Growing up, thriller writer Megan Miranda spent time with her grandparents in the Poconos. There was no cell service – just her and her family out there in the woods, cut off from society. “During the day it would be this great adventure,” Miranda recalls. “But at night, I was just staring into the dark thinking, ‘what’s over there? “
Thus began Miranda’s long obsession with the duality of nature – both a beautiful, serene place, and also, with just a slight shift in perspective, a terrifying place.
“You walk into the woods and you feel like the legends can almost be real,” she said on a recent hike near her home in North Carolina. “It’s a place where things are hidden, but where you can also hide. It’s just a great place for thrillers.”
Nature – the woods, the lakes and the ocean – has become a constant and often menacing character in more than a dozen of Miranda’s thrillers. His latest novel, The last to disappear takes readers to a small North Carolina hiking town pushed against the Appalachian Trail. There, 7 people have gone missing in the woods over the past 25 years. Were they all accidents—hikes doomed by nature—or was it something more sinister?
As we hike the wetland trail near Miranda’s house, the green trees glisten from the recent rain, the air laden with humidity. The woods are lush and full in mid July and you can’t really see past 20 feet. It is during a hike like this that the idea of Last to disappear came to her.
“It had just rained,” Miranda explains as we walked, “and inside the woods it still looked like it was raining. I pulled out my phone at that point and started taking notes. It reminded me of this idea of echoes of the past, of a city where everything you see has already happened. I went home and started writing immediately.
This seed of idea turned into a much more complex canvas. The main character, a young woman named Abby, is a stranger who moved to the fictional small town of Cutters Pass ten years ago. She works at the inn at the base of the mountain, the last place so many hikers were seen alive.
Of The last to disappear:
He arrived at night in the middle of a downpour. The type of conditions more conducive to a demise. I was alone in the lobby, removing the hand-carved canes from the barrel behind the registration desk, replacing them with our stock of sleek navy blue umbrellas when someone pushed through one of the double doors outside. ‘hall. The sound of rain cascading over gutters, the rustle of hiking pants, the squeal of boots on waxed floors. A man stood just inside as the door closed behind him, with nothing but a black raincoat and a gory story about his camping plans. Nothing to fear. Weather. A hiker.
The room where Miranda writes her thrillers is on the second floor of her home in Davidson, North Carolina. There are items from her new book in the room: hiking poles she and her husband bought on a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains leaning against a shelf and there are pictures of her and her his family on a hike, hanging around his desk.
His writing method includes keeping spreadsheets that detail the story. “I don’t have a murder wall,” Miranda explains with a laugh, “it’s all on a piece of paper.” Columns include dates, plot points, major turning points (eg a body is found) and clues (eg there is glass in his toes, blood in the hallway but nowhere else.)
She pulls out the spreadsheet for The last to disappear. “I’ll try not to spoiler,” she said, swiping her finger across the page. He comes across a clue halfway through: a window has remained open in a cabin. “I remember writing this and thinking, is this something I’m going to use or is this something I’m not going to use? ” she says. It’s not too revealing to divulge that the open window ends up being important.
A thriller writer who is afraid of many things
On our hike, we pass a pond full of frogs. We stop to listen, enchanted by the sounds of the woods. Recent rain has made the trail muddy and as we walk a few patches I notice that Miranda is deep in thought. his writing brain is spinning. Spending time in the woods can do that to you.
“Right now I was like, ‘What would it be like to race when it’s a little bit muddier? How can I use it? It changes so much, whether it’s raining or what season of the year it is. She looks down the side of the path, into the dense landscape of trees and bushes. “You know, we’re focusing on the track right now, but there’s this whole other part where you’ll get confused if you run away,” I ask her if she’s still thinking about running away. “I’m not,” she laughs, “I just have that in mind.”
Growing up, Miranda’s mother was an avid reader of mystery books who took her daughter to the library once a week. Miranda remembers leaving the library with a stack of books. Nancy Drew was an early favourite, but she always loved books that had a wilderness element: Hachette, where the red fern grows, and Bridge to Terabithia.
The question of the unknown – the hypotheses – has always appealed to Miranda, who began to solve mysteries, first in the field of science – working in biotechnology after university and becoming a science teacher in high school – before to try writing thrillers.
As we walk down the trail, I ask Miranda what scares her. “I have a wild imagination, so I’m afraid of a lot of things,” she says. She is especially afraid of being alone in the woods at night. Feeling vulnerable and nervous, not knowing what else is. “The idea that you hear footsteps behind you and you can’t see it and they stop when you stop,” she says, “that to me is this terrifying idea.” That feeling when the hair on the back of your neck stands on end, you feel the tension in your shoulders, and you focus on safety – that’s the feeling that Miranda tries to capture in her books.
And yet, it’s intriguing that someone who spends his life writing books with tension and murder is apparently afraid of most things. How can someone who scares so easily not only reads – but writes – thrillers?
“I think it’s almost a safe way to explore it,” she says, “It’s like you’re taking a trip and you know you’re going to the other side. I think there’s a comforting element and that relief at the end.” Because in fiction, unlike life, murders and mysteries have a resolution, an answer or an explanation, which really is the surest way to be scared.