Jenny Milchman has a lot to celebrate this spring: her psychological suspense novel, As Night Falls, is being made into a movie, and in May, Sourcebooks is publishing Wicked River. Milchman’s fourth thriller is the story of a honeymoon turned struggle for survival when two newlywed Manhattanites, despite a complete lack of any wilderness experience, embark on a canoe trip through the most isolated part of the Adirondacks.
“My own aborted honeymoon inspired this novel,” Milchman, 49, laughingly confides to a group of Winter Institute 13 booksellers in a noisy Beale Street restaurant. Recounting the tale of her and her new husband’s honeymoon misadventures in 1994, Milchman says that what was supposed to be a three-week camping trip ended after only one day, primarily due to swarms of black flies. For years afterward, Milchman says, she had a “nagging question: what if we hadn’t turned back when we did? What might we have encountered? What might we have learned?”
The big difference between Natalie and Doug Larson’s honeymoon in Wicked River and her own real-life one, Milchman reveals, is that hers was “minus the doubts that my husband was who I thought he was, and [minus] having to survive for days in the woods.” Milchman’s interrupted honeymoon continued in Paris, thanks to a borrowed credit card.
Milchman describes Wicked River as a cross between Erica Ferencik’s River at Night and James Dickey’s Deliverance, both of which influenced her. But Wicked River is more than simply a tale of naïve urban dwellers venturing into the unknown: it’s the portrait of a marriage that from the outset is laden with secrets and lies. It is, Milchman says, a tale about “how where we come from influences so much of who we are—and how we bring that into our marriages. We don’t enter marriages solo: all of those relationships are walking with us.”
Gender dynamics intrigue Milchman, who in her fiction explores its influence, not just upon the inner workings of her characters’ marriages but also upon their friendships with others. Noting that males and females approach friendship differently, she explains that she “wanted to build up on that contrast” in this novel. So while Natalie becomes estranged from her girlfriends after Doug enters her life and takes priority over them, Doug’s male friends remain his besties, “almost like a gang of lost boys: they all had each other’s backs.”
Milchman’s exploration of the impact of gender extends to contentious relationships as well, such as that between the couple and Kurt, a forest dweller who comes upon them and whose villainy is explained by his traumatic childhood. “That triangle was very important to me,” she says, aware of the way men and women react differently to dangerous situations. While Natalie attempts to placate Kurt, Doug remains defiant. Milchman is also “fascinated by who we are when our outer shells are stripped away and we are at our most basic selves”. She claims Stephen King as her primary literary benchmark. “Going from everyday life, being annoyed because there’s a line at the coffee shop, to ‘Am I going to live to see another day?’ is true of all my books; definitely this one.”
Milchman, who grew up in Montclair, N.J., the daughter of a psychologist and a CUNY political science professor, says she was telling stories as early as 18 months: “I would tell my mom stories and she’d write them down.” As a young adult, she wrote poetry. “I wanted to be a poet and live in a cabin in the woods,” she recalls, laughing at the memory. “It wasn’t the most practical path.”
After graduating in 1992 from Barnard College with a double major in English literature and psychology, Milchman attended the New School and then became a psychotherapist. But she continued to write. Her double life led her to write tales of psychological suspense: it began while she was working with disturbed children at a rural clinic. Milchman treated a “cherubic and adorable five-year-old” who had just killed the family pet. “It was a scary case,” she says. “I sat down and started writing. I had never written crime fiction before, but it was almost like life was a suspense novel for me, working at that clinic. I realized, families influence so much of who we are, and we all have a story that can get pretty scary.”
After her son was born in 2006, Milchman started writing full-time, although it took seven more years to get published. Cover of Snow, Milchman’s debut novel, was published by Ballantine in 2013. The thriller, in which a woman tries to understand why her policeman husband committed suicide, received glowing reviews, as well as the 2013 Mary Higgins Clark Award for best suspense novel. Two more novels, also published by Ballantine, followed: Ruin Falls (2014) and As Night Falls (2015).
From the beginning, Milchman says, her writing career was a family endeavor. Her two children marched around the house with homemade signs, chanting, “Mommy get published.” The entire family later went on “crazy long” national book tours: a seven-month tour in 2013, a five-month tour in 2014, and a four-month tour in 2015. While Milchman homeschooled the children, her husband, a computer software designer, “worked from the front seat, with his hot spot and headset on.” Since her children are now 12 and 14, the first leg of Milchman’s 25-city national tour in May for Wicked River will be a solo effort. She will undertake the second leg in July as one of four authors participating in Sourcebooks’ “Up All Night Thriller Tour.”
Milchman says that stories “pour through” her. “I love the writing of my books,” she says, immersing herself so completely into her plots that she feels transported. “I’m on that river with Natalie and Doug, facing these things,” she says. “It’s a wild ride.” Joking that “no children or animals are harmed in the making” of her novels, Milchman says that despite all the ups and downs the characters experience, she prefers “happy endings,” because in the real world “things don’t always turn out the way you like.” Her climaxes, she says, always emphasize that justice has been done. “People get what they deserve in my books,” she says. “I’m writing to the happily ever after.”
Doug and Natalie Larson, she says, are just like the children in a Grimm’s fairy tale: they “go through a wicked dark wood, and when they come out, they’re going to have what they needed all along.”