Motherhood Noir: 9 Writers Share The Maternal Fears That Inspired Their Dark and Thrilling Books
These authors write books about the dark and twisted underbelly of life – crime, murder, the supernatural. And they all have drawn inspiration from an unlikely source: motherhood. Here are the stories of moms and the dark sparks of creativity that inspired their work.
“Making the decision to have a child…is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." - Elizabeth Stone, teacher and author
Motherhood is beautiful. It’s hard. It’s rewarding. It’s also terrifying.
This quarantine has reminded me of when my now 5-year-old son was a newborn and completely tethered to me for everything. The only time he slept was if I wore him in a baby wrap and walked around my Providence, Rhode Island neighborhood.
Despite exhaustion reverberating through my body, I strolled along the wide, tree-lined Blackstone Boulevard, and my writer brain began to return to me. I imagined a fictional mom, also struggling, walking on the other side of the path. I imagined this mother would be uncovering clues the police missed and find justice for her murdered friend -- and she’d do it with her crying baby strapped to her body.
The dark and twisted novel that came together on those long walks would eventually become my debut mystery, Little Voices. With motherhood came an urgency to explore my rawest emotions. To show how both terror and wonder beat simultaneously where my heart once lived. By revealing my darkest fears as a mother, I hoped someone would whisper to my words on the page, yes, yes, me too.
Of course, I wasn’t alone in using fiction, especially thrillers, to connect to motherhood and my darkest fears. For your Mother’s Day gift, here are some of the authors writing thrillers now, sharing how their own motherhood journey inspired their books. From the instinct to protect our child at any cost to our fears of unseen danger lurking in a Santa Claus costume, here is a glimpse at the muse that is motherhood.
On this Mother’s Day, let’s honor the love and the fear. The arrival of a child means we are changed. Some days, that’s wonderful. Others, you need to read stories from mothers who have cracked open their chests and written about what’s replaced their hearts since that beating organ now walks outside their body in the form of a child.
Yes, yes, me too.
Yes, yes, me too.
The set-up for my novel, Miracle Creek, comes directly from my own life. My son was four years old when he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. The standard treatments weren’t working—he was crying that his stomach hurt and losing weight, the outlines of his ribs protruding through his skin—so we decided to try an experimental treatment involving breathing pure oxygen inside a pressurized group chamber that looked like a mini-submarine.
We did forty, hour-long “dives” that summer. It felt intensely vulnerable, being sealed inside a dark, small space with other sick kids and their moms. Because of the presence of pure oxygen, our HBOT operator was hypervigilant about prohibiting anything remotely flammable (no synthetic clothing, electronics, jewelry, etc.), but instead of reassuring me, it caused me to worry more—was the risk of fire so great that we couldn’t even wear underwire bras? What if something went wrong, and we couldn’t get out? What if in trying to help our kids, we ended up harming them?
But the treatments helped and my son’s colitis became manageable; he started gaining weight and eating with joy. We were lucky. But the dreams with flames and the sound of pounding on the steel wall of the chamber didn't leave me.
Years later, when I started writing a novel, that was the image I started with: an explosion and fire in a pressurized oxygen chamber, which kills an 8-year-old boy. The boy’s mother is charged with murder. I started with the what-ifs I was afraid to speak out loud in real life. I put the parents in Miracle Creek through my nightmares, letting out my pent-up anxieties and fears through writing, to scrutinize and conquer them. And maybe, in time, let them go.
When I sat down a decade ago to write my first novel, Reconstructing Amelia, my daughters were six and three years old. I knew only that I wanted to write a book about how terrifying motherhood was—at least for me. The product of a profoundly troubled childhood, I had no concept what a “good mother” was, much less a realistic plan to become one.
I was especially worried about the infamous teenage years. Reconstructing Amelia was my attempt to work through those fears by putting them down on paper. And then looking at them from far, far away. It helped, a little.
Today my six-year-old is sixteen, the exact age of the main character, and these days my book often serves as a cautionary tale for myself. Every time I get lax about monitoring social media, or find myself drifting too far out of touch, I think, “You literally wrote the book on this. It doesn’t end well!”
Of course, I am not my characters—for better and for worse. My daughter and I are often ships passing in the night the way Kate and Amelia are. Still, my sixteen-year-old shares much more with me than Amelia does with her mom. (At least, I think she does.) And most of the time—quietly, deep inside—I consider that a victory.
Even with all her sharing, I know my daughter still has secrets. Lots of them. And sometimes I lie awake at night worrying about them. But more often I have faith that we’re going to be okay. And I do feel much less afraid. One thing, all these years later, I know for sure: Together we’re writing a brand-new ending.
My daughters were roughly seven and eleven when a neighbor on our communal garden in London popped her head over our back fence to ask if my girls wanted to join some of the other children for a midsummer sleep out that night. My first instinct was that it sounded dreamy, but then an uncomfortable, unformed cloud of doubt passed through my head.
For years I’d let my children run around the garden unsupervised, in and out of their friends’ houses, no thoughts of shady dads or weird older brothers crossing my mind. But when my girls decided later that day that actually, they didn’t really want to go on the sleep out, I was peculiarly relieved. It felt like a turning point. The moment I no longer saw my children and their friends as safe. The moment I felt the teenage years begin to arrive.
Afterwards, I was left with a need to explore the darkness of children on the cusp of change: everything a writer could want to write about is contained there, within the exquisite freakishness of a teenager.
My girls are both teenagers now, and I am rapt in their presence, a ready ear for their chaotic streams of consciousness and profound pronouncements. But already they are forming, setting like jellies, becoming who they will be and maybe that is why I write teenagers into my books – to encase them in amber, as they are, before they are anything.
My novel Little Darlings emerged from my interest in the changeling baby myth -- something I was obsessed with following the birth of my first baby.
The book features ghostly happenings and a mother’s persecution by supernatural beings, who want to take her newborn babies and leave their own, unnatural ones, in their place. And yet, when I ask readers what they find most frightening about the book, the answer is quite often: the birth scene.
This is gratifying for me, because the point at which the protagonist, Lauren, gives birth is also the point at which the novel steps briefly into my own experience. I am Lauren, in that moment, and she is me. There is a difference, in that she has twins, doubling up on the terror, pushing her back into fiction; me but with an extra cup of trauma.
Writing the novel was cathartic, I’ll admit. I hope that others find something of themselves in Little Darlings, something of the ancient fears that we all share as mothers.
Admittedly, a lot of things scare me. Clowns, dolls, and even stuffed animals freak me out; I can't stand the uncanny. I can't sleep unless I've triple-checked the locks on all the doors. And if I watch scary movies, the lights must be on. Scary things come alive in the dark.
My husband thinks this is hilarious. I write thrillers, after all. But my ideas come from what scares me the most, and now that I'm a mother, kidnapped children are at the top of that list. Exploring every possible outcome of a horrifying imaginary situation allows me to believe I'd be better equipped to deal with it if it ever happened in real life. And maybe if I write about it, it won't happen at all.
I don't trust strangers. How do we know there isn't a kidnapper or murderer underneath that cheerful red suit? The answer is, we don't. We trust.
The world is full of monsters who snatch children when their parents aren't looking and they're not always strangers. Sometimes they're people we actually know – neighbors, friends, even family members. Monsters wear all kinds of disguises, and they thrive in darkness and secrecy.
Writing about them, for me, is the only way to turn the lights on.
- Jennifer Hillier
My most recent novel, Fierce Kingdom, focuses on a mother and son trapped in a zoo during a public shooting, but it didn’t start out as a book about a shooting. It started as a book about motherhood. Spoiler: it still is.
When my son was four, we spent a lot of time in the zoo. You have a lot of time to think when you’re staring at a stationary alligator for the thousandth time. I knew that I wanted to write about motherhood—the exhaustion, the repetition, the exhilaration of it. And one afternoon—staring at that motionless alligator after news of yet another public shooting—I found myself wondering, What would we do if someone came in here with a gun? That dark daydream started to seem like the right framework to explore all the angles of motherhood I’d been considering.
Honestly, the darkness was important. The truth is that—as we’re all very aware of in this time of social distancing—there is danger out there. There is sadness. You cannot fully protect your child. If you didn’t block out that fundamental truth most of the time, you’d never let your kid out of the house.
It’s the joy that strikes me most about mothering, though. The warm weight of it. The thrill of learning the fascinating twists of another human’s mind. I think the joyful moments in Fierce Kingdom between mother and son—a son who is a carbon copy of my own—are sharper and deeper because of the darkness hovering. It’s a filter that gives a radiance to the bits of everyday life: the touch of a small hand or the imaginary friends that live in a boy’s pocket.
“There are beautiful things. Pay attention,” thinks one character.
For me, threatening shadows and hidden gunmen were, most of all, a way to bring the beautiful things into focus.
- Gin Phillips
My debut, Woman on the Edge, is the story of two women, seemingly strangers. One woman approaches the other and says, “Take my baby” and jumps in front of an oncoming train. At the time I started writing, there was little fiction about postpartum depression and anxiety, though so many women experience it.
I didn’t go through depression myself, but I did absolutely feel worry and panic when my babies were born, especially my first, my son, who is now almost thirteen. I would watch him sleep to make sure he was breathing. I googled every sneeze and made nap and feeding schedules that ruled my life. I was obsessed with being the best mother I could, fearing I didn’t know what I was doing at all. It’s a life change that shocks even the most accomplished, level-headed woman.
New mothers I knew were hurting and despite family and medical support, were afraid to fully express their pain. Eventually, they all got help and became stronger through their struggles. They were and are excellent mothers. They generously shared their stories to help me develop my main character who is suffering from postpartum.
Some of the most meaningful messages I’ve received from readers are those that thank me for creating a character they could connect and identify with, and for treating postpartum depression and anxiety with sensitivity. That was extremely important to me. Woman on the Edge is a thriller, but at its core, it’s a story of motherhood, of women, and how far we would go to protect a child, even if it means sacrificing our own lives.
- Samantha Bailey
My daughter is taller than me but that didn’t stop me from carrying her on my back through a rainstorm and through a parking lot to UCLA’s urgent clinic because she’d had an ankle injury during a soccer game. I’ll do anything for Maya.
As I created Miriam Macy, the protagonist of They All Fall Down, I wrote from that place—I will do anything. Miriam’s daughter Morgan had been bullied by Morgan’s ex-best friend. Brooke had turned to alt-right politics (mildly put) and had targeted Morgan, her Black ex-BFF. Miriam had complained to the girls’ school and even Brooke’s parents—no one acted. So, Miriam did. Alas, her ‘handling it’ produced horrific results.
I’ve been angry at kids who have hurt my daughter. I’ve yearned to strike back at those losers. I ignored those maternal instincts to clap back at those little jerks on my daughter’s behalf because I am the adult. So, I teach her how to clap back and take revenge. Ha! That’s not true… entirely. My methods won’t land me on a private island in the Cortez Sea like Miriam Macy. But I understand Miriam and although one can certainly understand her frustrations and identify with her desires to help, she should’ve never…I’m not gonna tell you. I will say that Miriam goes far. Like… over-a-cliff far. Because that’s what mothers do sometimes.
-Rachel Howzell Hall