Captive Audience

Millbrook, New York is a quiet town, a town of well-behaved dogs on leashes and potted flowers.

box of flowers

A town of rice pudding with cinnamon at a cute bakery called Babette’s Kitchen.

rice pudding

The last notable murder in Millbrook took place a century ago – a nanny named Sarah Brymer was strangled when her employers, of the Barnes Compton clan, left their estate for a New York City visit during a January snowstorm. The coachman, Frank Schermerhorn, did it – though he first tried to pin the blame on the Japanese butler – then cut his own throat with a straight razor when he was apprehended.

That was a long time back and everybody’s forgotten about it.

So it was interesting to be invited to Millbrook’s warm and comfortable Merritt Bookstore for a discussion/book signing today where attendees could “discover the art of mystery.” I was joined by another novelist, Koethi Zan, whose book The Never List was published earlier this month.


Koethi is a former entertainment industry lawyer who makes her debut with this riveting book. She knows everything there is to know on the subject of girls and women taken captive by craven men, then tortured and imprisoned for years. She is also an authority on the subject of the women who eventually escape these men. And she has worked this knowledge into a thriller which has received strong acclaim from people like Jeffery Deaver and Tess Gerritsen.

It was great to meet Koethi.

Jean and Koethe

She brought her husband, Stephen Metcalf, a critic-at-large at Slate who has a nonfiction book on the 1980s in the works. I brought Gil – yes, Gil Reavill, whose speciality is also crime and whose recent book is Mafia Summit.

All the great minds were present. The only thing lacking was an audience.

It happens sometimes. When you make appearances as an author, you don’t know whether to expect 120 people or three. When it’s three, you still have to be mentally present, be on your game, because these wonderful people made the effort to come out and see you, after all. Amazing!

In this case, nada. So, with two of the book store’s staff, we sat around in the cozy garrett upstairs and had a very stimulating talk about writing books.

We talked about creating a bad guy. How do you get inside his head? Koethi said that for The Never List it was more about her characters trying to ascertain how her bad guy ticked. For me, with The Orphanmaster, I said it was partly about figuring out what he would think and do that was completely the opposite of what I would think and do.

How do you discipline yourself when you don’t feel like working? Five hundred words a day, said Koethi. That is my minimum.

We talked about fact-based prose. About research. (One of my favorite subjects.) I told them about how I had based my protagonist in The Orphanmaster on a real person I had written about for an earlier work, The Women of the House, and how I had all my research practically done when I started my novel. Stephen talked about the book he is working on, about the plenitude of letters regarding the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of his central figures. Koethi, as I said, has absorbed everything on captive females.

She told us about some of the recent high-profile cases, and said that while it seems some of these young women are coming back to a semblance of mental health it’s not always what it seems.

We talked about captivity narratives, about the classic John Wayne film The Searchers, about an article that has recently been published in The New York Review of Books on the subject, about Ride the Wind, a historical novel based on the Cynthia Parker story. The subject interests me historically because in Savage Girl, the central figure spends some time with the Plains Indians.

A lot to chew on. All of this and a full cheese platter too.

We meandered home on the back roads, through soccer fields and corn fields and gently curving horse meadows.


There was only one exception to the bucolic charm of the open road: the ruin of an abandoned complex that was Wingdale, a mental hospital which operated upstate from 1924-1994 and is said to be haunted by ghosts. With its crumbling brick and busted windows, it looks like the perfect set for a horror film.

No visitors allowed.


There’s always something behind the happy façade.


Filed under Culture, Fiction, History, Jean Zimmerman, Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

3 responses to “Captive Audience

  1. Thanks so much. I believe both are interesting, exterior and interior. And if you can connect the two — well, you’ve got it made. I agree with you about that sign, the one that forbids picture taking. How can you forbid taking photos?

  2. Anonymous

    “There is always something behind the happy facade.”
    It is rather like a tombstone, isn’t it? Sun on one side to illuminate the facts, like birth date, death date, ‘beloved mother’ or ‘cherished child’. And a shadow on the other side hiding what sadness or horror that life held.
    The struggle with cancer that was lost. The over-long life that saw so many friends and relatives go into the beyond, leaving this one person in loneliness. A life that was full of wasted moments and regrets. Perhaps a life that was full to brimming with adventure, only to come to an abrupt end in a car or plane crash that was remembered in a newspaper clipping, but not on this mere slab of rock.
    Indeed, from where I sit, in that last picture the sign in the foreground is far more ominous than the building behind. I am indebted to people like you, Jean, who bring the background into the light. You lend life and vigor to the characters in your books and thus allow us to step beyond the foreground and become more familiar with what usually goes unnoticed.


    Nodding my head. I’d have enjoyed hearing the whole conversation. Yes, the Cleveland kidnapper’s victims, and Emma Donaghue’s ROOM. Yes, Basquiat … I’d learned about him through one of HONY’s recent photos … . Yes, THE SEARCHERS … Glenn Frankel’s book is on my stack, right there with THE PAINTED GIRLS. Millbrook and Wingdale… Yes, I’m glad you indulged in Picture-taking, Etc.

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