When fiction veers too close to reality

by Tess Gerritsen

Tom Clancy thought of it first.

In Clancy's 1994 novel Debt of Honor, a 747 jet is intentionally crashed into the Capitol building, killing the President, the Supreme Court, and most of Congress.  Seven years after the book's publication, on September 11, a similar scenario came to pass in real life, albeit with different targets and a different set of perpetrators.  Still, the parallels were eerily close enough to make many people wonder if the attackers might have been inspired by Clancy's novel.  

It also made Pentagon officials realize that the government's failure of imagination had left the country vulnerable to attack.  Which is why they turned to storytellers for help.

"Over the last two weeks, a group drawn from Hollywood's talent pool has begun imagining what possible terrorist attacks could befall the nation next, not for the sake of entertainment, but for the sake of national security.

The group, composed of what is said to be fewer than 100 entertainment industry representatives volunteering for the job, was convened at the Army's request to help the military "think out of the box" about terrorism and how to respond.

The idea of tapping fiction writers to dream up the possible parameters of terrorism, a move that once might have seemed far-fetched, no longer sounds outlandish to many. Before Sept. 11, who would have imagined that hijackers would pilot commercial airliners in coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?"

Chicago Tribune, Oct. 15, 2001

Tom Clancy certainly imagined it. 

And that's a thriller writer's job, isn't it?  To describe hair-raising events that are far-fetched but still seem as if they're possible. When we sit at our desks, we allow our imaginations free reign to wander the universe.  But when it comes time to actually write the story, most of us feel compelled to maintain at least some semblance of plausibility.  We want our readers to believe that our plots, no matter how outlandish, might actually happen.

Sometimes, our stories actually come closer to reality than we ever expect. 

I've been thinking of Tom Clancy's prescient novel because of a phone call I recently received from a criminal investigator.  This investigator was very interested in me, and seemed to know a great deal about my personal life — something which I found a little unnerving.  The reason for the phone call was even more unnerving.  The caller was part of a police team investigating a series of murders, and they wanted to know why I was so familiar with the inside details of these attacks.  "We've read your novel," the caller said.  "You seem to know an awful lot about this killer.  How he thinks.  The victims he chooses.  You even know the details of his technique."  The crimes had started before my book was published, so they knew the killer wasn't being inspired by me.  But the details in my novel were so precise and specific that the investigator felt I must have been in contact with the killer at some time.  The killer might even be someone I know well.  Like my own husband.

Oh yes.  They'd been looking into my husband, too.

Naturally, I freaked out a little, realizing that — however briefly — I'd been considered a possible suspect in a string of homicides. Then I really freaked out, wondering how I'd managed to describe murders that had actually happened. And describe them so accurately that the investigators themselves got chills reading my book. (Or so the caller told me.)  Did I know the killer I described in my story?

The truth is: Yes, I do.  I know him because I made him up. He's not someone I've ever met in the flesh; he's not someone I've spoken to (at least, I hope not.)  But I know him more completely than I could ever possibly know a real human being, because I've been inside his head.  I know how he thinks, what he desires, what he fantasizes about.

I explained to the investigator that when I created this killer, I actually crawled into his mind and lived there for a while. I looked at the world through his eyes, and saw what he saw.  I'd walk through a mall and imagine people as prey. I looked at children and thought how easy that one would have been to snatch. I noticed which women already looked like victims, which ones weren't paying attention to their surroundings, and which ones looked like they'd never fight back. I understood this killer so well that I also knew how he'd hunt. And I knew exactly how he'd kill. It was sheer coincidence that I'd created a monster who was so similar to the real thing.

It probably makes me sound scary.  But I'm not, really.

I'm just a novelist. 

Sometimes it's storytellers who get the closest to truth.  Sometimes we see it before anyone else does.  

Years ago, I sold the feature film rights to my space thriller Gravity, about a killer microbe that gets aboard the International Space Station.  I did a ton of research for the book, and figured out a way to plausibly have that microbe slipped aboard ISS via a security weakness in the Payloads directorate.  New Line Cinema hired an astronaut from NASA to pick apart the story and tell them which parts were implausible.  The astronaut said it'd be impossible for a hazardous microbe to be intentionally sent up to ISS without NASA knowing about it.

Then she consulted NASA's Payloads directorate.  And she was surprised when Payloads told her that my scenario was indeed possible. It was a security weakness that they hadn't considered … until it was proposed in my book.

With my most recent novel, I came up with yet another bizarre premise that's almost as farfetched as microbes in space.  In The Keepsake, a murderer has killed a woman and turned her into a mummy that looks just like an ancient Egyptian relic. I knew it could theoretically be done, but I worried that I might have gotten a little too creative with that premise.  I worried that I'd get slammed by the critics for crossing over into implausibility.

Then I had a conversation with Egyptologist Bob Brier, who told me of a real case he'd encountered in his own research, of a modern murder victim who'd been mummified to look like an ancient Egyptian relic. Not only was my mummy premise plausible, it had actually been done.

The fictional world of crime is a pretty scary place.  But I'm starting to think that it's nowhere near as frightening as reality.


14 thoughts on “When fiction veers too close to reality

  1. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Gerritsen,I can only imagine how freaky that phone call must’ve been. I’m actually surprised, when you told him you did know the killer, that there wasn’t a knock on your front door before you got to explain that you did because you’d created him.

    I’ve caught myself doing the same thing in public places, imagining how one of my villains would case a certain area, determine who is a natural fighter and who is prey. It’s kinda spooky, but it gives me ideas for my writing so I see nothing wrong with it.

    Then again, I’m not sure my wife, or the parents of some of my students would consider it quite so harmless, even though it is.

  2. JT Ellison

    Tess, there’s a writer here in Nashville who was “jokingly” question after details from his book were eerily similar to an unsolved murder. I’ve always been desperately afraid of just that side effect.

    Hollywood, though, is capitalizing on the idea. Last night’s premier of Castle (ABC) had that exact scenario – a killer who was imitating murders from Rick Castle’s novels. They handled it sneeringly, (I paraphrase) “This is the holy grail for authors. Patterson and Cannell are going to be jealous.”

    I was horrified by that statement – patently false. I don’t think a single one of us would be remotely pleased to see our fiction become reality, and worry about the possibility daily. I know I do.

  3. tess gerritsen

    JT,I totally agree with you. None of us wants to see some horrifying premise that we dreamed up actually come to pass. I was relieved to be told that the killer couldn’t possibly have copied anything that I had written.

  4. Neil Nyren

    More on the Clancy front: CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER revolved, in part, around a major political assassination in Colombia. The week the book was published…there was a major political assassination in Colombia.

    John Sandford knows about what you went through, too, Tess. The BTK killer sent the jacket of his RULES OF PREY to a Wichita TV station — and several years before, a North Carolina serial killer, when caught, said, “We are operating under the fictional rules of John Sandford’s RULES OF PREY.”

  5. Dana King

    I’m mostly impressed that the studio hired an astronaut to verify the possibility of your Space Station scenario. Based on too many movies I see, most Hollywood types aren’t even concerned with plausibiity, let alone accuracy.

  6. Cornelia Read

    This is all just so SPOOKY! I’d heard that some thriller writers were consulted about possible terrorism scenarios, after 9/11, but your stuff just chills my heart, here. I think I would’ve fainted, about thirty seconds into that phone call.

  7. Nonny

    And that’s how a good novelist is supposed to work, but scary nonetheless.

    I haven’t had this happen with a published work, but I had a dystopic science fiction novel outlined… about a crazed politician that tampers with voting machines, wins via the Electoral College, proceeds to turn the nation into a police state, involves the country in unnecessary wars, and tarnishes the nation’s reputation with foreign powers. (Only, the dude has the charisma to pull it off and make people believe.)

    There were so many exact parallels that I spent much of the past eight years with my guts knotted.

    I came up with the idea in 1996.

    No way in hell I can write that book now.

  8. Lance C.

    It’s hard to come up with a believable scenario that hasn’t already happened in the real world — and a lot of the far-fetched ones can be ripped from today’s headlines.

    But Clancy gets too much credit for Debt of Honor. The only similarities between his scenario and the 9/11 scheme are that both involve airplanes and buildings. Even if the FBI had guarded against Clancy’s scenario to the letter, the 9/11 hijackers wouldn’t have been slowed down a bit. Also, that same book is partly centered around a modern-day Japanese invasion of Saipan; that part hasn’t happened yet.

    It all just shows that with six billion people on this planet, more than one will likely get the same crazy idea. One will do it; the other may write about it. It;s probably better to be the one writing about it.

  9. Kathrin Pistauer

    Oh that phone call must have been really “interesting” if not scary! We can come up with really scary things in our imagination!

    I’m glad I didn’t receive that phone call, though. I think I would have freaked out! LOL (Says the girl whose teacher once caught her reading the encyclopedia of serial killers on school grounds and asked whether he should be worried…)


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