I took a trip to the white mountains of New Hampshire with my mom and three-year-old daughter two years ago. It was late February and frigid New England, but the cold no longer felt cozy; it felt endless. The snow had become icy and mixed with dirt rather than the magical, fluffy blanket it had been in December and January, and my mom and I were determined to break up late winter with a fun adventure. We called it a “girls’ getaway weekend” and brought wine and cheese and ingredients for s’mores. We made the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Portland, Maine to Lincoln, New Hampshire, twisting along the Kancamagus highway into the White Mountains. We rented a log cabin with a woodburning fireplace and a huge window that overlooked a snow-heavy forest. I love coziness and I love the winter (a more unpopular opinion than you would think here in New England, considering three fourths of our seasons are winter). Add in some wine, pasta, s’mores and a shelf full of Agatha Christie novels and I was looking at my ideal weekend getaway.
The first day, I suggested taking a walk in a nature reserve after breakfast. My mom agreed and off we went, first to a diner downtown that served humongous pancakes and overflowing mugs of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, and then to the Lincoln Woods Trailhead. The trail we picked was “green,” meaning easy, and ran along a gushing river. It was beautiful and pristine. I remember crunching over the snow, breathing in air so cold and pure it felt restorative, and watching the white caps of the river break and bubble as they roared past. It was then that I heard, for the first time in the twenty or so minutes that we’d been walking, a sound behind us. Neither my mom nor I heard this stranger until he was almost right upon us, due to the noise of the river, and then he was passing the three of us with a quick “hello.” He was walking alone and pulling a sled covered in a tarp that jutted out at all angles, probably carrying a tent and some belongings. What was strange to me is that he wore a sweater. A brown, thin sweater; it was below freezing, probably somewhere around 25 degrees at this point in the day, and the temperature would only be dropping rapidly as the sun set. I looked at my mom and we both kind of raised our eyebrows, like “What the heck.”
And that was the seed for my novel Survival Instincts. Nothing bad happened to me and my mom and my daughter that afternoon, thank god, but I remember thinking, it’s below freezing, there’s no cell service and we’re the only people here in late February—me, my mom and my three-year-old daughter, and this guy with a sled who is apparently immune to the cold. The “what-if’s” started to take over my mind. What if that stranger was not a good person? What if he saw an opportunity and took it? What if we had to fight for our lives in the frigid cold with nothing but our wits and instincts to help us? Immediately, I started to really consider the setting, the brutal cold, as a character in itself. Anyone who has spent a few hours in below freezing weather, even bundled up, understands that the elements become a very real force to be reckoned with, mentally and physically.Anyone who has spent a few hours in below freezing weather, even bundled up, understands that the elements become a very real force to be reckoned with, mentally and physically.
I knew that I wanted to tell a story about survival: survival of the elements, but also survival of the mind and spirit. I wanted each of the women in the novel to dig deep and use their own individual strengths to try to fight their way out of the situation. I also knew that I wanted to get into the “Man’s” head—the stranger who takes them. I wanted to explore this person who is genetically predisposed to violent behavior, and has been since he was a child, but tries to fight that impulse as best as he knows how. For this, I drew on a case that I remembered hearing about while I was in college – one of my best friends at a different college had told me that a freshman girl had been kidnapped from the school parking lot, assaulted and murdered. What struck me the most about this horrific crime was when I read about it in a Maine newspaper, I remember reading that the perpetrator had been recently released from prison, was on probation and had openly told his therapist that he would commit violence against a woman again, that it was only a matter of time and that he needed to go back to prison so that women would be safe from him. I wasn’t trying to paint a sympathetic picture of the Man in Survival Instincts, but I hope that I drew a three dimensional picture – one where it’s possible for a human being to be predisposed to violence and at the same time, realize that it’s not “normal” and struggle against it.
Survival Instincts is a nature thriller, as every character must confront and fight the brutal conditions of a New Hampshire winter in the mountains, but it is also a survival story that focuses on human nature. The idea that each of us is born with certain traits that make up our personality. How we are raised, I believe, shapes us enormously, however when it comes down to it, when you are confronted with a situation where you are stripped to your purest form, where you have to dig deep and make decisions that could result in life or death, that, to me, is when someone’s particular nature really arises. In Survival Instincts, I explored that and found that, yes, the fight in the cabin for these three women is against the elements and against the man, but also, there is a fight that occurs within themselves, against their own demons. I believe that last fight, the one between you and your own mind, is the most crucial.