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Extinguishing A Life

An interview with Stacy Willingham, debut author of A Flicker in the Dark, a thrilling novel set to be adapted into an HBO Max series.

“Monsters don’t hide in the woods. They aren’t shadows in the trees or invisible things lurking in darkened corners. No, the real monsters move in plain sight.”

Stacy Willingham’s debut novel, A Flicker in the Dark, explores the psychological and emotional repercussions of being the child of a serial killer. Twenty years after her father confessed to the murders of six teenage girls, Chloe Davis is an engaged and successful psychologist in Baton Rouge. 

But all is not what it seems, as boiling under Chloe’s carefully curated life—from her perfect fiancé to her stable career—the darkness of her father’s crimes still haunts her. As teenage girls begin to go missing in Baton Rouge, Chloe is left spiraling as she wonders if the similarities she sees between the past and present are signs of a copycat or if she has lost her grip on reality. 

Stacy Willingham is a former copywriter and brand strategist with a BA in Magazine Journalism from the University of Georgia and an MFA in Writing from the Savannah College of Art & Design. She now writes fiction full-time in Charleston, South Carolina. Skylar Guidroz talked to her about her novel’s promising debut and plans to adapt the story into a TV series on HBO at the helm of Emma Stone’s production company.

Skylar Guidroz: Were there any particular crime cases/serial killers that inspired this book?

Stacy Willingham: I would say there weren’t any specific serial killers that provided inspiration, but I’ve always been interested in serial killer psychology. For my whole adult life, I’ve read books about them, I’ve watched documentaries about them, trying to understand how they work and how their brains are wired so differently from everyone else’s. Through that research, I’ve realized that a lot, if not most, of the infamous serial killers of our time have had girlfriends and wives and children and families who had absolutely no idea what they did in the dark. Ted Bundy, for example, had a live-in girlfriend; Dennis Rader had a wife and daughter; Gary Ridgeway had a wife. Something clicked inside me when I realized that almost every serial killer of our time had people that loved them that didn’t know their true selves. That’s how the inspiration of Chloe came about, because I wanted to get inside the head of someone who loved a serial killer and had been tricked by them in the most intimate way of all. 

SG: Why did you decide to set the story in Louisiana? Do you have any personal connections to the state?

SW: I don’t have any personal connections to Louisiana, but I do live in Charleston, South Carolina, so I’m a Southerner myself. I’ve lived here for about 17 years. The South is so visceral and unique because those of us who live here really understand it—like the thickness of the air and the noises that are constantly going on at night—but the people who don’t live here really don’t understand it at all, so I enjoy writing about it for both audiences. I’ve always written about Charleston or South Carolina, but for some reason, Louisiana was calling to me for the setting of this book. Breaux Bridge, in particular, I chose because it’s the Crawfish Capital of the World, and I wanted to depict a small, Southern town where everybody knew everybody so when the reality of what Chloe’s father did and the massive impact that it had on that town was finally made known, the ripple effect and the repercussions of that would be inescapable for Chloe. Setting the present-day portion in Baton Rouge was more of a logistical decision. I needed her set in a larger city still in the state that was within driving distance of her hometown. Baton Rouge and Breaux Bridge are fairly close to each other. Then, of course, there’s the proximity to Angola, or the Louisana State Penitentiary, which is where Chloe’s father was serving out his life sentence. I wanted her father to still feel close to her; it always felt like his presence was looming over her still even after all these years. The fact that he is only an hour away from her at any given time felt a little bit creepy to me.

SG: Fireflies are repeated imagery in A Flicker in the Dark. What is their intended thematic significance?

SW: There’s a few, I think. On the one hand, fireflies are a memory of my own youth when you run around and you catch them and it’s fun as a child. There’s a scene in A Flicker in the Dark where Chloe as a child catches a firefly and puts it in a jar and covers the lid in plastic. As a kid, it’s fun to watch them glow in that little jar, but if you keep them in there for too long, they’re not gonna survive. You’re taking a life and extinguishing it. So, that was a theme I thought about quite a bit. There was also Lena’s belly button ring and how that was a piece of glow in the dark jewelry, but when Chloe found it in the back of her father’s closet in that jewelry box, of course, it had been in the dark for months and it wasn’t glowing anymore. It was dead. That’s another piece of symbolism. And then, of course, fireflies and flickering in the dark; it relates to the title of the book. A Flicker in the Dark as a title has a lot of symbolic meaning; memories flickering in the darkness of Chloe’s subconsciousness that she had repressed or feelings that would flicker up out of nowhere that she didn’t realize were there. 

SG: Were there changes made from the first draft to the published book? Did you have the twist planned when you started writing or did you discover everything alongside Chloe?

Stacy Willingham photo by Mary Hannah Harte

SW: Quite a bit changed actually. The main story arc I knew going into it. The idea was always “What would it be like to be the daughter of a serial killer who started reliving her father’s crime 20 years later?” That basic story arc was always there, but I don’t outline. I never know exactly what’s going to happen until I start writing. In a lot of ways, I figured things out as Chloe did. So, as new characters were introduced into the story and she was becoming suspicious of them, I was becoming suspicious of them, and nothing was ever as straightforward as I thought it would be in the beginning. One twist I knew was gonna happen, while the other ones found their way in organically. 

SG: A Flicker in the Dark already has a film deal with actress Emma Stone. While it is a bit early, what has that been like for you? Are you expected to have input in the screenwriting process?

SW: It’s been incredible! The intention as of right now is for it to be a TV show with HBO Max. It’s still very, very early in the process. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to meet Emma and the folks at A24 and the screenwriter, Morgan Gould. I’m certainly not a screenwriter so I trust Morgan with that piece of it. They’re being very kind and leaving the lines of communication open so I can see the script maybe as it comes out and pick their brains a little bit. Honestly, I think that Emma Stone, A24 and HBO Max are the dream team in my opinion, so I trust whatever they have in mind for it.

SG: Publisher’s Weekly called you a “writer to watch.” Do you have anything planned for what you will be working on next?

SW: Yes, I am actually pretty far along in the process of writing my second book. My editor has it as we speak and is working through her edits for me. It’s another psychological thriller. I can’t talk too much about it yet, but it’s similar to A Flicker in the Dark in that there’s a lot of past and present intertwining. It’s set in another Southern town, and there are quite a few twists in this one as well—definitely more than one! I hope that fans of A Flicker in the Dark will like book number two. I’m always cooking up new ideas, so I have ideas for books three and four as well, but we’ll get there eventually. I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

A Flicker in the Dark releases on January 11 and is available for preorder now.

This book is included in our 2021-22 Fall/Winter Reading List.

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