Friday interview: Caroline Kepnes

Caroline Kepnes: “My drive is to create worlds and fill them up with people”

A breathtaking thriller debut; You by Caroline Kepnes introduces the sympathetic psychopath. But what’s the story behind the book? Den döda zonen / The Dead Zone decided to get the story directly from the source.

The main character of You is named Joe, but he’s certainly not your average Joe. See; Joe is in love, and the object of his desires, Guinevere, thinks he is a charming enough guy. Definitely charming enough to let him approach her.

Photo: Kathleen Szmit

Photo: Kathleen Szmit

Of course, this fact changes everything. Because, honestly, who can stop love from breaking through – sometimes you just have to give people a shove in the right direction.

You is the debut novel of Caroline Kepnes. It is, most certainly, a thriller that makes a mark on the reader. Simply put: start reading and you’re hooked.

The story is told in first person, present tense. Quite the risk if not done properly, but for Kepnes, the choice of using present tense wasn’t a particularly hard one. She explains:
– I have written many short stories in the present tense, so I’ve always been a little obsessed with the particular nature of it, the way when it works it really works and then when it doesn’t, yikes.

You like taking that risk?
– Yes. It’s always a very strong, specific instinct, to tell a story that way. For me there has to be a reason, a pull, where the story and character demand that immediacy. And it feels like home to me, I like the energy. It’s almost like virtual reality, you know?

At first, when I started reading the book, I felt a bit worried for my sympathies for Joe. But really, should I worry about liking him?
– No. I love him too, and I’m sort of well adjusted. It’s funny. I worried about that too when I was writing. In the mental health way and in in the writerly way.

Explain.
– His disgust is very endearing to me, the way he takes it to the next level. I’ve always been amused by the concept of ”deal-breakers” when it comes to relationships. It just seems so idiotic to me, to kind of quantify your feelings. I mean I understand the need, but wow. So I like the idea of this guy who is so normal and disgusted and well-read and interesting and then you find out he’s a fucking murderer. D’oh!

– And for me anyway, it’s not a deal-breaker because it’s just not that simple, is it? You still like him. I do, too.

9789137143385The process of writing a story about a clearly disturbed character – but still a likeable one – might have been a challenge, Caroline Kepnes admits, but one she took on with joy. She wrote the first few pages, she says, then had to put the story down to really get to know Joe as a character before picking up the writing again.
– It was a meticulous process in the sense that I felt like I had to know exactly who he was before I sat down again because writing those first pages, oh my God, what a rush. And then once I started again, it did just “happen” where several hours would pass and my fingers would hurt and I wouldn’t know what planet I was on. The best creative feeling in the world.

With a journalistic background, writing is nothing new for Caroline Kepnes. However, the fact that she’s now being read across the world is. And it’s a mind blowing experience, she claims.
– I’m so grateful to have people translating my stories into other languages. I mean, Sweden! It’s quite literally a dream come true to have people around the world reading your book. I still don’t even know what to say, just YES PLEASE THANK YOU.

– I was a journalist for many years. It’s dazzling, to be telling stories for a living now, just making them up. I’ve finished my second book and I’m around a hundred pages into my third. I invent these people and they talk to each other. It’s like playing with dolls, circling back to childhood, my favorite thing to do. I’m so elated to be a professional child.

I read a lot of thrillers and suspense novels. Some grab hold of you from the beginning. Others are a bit slower. Some never really get a grip. What, to you, makes a great thriller read?
That grab. It’s is so critical. I want to feel closer to someone for every page I read, if that makes sense, more deeply connected.

– I think Stephen King’s Misery is a stellar example of that, Annie and Paul, you know them more and more, what they’re capable of, the respective messes they’re in, it’s always deepening, truly building in terms of plot and character. I felt like I was in that book. And that’s what I want when I read, to be transported.

And, of course, that sense of “grab” is all important not only in thriller books. But in this particular genre, it’s almost like stepping into a movie, right?
– Yes! For thrillers and really for all books, even the ones that are not sold to suck you in. I think it’s just about the writing, the voice. That “in the book” feeling is such a unique, specific feeling, hard to articulate. I love that quality in writing.

youDuring the process of writing You, Caroline Kepnes used her mom and her aunts as a first instance of critics, as well as for inspiration in developing the story. After that, editors helped her work out certain things as well. And some things, she was reluctant, at first, to change:
– I think it happens with a lot of writers, you don’t want it to end, so you kind of skimp out on the ending and editors are wonderful for knowing, this scene is nice but it’s not moving the story forward, this description is not as good as this one. It’s a series of conversations and I think it always makes the book better.

– Editing, it’s so important. And with writing the second book, I did a whole draft on my own. More the way I did short stories before. It’s a bigger story, more travel, more characters, pursuit of life, not just love, if that makes sense. So then the editing process was bigger, mostly tightening the narrative, tracking the emotional drive. I get so in it that it’s so great to hear from the people outside of it, analytical smarty pants people.

You’ve written two, working on number three. I know the second one is where we meet Joe again. Do you reckon you’ll stick to the thriller genre now? What is your drive, your motivation with writing?
– Oh, I would love to keep going with thrillers. My drive is to create worlds and fill them up with people. I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to return to this character again, in this second book, which is very different, but then, I mean, it’s Joe narrating, so it’s also similar.

But you’re not all that into putting labels on things, really, are you?
– No, I have never been all that conscious of them. I think of books as books. I like so many different styles of writing, going back to that ”thing” we speak of, I love a good thriller, and I am thrilled by other styles as well. I just want to make more.

So what are you working on right now, then?
– Right now, I’m working on a new book. I’ve never done so much research for anything before and it’s just a joyous learning, creative experience, all around.

– It’s a thriller, I think, but as just mentioned, I never label them when I write, you know? To me it’s just this new world I go to every day. And what a gift, to have the time to go there.

With those words of wisdom, our talk is over and I leave Caroline Kepnes to her writing again.

Buy the book (swedish).

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