[CW: childhood abuse and neglect]
Phoebe Walsh, the protagonist of Love in the Time of Serial Killers, is the epitome of a true crime junkie. She has even gone so far as to become a Ph.D. candidate. Her dissertation? Analyzing the true crime genre. However, her hearty interest in true crime has left her slightly paranoid and hesitant to give love a chance.
Phoebe spends the summer in Florida, cleaning out her childhood home and putting up with her annoyingly high-spirited brother, all while trying to sort out her feelings of mourning for a father she hardly knew.
Things get a bit more complicated when Phoebe convinces herself that her friendly neighbor, Sam Dennings, is actually a serial killer. What she’s more afraid of, though, is Sam turning out to be the good guy he seems to be.
For a crime junkie fan who lives and breathes for the romance genre, this book was a gift from the gods. I laughed out loud on several occasions, felt connected to all of the characters, and found the romance believable. Truly, this is one of the best romance novels I have read in a long time!
Alicia Thompson was able to seamlessly interweave true crime references into Phoebe’s daily interactions and activities in a tasteful and relatable way. Examples include making sure your door is locked at night in case there’s another serial killer on the loose who believes unlocked doors are an open invitation for murder. Or not trusting a nice-looking, friendly guy who needs help because they may be the next Ted Bundy. These true crime nods and the inner dialogue Phoebe has when dealing with sketchy scenarios as a single female living alone felt like they were situations taken straight from my life experiences.
I also appreciated how Thompson raised awareness of parental abuse in the form of psychological abuse. Oftentimes, this aspect of abuse is not addressed when parental neglect and childhood abuse (or abuse in general) come up, and it was encouraging to see someone bring up a more nuanced aspect of childhood abuse.
Thompson also slides in some Office and pop culture references, which were greatly appreciated.
I was lucky enough to interview Thompson for the site. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, appears below.
What was your inspiration for writing this story? Are you a true crime junkie like Phoebe?
I read a lot of true crime when I was in high school and I still really enjoy a lot of true crime podcasts, documentaries, books, and all that. Since having kids, I can’t read it or consume it all the time and I have to be in a certain headspace for it. I feel like when I get into that headspace, though, it does make me feel paranoid in a way that’s probably not great.
You have to live your life and, at some point, you can’t keep thinking that a knock on the door is going to be a murderer. I think this would be a very difficult way to live, being constantly vigilant. But at the same time, when you’re constantly consuming this media, you can’t help but be constantly vigilant. You always hear of these stories that are worst-case scenarios, so the minute you tell yourself you don’t have to check the back seat of your car like an absolute weirdo… you then hear a story about this exact thing happening.
That was a lot of my thinking behind writing this book. If you’re super into consuming true crime and that’s all you do, just like Phoebe, how does that change your worldview? In some ways, it can change for the worse because you can’t trust people or open up to them, and that’s what Phoebe was dealing with in the story.
What do you want readers to take away from the true crime aspects of your book?
One reason why women gravitate toward true crime is because we understand being vigilant. We understand that there are all kinds of stuff that we do worry and think about more than men, or someone who is in a more secure position. One takeaway from the book is you can’t always let that get in the way of your willingness to open yourself up to another person. Make a friend or romantic connection, be open and honest with people and yourself, and be honest about your vulnerability. Learn to open yourself up more and trust people with your heart.
It seems as though some of Phoebe’s past trauma could’ve led her to develop these symptoms of paranoia/PTSD. Is there a backstory to Phoebe’s immediate distrust for men and her environment?
Some of it definitely goes back to her dad. In the book, Phoebe reads a memoir by a serial killer’s daughter, and that is somewhat based off a real memoir that I read [A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming]. One thing that struck me while reading that book was thinking that a lot of the things that were shared felt like very “dad” things. Such as, dad has his stuff in another room, don’t go in, don’t touch it, or don’t bother dad when he’s in a bad mood. Some of that I could really relate to. Even the archetype of a dad as someone who is grumpy and you shouldn’t bother.
In Phoebe’s case, the fact that as a child she had to walk on eggshells around him and was always worried about his reactions impacted her ability to trust people and to trust men. This core relationship she had with a man was one where she constantly felt unsure. She couldn’t be herself or open up because she never knew what she was going to get in return, and this was all part of Phoebe’s journey to open up.
Is there a message you wanted to get across about the psychological abuse Phoebe and Conner experienced?
What I realized when writing Phoebe… she was telling herself this story about herself and her life and one of her realizations in the book is that she doesn’t have to follow that story anymore. She’s had this story of who her dad was, how it affected her, who she is now, and whether she explicitly knows this or not, she believes that she’s not meant to be with anyone because she doesn’t know how to love somebody. Part of this story is her having to realize she doesn’t have to believe this about herself anymore and she can reinvent herself.
One of the roles her brother plays, who is seven years younger than her, who grew up in the same house, but also kind of a different house because of their parental situation and how they interpreted things, is that he teaches Phoebe to let go of that story. Like, maybe our dad was terrible but he was just a guy and he doesn’t have to rule the rest of our life.
Was therapy a purposeful message you wanted to incorporate into your book?
I’m not sure if it was purposeful as I was writing the novel, but I saw the way it was coming out as I was writing it. I love how a lot of modern romances have normalized therapy and depression and anxiety. I think this is something that a lot of people can relate to and I love the message that you still deserve love and deserve to find somebody even if you’re dealing with things you may consider baggage. Rachel Lynn Solomon romances come to mind when I think about this.
One thing I realized while writing Love in the Time of Serial Killers was that Phoebe was not ready for therapy. She is a Capricorn, she’s prickly, and she has an “I can white knuckle my way through it” mentality. She doesn’t need to talk things over; she just wants distractions. I enjoyed using Conner’s character, as someone who is more emotionally adjusted than Phoebe, to encourage her to try to use therapy as a resource. For me, Phoebe does go to therapy, but it’s not in the book.
Phoebe struggles with self-doubt throughout the book and it came across as her potentially having imposter syndrome. Could you explain this more?
For sure she has some imposter syndrome, and I think a lot of us do, but especially Phoebe as a female getting her Ph.D. in literary true crime. On one hand, she is very confident in what she does but, in other ways, when you really get into her internal monologue, she constantly doubts herself. And at least for me, coming from my own personal experiences, that is really relatable. I can be completely all guns blazing or straightforward and get everything done and feel good, but then I look back and wonder how I got all that stuff done. I have all of these moments of I don’t deserve this, I can’t do this, and all this doubt at the same time. That conflict between those feelings is something a lot of us deal with.
I am a big believer in shooting your shot. Just going for things. I am one of those people where you could put me in front of a crowd of people and ask me to do a speech and I would feel pretty good about it. Like woah, you did a great job, you nailed it. But then you could put me in front of one person afterward and make a stupid comment and I laugh too loudly and I would just think about that for the rest of my life. I think that is a really interesting push and pull where you have to put yourself out there, but you also have moments of doubt.
How do you think the consumption of true crime impacts our society and culture?
So one thing I will say is that I read an article by Emma Berquist, “True Crime is Rotting Our Brains,” and she talks about this. On the one hand, I am drawn to true crime and there can be an approach to true crime that’s more empathetic to victims and more victim-centric and not so sensationalized. I think books are doing that a lot more.
That being said, there is also that sensational side of it that I think gets everybody feeling like they are armchair detectives making all kinds of conclusions. One thing that always bums me out is when you see Netflix documentaries and the victims’ families absolutely hate it and say we asked them not to do it and we are actually in court right now. That just bums me out when that sort of thing happens. But at the same time, the documentary exists and sometimes the documentary is really good and you watch it and feel kind of icky about it.
Is there a message in this book you hope people won’t overlook?
I want people to be really thoughtful about their true crime consumption. We should be compassionate about the victims and apply critical thinking to what we read. The Amber Heard case, for example. Why do you think that newspaper would publish that headline? The way people were consuming the information about that trial, they were not questioning why the media was framing headlines a certain way. So maybe ask yourself, how is this type of narrative affecting the way you see the case?
I think a lot of true crime wants us to be scared. On the one hand, yeah, it is scary, but on the other, it is like, well, why? Who does it want us to be scared of? What does that serve? A lot of true crime can be copaganda, frankly, where they want you to put your trust in these authority figures and make you think that if you do this, then bad things won’t happen to you. I don’t always think that is the most nuanced view you can have when talking about this subject.
What was your favorite part about writing this book?
Finding ways to insert a lot of different references. I never thought I would be able to put in my favorite dateline episodes into a romance, but I did and I am very pleased with that.
What was the research for this book like?
I reached out to someone who got her Ph.D. in true crime. Her name is Dr. Rebecca Frost. She is also a writer and has a lot of wonderful books. She was very helpful and told me a lot about how she got her Ph.D., and I asked her a bunch of questions about what that experience was like and had her walk me through what kinds of classes she took. I wanted to know the reactions she got from her dissertation topic because different programs have different slants to them. I can definitely see how different programs could question whether it was actually scholarly to study true crime. This debate is something Phoebe deals with in the book, and she has to prove that it is literary scholarship writing for her Ph.D. To me, that is scholarship, that is our culture, and that is our society.