“It all started when the pregnant girl went crazy.”

This is the first line in Kiss Her Goodbye, the debut novel of Ojai resident Robert Gregory Browne — a seasoned screenwriter who knows exactly how to seize the attention of an audience and not let it go until he’s through.

“For me, writing is completely instinct,” says the subtly intense Browne. You can tell, just by looking at Browne that he always has wheels turning in his head. It’s easy to get the idea, from speaking to him and reading his novel, that his brain is a hotbed for complicated plots made human by genuine emotion.

“It’s all buried in there somewhere and it comes out when you’re writing,” he says. “I always tell aspiring writers to trust your gut.”

Race to the finish

From the moment that the pregnant lady goes crazy, Kiss Her Goodbye hits the ground running. It’s an unexpected work because Browne’s blend of genres and unique storytelling style create a page-turner unlike the usual fare found in the field of cops-and-robbers crime thrillers.

Because Browne writes from the “deep third person” point of view, or a point of view in which he’s actually writing from the perspective of different characters in different chapters, the reader is treated to an authentically created piece in which it is easy to become immersed.

“It’s like method acting,” says Browne. “You’re an actor playing a bunch of different roles. When I go into a character’s head, you only hear, see and feel what that character’s feeling.

An edgy plot

The starring role belongs to Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agent Jack Donovan, a man on a mission to hunt down his longtime adversary, arms smuggler Alex Gunderson, a man who dabbles in the occult and wants to start a revolution. The real trouble begins when Gunderson nabs Jessica, Donovan’s teenage daughter — with whom Donovan is struggling to establish a close relationship after a period of estrangement — and buries her alive. When Gunderson is killed before Jessica’s location is discovered, Donovan must follow Gunderson straight to hell.

Yep, you read that correctly: straight to hell.

“I was told by my editor and agent that the book would be a tough sell because it crosses genre,” says Browne, whose book combines the subject matter and style of a thriller with a supernatural, or maybe even science fictional, element. “You see that on TV, but not so much in the book world.”

Then again, Browne, who’s wanted to be a writer since the age of 12, has always been deeply fascinated by near-death experiences. This fascination began when his uncle died and was resuscitated, but refused to discuss his journey to the afterlife and back.

“It was like the most horrible thing that ever happened to him,” says Browne, who has investigated near-death for decades and found that, while most experiences are similar (white light, long tunnel, etc.), there appears to be a less celebrated aspect. “I thought maybe there was a darker experience for some people.”

That darker experience is explored in Kiss Her Goodbye.

The path to writing

Browne is a Honolulu native who was working at a law office when he broke into screenwriting at the age of 35 by winning a national writing competition hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

After winning the contest and being awarded a screenwriting scholarship in the early 1990s, Browne inked a deal with Showtime for a thriller he’d written and moved his family to Ojai. “That deal was stuck in development hell — where you rewrite and rewrite until somebody wants to buy it,” he says.

Browne eventually began writing Saturday morning cartoons and currently holds a full-time job in a law office. He eventually pitched the idea for Kiss Her Goodbye to a novelist friend who, after reading a few pages, encouraged him to finish it despite Browne’s doubt that he could “sustain 400 pages of prose.”

It took Browne nearly a year of writing largely in the middle of the night, but he did ultimately sustain 293 pages that became Kiss Her Goodbye. He’s currently at work on his second novel, also a supernatural thriller. “I’m working two full-time jobs,” he says, “but I’d write even if I didn’t get paid to write.”

Browne’s screenwriting roots reveal themselves early on in the novel, which is filled with just enough description to visually flesh out scenes without overwriting. It’s an intelligent read in that it doesn’t sacrifice intelligence for brevity and each word of the clean-cut prose is exactly where it should be.

Kiss Her Goodbye was released in February and, if the reception of patrons who attended a recent local book signing at Barnes & Noble are any indication, the book appears to be doing well. “It was very surreal for me,” Browne says of the signing. “I looked up and the line was just getting longer and longer — and they sold every book that was there. Very surreal.”