Caroline Kepnes on Suffering, Categories as Comfort, and the Dissonance Between the Said and the Unsaid

01/29/2016 06:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Caroline Kepnes is the author of the breakout hit, You, and the soon to be released follow-up, Hidden Bodies. The series chronicles the ups and downs of enigmatic and dare we say, sexy serial killer Joe Goldberg, who loves contemporary culture just as passionately as he hates it. Kepnes previously worked as an entertainment journalist and a television screenwriter. She is originally from Cape Cod, she now resides in Los Angeles.

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MW: Yo Kepnes! Let's talk about genres. So the Joe Series, which is what I'm going to call, You and Hidden Bodies, I've decided right now, feels like, to me, a genre bending novel. One of my favorite things is how romance readers show up with flaming torches and pitchforks the minute you try to call the Joe Series a romance--yet there are elements of romance in both books. You could even go as far to say that the novels are centered around Joe's romantic relationships. How was your relationship with literary genres while you were creating these novels? Did you try to stay true to a genre or did you ignore the rules and write what you wanted?

CK: Yo White! You know how to ask a question. Let's talk genre. And pitchforks!

Imagine you're going to a Blockbuster Video Store in the late nineties. Your bossy friend waits in the car while you go in to get Legends of the Fall. That's the plan. But you get to DRAMA and Legends of the Fall isn't there. Someone reorganized and made a Brad Pitt section. You walk over to the Brad Pitt section. You're facing a wall of Brad Pitt movies and some of them you never even thought of as Brad Pitt movies.

Like True Romance. He's barely in it!

And now that you see all the Brad Pitt movies lined up together, well, now you don't know. Maybe you want A River Runs Through It. Maybe Se7en. You love the video store because there is order. Normally it seems like they put movies together based on how they make you feel. But these Brad Pitt movies all make you feel different things. That's why they don't belong together. This is chaos.

And you can't text your bossy friend to ask if she realizes Brad Pitt was in True Romance because there is no such thing as texting. You walk out with True Romance and your bossy friend is fuming. You were supposed to get Legends of the Fall and you got True Romance and those movies couldn't be more different. You smile. Not true. Both movies have Brad Pitt. But if someone wants Legends of the Fall and you bring True Romance, you are playing with pitchforks.

I don't set out to make a THRILLER or a ROMANCE. I want to create something I love as much as people love Brad Pitt. And Joe's relationships are the driving force. The only rule is that I have to believe in it. If I read it over and don't feel like I'm in him then I'm not done. The POV and the action both have to land together, synchronized.

If you read a lot of romance, and you read this and Joe is stealing Beck's phone and she's mounting her green pillow, you might have issues. Your friend finds this romantic? Yep. She says she loves Joe. You think she should have told you Joe kills people. She shrugs. It's fiction! It's Joe! You sigh. What is wrong with your friend? We've all been there. I remember going to see Igby Goes Down. I cried at the end. The guy next to me looked at me like I was crazy. I looked at him like he was crazy. Didn't he see Kieran Culkin's face? Didn't he hear that Travis cover of "The Weight"?! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hxkyV3RCu0

In the end, everyone is crazy because no one is you.

And people are particular about how romance and violence intersect. Once again, if you want Legends of the Fall and you get True Romance...Think of the Oxygen network. They feed you hours of SHE-KILLED-HER-BAD-HUSBAND true crime. It's bleak. Even when justice is served, it's grim. And the marathon finally ends and they tickle you with the sweet stuff, Sleeping with the Enemy or You've Got Mail!

In Sleeping with the Enemy, Julia Roberts escapes Bad Husband and she's trying on hats and dancing around to Van Morrison with Dreamboat Drama Teacher. Yay! She opens the cabinets and finds the cans all lined up in psycho order. Boo! Bad Husband is back. But we aren't scared. We see the silly hats, we hear the Van Morrison. We know we are safe. Like In Erich Segal's Love Story, cancer wins the battle, but love wins the war. That's why it's not called Cancer Story. Death is announced in the first paragraph, a brilliant Yay-Boo romantic start to a novel.

In You've Got Mail, Tom Hanks is stalking Meg Ryan. He's putting her out of her business. But it's adorable and it ends with a pants-on khaki kiss near a fluffy dog! Yay! Romance soothes us with the superhero comfort of Good vs. Bad. We never think, Maybe Tom Hanks should get back with Parker Posey. Maybe Dreamboat Drama Teacher buried his wife under the apple tree. There is no conflict regarding destiny, character. Meg Ryan is Good. She twirls. She loves daisies, "the friendliest flower". Tom Hanks is Good. Lying for love, that's not like lying-lying. It's cute!

Meanwhile, in my warped world, Guinevere Beck would watch You've Got Mail and resent dainty Meg Ryan for inhering The Shop Around the Corner. Amy Adam would shoplift from the Shop Around the Corner. Love Quinn would dream up plans to remake the original The Shop Around the Corner, scene for scene. And Joe would scoff at bookseller Tom Hanks for never having read Pride and Prejudice.

MW: Your narration is really striking and I've seen it categorized in different ways. Some people read, You, as a first person narration just directed at someone named "you" (Beck). Others call it a second person narration, yet Joe isn't speaking directly to the reader. Then in Hidden Bodies you shift the narrative POV. What the heck are you doing? (Keep doing it, it works!) We're there any specific writers or works that inspired your narrative style?

CK: HAHA ok, I will keep doing it! I am writing. I think it starts with suffering. I imagine, who's hurting? Where's the suffering? What's going on in that head? What's this wound all about? Not so much how did it get there as what are we gonna do about it now? We're all such babies when we're in pain, there's a lot of vulnerability, and that's always rich.
If I want to do something but it feels like the story is taking over, going elsewhere I don't fight it. Sometimes I am right and sometimes the story is right. I respect the story. I mean, the writer dies. The book hangs around. You don't get to stand by your book and say what it is. I always want to be clearer and clearer, more and more specific. And I'm not precious. I try things and throw them away. I kill babies, many babies. Works that inspired me for this... top of the heap, Hannah and Her Sisters. I look back and realize I wanted a loud yet whispering book with a multidimensional quality where there is a soundtrack, but beyond that, there is an interest in the world, an appreciation of Prince, a lot of love, plus shopping and bickering and crying and sneaking around. And of course, the suffering! That's the story.

And the wonder of something like Hannah is the balance, the selection. You get all the right pieces of so many pieces. And it places you in all these different heads. We know Elliot's secrets, his lust. We mosey around with Mickey. We know his depression, his low sperm count. The story moves forward aggressively, and the flashbacks contribute to that movement, which is why they don't feel like flashbacks.

And the dissonance between the said and the unsaid, that gets my blood pumping, what people think about when they're roaming around, sitting around, alone or with people, brushing their teeth. When I was writing You, I was making Joe's diary. Hopefully you read and feel like you're invading his privacy, getting more than you want at times, knowing him so well that it's scary, given his proclivities.

When Beck walks in, he begins talking to her in his head and out loud. It's sort of epistolary, the diary in his mind that nobody sees but you, the reader. You're not "you" in that second person sense where you are Beck, walking into the shop. But there's a side effect where you wonder if there's someone watching you, if that is you. Would you know? I get it when people change their passwords after reading.

Joe is not out to kill Beck. Or anyone. He wants a companion. That's the real nightmare, right? He isn't the man with the van. He's the man with the plan.

A plan is scarier than a van.

The POV shift in Hidden Bodies had to happen. Joe was in the shop on the first page of You. HB opens with him on foot, out in the world. This is Joe in love and of course he's a different person come spring, post-Beck, when he's waking up with someone in his bed. You is full of courtship frustration, why won't you love me? Hidden Bodies is driven by nesting angst, why won't she stay home with me? It's Joe's confession, a paranoid prayer to a vague authority. It's all about authority. He's wary of police, neighbors. He perceives so many people to be authority: the rich and famous, his idiot boss, his girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend. Ah, Love and Forty! Yes, Joe meets twins, twins named after tennis. And in tennis language, Love is zero. But when you have Love, you have a chance. When you have Forty and your opponent has Love, you have a lead. A lead is an advantage, but it's not a win. It's pressure. Love and Forty were both born with financial advantage. I wanted to get into that, how that affects them both. They carry it differently. Forty is weight. Love is light.

And Stewart O'Nan's book Emily, Alone, this deep, thoughtful narrative. So much of it is what it sounds like, Emily, alone, cleaning, worrying and wondering. It's funny and sad and uncomfortable. I wanted to push my way into someone's head for an extended, intimate time, dig into that suffering. So it circles back to suffering, yep.

MW: You've created this very intricate and complicated palimpsest of fiction and reality which gives rise to an ongoing, inter-textual dialogue between the story line and real life. Both books refer to so many real works of fiction, so many real celebrities that it becomes almost impossible to deconstruct the fictional from the factual, the real from the satirized. How many people are going to google Henderson, Los Angeles based anti-talk show host? I sure did! (Hey, wait! Shouldn't you be interviewing me?)

CK: Let's begin. Mara, are you sure Henderson isn't real? Did you look in the phonebook? Do you have a phonebook?

When I was as a kid, I loved finding fiction in magazines, short stories in Seventeen and Sassy. I didn't distinguish between a fact-based article by Christina Kelly and a short story by Curtis Sittenfeld. Good writing was good writing, and there was something about flipping through a magazine, all the real reporting, the facts, and then there's a short story, and there's truth in there, which gets you thinking about the difference between truth and facts.

I always get excited when real and unreal things collide. You know when they get someone sort-of-famous-but-not-The-Beatles-level-of-famous to do a cameo on a TV show? Like Color Me Badd on 90210. Everyone in the universe of the show acts like COLOR ME BADD IS THE BEATLES. It's a mind-bender. And it's not an insult to Color Me Badd. It's just that they weren't The Beatles. There's something dizzying about that cameo. As if Color Me Badd peaked when they were pretending to be COLOR ME BADD on 90210. I enjoy that meta-mix.

And isn't it amazing when something or someone invented reads as real? In Finders Keepers, the John Rothstein novels. And Michael Scott is always so real, but especially when he's torn between a first viewing of Sophie's Choice and a repeat viewing of The Devil Wears Prada. We know who he is because of that dilemma.

And oh yes, I am so happy you Googled Henderson. I got to that middle of the night writing place with him where I could swear that he was real. So thank you. You've confirmed he's not real. But I wish the show was real, I still like the idea of the host on the sofa.

MW: How important are these cultural markers to you as a writer? They become touchstones in the books, like the stations of the cross, but instead of religious icons we have, Hannah and Her Sisters, Prince, Pitch Perfect, Portnoy's Complaint, and Charlotte and Charles, just to name a few.

CK: Hannah and Her Sisters is the mother ship, stocked with music and poetry, loyalty and betrayal, love and hope. I think touchstones help in this intimate POV, they bring you in his head, you know what it sounds like in there, what movies are always on, what lines repeat. Because I was just going off how my mind works. I get songs stuck in my head, lines from movies, pop culture punctuation. And in Hidden Bodies, I wanted to show a different side of that. Here, he's not swooning, not quoting that beautiful e.e. Cummings line about traveling. This time around, he's traveling for real. And these movies and books, they're security blankets. He's on the plane, thinking about Fast Five because this soothes him. And then also, I think about the reader. It was so important to me that it wouldn't matter if you didn't know these movies, books. They're the breadcrumbs that form the pathways in this 3D map of his mind.

And oh God yes, I love these things I put in the book. You know in Hannah when Mickey is depressed and he ducks into a theater and sees an old Marx Brothers movie and it changes his frame of mind? This: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftiIPJky_Vs

Pitch Perfect was my Marx Brothers movie. It gave me a lift at a rough time.

And after I finished a draft of Hidden Bodies and read it through, noticed these little satisfying book wars. Portnoy's Complaint & Fast Five, freedom vs family. Charlotte and Charles & Crimes & Misdemeanors, broken trust parables. That's the story under the story, Joe's ever-growing library of works that relate to what's going on with him. And of course, his playlist. "Nothing Compares 2 U" is so Joe, it's all of us when we're in agony. I love that song so much, Joe's birth song. Prince put the hours before the days. I have thought about those lyrics for several years and when I started writing this book it was like, ooh. My obsession with that song belongs here. I love that feeling, when you're obsessed with something and you find a place for it. See: categories are comfort. They really are.

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MW: Going back to classification, I feel like both of these books really embody post postmodernism fully with their sincerity. I saw that a quote from Kirkus that said, "Scathing social satire," and I wholeheartedly agree. But I would also say that your novels differ from, say, similar social satire, like This Book Will Save Your Life, by A.M. Homes, because they aren't or don't seem to be, ironic. I get the impression that creating fiction is the motive behind yours (and Joe's creative endeavors), not critiquing or politicking. But then again, I could be totally wrong . . .

CK: I am not being ironic. You are 1000000000000000% right.

These books come from my soul. I always want the emotion to come through, the yearning. He sees it all as a satire, sort of can't believe things are for real. This is a guy who feels entitled to kill people when they get on his nerves. Can you imagine? And that's an inherently satirical standpoint, so I am careful to create a grounded emotional reality.

I love shoving him into the sunlight in every possible way. His defense mechanisms go haywire. His scathing remarks and opinions reveal so much about his issues. He's gotten away with murder. He is "going west" and he's aware that everyone else here, well, they probably haven't killed a bunch of people. So once again, he's kind of a loner. Which is why it's so exciting to write these social scenes in LA, stick him at a table at Chateau Marmont with a bunch of people he's never met.

MW: Can you tell me a bit about your process? When I read Joe, he reads like a never-ending riff. A hilarious, smart, scary and obsessive riff. Was getting him down on paper just as energetic and effluent?

CK: It's emotional and consuming and sometimes I talk to myself. I get really lost it in it. Today I realized I was singing at one point. Good job, self! At a coffee shop. So tomorrow I might stay home. I have a new desk I love, so that's good. But I do love my coffee shops. I like to see random humans. I also thrive on that feeling of, you came here to write and you're really just gonna read about the gates to hell in Turkmenistan and people watch? Come on, self. Do something, already.

And it's the best feeling, when you're locked in, like the people doing code in The Social Network. I also love it when I wake up and write before coffee. Or when I have to pull over and write in the notepad app on the phone. I write a lot. I worry about my fingers. But you know, I take breaks. Many breaks. Thus the gates to hell in Turkmenistan! That's what I read about when I'm stuck, something random, this week it was the "Bittersweet Symphony" legal battle and reviews of the movie Blended. I love the Internet, I do. I never turn off the Wi-Fi. That's like hiding ice cream in the back of the freezer. It doesn't work for me. I still know it's there. If I cut off the Wi-Fi, I'm like I cut off the Wi-Fi. Does this mean I'm writing even if I just sit here thinking about the Wi-Fi? And I did write a short story with a character from Turkmenistan, so it evens out. I love to learn about something, feed a curiosity. That makes me want to write. See, procrastination is good for you. It is.

MW: Going back to layering fiction and reality, you are not afraid to use real celebrities as characters. In, You, Joe is angered and unforgiving about a new Stephen King release, yet in reality, Stephen King blurbed your book. So far, have you gotten any reactions from people who have encountered themselves as characters in your landscape?

CK: Oh, Joe and Stephen King! I love them together. Sometimes people tweet pictures of You in Target and it's next to Dr. Sleep and I love seeing his blurb on my book, my book alongside that book. And yes, so far, so great with people who have encountered themselves in the pages.

Joe thinks of Stephen King as a comrade. He's infuriated that people buying Dr. Sleep haven't read The Shining. Joe is protective of books and judgmental of people. In his mind, he and Stephen King are in this together. King writes, he sells, so theoretically, Stephen King should have his back. He shouldn't be putting a book out on the day of Joe's big date with Beck! Of course, this all comes out as anger, he's mad that there are people in his store, and he knows why they're there. They're getting Dr. Sleep. Don't they know that Joe has a date?! And then of course, Joe has someone locked in his basement and he's miffed at people, he's judging people for buying Stephen King. Because hey, he's willing to get his hands dirty and these book people, they just want to read about locking people in the basement, or what have you.

Stephen King's exploration of judgmental personalities, it's one of my favorite aspects of his writing. That character who's like you're doing it wrong and you're going to hell! And now we have social media, which can sometimes be like an online playground for judgmental people. And of course, bookstores, most people have judged or been judged in a bookstore, right? Combining all of this, it was exciting for me.

And in Hidden Bodies, I wanted Joe to have a unique vantage point on "celebrity". He wants to be buddies with these successful people. But they have to be ok with him feeling totally superior. Oh, Joe.

MW: What's coming down the pike for you? Is there more Joe coming our way?

CK: I'm working on two separate novels. A Hollywood story about a working mom who has issues with her clients and her kids and her husband and her everyone. I love her. And a New England kidnapping story about a boy growing into a different man than he expected to become. I love him. And yes. More Joe. Eventually.

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Finally, for the win . . .

MW: Celebrity crush, one boy and one girl?

CK: Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson in No Good Deed. I saw that movie in theaters four times. It's my Star Wars.

MW: Hidden talent?

CK: I can meow.

MW: Favorite New York spot? Favorite LA spot?

CK: I am permanently nostalgic for late nights at Botanica Bar. And in LA, good old La Poubelle. And my coffee shops I think of as my homes away from home.

MW: Other languages? If not, what accents could you get away with impersonating?

CK: When I had vocal cord nodules I had to speak in a high British accent as part of my voice therapy. That was not fun for anyone.

MW: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?

CK: I would be Frances in the second act of the movie Frances Ha. Plus I'd be gambling.

MW: Ideal cast of leads for the Joe Series?

CK: When I see Jake Gyllenhaal in The Good Girl and Nightcrawler and Lovely & Amazing and Brothers, I think, he has that Joe vibe. And when Michael Zegen was in Girls I kept rewinding like HOLY SHIT THERE IS JOE RIGHT THERE ON THE TV. I watch all the episodes repeatedly, but those GQ ones, those I watched a lot.

MW: Worst guilty pleasure?

CK: Real Housewives of New York: Countess Luann de Lessepps performing her dance song "Girl Code" on Andy Cohen's WWHL. Everyone is dancing. Her daughter is marching back and forth. Housewives have a unique rhythm on a dance floor, Andy too. It reminds me of going to bar mitzvahs on Cape Cod in the '80s where I grew up, feeling like this must be what it's like to be a glamorous New Yorker in a sequin nightclub! Housewives dance mostly with their upper bodies. As opposed to the muscle bound professional male dancers in the video (I Google stalked). They're dancing mostly with their legs. It's this festival of limbs akimbo. I love it. So. Many. Bodies!

Hidden Bodies will be released on 2.23.16. You can read more about Caroline Kepnes and her work at http://authors.simonandschuster.com/Caroline-Kepnes/464841279 and http://www.amazon.com/Caroline-Kepnes/e/B001K8I774