The Remains author, Vincent Zandri, is an award-winning novelist, essayist and freelance photojournalist. His novel As Catch Can (Delacorte) was touted in two pre-publication articles by Publishers Weekly and was called “Brilliant” upon its publication by The New York Post. The Boston Herald attributed it as “The most arresting first crime novel to break into print this season.” Other novels include the bestselling, Moonlight Falls, Godchild (Bantam/Dell) and Permanence (NPI). Translated into several languages including Japanese and the Dutch, Zandri’s novels have also been sought out by numerous major movie producers, including Heyday Productions and DreamWorks. Presently he is the author of the blogs, Dangerous Dispatches and Embedded in Africa for Russia Today TV (RT). He also writes for other global publications, including Culture 11, Globalia and Globalspec. Zandri’s nonfiction has appeared in New York Newsday, Hudson Valley Magazine, Game and Fish Magazine and others, while his essays and short fiction have been featured in many journals including Fugue, Maryland Review and Orange Coast Magazine. He holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College and is a 2010 International Thriller Writer’s Awards panel judge. Zandri currently divides his time between New York and Europe. He is the drummer for the Albany-based punk band to Blisterz.
Thirty years ago, teenager Rebecca Underhill and her twin sister Molly were abducted by a man who lived in a house in the woods behind their upstate New York farm. They were held inside that house for three horrifying hours, until making their daring escape.
Vowing to keep their terrifying experience a secret in order to protect their mother and father, the girls tried to put the past behind them. And when their attacker was hunted down by police over a separate incident and sent to prison, they believed he was as good as dead.
Now, it’s 30 years later, and with Molly having passed away from cancer, Rebecca, a painter and art teacher, is left alone to bear the burden of a secret that has only gotten heavier and more painful with each passing year.
But when Rebecca begins receiving some strange anonymous text messages, she begins to realize that the monster who attacked her all those years ago is not dead after all. He’s back, and this time, he wants to do more than just haunt her. He wants her dead.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
Rebecca Underhill is an art teacher and painter who might have become a great artist if not for the burden of the secret she shared with her sister, Molly. In a word, her life has always been haunted by the memory of the man who abducted her. Now, with the man released from prison, she has no choice but to confront him.
Her ex-husband and detective novelist, Michael, also plays a pivotal role in the novel. Even though the two are divorced they can’t get over the fact that they are soul mates, which means they are together all the time. Michael protects and helps Rebecca confront her worst fears. He also becomes her lover once more.
Also assisting her is an unlikely character by the name of Francis Scaramuzzi. A 48 year old autistic savant and painter, Francis is somehow able to channel into Rebecca’s nightmares. He warns her about the dangers that are about to confront her by creating a series of paintings, each of which represents one of the five senses.
The warnings aren’t limited to the living either. Despite the fact that Rebecca’s twin sister Molly has been dead these past nine years, she can still feel her presence. At times, she will borrow from her sister’s strength in order to stay alive. Molly might be dead, but she is very alive in The Remains.
Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
This novel originally began with Francis Scaramuzzi who was a real man from Albany, New York, and who worked as a janitor at my old high school, The Albany Academy. Not until close to his death was it discovered that the mentally challenged Francis was a very accomplished painter. It shocked the entire academic community, as well as the local arts community as well. Here was a man who lived extremely simply and anonymously, and who was assumed to barely be able to read. Yet inside his secret world, he was producing beautiful works of art. I’d been trying to wrap a novel around his extraordinary life for years.
Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?
I try and work out some of the plot details prior to writing even a single word. I also write character sketches and a loose chapter by chapter outline. However, I never stick to the outline since a plot that seems to be moving along is a plot that is moving along organically. As a writer, you don’t want to get in the way of the natural course of events. In the end, my first draft is usually serves as an elaborate outline.
Q: Your book is set in Albany, New York. Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?
Albany is where I was born and bred. It’s the city I know the best and therefore I feel that I can write about it convincingly. Lots of my fan now have come to identify me as an Albany writer, even if I do end up writing lots of my books outside the country in Florence, Italy, for instance, where I stay every fall. One interesting note is that every year, a local alternative magazine runs a “Best of the Capital Region” reader’s poll. For the past three years, two authors have earned the two highest spots. Myself and another, far more well known, Albany, writer: William Kennedy. You might say I’m gaining on the old master!
Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
Naturally. Albany is a small city and everyone tends to know one another, or at least about one another’s business. Or if they don’t know, they are apt to make something up. Thus the tongue-and-cheek moniker, “Smalbany.” It’s a place of long hard winters and short, but hot summers. It also rains a lot, and the weather always plays a roll in my stories. The weather and the rugged surrounding countryside in The Remains, are as much villains as is Joseph William Whalen, the man who abducted Rebecca and her sister three decades ago.
Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?
Rebecca is observing a painting that Francis created for her the day before. It resembles in almost every detail a recurring nightmare she’s been having. Yet she doesn’t want to believe something like that is possible. Still, the painting draws her in, almost obsessively.
Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?
October 2, 2008
Albany, New York
In the deep night, a woman sits down at her writing table. Fingering a newly sharpened pencil, she focuses her eyes upon the blank paper, brings the black pencil tip to it.
She begins to write.
I’ve been dreaming about you again. I don’t think a night has gone by in the past few weeks when I haven’t seen your face. Our face, I should say. The face is always in my head; implanted in my memories. The dream is nothing new. It’s thirty years ago again. It’s October. I’m walking close behind you through the tall grass towards the woods. Your hair is loose and long. You’re wearing cut-offs, white Keds with the laces untied and a red T-shirt that says ‘Paul McCartney and Wings’ on the front. You’re walking ahead of me while I try to keep up; but afraid to keep up. Soon we come to the tree line, and while my heart beats in my throat, we walk into the trees. But then comes a noise—a snapping of twigs and branches. The gaunt face of a man appears. A man who lives in a house in the woods.
Then, just like that, the dream shifts and I see you kneeling beside me inside the dark empty basement. I hear the sound of your sniffles, smell the wormy raw earth, feel the cold touch of a man’s hand. You turn and you look at me with your solid steel eyes. And then I wake up.
We survived the house in the woods together, Mol, and we never told a soul. We just couldn’t risk it. Whelan would have come back for us. He would have found us. He would have found mom and dad. Even today, I know he surely would have. He would have killed them, Mol. He would have killed us. In just five days, thirty years will have passed. Three entire decades and I’m still convinced we did the right thing by keeping that afternoon in the woods our secret.
When I see you in my dreams it’s like looking in a mirror. The blue eyes, the thick lips, the dirty blond hair forever just touching the shoulders. My hair is finally showing signs of grey, Mol.
I wonder, do you get gray hair in heaven? I wonder if Whelan’s hair burned off in hell? I wonder if he suffers?
All my love,
Your twin sister,
Rebecca Rose Underhill
Exhaling, the woman folds the letter neatly into thirds, slips it into a blank stationary envelope, her initials RRU embossed on the label. Running the bitter sticky glue interior over her tongue, she seals the envelope, sets it back down onto the writing table. Once more she picks up the pencil, brings the now dulled tip to the envelope’s face. Addressing it she writes only a name:
Molly Rose Underhill
The job done, the woman smiles sadly. Opening the table drawer, she sets the letter inside, on top of a stack of nine identical letters-never-sent. One for every year her sister has been gone.
Closing the drawer she hears her cell phone begin to vibrate, then softly chime. Picking it up off the desktop, she opens the phone, sees that a new text has been forwarded to her electronic mailbox. Fingering the in-box, she retrieves the message.
Rebecca is all it says.
Punching the command that reveals the name and number of the sender she finds “Caller Unknown.” The sender’s number has been blocked. Closing the phone back up, she sets it down on the desk. That’s when the wind picks up, blows and whistles through the open window.
“Mol,” she says, staring out into the darkness. “Mol, is that you?”
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Vincent. We wish you much success!
Thank you for having me.
The Remains by Vincent Zandri