At the time, Petrie owned a home inspection company that often put him in contact with veterans returning from their military service. The conversation with one veteran who was buying a home especially made an impact. Chatting with the young man in the basement, Petrie said what so many people say to returning soldiers. “I thanked him for his service,” Petrie remembers. “He said he wished people wouldn’t say that but would instead say ‘Welcome home.’ I thought that must be how it feels. The soldiers want to be welcomed back.”
That conversation kicked Petrie “into high gear,” and eventually led to his 2016 debut, The Drifter, which won both the 2017 International Thriller Writers’ Thriller Award and the Barry Award for Best First Novel, and was a finalist for the Edgar, Anthony, and Hammett awards. His third novel, Light It Up, was Apple iBooks’ Thriller of the Year and a finalist for the Barry Award. His recently released fifth novel, The Wild One, already is earning glowing reviews.
Those conversations in basements, attics, and front yards with men and women returning from their tours of duty gave Petrie an insight into their struggles with civilian life, and helped him concoct his characters and plots.
“I’m a curious guy,” says Petrie, who owned his home inspection company for about 15 years. “I always ask questions. I learned so much from these veterans. It blew my mind that so many were young when they decided to sign up. Many signed up after 9/11 because they wanted to go help, they wanted to be part of the solution.”
He continues: “Their experiences [back home] really stuck with me and I began to be a bit more deliberate when I talked to them.”
Petrie began talking with more veterans—those who had come back disabled, those with mental scars, and even those who were homeless. “I had been following the course of Iraq and Afghanistan, but I am embarrassed to say I didn’t know about the challenges that waited at home for the people who went to fight. We know so much about what their lives are overseas, but not what their lives are like when they come back. These soldiers just wanted to come home,” says Petrie during a telephone interview from Milwaukee, where he lives with his wife of 20 years, Margret. Their son Duncan, 19, is a freshman at Falmouth University in the UK.
During these discussions, the nuances of Peter Ash began to “percolate.” While running his business as well as being a husband and father, Petrie began to read about veterans’ concerns and lives in books, “lots and lots” of newspapers (“The New York Times is a great resource”), and just talking to former soldiers. Petrie learned that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can manifest in several ways. “One way PTSD shows up is in panic attacks or agoraphobia; those are more common,” Petrie says. But Petrie gave Peter what he calls “white static” claustrophobia which compels his character to sleep outside and often be on the move. This claustrophobia gives Peter a “blast of adrenaline, hyper-awareness.”
“There are a variety of ways that PTSD shows up. As a writer, I thought that claustrophobia would be interesting dramatically, a way to get someone out into the world.
“And it also really came out of the housing crisis. As a home inspector, I was also inspecting homes for foreclosures. People were buying houses that others had just been kicked out of. Part of it was this very visceral sense that people no longer had a home, and that entered into Peter.”
The research was important to Petrie, who has never served in the military. “Getting their experiences right was a huge concern. I knew some of the readers—if it was ever published—would be military. I felt a real sense of responsibility to do it right and to not exploit their experiences. My goal was to show a piece of America that many may not think about unless they were in the military,” he says.
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