First there was Gone Girl, then Girl on the Train took the unofficial title of the world’s hottest thriller novel. Now, filling those huge boots is American author Caroline Kepnes with her psychological cliffhanger, You.
The story details a relationship of sorts between a beautiful young aspiring writer called Guinevere Beck and Joe Goldberg. Though Guinevere doesn’t know Joe past him serving her at a book shop, Joe grows obsessed with the young woman after tracking her down using the name on her credit card.
“It’s a love story about a voyeuristic man who thinks his life is made when he meets a fetching young exhibitionist woman... He’s out there doing things. Scary things. Illegal things,” Caroline tells Be exclusively.
Joe orchestrates a meeting and then invisibly and obsessively takes control of Guinevere’s life. He’ll go to any lengths to get her attention – even if it means murder.
“I think of it as a head-trip. On page one, you go into Joe’s mind and you stay there for the duration as he tries to make the world a better place, tries to build this life for himself,” adds Caroline.
The novel has received international acclaim both on social media and by some of the word’s best authors.
“Today someone on Twitter said he’s part Holden Caulfield, part Dexter. I like that too. And I love what Stephen King said, that he’d never read anything like it,” says Caroline.
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So just how to you get into the right headspace to write a physiological thriller? Caroline Kepnes sits down with Be to explain all. (You can also read the first chapter of the book here.)
Where do you draw your inspiration from for such a twisted subject?
Everywhere! And specifically, with You, I helped care for my father while he was struggling with cancer over a two-year period. That was a lot of time in hospitals, a lot of crying, sleepless nights. It was like living in a horror movie. But then there would be these moments, these tremendous laughs.
He passed away a couple days after my birthday. Loss is dizzying. Then only a few weeks later, my mum had to have serious surgery. Then, the second she was feeling stronger, I came down with something like epiglottitis and I had to have emergency surgery. It was terrifying. I will never forget waking up to liquid Percocet, Jell-O and daytime TV after all that drama.
Then I had months of voice therapy. Sometimes I wasn’t supposed to talk out loud. I communicated through a notepad. And then, almost worse, I had to speak in a high-pitched British accent because that’s very easy on your vocal cords. It was a strange time, to say the least.
I am always inspired by our cultural behavior norms. Example: I went to see the new Purge movie. This girl came in when it was almost done, she sits down, her phone rings and she answers it. She takes the call! In a movie theater! A few people object and she says she’s watching the movie her way. I mean she’s outraged that people want her to get off the phone. That fascinates me. I don’t think anyone is to blame because we all hear the message, which clashes against the other message, the one about being considerate, mindful. So yeah, things get to me, I think about them, I think how other people care or don’t care about these things, and they go into my writing.
Can you see any similarities between Girl on the Train and You?
I think both stories are very much about perspective, the sport of people watching, caring about someone in a way that doesn’t necessarily make sense to other people.
I haven’t read it yet, but I know the territory. And I’m excited for Paula Hawkins to have this international, profound enormous success where you see people just gripped by this story. She tapped into something that people relate to and the story is supposed to be riveting. That’s a magical combination.
When you began writing You, did you know how it would end?
Yes. I saw the end so clearly, where the emotions would be, the specifics. I felt so sure of this while I was revising those first few pages, settling into the voice and as I wrote, it became incredibly useful, that sense of certainty about where the story was going. It was helpful drive for me as a writer, to kind of prove that I was right, to have those days where it was like, hmm, maybe I’m wrong.
That’s the best part of writing (in retrospect, of course, after the agony), when you think, 'oh shit I was wrong about everything'. The story has that supernatural power. It’s the most wonderful, surreal part of writing to me, when you get into creating a book, really into it and it exists in your mind, in your dreams, in your resting mind, it’s getting stronger all the time, telling you what to do, what it is. Oh I love that. When I don’t write for a few days I miss that.
When it comes to the intricate technicalities regarding crime scenes and police investigations, how do you make sure what your writing mimics the proper process, therefore making it authentic?
I read a lot of news, a lot of “weird news” and crime news, it helps when the language surrounding investigations becomes familiar. And I like to read and then take a break and think.
God, I feel lucky to live in the era of Google, where you can find out things so easily, which is all the more reason you have to actively enforce those filters. Then, I find sources when I have a feeling I’m getting it wrong, when I want to hear what a person sounds like describing something, which is so different from reading about something.
Also, I am always most interested in making the psychology and the character authentic. The more you learn about the system, the imperfections, the more room you see for irrational or hard to explain outcomes. So when Joe gets away with things, I think, well, I know in real life people get away with things all the time. That’s what I find scary about the story, that it’s all genuinely possible.
Actors often get sucked into the world they’re portraying – for example Heath Ledger reportedly dissolved himself into character as the joker – so much so that some people have inferred his devotion led to his demise – do you ever feel yourself getting sucked into that darker world and did it have an affect on your life?
The day I clicked with Joe’s voice, I was in a Starbucks, annoyed at the petty behavior of people. I was being very judgy. And then my skin crawled. I looked over my shoulder. It was so crowded. There were a lot of people frustrated with nowhere to sit. I felt sure that someone was judging me with my empty iced coffee and my computer with Facebook open. I was taking up space and not being productive. I felt so guilty and then I had this severe turn where I would not feel bad.
Sometimes there is nowhere to sit. Shit happens! Nobody gets to be mad at me for getting here when there were seats available. I like switching perspectives. That’s why I started writing stories when I was a child, to see things from different sides. I just think it’s one of the most fun things you can do, imagine what that asshole is thinking as he makes an asshole move. So yes, I get sucked into it. My favorite mystery in the world is human behavior. Where I get the most Joe-d up is with cyclists.
How would you feel about You being made into a feature film?
I would feel great! Particularly now, where there are so many well-executed adaptations happening and readers get to connect online and talk about who they picture in the roles, it’s an exciting thing for a readership, to see a book onscreen. Right now, You is in development to be a series on Showtime. And it blows my mind to think of watching my Joe and his friends and enemies onscreen. It’s so exciting.