That’s exactly how long Wendy Walker gave herself to write a best seller. After that, she told herself, she would be ready for her own next chapter. If that meant going back to her job as a lawyer specializing in making divorce a little less complicated, Walker’s attitude was, so be it. “It was going to be my last book,” she says of her psychological thriller, All Is Not Forgotten. “It was going to be the book that launched me, or it was going to be over.”
Walker already had a carefully considered Plan B in motion: laying the groundwork for starting her own law firm. For if this Stamford-based author has a talent beyond crafting page-turners, it’s writing the script for her own second, third and fourth acts. “I’m kind of the poster girl for transformation,” she says. “I’ve altered course again and again.”
Walker’s ever-changing personal plotline has involved some interesting, even fancy turns—competitive figure skater, Ivy League student, Wall Street financial analyst, litigator, New Canaan homemaker, chick-lit writer, family law attorney and most recently, best-selling author of a psychological thriller. One can only wonder what will happen next.
AN INTERESTING PRELUDE
Before we get to how All Is Not Forgotten, her fourth novel, became so engrossing it enticed actress Reese Witherspoon to break away from a vacation to scoop up the book’s film rights, a little background on the author: At just thirteen, the Fairfield County native, then a talented and ambitious figure skater, left her Norwalk home for Colorado to train under the late Carlo Fassi, the legendary coach who helped Dorothy Hamill (of Riverside) and Peggy Fleming win Olympic gold. At the time, Walker’s compulsory school figures, once a requisite for top-ranked skaters, were near perfect. But her lack of a strong triple jump, just as triple jumps became the next big thing, ultimately thwarted her dreams of standing on a medal podium.
Walker, who says she’s always intuitively known when to move on to the next thing, hung up her skates and eventually headed to Brown University. “I kind of figured out rather quickly I didn’t want to spend my life in the Ice Capades or coaching, which were my options if I didn’t seriously pursue an education,” she says.
After Brown, Walker worked as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, a job she describes as a seamless transition from the skating world because it is just as ruthless. When she found mergers and acquisitions too uninspiring to make it her life’s work, she cracked open the law books at Georgetown.
Since then she has practiced law, married, had three sons and took a turn as a stay-at-home New Canaan mom. She wrote Four Wives, her first novel, about a quartet of suburban women living secretly dysfunctional lives, in her minivan in between driving her boys to and from Brunswick. Shortly after the 2008 publication of Four Wives, her marriage ended and she began to create a new life in Stamford. It included practicing law again when subsequent novels failed to pay the bills.
All these transitions made her an expert in resilience. “There have been so many times in my life where I’ve said, for one reason or another, ‘This is done.’ And I’ve moved on without regrets,” she says over tea in her kitchen. Writing was different. “It was the one door I didn’t really want to close.”
By the time Walker sat down in front of her laptop in the spring of 2015 to write All Is Not Forgotten, she was determined to produce the next Gone Girl. Thrillers were uncharted territory for the author, who began her writing career by focusing her fictional lens on the sometimes discreetly messy lives of affluent suburban families. Her drama-in-the-McMansion style fiction had yielded modest sales and praise, but not the kind of paydays that made Walker confident she could rely on writing.
Her agent, Wendy Sherman, had suggested she try writing something in the realm of the compulsively readable The Girl on the Train after her third foray into angst-in-suburbia fiction had been met with a ho-hum response from publishers. Sherman says she saw in Walker a hugely talented writer who had a gift for capturing the nuance of family dysfunction but who wasn’t writing books that were particularly salable to publishers.
When Walker published her second novel, Social Lives, in 2009, there was fleeting interest from Hollywood. “I was, ‘Woo-hoo! I’m going to be famous. I’m going to meet George Clooney’,” Walker says, laughing at how naïve she had been about the industry. When the screenplay deal didn’t materialize, “I just realized how hard it is to make a book fly off a shelf.
“But I don’t have a J. K. Rowling story,” she stresses, referring to the Harry Potter author who was down on her luck before writing made her a billionaire. “I did not have to write a great novel or starve. I had options. I had a job. And I knew exactly what I was going to do next if the book didn’t work. But the thing is that I really wanted the book to work. I wanted to write that much.”
So it was best seller or bust for Walker, who set out to craft an engrossing whodunit that had readers ignoring their friends on the beach, desperate to know what happens next. “I was 100 percent prepared for the idea it might not happen, that I might not write that book, but I just went for it.”
THE HEART OF THE STORY
The idea for All Is Not Forgotten was conceived after Walker read a New York Times story about the still-experimental practice of giving combat veterans suffering from PTSD high doses of morphine to wipe their memories clean of their trauma. Walker wondered what would happen if crime victims were given the same treatment. A general outline was soon born.
Walker began crafting an engrossing tale, albeit one not for the faint of heart. At the center of her story is Jenny Kramer, a pretty fifteen-year-old suburban Connecticut teen who is brutalized and left for dead by a masked rapist who attacks her in the woods outside a high school party.
While part of Walker’s thriller focuses on slowly revealing clues to the identity of Jenny’s rapist, the author deliberately posed a provocative dilemma: What could go wrong if Jenny’s memory of her rape was permanently removed by medication? In doing so, Walker set up debate fodder for book groups everywhere by inciting an emotional battle in Jenny’s parents’ already fragile marriage and dividing them over the choice of whether to erase the assault from their daughter’s mind. Giving Jenny the drug meant easily accessible clues to her rapist’s identity would disappear along with her memories of the assault. “I wanted a big question,” Walker says. “I wanted readers to be thinking about this horrible thing that happened to this poor, innocent girl and present the ultimate choice: Is it better to forget or try to get justice?”
To inject All Is Not Forgotten with its all-consuming readability, Walker had become a fast student of the thriller genre, studying the best and asking herself what made them so compelling. “In the digital age we live in, we have to find a way to forget about our text messages and our own stuff,” Walker says. Thrillers, she has concluded, hold a reader’s attention by leaving them hanging again and again. “I wanted dark and twisty. I wanted an unreliable narrator that evokes a strong reaction. I wanted there to be a lot of questions, a lot of unknowns, a lot of surprises.”
Walker set a deadline of June 1, enough time for someone with her kind of un-yielding work ethic to tap out a manuscript before the summer schedules of her boys, who range in age from thirteen to eighteen, began to dominate her own. She wrote, as she often does, in various far-flung corners of her home with her characters and plot ideas stacked on index cards. She kept a strict schedule, blocking off ten hours a day for writing and an occasional run to her sons’ games and school events. At night, she allowed one indulgent hour for a glass of wine and some TV. “I mean, there were days I said, ‘Am I crazy to be doing this?’ But I just had to get it done,” says Walker.
Before her manuscript was completed, the phone rang. The call was from Sherman, who was “totally blown away” after reading just a few chapters. “I was immediately hooked,” says her agent. “I said, ‘Go write that book,’ never imagining it would come together so quickly.”
Ultimately, four publishers wanted All Is Not Forgotten and a bidding war ensued. The novelist finally signed with St. Martin’s Press and a six-figure deal. “I was ready to take much less,” allows Walker, who credits Sherman for preaching negotiating patience. “I couldn’t believe how lucky I was that more than one publisher was interested.”Then Reese Witherspoon called.
The Academy Award-winning actor is a known voracious reader who has her own Pacific Standard production company and a penchant for purchasing film rights to great books dominated by strong female characters. She has already brought Gone Girl and Wild to the big screen, and in partnership with actor Nicole Kidman, brought the limited series adaptation of another best-selling thriller, Big Little Lies, to HBO last February.
Witherspoon, who dialed up the author on a conference call joined by her then production partner Bruna Papandrea, asked for twenty-four hours to finish the book. Walker says she had another request: “Please, don’t sell to anyone else.”
“I found Reese so incredibly intelligent and interesting,” Walker says of their forty-five-minute conversation. “She believes very strongly in the connection between good books and good film. It’s a win-win when you think about it. The book brings fans and the movie can cultivate new ones.”
While Walker can’t talk numbers, she confirms Hollywood press reports that put the deal with Warner Brothers and Pacific Standard in the six-figure range. While Witherspoon hasn’t formally attached herself to star in the All Is Not Forgotten film project, Walker sees her as a perfect fit for the role of Jenny Kramer’s mother, Charlotte, a woman who keeps her own dark and shameful secrets hidden beneath the veneer of her polished exterior.
Jessica Knoll, author of another thriller, Luckiest Girl Alive, which was inspired by her own experience with sexual assault, has already been chosen to transform All Is Not Forgotten into a screenplay. “With all the twists and turns in my own life, I’m not sure I’m going to believe it’s all happened until I’m sitting in the theater eating popcorn,” Walker says.
This not-so-overnight success has allowed Walker to put plans to open her own law firm on hiatus. She’s also making room in her life for more transitions. She and her longtime partner, Hugh Hall, a single father of three, are in the process of renovating a home not far from her current one. They are blending their collective six children, Brady Bunch-style. “We’re adding a dorm wing for all the boys,” she says of the renovations. “It’s hectic and crazy, but wonderful too.”
In between juggling all this change, Walker has since completed— in just twelve weeks!—another thriller, to be titled Emma In the Night. It will be published by St. Martin’s Press for an August release, a month after the paperback version of All Is Not Forgotten hits bookstores. “[Emma In the Night] is about two girls who disappear in the middle of the night, and one returns five years later.” Of course, there’s a dark and mysterious twist: “Their mother has a serious case of narcissistic personality disorder, and I’m going to really dig deep on what that means.”
Walker promises, “it’s a really good story,” adding: “The nice thing about my life now is that I’m an honest-to-goodness employed writer.”
And the plot thickens.