The Big Idea: Brad Parks

Sometimes the Big Idea of one’s book is… well. Not something that you would contemplate in real life, but might make an intriguing premise for one’s novel. Brad Parks knows a little bit about this, as it relates to his newest work, aptly entitled Unthinkable.


I love my wife very much.

So, naturally, I’ve been thinking about killing her.

That’s the Big Idea behind Unthinkable, my latest novel. And before I get myself indicted—for the record, Your Honor: she’s still very much alive and unharmed—I should probably explain.

As I began brainstorming the manuscript that eventually became Unthinkable, I found myself focusing on stakes.

What would the protagonist gain if he succeeded? More importantly, what would he lose if he failed?

Stakes are what make a novel go. They’re what make readers furiously turn pages. And depending on the genre, they can look very different.

In romance, it’s going to be the unconsummated love between two characters who can’t . . . ever . . . quite . . . get together. In science fiction, it might be the survival of the entire race of Gebulons on Beta-Hydra-9. In fantasy, it’s the fate of the wizarding world.

Whatever the details, it has to be something that feels like it matters. That, to me, is often a failing in certain, ahem, literary novels. When it becomes apparent to me what’s going to be at stake for four hundred pages is the professor’s wranglings with Proust—and a side plot about whether they sleep with their grad student—I get the urge to binge-watch shark videos on YouTube.

Since stakes are so important, I figured that’s where I’d start with Unthinkable.

And because I love my wife so much—really! I do!—the first thought I had was: Wouldn’t it be gripping if the thing at stake was the protagonist being told he needs to kill his wife? Especially if I put something really compelling on the other side of the equation.

Like, he has to kill his wife or a billion people will die.

That became the elevator pitch for Unthinkable. Basically, it’s the classic trolley problem from Philosophy 101—would you pull a lever to divert a trolley that would kill five people if it made you responsible for the death of one person?—but on steroids.

I made the protagonist an ordinary guy like me: Nate Lovejoy, a stay-at-home dad to two rambunctious toddlers. (I did time as a SAHD myself and have the scars to prove it.) Despite the trials of childrearing, he and his wife, Jenny Welker, remain deeply devoted to each other.

After all, that further increases the stakes. If the marriage was on the rocks, Nate’s choice might be easier.

I then had to make the whole proposition plausible within the framework of the novel, so I introduced a character with limited skills of precognition, the ability to see the future.

This is a little out there, of course. So in my world-building, I grounded it in the real-life principle that physicists have long understood: the fact that we perceive time as moving in only one direction is truly an accident of our senses. The laws of physics work perfectly fine either way.

Furthermore, it has been theorized—though neither proven nor disproven—that a positron may actually be an electron moving backwards in time. If that’s true, we’re literally being bombarded by matter from the future all the time.

The final step, then, is to have a human being who has evolved the ability to sense that matter; in the same way that about a half a billion years ago, during the Cambrian period, organisms first evolved the ability to detect light.

Still with me? Right, so there’s this guy who can see the future. And he has foreseen that Jenny, a lawyer, will win a massive, Erin Brockovich-style lawsuit against a power company who has been sickening people with a coal-fired power plant.

This, however, will have a wildly unintended consequence. It will cause power companies to install smokestack scrubbers that use sodium hexafluoride, a greenhouse gas that is twenty-four-thousand-times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This, in turn will trigger a global warming catastrophe.

Causing the death of a billion people.

And the only way to stop the lawsuit is for Nate to kill Jenny.

Will he do it? Can he do it? That’s the Big Idea that moves Unthinkable forward.

It’s just not something I’ve ever given serious thought to myself.

I swear, Your Honor.

So you can, y’know, dismiss the charges now.

Unthinkable: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

7 Comments on “The Big Idea: Brad Parks”

  1. Um, he can’t just talk to her about it? Jumping straight to death seems a bit… extreme. Also not sure (obviously haven’t read yet) how her death derails the lawsuit any more than her quitting does — either another lawyer picks it up or doesn’t, and it either proceeds or doesn’t. Will have to read his book to find out!

  2. Jonathan: I agree–can’t she be talked into quitting or having someone else do the lawsuit or anything short of murder?

    Reminds me of the premise of The Dead Zone.

  3. the only way to stop the lawsuit is
    for Nate to kill Jenny.

    Yeah, I find this implausible, for several reasons. Lawyers are fungible — remove one, two more emerge.

    Sodium hexafluoride is indeed a nasty, agreed.
    But it’s quite improbable as a scrubber.

    Besides, coal ash is richer in fissionable uranium than most mineral ores, so someone’s going to figure out that it’s a resource not a pollutant.

  4. Seems like a weird premise for me as well, why does Nate care about these billions of people who he doesn’t know?

    Why would he believe anything he’s being told in the first place?

  5. My usual solution to the “Would you kill Baby Hitler” question is…why not just kidnap him, bring him back to the present (or some other time period) and have him raised by kindly people? Instead of choosing the most-brutal solution, why not improve his life so he doesn’t become what he became? Or at the very least remove him from the arena — but a baby hasn’t done anything wrong yet, so why go that far? [Heck, some decent health care and economic assistance would alter the Hitler family in pretty major ways.

    So whenever I see stuff like this, I think, “Why not just lock her up in a cabin in the mountains and wait until the case is over?”

    But maybe the story accounts for that.

  6. Kurtbusiek: There’s a story where someone goes back in time, sets themselves up as an art dealer and makes Hitler a successful artist (he wouldn’t be the first to become a star with limited talent but the right backer). By the time the 1930s roll around, Hitler’s comfortable with his life and has no interest in politics.

    “Why would he believe anything he’s being told in the first place?” well, if he’s been doing this for a while he may know his skills are reliable — though if he can see that far into the future, I’m not sure how limited they are.

  7. I don’t find the premise plausible either, in this particular instance. But I’ve often thought, if I had to choose between the life of my children and of a billion other people, those people would be gone. Would I feel bad? Yes. Would I hesitate? No. However, a partner to me is relatively expendable, and usually I’d jump at the chance to get rid of him and stay on the moral high ground.

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