Davidson novelist unpacks North Carolina thriller
Cutter’s Pass is dubbed “the most dangerous town in North Carolina.” And for good reason. Seven hikers have vanished into the woods — and no one can explain why.
That mystery is at the center of The Last to Vanish, a new thriller by Megan Miranda, a Davidson, NC resident and author of 13 novels, including multiple New York Times Best Sellers. Her work has received positive reviews from The Washington Post and The Guardian to the New York Times.
She joined WFAE’s Jesse Steinmetz to discuss her latest book.
Jesse Steinmetz: You’ve lived in North Carolina for 18 years. I assume you’ve been to the mountain towns in the western part of the state. Is Cutter’s Pass based on a real North Carolina town?
Megan Miranda: I'd say it draws inspiration from several different North Carolina towns. I do like to make up most of the towns I set a book in because, inevitably, I'm going to turn them really creepy and ominous. And I love small towns, so I like to kind of make them up and keep them fictionalized. But when I was writing the book, I took several trips to small mountain towns near the Appalachian Trail, and I'd say it's probably a cross between Bryson City and Hot Springs. And Hot Springs — I love how the Appalachian Trail just cuts right through the center of town and there's like a trail marker on the sidewalk. And I'd say location-wise, that's probably most similar to where I imagine Cutter’s Pass.
Steinmetz: There are a lot of small details, from carrying bear spray that’s probably expired, to hiking in silence for miles and wondering what your hiking buddy is thinking – and those details suggest you understand the outdoors well. There’s also a lot of references to the way small towns operate. Are you writing from personal experience here in terms of camping and close knit towns?
Miranda: I definitely draw from prior inspiration. I grew up hiking, my parents are avid hikers, but after I moved away from home, I kind of let that go. I was never a camper, but we hiked everywhere from Virginia to Maine. Every summer we would take hiking trips and they're a great source of family memory. I picked it up again when I had kids of my own and kind of came back around to it full circle. But usually, when I'm hiking with them, I'm not trying to imagine all the terrifying things that could happen. So, when I was writing this book, I took several trips, just me and my husband, and tried to kind of see that duality. I'm really drawn to the idea that every place can be the most beautiful place, but also the most terrifying place. And small towns, I just love the dynamic of characters in them and how it's a place where it feels like everyone knows one another or they think they know everything about one another. And of course, that's not necessarily true.
Steinmetz: I always wonder about authors or directors that create these universes full of murder and darkness and mystery. Is it difficult to separate your writing and thinking about these relatively dark topics, and to keep them from creeping into your reality?
Miranda: Yeah, I mean, if I'm hiking while I'm writing a book like this, I am making myself nervous all the time. So I do try to compartmentalize as much as possible, but I do think there is always that duality. You can have a great experience someplace and then when you're trying to channel thinking about what this setting or what this experience would be like if a character's afraid, I feel like when a character's afraid, then everything takes on this tone of danger and the story that you're writing. But I do try to keep very structured hours because of that. So I write in the same place every day. I have very structured hours and I kind of close my office door at the end of the day, which coincides with the end of my children's school day and leave that part of my life and that world behind and go into the rest of my life.
Steinmetz: That makes sense. You write during the day then?
Miranda: Yes. I would be too scared to write, to be researching and writing these at night.
Steinmetz: I should also note your other titles, “All The Missing Girls,” “Such a Quiet Place,” and “The Last House Guest,” to name a few, often have to do with people going missing. Where does your interest in disappearances come from and why are they often a central point of your books?
Miranda: I do find there are themes that I'm drawn to over and over again, and I feel like themes are kind of like a question to explore, and you can come at them differently with every different character and every different book. And I feel like there's something just really inherently mysterious at the heart of disappearances because you don't even know what you're solving, especially with these cases of seven hikers who have disappeared in the woods. The first question is, did they disappear on purpose? Did a crime occur? Was this an accident? So there's that mystery that's really built into it. But thematically, I'm also kind of interested in this idea of the versions of people in the past that disappear. But I think that in this book, in particular, the fact that this is called “the most dangerous town in North Carolina” is not a deterrent for visitors. If anything, they're drawn to it because they think they can be the one to solve the mystery. So I think there's something about that line between, it may be a tragedy, but they don't know that yet. And so there's still that mysterious draw of it.
Steinmetz: You touched on this a bit, but it’s suggested that the trails and wilderness surrounding the town can be dangerous. But there are also hints that the real danger may be in the town itself. Tell me about what wilderness means in this book.
Miranda: I'm really drawn to the woods and the mountains in general as settings because I feel like it's a place that you can almost feel like the legends are believable. And so in this town, one of the residents takes visitors out on this “walking tour,” but it's really kind of a ghost tour. And he's taking them to the site of these disappearances and telling them all these legends of what might be possible within the woods. And you can almost believe that, you know, it's something kind of Bermuda Triangle-ish, or there's something out there we don't understand. Which is kind of drawing away from the suspicion, which is really on the people of this town. The only thing these disappearances have in common is the location and this group of people, and it's a very small town. So I do think there is this sort of metaphor of, it's a place where you can believe in magic and danger. And it's like the site of childhood imagination. But also, when something goes wrong, you can imagine all the terrifying things out there as well. And is it kind of a metaphor for trying to remove the attention from the human element?
Steinmetz: You also write books for young adults. What do you do differently when writing for a younger audience?
Miranda: That's a great question. I don't approach them differently. I write all of my books with a first-person point of view. And so the only way it's really different is the perspective that I'm filtering it through. So I see the hallmark of a Young Adult character is that, as they're experiencing something for the first time and they're trying to put these events and experiences into context for the first time, maybe they're discovering who they are and where they fit in the world. Not that that doesn't happen in adulthood as well. But with the adult characters, I feel like they're filtering these experiences instead through a decade or more of lived experience that has kind of shifted how they view things. So when I'm picking, if this is a young adult or an adult book, it's really thinking about “which character is this best suited for.”
Steinmetz: This book is obviously based on a mountain town. But there can be plenty of action and mystery and intrigue in a city, too. Do you have any plans for a novel based in Charlotte?
Miranda: You know, I'm always drawn to small towns and I feel like I keep getting smaller and smaller and smaller. One of my books last year was set within the confines of a single neighborhood, basically. The Perfect Stranger began in the city. But she quickly moved away into the woods. And that's sort of where the story begins. So I feel like there's something about that small town dynamic and this idea of insider versus outsider and the duality of thinking you know everything about one another is something I'm really drawn to. So I'll never say never. But I think I'm drawn to the nature type setting. I joke with my editor, I always set books either in the woods or by the water.
Steinmetz: So maybe Outer Banks then?
Miranda: That’s where my next one takes place.
Megan Miranda is based out of Davidson and has published 13 novels, including multiple New York Times Bestsellers. Her latest book is The Last to Vanish, published on July 26.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.