I’m a happy person, though you wouldn’t think that based on a particular question I’m often presented with: what happened to you as a child? Hell, even my own mom has asked me that.

I write dark psychological suspense—tinged with horror—and the title of my sixth and latest release, The Dead Girl in 2A, does nothing to belie that fact. The space of fiction in which I exist is a cold, barely lit world where paranoia rules and people quite occasionally die—a place where trust is a rare commodity, hope is even more precious, and suffering is a requirement for (but not a guarantee of) absolution.

So people ask about my past: how I was raised, why I choose to write what I do.

My answer is always: I don’t know—however, I do have a theory.

To my memory (that’s the paranoia kicking in), I had a perfectly normal, suburban childhood: great parents, went to a good university, got a business degree. I was 33 when I decided to write a novel, having no prior experience with such an endeavor. And what I chose to write was dark. Really dark.

I got an agent with that first book, but it didn’t sell, nor did the three after that. But I kept writing and sold the following six books. I’ve pounded out a successful run over the past 16 years, with starred reviews from all the trade magazines, three Colorado Book Awards, and an ITW Thriller Award nomination. And my entire writing career has thrived within the land of the hopeless, the desperate, the violent.

So, here is my theory. I don’t think my dark thoughts are any different than those everyone has. When people ask about how I think of such things, I want to challenge them to tell me they don’t have morbid ideas of their own. I know they do, but they just don’t want to make that obvious, lest they be judged.

We all try so hard to hide what makes us stand out, and that’s a damn shame.

Not me. I relish my macabre side, and I love that I can create an environment that scares people, makes them lose sleep, yet keeps them turning the pages. And perhaps my greatest asset is the ability to turn it on and off.

I don’t think about my stories until the moment the laptop is open and my fingers are poised over the keyboard. Then I go into that world, maybe for only 30 minutes or an hour, imagining what happens when I place ordinary folks in extraordinary (and quite unpleasant) situations. I do horrible things to these people, because I want to see how they will fight through it, how they might prevail. I want them to win, I just don’t want to make it easy. Then, as if I might run out of air if I stay under too long, I pop out of my imagination and back into the real world, going about the rest of my day with little to no rumination about what I just wrote or will write next.

My daily writing is a release valve for the pressure of the sinister thoughts that swell in all of us. I strive to spend the rest of my time in a space of joy and gratitude. I meditate. I exercise rigorously. I say “I love you” to my partner and my children all day long. I only look at the news twice a week (this is key). I love any podcast about a person’s journey toward fulfillment and success. I adore all things comedy, and nothing makes me happier than someone making me laugh. I’m constantly seeking to learn new things, and I spend little energy dwelling on past mistakes or future what-ifs. Most of all, I remind myself to be grateful for everything I have—including (especially) my ability to creatively explore within a realm of despair.

My “darkness” just happens to be the side of me manifested in my writing, and it’s therefore the most public side of me. But I contend that’s just how the chemicals in my brain work—and that everyone has some pretty bleak thoughts, most of which stay deeply buried. I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if my joyous side was also my creative side. Would I be writing happy stories? Self-help books? Even romance novels?

But I don’t. I write about murder and mayhem, and that’s all normal and good.

Because I’m happy. Whether my mom believes me or not.

Carter Wilson is the author of The Dead Girl in 2A (Sourcebooks) and five other suspense thriller novels, including 2019 International Thriller Award–finalist Mister Tender’s Girl.