The Story Behind “The Collector”

Warning: There are spoilers ahead. If you have not read “The Collector,” either go read it, or prepare to either have the story spoiled or to not understand what the heck I’m talking about.


“The Collector” was published in August 2014 by Cast of Wonders, the young adult fiction podcast.


I wrote the first draft in the spring of 2011, as an assignment for the intro to fiction class I was taking. In the class, we had to write two complete short stories, one that would have two drafts thoroughly critiqued by our classmates, and the other which we had to write on our own outside of class—though we were free to critique each other’s stories outside the classroom. Our final portfolio, which included our two finished short stories as well as several smaller assignments, was due in a week. I had fully revised the story I had worked on in class, but I had a week to write another one, and I had absolutely nothing.


My friends and I were all part of the same writing group that we had formed ourselves, and so we were always talking about writing . And I mean always. So here I am, at the end of spring semester, at this point freaking out a little bit because I had a week to write and revise a story and did I mention I had no idea what to do? So my friends started throwing out ideas to see if anything stuck. One friend suggested a story about death personified as a thief in the night. The idea clicked. In fact, “The Thief in the Night” was my original title for this story, though it only lasted as a title about four days before I changed it to “The Collector,” which in my opinion described my version of Death much more accurately.


I decided, after a dinner discussion with my friends, that Death—or the Thief, as I call him in the story—should encounter three people over the course of a single night. Two of these people should not necessarily be the greatest people humanity has to offer—people who in the Thief’s eyes deserve to die, or at least don’t deserve more time—but they should force the Thief to think about his job and his “life” in a new way. So when he meets the third person, someone who definitely deserves more time, he finds himself questioning what he has always taken for granted: that being on the Thief’s list means it is always time to die, that there are no second chances.


I was definitely writing this story by the seat of my pants, and a lot of ideas that had been swirling around my head for a while came to play a role. Another friend read me the prologue to The Book Thief by Markus Zusak—an excellent book that I didn’t read the entirety of until the following summer—and Death’s way of cataloging colors contributed to my Thief’s propensity to catalog the items in each person’s home and ultimately to choose something to take. May Tornincasa has Morquio Syndrome, because when I was in sixth grade, I read Freak the Mighty, and I was always a little morbidly fascinated by the idea that you could die because your heart was too big for your body. Finally, though I wanted the Thief to realize that May Tornincasa didn’t deserve to die and he could give her some more time, I wanted May to be different from Fabio Vinti and Jim Loeb, who so desperately wanted to stay alive. So I decided that May would want to die, leaving the Thief with an even more complicated choice to make.


And so I wrote the story, one section at a time. I then made some revisions, handed it in, and turned my attention to my finals.


Later in the summer, after I attended Alpha for the first time, I set out to revise the story so I could start submitting it. It was at this point that the Thief became Death’s assistant, not Death itself, and I added some backstory to how that happened—the Thief was killed in Vietnam or nearly so—which gave him a connection, an understanding, of Fabio Vinti—but Death recruited him to be his assistant instead of sending him on. I also used this to expand upon the ideas I’d planted with the scene with May Tornincasa, the idea that Peter is afraid to grow up, and the Thief is afraid to die. In the same revision, I added Maddie—their love and her death—which clarified why this night was different from every other night for the Thief and made his choices in the end more significant. Finally, I modified the ending to turn the Thief back into a man and to have him tear up the list so Death would come to claim him at last.


Some fun facts:

This story is set in early October 2000. I did not want it to take place on Halloween, for obvious reasons, and I wanted it to take place before September 11 happened, because I felt that would have had an extreme effect on both Fabio Vinti and the Thief.

Fabio Vinti’s name changed three or four times over the course of writing and revising this story. It may have changed with each new draft.

The code to Vinti’s alarm is the years when the three wars Vinti fought in—World War I, World War II, and the Korean War—as well as the Vietnam War—for the Thief—ended.

I got the idea for Jim Loeb and the coin flipping scene mostly from Two-Face from The Dark Knight.

Tornincasa is Italian for “return home.”

I have never actually read Peter and Wendy.


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