New dark thriller takes place in college classroom

The characters in Will Lavender’s haunting debut Obedience (Shaye Areheart, Feb. 19) have issues with authority-particularly, with their puzzling Logic and Reasoning 204 professor. Lavender’s fast-paced labyrinthine thriller takes readers through an imaginary rural Indiana university with three college students, each initially concerned with grades, but soon concerned for his or her life.

The strange Professor Williams’ photograph is absent from the Winchester University faculty guidebook, school yearbooks and website, the students discover. He dresses in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, a far cry from the typical professionalism of the school’s administrators. But the students’ main problem with Williams begins on the first day of class, when he puts the students in charge of solving a murder. From here, the six-week term spins out of control.

Launching a whirlwind of danger and intrigue, Williams announces that a murder will occur in six weeks unless his students find the potential victim Polly and her killers. When characters in Williams’ story begin showing up in real life, the blurring of fiction and non-fiction causes the students to wonder if their adherence to the bizarre professor’s clout is worth the grade.

Lavender’s idea for his academic tale of intrigue was conceived while he was driving home from Jefferson Community College in Louisville, Ky., where the Bard College grad used to teach writing and literature. After doing away with the idea of treating his own class like a criminal investigation, Lavender decided to examine 1960s Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiments with obeying authority figures.

“Good people will do things based on situation, not based on who they are,” Lavender said. “What would possibly happen to a person after something like this occurs? Each of [the story’s characters] had done something … Because an authority figure was telling [him or] her to do it, [he or] she did it. Sometimes we’re not in control of our own action.”

Milgram tested people’s actions after being given instructions by an authority figure.

In the experiment, a subject would be told by the authoritative experimenter to administer electric shocks to wrong answers given by an unseen person.

The subject, Milgram found, continued to obey the authority figure despite the knowledge that someone was, as far as the subject knew, suffering.

Outside of reading The Man Who Shocked the World, a Milgram biography by Thomas Blass, “I did very little research,” Lavender said. “The characters, geography, school, town in Indiana-all made up . By moving Obedience to Indiana, I could make things up without worrying about lampooning anyone.”

Lavender said that his next novel takes place on a college campus again.

“I’m interested in that for many reasons,” he said. “College campuses are good for mysteries because all the characters are there. It’s like the old Agatha Christie mysteries: The reader doesn’t have to worry that someone will come in [from] offstage.”

The three main college students in Obedience have relatable problems and concerns, such as lying to fit in, having affairs with the wrong people and parental problems.

“I wanted to create damaged people,” he said. “What you want to do when you write is you want to make the reader active in the process . The next book I’m working on is a similar type of thing, almost like a contest: The reader’s trying to beat the writer.”

Lavender manipulates his readers with several red herrings in the plot, all of which are dismissed by the unexpected ending. At the story’s close, readers feel just as victimized by the absurdity as the students.

“You can be tricky, but you can’t be overly tricky or sneaky,” Lavender said. “You have to find that balance.”

Maintaining the balance of family man, college professor and accomplished writer is also a challenge, said Lavender.

“I have two small children, so it’s really hard [to find time to write],” he said. “I wrote Obedience sitting on the couch with my son, watching ‘Blue’s Clues’ . I started going to Borders bookstore down the street here [to write].”

Lavender has since resigned from his post as a college professor to devote himself to writing.

“Teaching is really tough when you have a stack of papers in front of you,” he said. “You really don’t feel like writing that much. It’s important not to let money get in your mind.”

Lavender advised aspiring writers to pay attention to the publishing business: bestsellers, trends, bargain bin books, etc.

“Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t make any money at it,” he said. “I’ve heard that my whole life . My thing was always, ‘Well, heck, other people are doing it. Why can’t I?'”

Lavender is doing all that and a lot more: Obedience became a New York Times Bestseller in late March.