Jan 13 • 20M

Interview: Ana Reyes, The House in the Pines

Making a thriller out of an MFA thesis

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Caroline Donahue
Ever wondered how to write a mystery novel? Peek over my shoulder as I share my audio diary of writing the first book in a new series. Along the way, I'll share conversations with published mystery authors and their advice on what it takes to write a mystery readers can't put down.
Episode details

Welcome to the first interview episode of the Oh! Murder podcast. While I’m learning so much about mystery through my writing process, there’s nothing like someone further ahead to help speed us along.

Ana Reyes’s novel The House in the Pines is out with Dutton in January 2023. After seven years working on her book, including an early version written during her MFA, Ana has so many helpful thoughts about mystery and thriller.

I cannot wait to discuss this one once you’ve heard it!

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Transcript of Episode Three:

Welcome back to Oh Murder. I'm very excited to introduce a new aspect of this podcast, which is periodic interviews with mystery writers. We're going to share our very first interview today, which is a conversation with Ana Reyes. Ana has an MFA from Louisiana State University and her work has appeared in Bodega Para Noir, the new Delta Review, and elsewhere.

She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing to older adults at Santa Monica College. The House in The Pines is her first novel. I'm very excited to have Anna on for several reasons. There are a number of questions that we ask ourselves as writers, and we were able to dive into several of my favorites, one of which is:

“What happens if you write an MFA thesis and realize that it might be a thriller and you want to transform something that was written in a literary fiction context into a mystery thriller context.

Ana was able to speak to this very thoughtfully, having done so herself with The House in the Pines. It was a delight also to look at character development and ways that someone who spent a graduate degree thinking about fiction and character was able to apply that to mystery.

I hope you will enjoy these interviews. We're shooting to do one or two a month and more are coming soon.

Hey Ana, thank you so much for coming on.

Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

So there's a lot I want to ask you about The House in the Pines and the process of writing it. But there was one detail as I got all the way to the end of the book and as I always do, big nerd that I am, I read the acknowledgements and one thing that you said in there was that this book started out as an MFA piece.

I am so curious both that this book started out that as something that wasn't clearly a thriller, which is in its bones is, and also how you, as you said, I think the acknowledgements went for it to try to transform what you had written into a thriller.

Well, it was always, the book was always about this house, the house in the Pines.

And it's a house that has always been there in the back of my mind. It was in the first story that I ever wrote. When I was 11 years old, I wrote this short story, my first story for a writing contest at the local public library. I didn't know what I was doing when I sat down with my pencil and, you know, little paper to write.

And it ended up being about this house in the forest. And it wasn't specifically that forest in Pittsfield, it was sort of the you being in Germany, kind of is, is a great point because it was the the deep, dark forest of lore that appears in so many fairy tales. So I wrote this story and then 20 years go by, I sit down to write my MFA thesis.

And again, I had this thesis due, but I wasn't sure what it was going to be about really. And the house was kinda the first thing that appeared, and I built the rest of the story around that. But I had to write my thesis rather quickly over the course of two semesters [00:04:00] and. You know, I'm writing it and I'm kind of figuring out how to write a book as I'm writing a book.

And I was really lucky to have this incredible thesis advisory, these three people who were my committee. It just gave me a lot of feedback and really helped me figure out the story I was trying to tell. But when I was done, it, it wasn't necessarily a thriller. It had, it had elements that were eerie.

It was always kind of a creepy story, but it didn't have that thriller drive that came later after I finished it, after I put it aside for a year while I reentered the world after grad school, found a job, did all that stuff. And when I went back to it, I revised, I really rewrote a lot of it.

And then tried to find an agent, which is, for a lot of writers listening, that's a whole can of worms. So that took a long time.

Total can of worms. Yes.

Yeah, so I find an agent and I was really lucky to find somebody who [00:05:00] was very honest with me and also very willing to help me do the work.

And we spent almost two years going back and forth and tweaking and revising, and she was really the one who said the bones of a thriller are here. You have a story that could be a thriller, but you know, you're going to need to rewrite it again. So I did that and it was really daunting at first because I'd never-- I grew up reading thrillers, you know, Christopher Pike, Earl Stein, were my favorite writers as a kid.

I, I was obsessed with Stephen King.


So, so that was what I grew up loving. That was every time, you know, are you afraid of the dark? Anytime there was a, a children's story that was scary, that was what I wanted to see, but I didn't really think I could do it. Cause I didn't know, I'd never taken a class on thriller writing.

I'd never, I didn't really know how to do it. My agent was like, well, just read some thriller novels, and give it a shot. So I did, and that was, that was really [00:06:00] transformative because there are a whole set of tropes that go into writing a thriller, and if you read thrillers, you probably know the tropes, but it's a different thing to know them and then to study them and try them out yourself.

So, you know, I'm talking the ticking clock and the cliffhanger chapter end and there's just so many different-- the unreliable narrator, there's so many different things that go into writing a thriller that if you can just use all those tools, then you end up with a thriller.

And it's as, it's as simple and as, as actually difficult in practice. But the idea is as simple as that.

So, which this, uh, and now I have more questions than I even had before, is, How did you break it down? Because in a sense, you can think of this, you have this story, you have the bones of it. I'm curious if you had all of the [00:07:00] characters in the initial phase and then you're bringing these tropes in, and I could see it feeling like it's.

Multiplying itself out into an unwieldy thing to address. So how did you break it down and begin the process of rewriting it with these tropes and this genre in mind?

Well, characters is a big part of it. Like you said, I had to, uh, to bring in some new characters. I always had Frank, the kind of main suspect.

So I, I always had the antagonist, but I did have to bring in other characters, and I think that's where the red herring trope comes in is the thriller. When you're writing a thriller, you might have a rather straightforward story, you know, who did it, and you know who's to blame for whatever mystery. You, you have the answers, but you need to make sure that your reader doesn't have the answers.

So the red herring is in most thrillers that you read, there's going to be these purposeful misdirects that hopefully the audience buys into enough [00:08:00] to keep the question alive of what's the answer to this. So for me, adding new characters was about thinking organically, who else might have something to do with what happened here?

And then really building mystery around them. And, and in doing that is I think probably one of the biggest differences between writing a thriller, at least that I can tell, between writing a thriller and writing something that is not a thriller, that's a drama or or, or some other type of genre, is building mystery.

So you, you have to go back in your second, your third. --I mean, I wrote a lot of drafts of this-- and part of every new draft was building up the mystery. So layering and foreshadowing it's almost. You know, if you're a painter and then you go back and you're shading things in, you're adding shadows and you're just trying to make it more true to life and more compelling.

And for me, that's what the drafting process was, was going back and adding in foreshadowing or adding in this [00:09:00] little misdirect here, or maybe weaving in a clue there. So those thriller tropes, a lot of those things might not come to be in your first draft, but if you're writing, if you're trying to develop a thriller, you might end up adding a lot of those things in your rewrites.

I think that's so important because I think when we read books, no matter how much studying we've done, no matter how much we've thought about this, we allow ourselves to believe that the person just sat down and wrote it just like this. And none of this was all pieced together later or considered and then reconsidered.

And so I'm really glad to hear that you took steps and had to, to step forward, step back, move things around.

Yeah, it took seven years. I mean from writing my thesis to reworking it with my agent, to then working on it with my editor from start to finish, it was a seven year process, so I certainly didn't sit down and just hammer this out.

It was, it was a lot of I think I mean, I know there are some writers who [00:10:00] are turning out like a book a year. I don't know how they do it. I think for most of us it's yeah it's a lot of work.

It's a marathon.

It completely is.

You said that you were a big thriller reader and that your agent suggested reading some thrillers.Were there any that stood out that felt like a strong influence when you when you did the reread and were looking for tropes?

 I would say that Patricia Highsmith especially the talent of Mr.

I love her.

Oh yeah. I love her. And she's just, she's just a master. So that, that was a big one. Because while my story is not like that I think that they both have this.

Sort of man , the sort of duplicitous, but very compelling man at, sort of at the center. So I read that a lot. I read that. Because I, I also really like her structure. Like she her books are short, but she packs in a lot of story. She was a big one. Shirley Jackson, although her stories are more [00:11:00] supernatural she's just a master too of that, of that genre.

There was, I'm trying to remember other books. My agent actually recommended a book by Makaya Bay Gat that was about two siblings, it was called Goodnight Stranger.

And my agent was like, this is a really well-structured book. So she recommended that and that was a really great one to read. But also Gillian Flynn, I just went on a thriller bender where I was reading everything. Yeah, from Gillian Flynn was A big, a big influence on this story and, and sort of a comparison for my publisher is the one that was made into a Netflix series: Behind Her Eyes.

Uhhuh, okay. I was thinking of,

it's that one. Yeah. So yeah, a lot of, a whole library of thrillers went into my education.

I think it's funny because we, we have this thought, and you said this at the beginning too, I hadn't ever taken a class on thrillers or on writing this genre, and I think that we [00:12:00] always, I definitely do, because I love school.

There is this sense of, oh, I have to go and learn how to do this correctly. When in reality it feels like we have been educating ourselves, but we haven't realized it just by reading so much.

Yeah. Oh, absolutely.

I think that's the best education. What do you think what were some of the things that you absorbed as you were reading that feel specific to thriller versus other genres as like the short chapters, the, the cliffhanger endings, but anything about the structure that felt like, oh, I have to absorb this in order to, to transform this book?

I would say setups and payoffs are the big lesson that I started to sort of absorb over time, which is that you need to constantly be setting things up, little questions, little mysteries that then later on we get the answer to. There's just something very satisfying, and this is probably not unique to thriller writing.

This is probably storytelling in general, but you need to, in [00:13:00] addition to having like a main question that you're building towards, there should also be little questions along the way. So let's say in chapter one you lay out this little mystery that you come back to a chapter three to answer.

And by doing so, you're setting up this rhythm that the reader grows accustomed to and is just very satisfying. Every time one of those questions comes up, the reader, some part of them is waiting for that payoff. So I think that's probably true in comedy as well and drama too, but it's especially important in thrillers.

Yeah. It's like there's this itch and this compulsion of needing to find out. And it's interesting because you've mirrored that in your book because the character herself, Maya has so many things that she wants to find out. That she has lurking around in her mind, it's, it's her setup and payoff that we're finding as well.

Yeah, absolutely. That was a definitely a second and third [00:14:00] draft thing where I started to layer all that stuff in there.

Okay. I'm dying to know which characters you added.

Ruby was a character, was a past Well, I shouldn't give too much away. Yeah, she's somebody from Frank's past. Yes. Who else did I add?

Some of the people who Maya ends up coming into contact with in her sort of, Investigation.


So a friend Steven who works at the museum. Yep. I wonder, um, I, he was a, there was a character there, but the character was just not that interesting. So I ended up creating Steven as someone who had a more complicated relationship as opposed to simply being her coworker.


Those are the two that jump out, but there's also little peripheral characters that, that I ended up adding in for texture and to just give it more dimension.

Yeah, because they felt, well Steven in particular, we don't find out as much about Ruby, but she has there's a strong, I don't know how to describe, there's a strong vibe attached to her.

[00:15:00] There's, there's weight and yeah. Steven feels very three-dimensional and like he's got a whole life with him.

Great. Thank you. It's good to hear that .

Yeah, of course. I think. I think this is the trick though, is that there are things that are different about thriller, and this is what was so exciting to me, to think about someone who had done an MFA was clearly so invested in character, bringing that into this genre because we see there are these tropes that we think of when we think of thriller, and one of them isn't necessarily deep character development. We think of it as, okay, something I'm gonna pick up in an airport, bookshop that's gonna entertain me when I'm stuck and it's gonna move really quickly, but I'm not necessarily gonna see fully developed people in here.

And I'm wondering if you had thoughts. The ways you wanted to interact with the genre, having started out maybe in a more literary fiction education [00:16:00] system.

Yeah, absolutely. Well, writing it, I think with in an MFA program, I was so lucky to have a lot of sets of eyes on this. So I was part of a cohort where we would meet every week and read each other's work and and they were just really good readers.

So at the same time that I'm giving them notes on their pages, they're giving me notes on my pages, and a lot of those did tend to revolve around character. So it was less about the story, because they're only looking at segments of the book at a time, and more about really looking at these characters and their motivations and do I buy it, that this character would really feel this way and trying to get the characters as realistic as possible.

So I think this setting that I developed this in was really ideal. And it's something that I'll bring into my next book is this intense focus on character because I think that. You know any genre that you're writing in you in thrillers, maybe especially if you don't care about the character, [00:17:00] then it doesn't matter what happens to them.

So making the readerder care about the character is really your first job, so that they care about everything that follows.

Definitely. So I'm curious again, how you're looking at developing future books. I know nobody wants to talk about this when it's just come out days ago, yet everybody's always gonna ask , are you thinking about another story?

And going forward, given that part of the support structure that helped you developed this book, was being in an MFA program, how are you going to recreate the parts of that that worked for you going forward with this next book?

I think going forward I have a lot more tools at my disposal. I know what I'm doing now and I can be more focused in my intention to make a book that is creepy and scary. But I also have an amazing writer's group, so in some ways I am recreating that same experience. I've started writing my next book.

I've already [00:18:00] shown my writer's group the first few chapters, and I intend to keep doing that as we, as we go. So I will have a set of readers like I did in the MFA program, just a little bit less intensive.

Definitely. This is one of the things that I always think about in terms of thriller versus mystery is that thrillers tend to be standalone, whereas with mystery, you can get away with a series, so then you have to you have to recreate a whole world every time with a thriller.

So I'm wondering, are you creating an entirely new world? Is there any overlap or how are you handling that?

Moving into another book, I will be creating a whole new world. Both of these books are set in our world, so I think that there will be an overlap just necessarily because it's sort of the world through my eyes, so I'll be dealing with some of the same elements.

But but yeah I think you're right. With thrillers you tend not to, or you're less likely to have a whole series. So it probably is more of a [00:19:00] re-imagining that goes into writing this type of book.

How do you find creepy stuff that inspires you?

I am always on the lookout for creepy stuff.

I watch every scary movie that comes out. I read, I read so many thrillers. That's just something that my taste runs to the runs, to the creepy, and I think I've always felt that way. So it just comes very naturally to me.

Yeah, I think it's, it's when you, at least I've found, When you stop thinking about what kind of genre you think is the right genre to write and think about the one that you really love.

Yeah. Then it's just so much easier to get excited about writing it.

So true. It’s been such a treat to talk to you about The House in The Pines and I'm excited that you're already onto another story, because I know everyone is gonna read this and get very excited about future books from [00:20:00] you.

Thank you.