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Reality feeds Southern Oregon author's fiction

For April Henry to write her 24th mystery-thriller novel, she said three things had to happen: Her father, Jackson County Commissioner Hank Henry had to be stalked by gun nuts, the economy had to be awful when she graduated college in 1982, and mass shootings had to become a familiar nightmare in American society.

Her new book, “Run, Hide and Fight Back,” published by Macmillan/Henry Holt, explores the thoughts and actions of six teenagers who find themselves trapped in a mall while a trio of terrorist-bombers hunt them — after blowing away everyone in sight with assault weapons.

Henry, 60, said she experienced terrorism when her father, a former KTVL anchor-news director, served in the 1980s on the county Board of Commissioners and got death threats from the then-notorious Posse Comitatus. They believed no government above sheriff had any authority over them, says Henry.

“They threatened him on the phone, saying they were coming to kill him,” Henry said. “My dad talked about buying a gun. I was shocked. He was a gentle, loving man, and it was like he said he was getting a kangaroo. It just wasn’t him.”

In schooling herself for writing about terrorism, Henry, studied the Posse Comitatus, The Order (a violent white-supremacist group in the ’80s), Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and a 2013 terrorist attack on a mall in Kenya that killed 71.

About her new book, Henry says, “It can feel frighteningly real now that random mass shootings are becoming commonplace in America. But I started the book in 2013, after the terrorist attack on the Kenyan mall. The 2015 Paris terrorist attacks made me think even more about what I would do in such a terrible situation. Then I gave that problem to six teens. When domestic right-wing terrorists kill shoppers and then take more hostages, the teens end up hiding in a storeroom. They must decide whether to run, hide or fight back. Spoiler alert: they do all three. Think of it as ‘Die Hard’ meets ‘Breakfast Club.’”

Asked if, after her research, she has any advice for us if caught in a mass shooting, Henry says “Follow the title of the book — run, hide, fight back, in that order. That line is from a Texas Homeland Security video, which shows a real workplace and is very scary. Make yourself a difficult target, shove things in front of a door. It might be enough to save you and make them move on. If you have a phone, of course, call 911. If it’s bad reception, text someone and tell them to call 911.

“Be aware of your environment. Register where exits are, also windows. If you have a weapon, know it can be turned on you. They are ready to hurt you. So it’s better to try and find a way out.”

In her research, Henry brainstormed with a range of security experts, mall managers, got a blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu and even hung out at malls, noticing procedures around doors and locks. But she didn’t want to interview survivors of mass shootings.

“I don’t know if I could ask someone to recount that. Like, I couldn’t interview a rape survivor. What are you going to say to them, ‘How was that?’ I just read about it, that’s all.”

In researching leaders of terrorist attacks and their manifestos, she came away feeling they were all intelligent, but deluded about reality. McVeigh thought his bombing would trigger a revolution, but “what they want to happen doesn’t make much sense. In my book, they had a charismatic leader, but what did McVeigh or my characters accomplish? Just killed a lot of people.”

In forging her plot, Henry wanted to avoid the oft-used fallback of Islamic terrorists, so, in a twist — a twist is always desirable in mysteries — they’re domestic bad guys, creating a diversion to draw police while they heist a gold-laden truck. This device she “borrowed” from a 2016 heist of $4.8 million in Florida and includes their use of remotely triggered pepper-spray launchers to disable drivers.

Not just her novels but life itself has unpredictable twists, and for Henry, it was the big recession just as she graduated in 1982 from Oregon State University with a degree in business and minor in labor relations. There were few jobs, and her try at labor relations left her with an impression it was “guys yelling at each other in smoke-filled rooms.”

As a result, she took a job as a hospital receptionist during the quiet swing-shift hours and, with little to do, she started writing novels, horrible at first, she says, but by the fourth book, her agent finally sold it.

From then on, she’s sold well. Her favorite is “Girl Stolen,” about a blind girl who happened to be in her mother’s car when it was stolen. Another is “The Girl I Used to Be,” which was up for an Edgar Award, “the coolest of awards for mysteries, judged by other mystery writers.” It’s about the revenge planned by a woman for the killers of her parents when she was a toddler.

Henry will do a reading and book signing at 1 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 28, at Barnes & Noble, 1400 Biddle Road, Medford.

April Henry