Followers of the site and my other writings elsewhere will note that I rarely endorse a novel so wholly, and yet NO EXIT is the novel to beat this year, and perhaps this decade. An astonishing novel of a young woman's desire to survive, and will to save another life, is so astonishing, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat (and all other cliches), it is irresistible. But rest assured that NO EXIT is no cliche. It is phenomenal. Below is my interview with author Taylor Adams.
Matthew Turbeville: Wow, Taylor, this is a remarkable novel. I very rarely read books that completely overwhelm me with the story and characters. The book feels like a non-stop action ride peppered with some really great characters and a lot of other interesting things as well. What did you have planned when you first came up with No Exitand decided to write the book?
Taylor Adams: Thank you! I love contained thrillers, and I’d really wanted to try my hand at writing a story that took place in a “locked room” with very little outside interference. I think the pressure of isolation can do wonders for a story’s tension, and rest stops had always struck me as naturally eerie places. The idea of witnessing a horrible crime at a rest stop – and being trapped with the evildoer due to outside forces – was just too exciting a premise for me to ignore!
MT: Darby is such a wonderful character. I don’t know how to describe her—and given the obstacles in her way, her will to survive—I have to ask what went into making Darby as a character, and how did you decide this was the challenge she would face, and that this would be the perfect fight for her to take on?
TA: Darby was a fun character to write. I knew from the premise that the story needed a heroine who appears ordinary at first glance – but as she’s put to the test, she surprises herself, and the villain, with shocking tenacity and courage. That kind of heroism is genuinely inspiring to me. And I also tend to empathize with characters who are in a situation hopelessly over their heads (not sure what that says about me!). Throughout the rewriting process of No Exit, I frequently reminded myself: Darby isn’t a cop, she doesn’t know any martial arts, she’s not even particularly strong – but to save a little girl’s life tonight, she will literally cut throats. I love that in a protagonist.
MT: There are so many twists, some fairly early on. I know reading this book I felt settled in and cozy, not because the book was happy or I thought it would happily, but because I really believed I was reading a story being handled by a master of the form. How did you introduce these twists, and during revision and rewriting were there ever times you really felt that you needed to add or remove something significant?
TA: The story was more straightforward in its earlier drafts and became “twistier” as I rewrote it and found new opportunities for misdirection and surprise. Particularly in the final third, I really felt the need to layer in the upsets, as I feared the ending wasn’t packing the punch it needed to. One particular late-game twist – involving the outside world’s response to the climactic bloodbath – is one that I’ve been wanting to use in a story for years, and finally had the chance to! But on the other hand, overdoing it can feel like narrative whiplash. There was a final planned twist to the story’s epilogue which I’d struggled valiantly to write for several months before realizing it was simply too much. It would have been a major misstep.
MT: This novel reminds me so much of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, in so many ways, although it is a book all its own. What are the books and authors who really influenced you and your writing throughout the creation of this book? Were there any books you particularly turned to when you were having an especially hard time writing the novel?
TA: I’m so happy to hear that! Joe Hill was absolutely an influence, as was much of Stephen King’s work. They both have an effortless way with the poetry of terror. I’m also a big fan of Scott Smith, whose amazing novels The Ruins and A Simple Plan similarly involve small groups of people under extreme pressure. And I’d be remiss not to cite the classic Christmas story Die Hard as a major influence – I wouldn’t quite call Darby a female version of John McClane, but I like to think they’d get along.
MT: What are your writing habits actually like? Do you write in the morning, evening, night, or are you the type of writer who fits writing in whenever you can? What was your path in becoming a writer, or did you feel this was always your “calling”?
TA: I like to write in the mornings (preferably with about a gallon of black coffee). I find I’m much sharper and more focused in the early parts of the day, so getting my obligatory thousand words in right at the crack of dawn is best. From an early age I knew I wanted to be a writer – when I was five years old, my parents bought me this publishing service for kids where you write/draw the pages and publisher binds it together as a book. Five-year-old me wrote “The Train’s Worst Day,” a harrowing and surprisingly bleak story about a train struggling to get home amid an onslaught of natural disasters. I guess I’ve always had a thing for tormenting my protagonists.
MT: This novel feels like it is about some really strong women—Darby in particular—and the determined need to survive and see things through to the end. The ending is something that I’m still trying to wrap my head around, and also something I loved and admire you for so immensely. If you wouldn’t mind sharing, who are the women who have affected your life deeply and influenced Darby—personal, literary, famous, activists, so on?
TA: My wonderful girlfriend Jaclyn was a tremendous influence. She’s an extremely smart and tenacious attorney, and she takes no crap in a legal field that’s still heavily male-dominated. Likewise, in No Exit, Darby assumes an action-hero role, which is perhaps an equally male-dominated space. Her enemy underestimates her at first. But she digs in, duct-tapes her wounds, plans her attack, and does not quit. That’s Jaclyn, winning a case.
MT: This book is much more a thriller than a mystery (although there are some really great elements involving mysteries as well in the book). What’s so amazing is how you kept me glued to the page, unable to stop reading until the very last sentence, and even then wanting more. My heart was pounding, my fingers curved in and digging into the page, and I knew this would be a book I would think about for days. What are a few of your secrets to maintaining such incredible suspense throughout the entire novel? It’s astounding how you were able to make use of every single word in the book—something most writers don’t have the ability to do—and even from the first page. Can you explain how some of this works?
TA: Momentum is extremely important to me. Whether it’s a gentle pull or a sharp tug, I truly delight in the sensation of a story relentlessly pulling me to the next page. I worked hard to keep that momentum unbroken throughout No Exitby keeping the tempo varied and making sure Darby never has a chance to rest (in fact, an early title was No Rest). When writing the action scenes, I tried to visualize the events like a continuous camera-take in a film, following clear lines of cause and effect for clarity and urgency. Even the simpler things like chapter transitions – for example, making one scene’s ending “rhyme” with the next scene’s beginning – can be a powerful tool for keeping that all-important momentum unbroken.
MT: At times, I suppose it seems like Darby is fighting for her own survival, but in others ways we see Darby fighting to survive and “win” (that’s the term I’ll use for now so I don’t spoil the book) and I wonder what “ghosts” you give your protagonists, what things haunt them and drive them, and what are the aspects you add into the novel in the current situation that drive the protagonist even harder? There is a person Darby is trying to protect, and I wonder what this person represents to Darby?
TA: As exciting as fighting for survival can be, it will quickly become boring if spread uninterrupted over 300+ pages with no other character motivations (believe me, I’ve tried!). It’s important that the hero have other emotional needs that can serve to both mix up the stakes and deepen the story’s primary conflict. In this case, Darby’s guilt over her troubled relationship with her mother, and her limited time to make amends, provides a brutal added stress – and ultimately, a very positive route toward redemption.
MT: If you do outline your novels, how do you do it? If you don’t outline your novels, what is the process like? What do you focus on first, character or plot? What helps to pull you in to a story you’re creating to make a truly great novel?
TA: Oh man, do I love outlines. I’ll often outline many times before writing a first draft, and even between drafts. They’re a great way for me to get my head around a story’s shape and structure. I would say I focus on the plot first – in a novel like No Exit, the plot is basically the situation, and the changing situation is what informs the characters’ goals (good and evil alike). As the story takes shape, there needs to be an emotional core to hero that I can connect with – in the case of No Exit, it’s Darby’s determination to make a difference and defy her own selfish past, even if it’s literally the last thing she does. That’s the “fuel” for me.
MT: Your novel does not stop from its very beginning until its very end. As I mentioned before, you make use of every word in the novel. I have to wonder how long it took you to write this novel. What was plotting every twist and turn like when there were so many and you made every sentence and word count?
TA: It took me a good eighteen months to write No Exit, across numerous rewrites, overhauls, and general fretting. I started every draft as a new Word document, refocusing and distilling the story each time, to find the most efficient ways forward without breaking that all-important momentum. In many ways, that rapid pace came at the cost of character development – I had scarce time to delve into anyone’s backstories – so I worked hard to show their traits in action instead.
MT: I have to ask, do you have any other books coming up soon? A work in progress or a book that is ready for publication soon? I’m sure our readers will be dying to know.
TA: I do! I’m hard at work writing another twisty thriller with the working title of Hairpin Bridge. It follows a young woman hellbent on proving that her twin sister’s shocking suicide, atop a remote bridge in Montana, was really a murder. To prove this, she drives out to that very same bridge and interviews the local cop who claims to have discovered her sister’s body, and tries to catch him in a lie…
MT: Taylor, thank you so much for letting us pick your brain about your book. It was an endlessly entertaining, beautiful, brutal, visceral, and frighteningly good novel to dive into and I’m so glad I got the chance to read it—and let us know if you have any thoughts, comments, etc below. Thank you again!
TA; Thank you so much for having me here! I really appreciate the kind words!