An interview with Brian Lebeau author of A Disturbing Nature

What draws you to the page and motivates you to write?

I’m motivated to write by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge—to understand what motivates myself and others and what conditions those motives. I enjoy introspective studies wrapped in psychological thrillers and dark romances—the ones that bare the writer’s soul. So what draws me to the page is a constant need to place myself under the microscope and evaluate what I’m thinking, why I’m thinking it, and how thinking about it influences my mood and behavior. If I write my thoughts down on paper, I’m exorcising the unnecessary or misguided ones and focusing on the ones that matter. I write because it’s therapeutic. I read because it’s comforting. 

What are your strengths as a writer? What can we expect from your novels?

Expect to be taken on a journey, transported alongside believable and relatable characters to a place or time that’s equal parts familiar and unsettling as you’re thrust into a thought-provoking story that does not require a thesaurus. I focus on realistic dialogue, concise visual imagery, and complex characters, digging into the human psyche with an accessible writing style. To accomplish these, I reflect and empathize, reaching for my inner child and juxtaposing that with my older, wiser, and often more cynical self. And when trying to understand the motives of evil or misguided characters, I reach deep down into my soul—because that’s where the darkness resides—to consider the negative thoughts I’ve had, and whether I truly wished something terrible would happen to the boy who bullied me when I was eight. Honest self-reflection, accompanied by the fears and immoral thoughts that follow hopes and dreams, opens a path to empathy. And empathy is a great gift, as well as a writer’s most important asset. 

Given the heavy subject matter in your novel, did you find it difficult at times to write or need to take breaks? Do you have any advice for writers approaching intense subjects on keeping a healthy mindset?

I prefer to address intense subjects head-on, internalizing to make them real. The challenge is to face our greatest fears, looking in the mirror and discovering who we are and how we became that way. In our youth, we all have an image of the person we hope to become, later dealing with the reality of who we are. It can be hardest to look at ourselves through the eyes of others, and harder still to look inside. The desire to mask our true nature from those around us is strong, so we create barriers, alter-egos to manage the perception as separate from the reality. Nobody chooses to have their thoughts put on display in an uncensored way for others to judge, lest they reveal the bigotry, hypocrisy, anger, and fear that connects us all. Therefore, aspiring writers should embrace the inner Beast and childlike awe that resides inside, making yourself vulnerable and allowing others to experience your frailties. It doesn’t all have to be bad, but rather a personal view of the world. And, finally, accept yourself as you are. You’re likely no more messed up than anyone else.

What inspired you to write “A Disturbing Nature?”

A vivid dream in the spring of 1989 was the inspiration. Seminal moments from my life converged, leaving me with some tough questions and an outline for what would become “A Disturbing Nature.” The primary subject was a young, Black man whom I traded baseball cards with between nine and eleven years old. He was a decade older and intellectually disabled due to a seizure suffered in elementary school. In the dream, I recalled nasty remarks made by my friends as I’d walk back up the hill after he and I had traded cards at the schoolyard’s front fence. I also remembered being accompanied by my father the few times I visited his home. I got out of bed that morning following that dream and jotted down several pages of notes. Over the next thirty years, the story evolved to include additional characters, a more complex plot, and increasingly dark themes. Before that dream, I believed I would be a writer. Afterward, there was no doubt.

What are the primary themes in “A Disturbing Nature?”

The first of two primary themes in “A Disturbing Nature” explores the separation between man and monster. Because we live in an age where social presence is a misguided measure of self-worth, it’s easy to forget the hypocrisy of presenting a version of ourselves to the outside world while concealing an alternate one. As the story unfolds, two extreme characters struggle to maintain images very different from those they know intimately. Told through the voices, experiences, and memories of these two polarized characters, “A Disturbing Nature” mirrors Post-World War II America, and their unlikely and unavoidable attraction speaks to the thin line between hero and villain, man and monster. 

The second theme concerns the heredity of prejudice, the hypocrisy of privilege, and paying for the sins of our fathers. The experiences of the book’s two main characters raises questions around who can determine guilt, how society should punish those assigned blame, and when guilt finally gets washed away. 

What are the sources for your characters, and how did they emerge?

 Everyone I encounter contributes, in some way, to my worldview and the characters I create. Interactions with past and present friends, coworkers, employees, colleagues, and even acquaintances are all subject to assessment, interpretation and incorporation, as needed. Because everyone has good days and bad days, and each of us is capable of great warmth, alarming disinterest, or worse, I’m able to extract many extreme personality traits and behavioral patterns from those around me. For the most extreme personalities like serial killers, I combine research with deep introspection, peering inside to the dark thoughts I’ve had in my life to create relatable characters—ones the reader can empathize with even if they are the most villainous. It’s fair to say everything I witness, and experience, presents source material for my characters.

The two primary characters in “A Disturbing Nature” are very different. Why was this important to the story?

 Mo Lumen and Francis Palmer occupy opposite ends of the intellectual and emotional spectrum as the story begins. However, when they are reluctantly set on a collision course, their thought patterns and motivations converge until they become barely indistinguishable. The histories and environmental conditioning of these two extreme characters—one highly educated from an urban setting in the north and born into a privileged family, the other from the rural south with an intellectual disability and a blue-collar upbringing—are the focus of “A Disturbing Nature.” Their parallel stories illustrate how the heredity of sins—prejudice, greed, and lust—and the hypocrisy of privilege—intellectual gifts, inherited wealth, and an insatiable thirst for power—enable exploitation in many forms, because everyone is only a stone’s throw, or a generation, from becoming a monster.

Why did you use an omniscient narrator?

I employed an omniscient narrator to ensure honesty and empathy. The omniscient narrator in “A Disturbing Nature” allowed me to become a character in the story, compelling me to look into the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind to evaluate the damage I’ve done in my life willfully or unwittingly. It also revealed character psyche and motivation—more than the characters could reveal themselves—allowing scene, setting, and backstory to advantage the reader. The gaps filled in by the omniscient narrator encourage the reader to consider how the environment around us—the people and places, histories, and experience—conditions the personal demons we harbor and how we wrestle with them. Introducing characters burdened by history, inheritance, and poor judgment exposes the various ways we hide our demons from others—sometimes even from ourselves—and entices the reader to hypothesize what it might take to become a monster themself. So, the omniscient narrator provides greater insight into the fragile psyches of the characters and offers a better understanding of the mechanisms by which we control the inner beast.

How and when did you get interested in researching serial killings?

Some of us have a morbid curiosity about war and death that leads us to explore history’s greatest villains and the tragedies they instigate. My fascination with true-life crime began in 1975 when I visited the Fall River Historical Society with my fifth-grade class and learned about Lizzie Borden. Over the years, I became increasingly interested in prolific mass murderers. At one end of the spectrum, serial killers litter the landscape with the inexplicable acts of a deranged individual, and at the other end, war-mongering despots drive troops into blood-soaked battlefields, engaging the masses with self-righteous conviction. Arising from an interest in World War II and trying to understand the motives of despots, like Hitler, who place an alarmingly reduced value on the lives of others, I became interested in the psychology of serial killers. Though the trauma is the same for the family of any victim, the exploits of the most prolific serial killers are dwarfed by those of the most demonic despots. How would one compare Ted Bundy to Adolph Hitler?

Much of the novel takes place in southern New England, including Fall River, Massachusetts, where you were born and raised. Some people may also recognize this city on the border of Rhode Island as the former home of Lizzie Borden, who was tried and acquitted for the murders of her father and stepmother. Why set this story so close to home? Did the legends surrounding the Bordens inspire you at all?

The legend of Lizzie Borden was more of a coincidental inspiration. The stories I heard as an eleven-year-old have not been forgotten over the years, so I did spend some time at the Borden House while writing “A Disturbing Nature” in an effort to capture the spirit and essence of my birthplace and foster memories of my youth. The unsolved murders of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother are mentioned anecdotally in a scene near the end of Part Two of “A Disturbing Nature,” helping resurrect a key memory for Mo and raising troubling questions. If we write well what we know best, then Fall River and the city’s most infamous stepdaughter surely had to factor into my first novel.

Even though your work is fictional, was it important to you to create an authentic portrayal of serial criminals and their victims in the novel? Why?

“A Disturbing Nature” needed to be historically and geographically accurate throughout, deviating only as necessary to support the fictional aspects of the narrative. As an interpretation of America’s post-World War history through the eyes and experiences of two fictional characters, I wanted the environment around Lumen and Palmer to be consistent with that time to lend credibility to the their actions, motivations, and heredity. All locations are presented as they would have looked in 1975, and historical events have been researched to align with the story, including the serial killers discussed in the novel between 1963 and 1975. Minimal artistic license was applied to support Palmer’s involvement in the Ted Bundy investigation, with all other circumstances and timelines of that case incorporated as accurately as possible. Dangerous madmen certainly existed in America before 1963, but our social awareness changed after the Kennedy Assassination, and one of those changes was an elevated curiosity with infamous serial killers. Therefore, I wanted the history to be held constant, while the variables surrounding a serial killer on the loose could mirror America’s broader path.

As I’m sure you know — true crime podcasts, documentaries, TV shows, etc. — have become increasingly popular in recent years (allowing many of us closeted true crime fans to embrace our somewhat odd interest!) Why do you think that is? Do you have a favorite true-crime podcast/documentary/TV show?

The rise of social media and internet entertainment has enabled individuals across a broad spectrum of previously closeted curiosities to easily reach out to others with similar interests, allowing subjects once considered odd, or even taboo, to be addressed in a manner that makes them increasingly mainstream. Though I’ve not been a dedicated fan of any true-crime podcast, I do listen to two on occasion: “Crime Junkie” and “My Favorite Murder,” and enjoy them on long road trips. However, I prefer documentaries, watching anything about Ted Bundy and other infamous serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and David Berkowitz. This grew out of my interest in World War II after watching “The World at War” narrated by Laurence Olivier, the seminal 1972 documentary. I’ve always been fascinated by those who kill with their own hands and the comparisons to those that use their influence over others to kill on a grander scale.

How does this book relate to current events? Nationally? Globally?

“A Disturbing Nature” resurrects social and economic issues that existed in 1975 despite significant legislation in the mid-1960s, paralleling them to issues that exist today. Legislation and the rights of people with disabilities are addressed alongside landmark civil rights legislation and events, offering insight into issues of economic privilege and social prejudice that are as prevalent today as they were then. The heredity of lies and secrets is also questioned, opening the door to a broader discussion concerning our understanding of criminal justice and whether we should punish the children and grandchildren of a serial killer or the child of a despot leader or gang lord who maintains power through fear and acts of violence. What defines evil in the broadest sense? Is evil inherited? And, when do thoughts truly equate to deeds? Again, I do not seek to answer these questions. I’m merely trying to elevate the discussion. As a group in darkness, we need to communicate to find the light.

Your book touches on complex issues, including race relations, psychological disorders, and social justice. Why were you interested in exploring these subjects, specifically racism in the post-Jim Crow laws era, in your novel?

I was born not long after the Kennedy Assassination sounded an alarm in America. Shortly after, landmark civil rights legislation effectively ended the overt intolerance associated with the Jim Crow era and replaced it with thinly veiled indifference to the plight of minorities. Given my age, I grew up mostly sheltered from The Great Society’s promises and the Countercultural Revolution’s divisiveness, instead witnessing the economic and social fallout during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In addition, the neighborhood demographics for Fall River, Massachusetts, particularly the south end of the city, left me largely isolated from minority populations. It wasn’t until I watched the news with my father in 1974 and 1975, with nightly updates on the Boston busing crisis, that I became aware of race issues, but I was too young to understand fully. When I arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1982 to attend Marquette University, I still did not understand city demographics, urban economics, or the social inequity of public programs. 

With “A Disturbing Nature,” I wanted to explore where America was as a country in 1975, a decade after the Kennedy Assassination and civil rights legislation. More importantly, I wanted to consider the treatment of Blacks in America during the Jim Crow era and the types of racism that persisted afterward and still exist today. As part of the story, the sins of Mo’s father, grandfather, and their forefathers have been passed on through colorful stories of the “black-haired critters” living in Tinpot Alley—”the ones that walk upright but speak nonsense”—along with his father’s cautionary words about Black neighborhoods and listening to “Negro nonsense.” Despite his childlike innocence and apparent lack of prejudice, Mo has deep-seated fears about his father’s “black-haired critters.” Those fears extend inward when everything around him grows increasingly bleak, and his concerns that he might be one of those “black-haired critters” leave him to wonder whether his father would save him if he were to be cut loose and left to float down the Rappahannock.

What’s next for you? What’s your vision for the future of your writing career?

I would prefer my writing career not be defined by a single character or genre, so I’ll be releasing a pair of novellas that are period-piece cautionary tales of power and greed, love and lust, as well as a semi-autobiographical three-book mystery series. The latter semi-autobiographical series, drafted between 2005 and 2011, centers on Andre LeBaron, a modestly successful American businessman who experiences an early mid-life self-discovery as he’s dragged unwittingly through several mysteries. Ultimately, I hope that when I’m on my deathbed, I’m still scribbling notes for future stories.