Neal Baer and Jonathan Greene have worked on popular shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “ER,” but Kill Switch marks their long-form fiction debut.
The novel centers on forensic psychiatrist Claire Waters and NYPD detective Nick Lawler. Troubled by a traumatic event from deep in her past, Waters finds herself at the epicenter of a serial killer’s rampage. We contacted Baer and Greene for the scoop on their brilliant new heroine and writing as a team.
What do you think readers will like most about Claire Waters?
Her courage and vulnerability. Readers will find that Claire’s quest for the truth evolves into a journey to discover her own truth, a deep look into her soul. In the face of severe adversity, her ability to finally tap into her fears is what eventually leads her to not just solve the crime, but to begin to answer the question we all ask ourselves: “Who am I?” How we can live with a tragedy that shakes and perhaps scars our soul?
You two have worked together for a long time. How does your collaborative process work?
Nine years ago we developed an idea for a feature film, using all the characters in the novel. Years later, our book agent, Lydia Wills, asked us if we had a medical thriller and it so happens we had the movie outline, which ultimately became the outline for the novel. Our process is one of writing and constantly rewriting. We spend hours together talking through the plot points, writing and rewriting the outline and then writing the chapters. Jon wrote the first chapters and Neal rewrote them. In the last third we alternated writing and rewriting each other’s chapters.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered in adapting a movie outline into a book?
The biggest challenge is that an outline for a movie is based on scenes. What the characters think and feel, see and hear, is played out through dialogue and screen direction as interpreted by the director and actors. Writing a novel, however, was liberating. We were free to write what the characters are thinking—which of course you can’t do in a movie script, unless you rely on voiceover. In writing a novel, one has complete control over the characters—there are no actors, directors, cinematographers, art directors. Everything is presented through words. It’s a challenge, and it’s exhilarating to have the freedom to create a story for a medium that does not rely on others to carry out your vision.
It’s exhilarating to have the freedom to create a story for a medium that does not rely on others to carry out your vision.
What kind of research did you do in order to write your book?
Neal: As a pediatrician, I’m interested in medical ethics and the question of how far we should take biological research, especially as it allows us to do things that were once considered unimaginable. For instance, should we concoct viruses that combine the most lethal elements of, say, smallpox and ebola? Should we clone children? Where does research cross an ethical line? In light of these interests, I contacted Dr. Alfred Goldberg, a molecular biologist at Harvard Medical School, which I attended, to help us better understand research in apoptosis or programmed cell death, a real area of burgeoning interest not only to biologists but also to physicians, because it may hold the answers in treating and curing cancer.
Lawler’s character suffers from a relatively rare degenerative vision disorder. Did that come from any particular personal experience?
Neal: Yes, I have a sibling with retinitis pigmentosa, so I’m well aware of the emotional and physical problems it poses, how it affects one’s life and the lives of loved ones.
The principal protagonists of Kill Switch—Dr. Claire Waters and NYPD detective Nick Lawler—get off to a rocky start, yet by book’s end they have not come completely full circle to the more intimate relationship a reader might expect. Is this “taking it slow” for benefit of the series arc, or does it suggest Lawler might not be featured as prominently in future books?
What we’ve found over the years, especially in our work on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," is that the best and most entertaining drama doesn’t wrap things up in neat little packages at the end. Based on the emotional trauma Claire suffers through her journey, we thought it would be unrealistic for her to start a romantic relationship with Nick by the end of this book. As for their future together, readers will have wait for the next installment.
When writing the book, did you ever feel the need to navigate around the specter of Clarice Starling (the main character from 1988’s The Silence of the Lambs) in your portrayal of Claire Waters?
No. Clarice Starling is a very different character from Claire Waters; most notably Clarice comes from a law enforcement family and has been trained as an FBI agent, whereas Claire is the child of a physicist and biology teacher. Claire is thrown into a situation she never dreamed of and finds herself having to engage the help of a cop to stop a serial killer. The only similarity is that the both have first names that start with the letters CLA.
Kill Switch is promoted as the first of a series. How far have you gone in the process of writing future entries?
We are currently outlining the second book in the series.
What’s next for Claire Waters?
Without giving anything away, she’ll be faced with another mystery that will test her abilities as a forensic psychiatrist and put her in grave danger.
Though Kill Switch marks a transition for you both from television to print, how likely are we to see Claire Waters and Nick Lawler on screen—big or small—in the future?
We hope to be able to announce this soon. Stay tuned.
Are there any authors or series that you’d cite as inspirations for Kill Switch?
Jon: I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life, starting with mostly non-fiction (true crime, medical, political, biography) until someone gave me my first Robert Ludlum novel, The Chancellor Manuscript, when I was high school, and from there I was hooked. I quickly devoured The Matarese Circle (what I think is Ludlum’s finest work) and The Bourne Identity. That led me to other authors: James Patterson, Thomas Harris, David Baldacci to name just a few. The last thriller I read (and I consider this a thriller) was Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I couldn’t put down.
Neal: I’m a die-hard movie fan so I am drawn to Hitchcock—any Hitchcock film, but particularly Vertigo—and film noir. You’ll find many allusions to these films, such as character names, quotes and even anagrams, in the book.
What are your favorite activities to do when you aren’t writing?
Jon: Anything involving my children, playing the piano and singing (not publicly), reading, tennis, catching up on all the great films I haven’t seen, both new and old.
Neal: Making documentary films; working with social entrepreneurs on projects to improve the world; solving the New York Times crossword puzzle, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays.