Wednesday, June 1, 2011

TRADE SECRETS: The Story Behind the Book

What man hasn’t fantasized about finding a beautiful woman in his garage one rainy night — a woman he’s never seen before but with whom he feels an immediate emotional connection — who leads him into a deadly adventure that ends up turning his entire life upside down?

Well, okay ... maybe that’s just me.

I’ve always loved stories like that, though. Remember Hitchcock’s North by Northwest? Cary Grant plays Manhattan advertising executive Roger Thornhill who has lunch in a restaurant one day and happens to raise his hand at precisely the wrong moment. Unnoticed by him, some shady thugs are watching him, and because he raises his hand when he does, they mistake him for a government agent. They lead him out to a car and take him away. That begins a thrill ride that involves Roger being framed for murder and leads to a breathtaking climax on Mt. Rushmore — and lands Roger in bed with Eva Marie Saint.

There’s something extraordinarily appealing about that possibility. Let’s admit it, most of us have pretty ordinary lives that are fairly short on thrills and intrigue. The idea that our everyday routine could suddenly be disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious stranger who might lead us into an exciting, breathless adventure is a pretty seductive one, isn’t it?

Back in the mid-1980s, I visited a friend in Baltimore, Maryland. I had one day of sightseeing before I was hit by the worst flu bug I’d ever experienced. It knocked me to the floor and then kicked the crap out of me. I spent most of my time in Baltimore in bed. In addition to being sick, I was pretty miserable that my trip to Charm City had been ruined and embarrassed that my friend had to put up with a sick houseguest. But there was nothing I could do about it, so while I was stuck in bed, I did what I always do — I wrote. I had a notebook handy and, mostly to distract myself, I began a story with nothing particular in mind. In the opening, a man found a beautiful woman huddling in his garage on a rainy night. He didn’t know her, had never laid eyes on her before, but his first thought upon seeing her was, I’ve found you. I didn’t get very far, but it took my mind off of how sick I felt. Over the next few years, though, the idea returned now and then. I would look it over, consider it, then put it away again.

By the end of the 1980s, I’d written five books, a couple of novellas and several short stories, all in the horror genre. I was in the mood to write something outside of that genre. Horror gives you a certain amount of freedom. You deal with vampires, werewolves, demons and other supernatural creatures. Horror works best when it’s grounded in reality with real people who are in real situations. But because it deals with the supernatural, once you’ve established that familiar world, you are free to become untethered from reality. The framework may be rooted in reality, but within that framework, the dead walk and are thirsty for blood, people can turn into monstrous beasts and the denizens of hell roam the earth to make people miserable. Remove the supernatural element and suddenly things are very different.

The dead don’t walk. People don’t turn into anything. Hell is something the clergy uses to frighten money out of their congregations. In the real world, the supernatural isn’t an option. If you’ve grown accustomed to it, not having it to fall back on is a challenge. I wanted to be challenged. I returned to that idea that kept haunting me — the one about the guy who finds the beautiful stranger in his garage.

I did what I usually do — I wrote that initial scene and then followed it to see where it would lead me. I discovered, to my surprise, that I was writing a love story, although an unconventional one. When Gerard Brady discovers that woman hiding in his garage, there’s a reason he immediately thinks, I’ve found you. Of course, I didn’t know what it was when I started out, but I discovered it — just as I hope you will.

Trade Secrets was an exciting writing experience. No monsters, nothing supernatural. Everything took place in the confines of hard, cold reality. Of course, that’s not to say there are no monsters in the book. After all, reality holds plenty of monsters. They just aren’t supernatural. Somehow — for me, anyway — that makes them scarier. There are more than one in Trade Secrets, but I think the scariest is Edna Macomber. She’s my personal favorite of all my villains.

When I was in school, there was a woman named Mrs. Macomber who was a scary monster. She was the mother of a classmate. For reasons I never fully understood, she hated me on sight. She was angry all the time. She did not walk, she stalked. She stormed. She charged. In my memory, I always see her with her fists clenched at her sides. There was a rage constantly boiling inside her, and all too often it was directed at me. She was a “room mother” and spent a lot of time at the school, always involved in one capacity or another. Any achievement I had, anything I managed to accomplish at school that was known to everyone — winning a competition, or a class election, things like that — infuriated Mrs. Macomber because she had it in her head that somehow I had snatched it — whatever it might be — away from her son.

Her son was a nice guy but he was socially awkward and tried a little too hard to fit in and be funny. For that reason — and because nobody liked his mother he was often picked on. He had some health problems that worsened as he got older, requiring a lot of treatment, including blood transfusions. Years later, he contracted AIDS from one of those transfusions and died. I’ve always regretted not getting to know him better because I’m sure he could have used a friend; with that woman for a mother — domineering, smothering, constantly present, and so very angry — it’s a wonder the kid wasn’t a complete wreck all the time. Anyway, Mrs. Macomber had it in for me and all my friends knew it. When she showed up on campus, one of them usually warned me with the chilling words, “Macomber’s coming.” Those words play a role in Trade Secrets.

Edna Macomber has a cruel job. She enjoys her work. What she does and who she does it for are among the book’s secrets, which you’ll have to read to learn. Even though Trade Secrets isn’t a horror novel, I succeeded in frightening myself when I created Edna Macomber.

Trade Secrets is available for Kindle at Amazon, for Nook at Barnes and Noble, in paperback and as an audiobook from Audible Audio.

If you enjoy Trade Secrets, I hope you'll post a review at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or on your blog or website. To stay updated on new releases, visit my website RayGartonOnline.


  1. I loved that book. to me- evil humans are far scarier than make believe villains...and my imagination was pretty legendary when I was a kid. If I had had your experiences I might have turned to fiction rather than picking on funeral directors and religion. have skills I could never reproduce. I'll stick to being a professional snot.

  2. I just bought it, Ray, started to read, and, of course, I'm hooked on the very first page--the prologue, in fact. I'm looking forward to hours of good reading. Thanks!