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Olivia Kozlevcar

Run Time: A Novel

Reviewed by Olivia Kozlevcar

This article was first published in Washington Independent Review of Books here.

It’s chilling enough being the sole woman trapped in the woods with a group of men and no phone reception. But in Catherine Ryan Howard’s Run Time, the men are also producing a low-budget horror film — one that only shoots in the dead of night.

Relying on psychological manipulation rather than gore, Run Time follows last-minute fill-in Adele Rafferty, a former soap star, as she returns home to Ireland from Los Angeles to play the movie’s lead, Kate. She carries a failing career in one hand and an NDA in the other. When she arrives on the set of “Final Draft,” Adele notices eerie details that start to become unsettling. But are they merely strange or something more sinister?

The novel is a quick read made possible by the quality of its plot development. Adele is a solid everywoman, capturing readers’ attention by inviting us into her head and embracing her own shortcomings. Her travails offer an unpolished look at the complexities of being a young woman in a sometimes-vicious industry and trying to withstand the emotional and physical toll — and fear — that comes along with it.  

Howard breaks up the text by inserting sections of the “Final Draft” script between chapters. It’s a bold, innovative move that helps build suspense from one plot point to the next. Even better, the parallels between the script and the main narrative allow readers to take a stab at guessing what’s coming next in the story:

KATE

(whispering)

You’re okay. You’re okay.

(voice breaking)

You’ll be okay.

And then –

A pinprick of white light appears in the distance.

Kate stops. She blinks, squints.

We see the light from her POV, her vision blurred by tears and rain, and watch as the light comes into focus, splits into two, each orb growing brighter, bigger –

Kate, lit now by the approaching white light, raises a hand to shield her eyes from it.

And now we hear something too: an ENGINE. A car is coming up the road. Kate runs toward it, into the middle of the road, waving her arms. 

Dramatic interludes aside, Run Time is flawed. Coming on the heels of the author’s critically acclaimed 56 Days, it has large shoes to fill. While both novels are set during the pandemic, covid-19 is integral to 56 Days but is merely a plot device here. Howard’s frequent heavy-handed one-liners on the subject detract from Run Time because the pandemic is unrelated to the story at hand.

To her credit, the author evidently conducted a great deal of research on the entertainment industry prior to writing this book (she cites her brother, an actor, as part of her inspiration). Unfortunately, her allusions to things like #MeToo vis-à-vis the film business often feel clumsy and draw the reader away from the action. She might’ve done better by focusing more on Adele’s particular underlying fears and allowing them to speak broadly for the trials endured by women in the trade.

Moreover, while the ending isn’t obvious, the story’s main twist is predicted early on by Adele. It left me wondering why the author would choose to reveal the novel’s most interesting development before it’s had time to grow. In addition to this self-inflicted wound, some of the book’s other turns are predictable, as when the only “nice guy” on the set turns out to have his own malicious motives (à la “Promising Young Woman,” a film whose writer/director, Emerald Fennell, is alluded to early on).

Overall, Howard’s novel is an entertaining read. The twists and turns of Adele’s sordid tale are interesting, and the narrative is well written. If you’re just dipping your toe into horror, Run Time is a good place to start. Avid fans of the genre, however, may feel let down. So, proceed with caution.

An Interview with Joe Rothstein

By Olivia Kozlevcar

This article was first published August 9, 2022 in Washington Independent Review of Books here.

Given our current political climate, it’s hard to imagine writing DC-themed fiction that’s stranger than truth, but Joe Rothstein has done just that in his new novel, The Moment of Menace: The Future Looks Glorious…Unless We All Die First. Rothstein, whose long career spans both politics and literature, braids the two worlds together in a riveting story that gives readers a glimpse of what our democracy could become — for better or worse.  

Your deep knowledge of politics comes through in this book. Is it challenging writing fictional stories about a very real system?

Think about what it means to be a candidate. Depending on the political office at stake, you will need to raise considerable campaign money, much of it by personally asking friends, family, co-workers, strangers. In a real sense, you will have to learn to beg. You will have to hire a professional staff and recruit dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of volunteers, a hugely difficult exercise in high-pressure management. You will need to appear in public every day, sometimes in the media, weighing every word lest it be misinterpreted, often purposely, by the opposition.

Tension will increase as Election Day approaches, whether the polls have you ahead or behind. The money won’t be enough. The attacks on your character will increase, all in public media. Your family will feel under siege. You will get conflicting advice. Every day, you will need to make decisions, any one of which could cause you to win or lose the election. This is stuff of high drama, and I lived it through more than 200 campaigns. Marriages were…destroyed, so were reputations, wealth, hopes, and dreams. I don’t need to use my imagination to develop characters and situations. I just need to remember.

Your novel follows a charismatic American president named Isabel Aragon Tennyson. How did you shape this character? 

During my campaign career, I met many strong, capable, and courageous women: candidates, spouses, campaign leaders, and others. We’ve never elected a woman president. I decided that I would, and that she would be a composite of many women I met who would have made great real-life presidents.

This book is as much a dystopian novel as a thriller. Do you find it difficult to approach the dystopia genre without being overly pessimistic?

I’m a democrat with both a small and capital D. But democracy is struggling to effectively meet the challenges of the 21st century. And because democracy is underperforming, anti-democratic forces are presenting a serious challenge. It’s essential to recognize and meet this challenge. So, I write not as a purveyor of doom but rather with a call to action. Rather than write essays about this, I’ve chosen to write entertaining thrillers and wrap them around real public problems.

What does waiting to write until you’ve gained some life experience bring to the resulting work?

Perspective. The curved edges of “good” and “evil” and “right” and “wrong.” Living through chapters of life to see many of them resolve, gaining insight from experience.

What’s next for you?

One of my summer-vacation jobs in college was with an automobile stunt show, sort of a car circus of smashed cars, daredevil motorcyclists, and a finale with a car and driver being shot out of a cannon. We traveled the country as the Motor Olympics. I was “Suicide Saunders.” That’s my next book.