Buckle up because New York Times best-selling author Rachel Howzell Hall is going to take you for a wild ride with her latest thriller, What Never Happened. The story revolves around Colette “Coco” Weber, who was busy getting into trouble while her family was being murdered. Perpetually guilt-ridden, she returns to the scene of the crime twenty years later and soon begins to suspect there’s still a lot to discover about the deadly attack on her family.
Amy Wilhelm: How does Colette’s survivor’s guilt affect her current life and relationships?
Rachel Howzell Hall: She can’t forgive herself for going out with people who didn’t ultimately matter on the night of that home invasion. Lonely, she latched onto a marriage with the wrong person–but it had promised stability. She doesn’t have many close friends because she can’t trust people, nor does she want to become close to someone who may be taken away from her. She’s in pain. But this pain and guilt pushed her to become a gifted obituary writer committed to writing meaningful stories about the dead.
AW: Even under better circumstances, returning to one’s childhood home can be emotional. Why does Coco put herself in this challenging position?
RHH: Need drives her back to Catalina Island. She needs a new place to live after her breakup with her partner. She needs to reclaim the house that belonged to her family. She needs to run away from the difficulties she’s facing–from the breakup with Micah but also, being laid off and having no income. She needs to take care of her aging aunt, who is now suffering from the early signs of dementia. Ultimately, she needs to stop running away from her problems and truly heal from what happened to her family (and to her) two decades ago.
AW: Coco isn’t always sure she can trust her memory or perspective on the tragic event that changed her life forever. How does this uncertainty play out?
RHH: Because of this mistrust and perspective, Coco is rarely confident that her decisions and reactions are grounded in truth. Her interactions with her aunt tend to be strained–she doesn’t want to sound harsh to Aunt Gwen, who took care of her after the home invasion. Fear, gratefulness and guilt have kept Coco from being firm. She doesn’t fully trust her heart–her relationship with Micah is strained because deep down in her heart, she doesn’t love him but has a fear of being left alone again. While on the island, she knows that she’s an outsider, so naturally, she doesn’t know life here. Sands shift all around her, so she can’t trust that her footing is as sure as it should be. She can never relax because there’s really been no closure for her after that home invasion–she thought she was safe back then, too, and that turned out to not be true.
AW: The wrong person was convicted of murdering Coco’s family. What emotional effect does this have on her, and how does it impact how she goes forward?
RHH: It’s that inability to trust herself and her perspective. If she (and the legal system) can be wrong about this, what else could she be wrong about? Maybe she’s made too many mistakes on motives and bad guys–the wrongful conviction has proven that. And since the real killer is still out there, she can’t breathe, fearing that she’s become a target once again. Catalina Island is already so different than Los Angeles, but now it’s possibly hosting the real murderer. This means Coco is constantly looking over her shoulder, constantly wondering if the monster is someone close to her.
AW: It seems like the only one Coco can trust to take the current slew of deaths on Catalina Island seriously is herself. Unfortunately, it’s remarkably easy to believe that authorities might be willing to overlook the unusual circumstances just to keep from stirring things up in an unpopular way. What inspired this aspect of your story?
RHH: I wanted to tell another locked-room story but on an island that’s very close to Los Angeles, but in many ways, worlds away. And since we were all going through COVID, I wanted even more isolation. Bad things were happening to people during this time–and not just getting sick themselves. Villains were using the cloak of isolation to hurt people. Villains were using the pandemic as a cover-up for murder. So combine all of that, and voila! What Never Happened!