Christine Lennon’s debut novel The Drifter is grounded in the real-life tale of the Gainesville Ripper, A.K.A. serial killer Danny Rolling, who terrorized the Florida college town in the Nineties. While that initial hook gives the book its suspense and uncomfortable-yet-thrilling goose-bump factor, the story continues to unravel from there, touching upon themes of friendship and reinvention and the lingering residue of guilt and time. Our protagonist is Betsy, a University of Florida coed when the killer (renamed Scottie MacRae) strikes. (Spoiler alert: a sorority sister doesn’t make it.) Decades later, Betsy becomes Elizabeth, a high-powered Manhattanite in the art world, who’s still grappling with her past. Music plays a big part throughout the book and, as we discover in our talk with the Lennon, a former magazine editor, it weighed heavy on the writing process, too — you can listen to her playlist for The Drifter here.

The idea behind The Drifter first began with…
My 40th birthday. I think that so many people get that “now or never” feeling when they turn 40, which leads to mid-life crisis sports cars or affairs or training for a triathlons. I used mine to motivate me to try to write something longer than 3,000 words. So first I turned 40, and then I read a book called A Visit from the Goon Squad by one of my favorite writers, Jennifer Egan. It’s a breathtaking book (it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2011) and I connected with one of the characters, Sasha, in a real, visceral way. It made me want to create a person who made bad choices and screwed up a lot, but still, ultimately, realized that she was deserving of love and happiness.

I choose to ground the novel in the Gainsville murders because…
I was there! It was August of 1990, and a serial killer named Danny Rolling murdered five people in my small college town. (In the book, I changed names and details because I didn’t want to be disrespectful to the families of the victims who died far too young.) I moved away right after graduation, but for years, every time I told someone I went to school at the University of Florida, I would see this flicker of recognition in their eyes, like “Wait a minute…isn’t that where…?” It happened well before our 24-hour news cycle engulfed our culture, but this was still a major national story. People still remember it pretty vividly. My friends and I were young and a little callous and of course we felt immortal, but it changed me and, I think, everyone around me. The whole world looked a little bit darker after that.

How the theme of reinvention resonates for me…
I have had several opportunities to reinvent myself in my life, some of which I welcomed, and some of which I dreaded. I moved from Kansas City to Florida mid-way through my freshman year of high school, and I was kind of a shy kid, so that felt like a waking nightmare. But it gave my life a kind of urgency. Suddenly, I was living this John Hughes-movie-style makeover montage, cutting my hair, ditching my Polo rugby shirts for black t-shirts. I think that’s one of the reasons why I ended up writing for fashion magazines. I understood the way changing your style could also change your life. Then, when I moved to New York after college, I felt like I had just rolled off of the citrus truck. I scrambled to fit in, not realizing that literally every other person my age on the sidewalk was going through the same thing. The protagonist in The Drifter, Betsy, goes through a similar reinvention period, because she was trying to smudge out her past. Fourteen years ago, I moved from New York to Los Angeles. I never would have had the courage to come here, where I knew exactly four people, if I hadn’t had a little practice. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Favorite line in the book…
“In the blazing afternoon sun, her eyes stung with sweat and bad memories as she got back on the bike and rode to Ginny’s, undetected, to wait for the storm.” I could use that line to describe almost every day I spent at UF. It was huge, so everyone felt a little bit anonymous. And I either got caught in the rain or was drenched in sweat every single day for four solid years. I have the bad party pictures to prove it.

The most challenging part writing this was…
Making the time. I started writing it when my kids were four or five, and I just couldn’t do it while they were awake. I could write my magazine stories and do all sorts of other productive things during the day, but I needed to wait until the air-traffic-control section of my brain was off, the part that was always tracking their whereabouts or managing their schedules even if they weren’t in my sight, to tune into this alternate reality and write this. I needed to know they were safe, and the dog wasn’t barking at me and the UPS guy wasn’t banging on the door. I wrote most of it between 8:30 pm and 1:00 a.m. It was exhausting, but it’s the only way I could do it. The second hardest part was learning to put it down and walk away when I hated it, not just trashing it impulsively, but waiting until I felt good about it and starting again.

Some elements pulled from my own life…
Oh boy, there was a lot. I wrote about my experience in a sorority in college, and most of those details were only slightly exaggerated versions of things that I witnessed or happened to me. I have complicated feelings about that time, but I don’t regret it. When I was a magazine editor in New York, I worked at W, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. I never would have walked into the building for that first interview if I hadn’t already sacrificed myself to the estrogen volcano that was a sorority in the Sunbelt in the late 1980s.

Authors who influenced me the most while writing this…
Anne Lamott and her book Bird by Bird really got me through it. She wrote it to help writers and creative people silence their inner critic. She is funny and frank and wise, and I talk about her concept of “KFKD” (or k-f*cked, the radio commentators in our heads that debate our self worth and ability) all the time. Stephen King’s On Writing is another book about the process of writing, which just dispels all of those weird myths about writers and their eccentricities and encourages you to sit down and treat it like a bank job, just to put in the time. As far as fiction goes, I love Kate Atkinson for her keen eye for detail, Megan Abbott and Emma Donoghue who know a thing or two about suspense, Jennifer Egan of course, Ann Patchett for her grace and brilliance, and writers who are mothers, like Edan Lepucki, who aren’t afraid to go dark and dirty and scary.

The playlist and its influence on the book…
The playlist informed the book in a major way. There were certain songs and moments that I just had to write about, like driving around with my friend Kari as we belted out “Voices Carry” by Til Tuesday, and driving to the lake listening to The Feelies, noticing how those songs sounded so much like the hum of the bugs and frogs in the Florida scrub. It’s also interesting, to me at least, that popular music was being reinvented at exactly the same time this story takes place. When I started college, you would hear Vanilla Ice blasting from dorm rooms. By the time I left, it was all about Nirvana. It was a total cultural 180. And I have to admit that it was fun to pick a set list of songs about murders for the band to play at Weird Bobby’s party. I’m a little twisted, I guess.

I combat writer’s block by…
I learned from my husband, who is a TV writer, that a nice long walk does wonders to work through a block. I would hike up Ferndell in Griffith Park, get a very strong Stumptown coffee at Trails, and then try again. Also, weed helps. Just kidding. Sorry, I live in L.A. It’s legal.

The book I always give as a gift…
Tiffany Table Manners for Teenagers.

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