In Deborah Goodrich Royce’s psychological thriller, Reef Road (Post Hill Press, Jan. 2023), the author draws inspiration from a real-life unsolved murder that has cast a long shadow over her family.

Royce spoke to PW about the lasting impact of generational trauma, the enduring fascination with true crime, and the experience of writing—and setting—a novel during pandemic lockdown.

You based Reef Road in part on a real-life crime that touched your own family. How did this event impact you and how much of the story draws directly from these true circumstances?

My mother’s best friend was murdered in Pittsburgh on December 10, 1948, three years after the end of war. She was stabbed 36 times and found, still barely alive, by her parents at 11:30 that night when they returned from bowling. She was 12 years old at the time of her death and the crime remains unsolved. The what, when, and, how are known in detail. What is not known is who committed this heinous crime.

I have been aware of her killing and the effect it had on my mother from a young age. It has seeped into my consciousness and affected choices I have made. But this is a syndrome that is not unique to our family. Consider Dominick Dunne and his focus on high-profile criminal trials in his reporting for Vanity Fair and as a novelist. This intense interest on his part was sparked by the murder of his own daughter, Dominique, in 1984. Consider Michelle McNamara and her book (which became an HBO series), I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. McNamara’s obsession with a series of murders across the state of California was instrumental in the eventual capture of the man she dubbed The Golden State Killer. Like Dunne, McNamara’s fixation came from a murder that occurred near her childhood home.

And like Dunne and McNamara, my mother and I have an overdeveloped interest in violent crime which came directly from the fact that a violent crime impacted my mother and, by extension, me.

Why did you decide to write this story as a work of fiction rather than as a memoir or nonfiction?

In Reef Road, I explore the effect of a violent crime on individuals who are not the victim. And, to be clear, though it is inspired by a true crime, it is very much a work of fiction. I have no desire to make any statements about this murder or its perpetrator. It would appear that it is destined to remain forever unsolved, and I don’t think it is my place to enter into that fray. What I wished to do, instead, was explore this particular phenomenon much more than solve an actual real-life crime. I wished to examine larger psychological truths without the encumbrance of facts.

You explore the impact of generational trauma in Reef Road. Can you talk more about the role this plays in the novel?

Because I have felt the influence of a crime that has nothing to do with me—that occurred before I was even born—I have a deep interest in why this would be so. There was a study conducted in Canada in the 1960s on the psychological scars carried by children of Holocaust victims, specifically those who were born after the war ended. They were noted to have higher degrees of depression and anxiety than members of the general population. From the Bible to Shakespeare, the sins of the father are noted to have an effect on future generations. Through multiple strands and more than one character in Reef Road, I wanted to explore why that is and whether it is inevitable.

It's no secret that many women in particular have a strong interest in true crime cases. Why do you think this is?

Women are vulnerable. In general, we are physically smaller than men. And I would venture to say that most women have felt threatened at some point in their lives. Whether it is a stranger following us too closely on the street, or an overly controlling partner, or any number of situations, we have experienced moments (or more) when we have felt ourselves to be unsafe.

With true crime, we dig deep into the lives of others—people who may or may not survive the crimes perpetrated upon them—and I think we experience a vicarious relief (more so if the crime has been solved) or a heightened thrill of awareness of ways in which we must be vigilant in our own lives. We want to believe that we have some control over things that might happen to us. Reading about true crime feels like a primer in preparation for possibilities. And, by extension, ways to avoid those possibilities. It is like sitting in a scary movie and saying to the actor on screen, “Don’t open that door!” When we read about true crime, we think we can keep certain doors closed.

The novel alternates between The Wife’s story and The Writer’s story. What made you decide to tell the story in the manner that you did?

In Reef Road, I wanted to delve deeply into The Writer’s mind through her first-person diary-entry chapters. At the same time, I wanted to remain distant from the psyche of The Wife through her third person book-within-a-book style chapters. Mostly, I go back and forth, chapter by chapter, from one voice to the other. There are some sections where I linger longer on one perspective. All in all, however, the chapters are short.

I liked peeling this onion bit by bit, alternating between the plot-driven narrative of The Wife and the internal musings of The Writer. For a long while, it is difficult to tell who is reliable and who is not. I enjoyed creating the slow/fast rhythm of the pacing, which gains momentum as the story progresses. The novel has a choreographed rhythm that is very controlled.

What role do Covid-19 and the lockdowns play in the novel? Do you feel you could have set it at any other moment in time?

I wrote a large part of Reef Road from the Florida house where I was sheltering in place in the early months of the pandemic lockdown. It was such an extraordinary time where the entire world felt as though it had tipped on its axis, and I felt it was important to incorporate that feeling of being off-balance into the book.

I believe the quarantine was conducive to the atmosphere of claustrophobia and anxiety that permeates Reef Road. It reminded me somewhat of a wartime setting where what is going on around the characters imposes constraints on their actions and even their mobility. Reef Road is not technically about the pandemic, but the pandemic saturates all of it.

Because I wrote this book in real time when a momentous historical event was unfolding around us, it embodies a slice of that history. I can’t imagine setting this book at another time or place.