Hello, Mary! Welcome to the blog. I’m so thrilled to get to interview you. Your books and story are so intriguing to me. To start, I always ask for the 2-minute bio and something most people don’t know about you (your favorite drink for cold nights, the scariest thing you’ve ever done, the fact that you always sneeze in fours, etc…).
Hi there! Thanks so much for having me. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with you, Kaytee. I’m the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of three books, with another set to arrive this June. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in History and American Literature, and live outside of Chicago with my husband and two children. I enjoy gardening, photography and caring for the animals at a local shelter. A few little known facts about me are that I’ve been a vegetarian for about fifteen years and I’m absolutely terrified to fly in airplanes.
Excellent! To get started, I want to dive right into the fact that you’ve mentioned multiple times that you are a seat-of-your-pants writer: you don’t outline and let the characters develop themselves! I find that so fascinating, especially coming from a writer of psychological thrillers! It seems to me, as a reader, that you’d need to know where your story was going to end up in order to plant clues or misdirection throughout the novel. Do you rely on heavy revision and editing after the fact? Or are you able to write out your novels in the format that we get to read them?
I always start my novels with just a seed of an idea, and then watch it grow as I dive deeper into the manuscript. I’m not an outliner at all, and make a concerted effort not to think too far ahead as I plot out my books. I need to get to know my characters in order to discover how their stories will unfold on the page. Quite often the plot of a novel will change its course on me and I’ll need to go back and make revisions to adapt to that change. I love the spontaneity of writing my novels this way; my favorite part of the process is that moment that I figure out the big twist and get to go back into the book and leave either clues or red herrings for the reader to find. Because my novels are often told either nonlinearly or from multiple points of view, I break them into smaller sections to write and then combine at the end. In the case of my latest novel for example, Don’t You Cry, I wrote the entire storyline of Alex before going back to the beginning and creating Quinn’s narrative. In the book itself their chapters unfold successively.
In your debut novel, The Good Girl, as in your other books, the main characters are not all they seem. As you mention here, the one-dimensional characters in thrillers are pretty frustrating to you. So you’ve given us characters that are good guys (or girls) on the outside but have major flaws, or bad guys on the outside, but we are drawn to them and aren’t sure whether to start rooting for them. Since “real life” is like that, what do you think makes it hard for other suspense authors to write characters of this depth? Why do you think we see so many flat protagonists and antagonists in this genre?
I would never suggest that other suspense authors are unable to write characters of great depth. I deeply admire the authors in my genre and think they are masters at what they do. It’s a complicated genre in that quite often suspense novels are plot driven as opposed to character driven; readers are craving a propulsive storyline. I try to create a balance: books that are both plot and character driven because for me, personally, I relish novels with deeply drawn characters that resonate with me. For some readers, this works, but for others they find my books more of a slow build than other psychological thrillers. The best thing about books? They’re completely subjective and deeply personal. What one reader loves another may not, and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Before getting The Good Girl published, you had written, sought an agent, and edited your novel for almost ten years. Yet, no one knew that you were writing a novel, except for your husband! Did you purposefully keep it a secret? Why didn’t you let the people around you know that you were writing? Would you do the same if you were to go back and do it again (with the 20/20 hindsight that lets you know you would make it big with this book)?
Yes, I purposefully kept it a secret! For me for much of my life, I was very buttoned up about my passion for writing. I was quite self-conscious of it, for one. I had no idea if my work was any good and was too afraid to share it and find out. There was also much less pressure when I was writing The Good Girl. No one knew I was working on it, and therefore no one but me had their hopes up. If I didn’t finish the novel or if it never got published, no one would feel let down but me. If I was given the chance to go back in time and do it again, I’d do it the exact same way.
You mention your love for animals, and volunteering at an animal shelter, in quite a few interviews as well. Will we see this passion play out in any forthcoming books? It seems that it would be difficult to keep things that are such a big part of your life separate from your book-writing!
There are animals in nearly all of my books. A stray cat plays a fairly prominent role in The Good Girl, the Wood family in Pretty Baby has two cats (both strays rescued as kittens from the outdoors), and my next novel, Every Last Lie (coming June 27th!) features a rescue dog named Harriet who the family adopted from a high-kill shelter. Animals already play a role in my books, and I’m looking forward to including them in future novels as well.
You frequently write using the unreliable narrator as one of your viewpoints (The Good Girl, Pretty Baby, and her newest novel, Don’t You Cry all feature unreliable narrators). Readers have VERY strong opinions about unreliable narrators, but they fascinate you! To many, it feels like being led astray by the person chosen to guide you through the story. When you sit down to write, do you purposefully create characters that cannot be trusted or are they “lying to you” as you write them down? Since you have spoken about not knowing where the story will go yourself as you write, I am interested in how this aspect of it plays out!
Unreliable narrators don’t always have to be unreliable because they are lying. In the case of The Good Girl, Mia can be considered unreliable because she has amnesia. In Don’t You Cry, Quinn can be considered unreliable because she lacks a bit of common sense. There are all sorts of reasons for this unreliability and to me, it doesn’t make them bad characters, but just the type that keep readers on their toes – and as a reader that’s exactly what I expect from a good suspense novel, to be kept on my toes throughout!
Finally, I like to end on a personal note. Since you often mention in interviews that your first job is as a mom and that your kiddos come first, I’m curious about what they think of your success. It’s very apparent to me that your children are not old enough yet to have read any of your books. Do they care about your job as a writer? Are they interested in it or invested in it? Are they proud of you? 🙂
They’re very proud! My kids are 11 and 9 years old now, and have spent years watching me write, hearing the PG version of what my novels are about, and attending more book signings than they probably care to. They’re both avid readers and writers, and I love that we can share these passions together. They ask frequently when they can read my novels, and beg me to write a book that they’re actually able to read. I love that we’re on this journey together.
Thank you so much, Mary, for taking time out of your day to answer my questions! I am elated and honored to have you here on the blog!
Thanks so much for having me!