From FX’s American Crime Story anthology and Netflix’s The Keepers to the 2016 Best Picture Oscar winner Spotlight, the resurgence of TV specials surrounding the murders of people including JonBenet Ramsey and Natalee Holloway, and numerous podcasts, true crime stories are at an all-time pop culture high.
Enter Martin Wilson and his sophomore novel We Now Return to Regular Life. The publicist for publisher Ecco, a HarperCollins’ subsidiary, found partial inspiration for his fictional YA drama in a real-life abduction. Here, 14-year-old Sam has just returned home after being abducted three years prior. Told from the perspectives of Sam’s older sister, Beth, and his friend, Josh — the last two people to see him before he vanished — the story traces the ordeal’s impact on his family, community, and Sam himself.
EW talked to Wilson about the controversial dilemmas raised in the book, his real-life inspiration, and depicting a part of the South we don’t usually see.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did you get the idea for this story?
MARTIN WILSON: Well, there was a case about 10 years ago. A boy [Shawn Hornbeck] was abducted, I think he was gone about five years. And then, I guess the man who abducted him tried to get another kid, and that kid— somehow someone saw it and reported it, and they found the abductor. And then when they got to the apartment, they found the boy who’d been gone for five years. … He was only three hours away from where he had grown up … it became clear that he had some freedoms. He had a bike, he had a girlfriend. So I just found the story very, like, crazy and compelling and fascinating. And I think I thought, you know, I wanna try to do this as a novel. And for a while, I was thinking I would do the point of view of the kid, but then I started thinking of a story about, you know, what happens when he comes home — the friends, the family. And you don’t really hear much about what these people go through after they come home and get all that media attention.
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What sort of research did you do?
I read a true crime book that was based on the case. It wasn’t— they didn’t have access to the family, so it wasn’t terribly compelling, but it did, you know, it did kind of discuss other victims of similar abductions. And, you know, they vary. Some ended [up] okay, and some ended up having drug addictions. And then some of them ended up talking about why they stayed, and I think it varies, but, you know, Sam was 11 years old, and he’s a child. And he’d been through abuse, and your captor may be abusing you, but they’re also caring for you in a weird way. … I think they do kind of have a Stockholm Syndrome when they’re in these situations that explains why they don’t leave.
Is there any part of you that thinks we should view [the abductor, Rusty] with some humanity or still as a run-of-the-mill villain? He did abduct a child, after all.
I think it’s not great to just view people as monsters. That’s letting him off too easy. I think [there are] just really troubled people in the world, and I think it’s better— you know, they’re awful, and there’s no excusing what they do, but it’s better to kind of figure out why. Why did they do this? Why did they become the way they were? I think seeing them as human beings is one way to kind of hopefully prevent this from happening again. You don’t know if that’s possible. I think everyone has a different psychological makeup, and who knows why Rusty did what he did. I just very much didn’t want him to be a one-dimensional psycho monster. ‘Cause I just don’t think there are many people like that. Even the people who do horrible things, they’re human beings in the end.
[Rusty] was going to kill Sam, and Sam convinced him to let him live. And then he just kept him, and it’s interesting that he didn’t try to kill him again. Was there shame on his part about being attracted to a young boy?
Again, it would be a whole other novel [laughs] for me to write Rusty’s story, which, I don’t think I would want to — there’s a whole story and a world there that you’re not getting, but I think the mystery and ambiguity … adds to the story. But my one thought about that scene is that, Rusty at that point was in love with Sam. I know that’s, you know, sick, but he probably realized when Sam was fighting that, “Oh this is a kid, he will need me. And I will love him, and that’s why I’ll let him live.” You know, I’m not writing Rusty’s story, but, I think he had these feelings for Sam. And it’s tragic for people to have misplaced affection like that.
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Recently I’ve become pretty obsessed with [Investigation Discovery’s] Disappeared, and one thing they say in just about every episode is, they would rather their family member be [found] dead than to not know where they are. How did you approach that?
I think Beth chose to believe Sam was dead so she could try to move on. It was easier that way. In her mind. And her mother was quite the opposite. And I think there is that elation mixed with the reality setting in, that, you know, her son — her brother — has been traumatized, and he’s a very different person. He’s never going to be the Sam that he would’ve been had this not happened, but, let’s learn to deal with and love the Sam we have now.
When you mention the media, there’s sort of that line: you have the duty to the public, to report what’s going on and to keep them abreast, and then you also have a duty to the family who it’s actually afflicting.
I think in some ways, they handle it like all these stories. They cover it, they want all the lurid details, and then when they’re—when the story fades, they kinda fade away with it. … Everyone wants it to be this triumph. … I think in the actual case, and maybe in this story too, there was that frustration about, “Why didn’t this kid leave? He had every chance. Maybe he just liked playing video games all day.”
How did you decide, especially given the subject matter, to make We Now Return to Regular Life a YA novel?
When I started it, I was nervous, I was like, “Is this too dark? Is this too…mature?” But like I said, there are so many great YA books that don’t flinch away from that stuff. So I knew I could do it, and I did like the perspective of being a young person. I could’ve made an adult novel, by, you know, making Beth and Josh be a lot older and reflecting on it. But, here, it’s just happening to them right now. And I like that immediacy. It’s a very fraught time of life, and that period of my life shaped me, so I guess I’m sort of obsessed with it because of that. The engagement with readers is just so great. There are so many passionate young adult readers that they reach out to you. So I feel very connected with the people who read my book, and I don’t know if that’s always the case in the adult world.
Do you think you would ever do a continuation of what happens to them, or a sequel?
I don’t think so. I kinda wanna leave it. I felt that way about my first book [What They Always Tell Us] too. I kinda wanna leave them where I leave them. … But never say never.
Are there any unforeseen challenges you’ve come across when writing about something literally so close to home?
I wanted to feel connected to the locale and, I think I wanted to show, too, in my book, that the South isn’t … all rural, and people who live in small towns, and grew up on farms. There are cities; I grew up in a city that had a university, that, you know — it wasn’t podunk. It wasn’t exactly worldly, I wouldn’t say, but there was a lot going on. There was diversity in my school. So I kinda wanna show this type of [the] South that people might not see. There are people of all races, people of all sexualities, and not everyone is, you know, walking barefoot around the magnolia tree.
What else are you working on right now?
I have started a new novel, I mean it’s very early. It’s gonna be set in Tuscaloosa, Alabama again, my hometown — I think I’m gonna set it in the early ’90s. … [There’s a] movie within the story that is sort of a doomsday movie, creating a propulsive narrative in which [the protagonist] Miles and his classmates fight for survival in a world that is falling apart.
Do you plan on doing anything else with an abduction story line in the future, or is it too early to say?
I’m kind of obsessed with that kind of story. … But I think it’s maybe too soon for me to dip back into those waters … but I for sure will return to very dark and heavy things, ’cause that’s what I’m drawn toward, I guess [laughs].