Erica Ferencik’s Off-the-Grid Thriller
The author of the new literary thriller ‘The River at Night’ talks about screenplay structure and tracking down Maine’s survivalists.
The majority of fiction set in Maine is dominated by Stephen King. Every now and then an author chooses to set their writing in the vast wilderness of the Pine Tree State and truly captures the essence of the area. Erica Ferencik has done just that. Her new novel, The River at Night (Gallery/Scout Press) is a thriller about four women on a rafting trip that quickly turns into a nightmarish fight for survival. Ferencik’s writing moves as swiftly as the river the women find themselves on. The novel manages the kind of character development and probing of motivations that most books in the genre miss out on.
I recently spoke with Ferencik about Maine, what influenced her style, and how research is both important and interesting work that ever novel needs.
Adam Vitcavage: So, you live in Massachusetts — what drew you to write about Maine?
Erica Ferencik: My first goal was to write a book. It wasn’t about Maine necessarily, but the there were really two reasons to write this. I read the book Deliverance by James Dickey, which became a movie that everyone references. Cue the banjos, you know.
Adam Vitcavage: Yeah, those dueling banjos.
Erica Ferencik: Have you read it?
Adam Vitcavage: I haven’t, but I’ve seen the movie. Which backs up what you just said.
Erica Ferencik: Exactly. Well, Dickey was a poet. He wrote this beautiful, repugnant, visceral novel about four men in Georgia. I just fell in love with how he approached the story. It’s in real time and how he builds the suspense, the way he describes natures is very stunning.
The second inspiration was an ill-fated hiking trip of my own with four women friends to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. The woman who planned the trip didn’t do a very good job. We were staying in the hut system in New Hampshire and we were supposed to make it there by 5:30 and didn’t get there until 10:00 at night, when there is still just a shred of light.
That experience made me think of where I could write about that was super remote and had always fascinated me. Maine was perfect; it is so big. Going up there I was amazed by the nothingness. It was a choice for where I can set the characters so that it was drivable for them to get to, but that they can still get completely lost.
Adam Vitcavage: I read in your acknowledgements that you researched a lot about Maine. What was that like?
Erica Ferencik: I took a nine day trip to Maine to research the book, and I wanted to interview people who lived off-the-grid. I didn’t know anyone, so I called all of the chambers of commerce from Caribou through Fort Kent and they all said, “Yeah, we know people, but they live off-the-grid and won’t want to talk to you. That’s why they live off the grid.” Then there was always this pause before they would tell me, “But I know somebody who knows somebody.”
I was able to set up interviews with seven people. Two had families and five were individuals. They all lived off-the-grid. I went up there having hotel reservations for all nine nights but only had to stay in one the first and last night because they all put me up overnight. One was a rehabbed bus, one was a boat — and I don’t know how it got there on the land — outside of Sweden (Maine). I got these wonderful interviews with these people. I wasn’t trying to be literal with the story; I was just trying to get their motivation. So many time my assumptions were wrong about why people decided to do this. They were all different.
Believe me, I was often really cold. I did this in November and early December. I had a knapsack with mace and power bars and lots of warm clothes. One guy — I met him on the highway and got on his horse and rode into the woods for an hour and a half until we got to his place where he lived with his family. They gave me lunch of bear meat and wild parsnips. He made me sign this old carbon paper agreement that I wouldn’t tell anybody details about his family or where exactly he lived. He basically made me sign it before I got on the horse with him to get back to my car.
Adam Vitcavage: Other than the guy who took you to his house on horseback, what were some interesting things that happened to you during this research?
Erica Ferencik: The big unexpected thing was that people wanted me to stay overnight. Once I got their trust they wouldn’t shut up. They all wanted to talk. One kid was about 20 years old and it was his second year out there. I was stunned by his resourcefulness. He would be like Kerouac by night and there were wolves howling out of his cabin at night. He didn’t want to use anything man-made. Everything he used and wore and ate was from the wilderness except for his ax and his gun. He knitted his own long underwear, hat, clothing. He made a belt buckle out of a piece of deer bone.
From one side of his mouth he would say he wanted to be alone to discover who he was in the natural world. At the same time from the other side of his mouth he said he hoped that one day some of his friends would set up a mile away and have their own life out there. He did admit to me that once a week he goes to the library to check his email and to get a box of cinnamon pop tarts. He was a very idealistic and brilliant young man.
Adam Vitcavage: How did all of this tie back into The River at Night?
Erica Ferencik: I did get a lot of ideas about how these characters might survive. And how they might disappear. I also interviewed a ranger to get details on how someone might disappear and how they look for people. What happens when they find someone? Those sort of things.
I also interviewed a family and asked how they were dealing with having no money. They had a little girl and the wife was pregnant. Their deal was that they were from Philadelphia and they couldn’t get jobs. They were going to be damned if they were victims of the economy and wanted to be home owners. They built this tiny little place and had a trailer behind them, they had dogs for protection, and they even killed a moose that was right outside of their door. It ended up being too much meat so they got help to learn to dress it. That’s how they met their neighbor who was 12 miles away.
Adam Vitcavage: After doing all of this research and putting your characters into this predicament, how much did you feel you needed to get the geography right? Or did you just throw that to the wayside to get the feel of Maine right?
Erica Ferencik: Well I did a weird mix of techniques. I took a very real place but put a completely fake river in. Not one person said, “Hey! There’s not a river called that.” Not only that, there isn’t anything like an unexplored river in Maine. Nobody said anything. I used the names of real places, and there is a river sort of like my river, but not really.
It’s funny because no one has had a problem with that so far. Obviously I just wanted to create a story.
Adam Vitcavage: How did you work on the pacing for a literary thriller like this?
Erica Ferencik: There’s a lot of editing, but I’m the type of person who plans it all out. I think it’s great that there are writers who can write without an outline, but it’s impossible for me. It’s too big! You need to see the whole thing in your head whether it’s through writing an outline in some way. You can’t build a house without a blueprint.
In terms of pacing…My undergrad was in fine arts and painting. At 28 I woke up and had no desire to ever paint again and I started writing. I began writing screenplays. I was trained to think visually right away. There’s a great book called Story by Robert McKee that really helped. Knowing how to write screenplays helped me to learn to write novels. It took writing screenplays for me to really understand the three act structure and to understand stakes, reveals, and all of the other techniques that go into films. I don’t think any novelist is hurt by learning screenwriting. That’s the most powerful thing you can learn to help create thrillers. Books that move and are visual that grab you need those things.
I don’t think any novelist is hurt by learning screenwriting. That’s the most powerful thing you can learn to help create thrillers.
As a writer you need to always ask “what’s my story? what’s my story?” Even to the sentence level — “What does that have to do with my story?” Especially in this day and age when nobody has an attention span at all. You can’t risk losing people.
Adam Vitcavage: What does your outlining or planning actually look like?
Erica Ferencik: First of all, I think the first step is coming up with an idea that is book worthy. Sometimes you come up with an idea and you’re a genius and you go to bed. Then you wake up the next morning and you’re an idiot because the idea you came up with is flabby or doesn’t have enough complexity. It just doesn’t work. The big thing is having an idea.
Once I have an idea, I like to be able to say the story. Just say what the story is in a couple of sentences. Knowing the basic super stuff like the three act structure, I pull the story from different sides like the dough of a pizza. I figure out my characters, what they want. Everybody needs to want something. Who is the protagonist and what do they want?
I figure out the outer story: what happens. And the inner story: what is happening emotionally. Those two lines intersect and separate and intersect and separate. Then I lay out the subplots and how they resonate off of the main plot.
I never edit myself down. I always have pencil and paper with me or my recorder because I know I won’t remember my ideas. I just work it out and in the end I have literally a 20 to 30 page outline with lots of notes.
That’s the real work of it. I mean, all of it is work. But writing isn’t writing; it’s thinking. As long as you figure it out, it’s all there.