Ted Dekker: Living With Cannibals, Writing About Serial Killers

Armchair psychologists would say that author Ted Dekker writes thrillers because of his background. But it's not as easy as that.

Yes, Dekker, the author of The Bride Collector, grew up in Indonesia with his missionary parents and the family lived among a cannibalistic, primitive tribe called the Dani. Yes, colleagues of his parents were killed and eaten by the cannibals. Yes, in contrast to American children, Dekker saw lots of death up close (the infant mortality rate in the tribe was 50 percent, the average life span was only 40 years and funeral pyres were common sights).

Dekker says he is able to write such compelling thrillers not because of what he saw while he was growing up, but because he developed his observational skills. But that's not the whole story.

Even though he was born in an Indonesian jungle and spoke the Dani tribal language before he spoke English, Dekker always felt like an outsider in that environment. Things weren't much better when the family would visit America every four years or so.

"I was a Third Culture Kid, that's someone who doesn't belong anywhere he goes. As a result, they form a culture unto themselves. They become very, very astute observers of people and culture because everywhere they go they need to adapt, like a chameleon," Dekker told Hair Balls.

"This plays very well into writing because great writers are great observers first. I'm able to step into the shoes of various characters and examine life from their perspective.

"I tend to write about characters that are unique and very, very colorful. In The Bride Collector,

there are two characters that are especially interesting. One is a serial killer, who has decided that it's his job to deliver a bride to God. Of course, the only way he can do so is to find the most beautiful women in the world and kill them so that they can be united with God," Dekker  says.

"He turns out to be very compelling, because of his perspective on beauty and what true beauty really is, which is very different from what we might think. In his mind, the most beautiful woman in the world turns out to be a rather frumpy young woman who suffers from agoraphobia and lives in a mental institution. Her name is Paradise. As readers we fall in love with Paradise, who turns out to be so beautiful in her own way."

Once the killer turns his attention to her, Paradise becomes the center of the story. Then the most important question becomes not whether she's beautiful or not, but whether she can survive.

Writing about serial killers, other dark characters and frightening situations doesn't affect Dekker in the same way it might someone else. He says he happily lives in those stories for months while he's writing.

"You have to remember that I picked up my first human skull when I was ten years old. I grew up in an environment where I was surrounded by death. I'm not as easily impacted or disturbed as the average person in this culture because I grew up with death, people were killed around me all the time.

"[In my books,] I want to take myself to a place of darkness because I'm looking for the light beyond it; I'm looking for hope. All of my novels have happy endings, where the good guys win. I often take my characters through a valley of death, but beyond that valley there's a mountain. I find that that contrast is very valuable to me."

"All of my writing seeks to explore the nature of man and meaning and things like beauty and love. I do that by taking my characters to the brink. That's why I write about serial killers and situations that take readers to the edge, because I want to see what my characters are going to do in those situations."

And what does he think about readers who are attracted to the dark stories he writes?

"In a book, you can go to places that you would never go yourself. You can live
vicariously through the characters, knowing you're going to return safely. It's like being on a roller coaster. You might have the sensation of falling, but actually you're safely strapped in and there's no way you can fall.

"I think it's a very healthy experiment. And it's a very safe journey. It's a way to explore the more dangerous sides of being human and what it means to suffer or be afraid.

"We want to know what we're made of, who we really are. One of the only ways to know who we really are is to test our limits. So we're attracted to stories that do that. Whether it's around the campfire at night with someone telling ghost stories or a book about serial killers.

"We're voyeurs; we're watching ourselves. My stories are like mirrors. I hold them up and what you see is up to you."

Ted Dekker reads from The Bride Collector today at 7 p.m. Mardel, 19650 Restaurant Row. For information, call 888-262-7335 or visit www.mardel.com. Free.