Koethi Zan: Writing The Never List

Koethi Zan author of The Never List

On Monday we revealed the book jacket for The Never List – Harvill Secker’s exciting 2013 debut crime novel from Koethi Zan.

Today Koethi shares some intriguing insights from a debut author’s perspective and explains how a mother of two, working as a full-time lawyer for MTV, found the time to write such a powerful novel.

Over to Koethi:

“For years I hid my obsession with crime.

On the surface I was a bright young lawyer: hard-working, responsible, normal. But underneath, I was worried. I wondered if my attraction/repulsion to the most degenerate human behaviors was sick, immoral, a sign of mental illness. I finally even asked my therapist if I had a diagnosable disorder.

Luckily, she wasn’t concerned, so I let it continue unbridled. I read classic crime, pulp fiction, psychological thrillers, true crime blogs, criminal science textbooks – anything deviant and everything abnormal. I clicked through all 3,657 hits on Google News about the most recently freed cellar captive: Elisabeth Fritzl, Natascha Kampusch, Sabine Dardenne. I’d lose hours following a Wikipedia trail of horrors, studying perverse pathologies throughout human history. Little by little, I became an expert in all things depraved. Go on. Ask me anything.

What drove this obsession? Was I harboring dark secret desires I didn’t want to admit to myself? Maybe. Did I believe understanding all of the evil of the world would protect me against it? Maybe. But I don’t think that’s it. I think I mostly wanted to understand how people survive catastrophe and keep on going. I wanted to know, for reasons of my own, if anyone could ever truly ‘get over it.’

And that’s how my heroine, Sarah Farber, came to be. In parsing through my feelings, I developed the urge to write what I wanted to read. I wanted to create a ‘detective’ who was different from the typical commitment-phobic alcoholic solving strangers’ crimes. My character would be vulnerable, raw, honest and complex, as she tried to recover from what was my own single greatest fear: being held captive in a psychopath’s basement. Her search would be fraught with danger, of course, but to solve the mystery she would also be forced to excavate her own past and her own heart, the darkest places of all.

The broad strokes of the story came to me all at once on a long walk alone in the woods. I knew the beginning, the end and the overall character arc. I decided I would give it a serious try, even though I had a full-time job as a lawyer for MTV, two young kids and an old house under renovation. I’d never written anything before, so I didn’t know any better. Sometimes naivety helps.

I wrote, appropriately enough, in my dark stone-walled basement. Inspired by Graham Greene, I assigned myself five hundred words a day, five days a week. I later increased it to six hundred, and added an incentive plan: if I finished ten thousand words in any calendar month, I could take the rest of the month off. I had exactly one hour to write each day, five to six a.m., before the kids got up. There was no time for writer’s block.

Everyone says it and it’s true: it was like magic. At a certain point, the characters did what they were going to do. So I let them, never looking back more than a few sentences to see where to begin each day.

The writing was intense though. I’ve never been abducted. I’ve never been held captive in a sado-masochistic dungeon. But I know what fear and powerlessness feel like, and I had to re-experience them in painful detail along with my characters. It was emotional and at times distressing writing such a grim story, but it was also purgative and exhilarating.

With The Never List, I learned that writing about the things that scare you the most is like good therapy. You go in deep, face it, invade it and let it invade you. And then you come out the other side changed.

Do I understand now how people can possibly bear it all? Maybe a little better than I did. But in the end I know there’s an awful lot of darkness out there left to delve into. And I’m still obsessed.”

Well, we are certainly looking forward to becoming ‘obsessed’ with Koethi’s book. In the next installment, we’ll reveal how Koethi Zan’s publisher, Liz Foley, knew that she just had to publish The Never List.

The Never List can be bought at most good bookstores and on Amazon.

Further reading: ‘Cancel appointments and give up on sleep…’The Never List‘ by Koethi Zan is coming’, ‘Why I knew I had to publish Koethi Zan’s The Never List by Harvill Secker editor Liz Foley’ and ‘Koethi Zan’s The Never List – How the book cover was designed


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