Carter Wilson has authored eight critically acclaimed, standalone psychological thrillers, as well as numerous short stories. He is a four-time winner of the Colorado Book Award, and his works have been optioned for television and film. He also hosts The Making It Up Show video podcast. Wilson lives in Erie, Colorado, in a Victorian house that is spooky but isn’t haunted…yet. You can visit him online at carterwilson.com.
Wilson recently sat down with SunLit editor Kevin Simpson to talk about writing and his new novel, “The New Neighbor.” The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kevin Simpson: In your recently released novel, “The New Neighbor,” a man hits the lottery on the day of his wife’s funeral. We’ve all imagined hitting the lottery and we’ve all read about how that kind of good fortune can be either positively life-changing or end badly. How did this story materialize?
Carter Wilson: All I ever usually have is that idea for an opening scene that occurs to me. And there’s no real rhyme or reason why that scene occurs to me, but I just totally pictured this guy at this funeral. And so I just started writing and then I’m like, “Well, what if he just won the lottery?” I liked the idea of just being so overwhelmed, emotionally, by these two things – one’s ostensibly a good thing and one’s obviously a horrible thing. Can your brain handle that?
The other inspiration for the story was when I had finished writing my previous book, “The Dead Husband,” I had created the fictional town of Bury, New Hampshire. And I created this house that had a real malevolence to it and when I finished that book, I decided I wasn’t done writing about that town or about that house, because I just loved both of them so much. So I decided that this guy was going to actually move into that house in “The New Neighbors.” So it’s a crossover book – not a sequel, but a crossover book. They’re both standalone stories, but I really wanted that house to be a major character.
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KS: You’ve said that the concept of memory is threaded through most of your novels. What did you want to explore with “The New Neighbor”?
CW: One of the major things I wanted to explore again was probably memory. I love the idea of your main character not necessarily being able to trust what’s in their own mind. And I wanted to throw so much stuff at this guy that he either had to fight through it all or he was just going to start slowly going insane. And I wanted to see what would happen with all of this pressure on him and all this emotional upheaval.
I never really focused on the message I want to get across. I was just talking to Julie Clark, the author, and she had read the book and she’s like, “Oh, this is a book about grief.” Maybe it is. That wasn’t my intention, but that’s how she took it. Most of all I wanted to explore resiliency and how to challenge that resiliency within a character and see if they can make it to the other side or not.
KS: A strong sense of place always seems to figure into your novels. How is place manifested in “The New Neighbor” and why is that such a strong element in your books?
CW: I think your environment totally dictates or helps to dictate your actions. If you’re in an environment that’s conducive to poor decision making, that’s interesting to me. I don’t outline, but I’ll get a Word document and just throw ideas in there as they occur to me. And I just found this document the other day for “The New Neighbor,” and at the top of it I had written, “Above all else, remember this is ultimately a haunted house story.” And so that was the mood that I was going for. I wanted the place of this house to contribute to my character’s potential descent into madness. I think environment is always highly important, even if that environment might just be the room you’re sitting in.
KS: If I remember correctly, you kind of have a thing for haunted houses.
CW: I do. It’s funny. I actually didn’t really have much of an opinion about ghosts until I was in college and I lived in a place that was completely haunted. Like, I had zero doubt in my mind. I had a roommate and she actually moved out because she was so scared of the place. I mean, we heard things and things moved. So since then, I totally buy into that idea that houses can be haunted.
KS: You’ve used New Hampshire a few times as a location in your books. What is it about New Hampshire that drew you?
CW: I remember when I was writing “Mr. Tender’s Girl” I wanted it to be in New England because it was going to be in October, and New England has got a creepy vibe to it. So I just kind of randomly chose Manchester, New Hampshire, knowing nothing about it. I went out there and I fell in love with the place.
When I was looking to do research for “The Dead Husband” and “The New Neighbor,” I knew the city that I wanted in my mind, but I couldn’t find one that exactly fit the bill. So I just made it up. I just decided I was going to name it based on a city in England, so I Wikipediaed a list of towns in England and I saw Bury – and I’m like, “That’s perfect!”
KS: Your books have been standalone novels. Obviously, the thriller genre is filled with series. Why did you go this route?
CW: There are a couple of answers to that question. Let me take you through a writer’s journey when you’re starting out and maybe have sold a book or two. It’s very difficult to propose a series to your publishing house, because a lot of times it’s like, well, we don’t want to commit to book two of a series until we know how book one sells. So it’s a real kind of catch-22 situation.
Secondly, I’ve never really had that character that I’m like, I need to continue your story. Sometimes you’re reading a series and you’re like, OK, how does the same stuff keep happening to this one person? And that doesn’t super interest me because I want to explore new people all the time, and new characters. And I want to be able to kill anybody at any time and not have to worry about them showing up in my next book. If I had an idea for a series that I really, really loved, I certainly would have no opposition to it. That just hasn’t occurred yet.
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KS: Many writers we’ve talked to mentioned that their creative process was impacted in some way by the pandemic, for better or worse. Was that a factor for you in writing this book?
CW: Both “The Dead Husband” and “The New Neighbor” were supposed to take place in late 2019 through mid-2020. So I backdated everything about six months just so I didn’t have to deal with mentioning masks, or a pandemic or anything. I thought that would be a little jarring.
The pandemic made me feel – and still makes me feel – very nostalgic, in terms of returning to better times. And so the book that I just finished takes place in 1987. I wrote a 1987 book during the pandemic almost to relive some of those memories and avoid the present.
KS: You’ve mentioned that you like to write 500 words a day in order to stay on schedule. Does that rule still hold or have you changed the way you work at all?
CW: I still have another full time job. So you know, by necessity, I can’t sit and write eight hours a day — and I don’t even know if I could if I were given the opportunity. So yeah, 5 p.m. I go up into my little writing cave and spend about an hour up there and usually 500 words is still kind of the gauge. I’m a firm believer in seven days a week, make it a routine. Because that’s the only way to get stuff done.
KS: What’s in the works now?
CW: I turned in that manuscript that takes place in 1987, so I’ve got probably two or three months of edits to do on that. That’s probably going to come out later next year. And I’ve got a pretty good idea for at least that opening scene for the next book that I’ll hopefully get a start on maybe this summer.