heads staring back at him, April 12 in Emory Hospital Auditorium. “I’m looking at you,” he said, “and I can see all these diagnoses coming out.”
This just before Katzenbach—author of 10 thriller novels, including The Madman’s Tale (2004) and The Analyst (2002)—shared the fact that one of his books had been found in the possession of three different serial killers upon their arrest. “It’s kind of disconcerting as an author,” Katzenbach said, “to find out one of these guys has underlined certain sections of your book.”
Katzenbach’s 9 a.m. appearance in Emory Hospital was as the featured speaker for psychiatry’s Grand Rounds, and in introducing the author, psychiatry professor and chair Charles Nemeroff said Katzenbach’s books are “extraordinarily psychiatric” and “accurate about the subject [psychiatric doctors] deal with every day.”
“This is Grand Rounds, isn’t it?” Katzenbach asked upon taking the lectern. “My first question is: Is there such a thing as Lesser Rounds? Because I presume I would’ve been invited to that.”
In a casual and admittedly digression-filled lecture, Katzenbach talked about events that shaped his career and read selections not only from both the novels mentioned above, but also from Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, whose opening Katzenbach called “the single greatest opening paragraph ever written in nonfiction. “Life comes at us in the most unexpected ways,” Katzenbach said of his purpose for reading the passage. “Those are the worlds I like to write about.”
The son of a lawyer and a psychoanalyst, Katzenbach said his entry into fiction was paved by an experience he had as a reporter in Trenton, N.J. One weekend he was called to a grisly scene: the execution of a family of five in their nearby suburban home.
Both horrified by the carnage and thrilled by the prospect of getting a front-page Sunday story, Katzenbach was surprised when his front-page editor selected a photo of the family dog’s carcass being carried out of the house. Shouldn’t the photo, he asked, be of the people, not the dog? But the next day, Katzenbach said, all of the 50 or so phone calls he received rang the same note.
“‘What kind of a fiend, what kind of an unimaginable person, would shoot a
St. Bernard?’” he paraphrased. “I learned an important lesson [from that experience]: The things that we think should be the way they are, aren’t.”
A second anecdote: As a reporter in Miami, Katzenbach once traveled to a mental institution outside Gainesville, Fla., to interview an incarcerated killer. Sitting one-on-one with the man in a sterile, empty room, Katzenbach was surprised when the killer asked how much money Katzenbach would pay him for the interview. When Katzenbach refused to pay anything, there began a bargaining session, and eventually he realized this back-and-forth was as telling as anything the man could have told him about his crimes.
“I knew what he had done,” Katzenbach said, “but now I had seen who he was, and that’s far more important for a novelist.”