WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Caroline! I’ve been wanting to interview you for a while. I’ve read your previous books and loved them, but Providence seems like a whole new step in your journey as a writer completely. Can you tell me what initially sparked the idea for this book, and how or why you decided to pursue this novel?
Caroline Kepnes: Hi Matthew! I’m so happy to hear that. When I stated Providence, I was coming off two Joe Goldberg books that are all about the horrors of mankind, the danger of phones, books inspired by my fear that Man + technology + ego = oh SHIT! Providence shares the same theme, but it’s different in scope and atmosphere. I chose New England because I was nostalgic for my pre-internet youth. The library was closed at night, so even if there was a book you were dying to read…you had to wait. Technology lifted those boundaries and that change is still wild to me, this 24/7 access to information. By the second draft of Providence it was like okay, these characters are suffering from isolation and a sense of disconnect at a time when we are constantly reminded that we are connected. They would all possibly be better off if they let go of this person they can’t stop thinking about, but it’s not so easy. And that’s messy appealing territory to me. It’s like okay you can delete Facebook but it’s still there, which is horrifying. Yet we go through this pandemic and we’re all like socially distancing like Jon and Chloe and this is no way to live, as we know, and well…I’m happy I wrote that book when I did, when I wanted to because now it’s like…most of us are living like Jon Bronson. And that would for sure change my approach to the story.
MT: I really loved the book. It was refreshingly new and flawlessly written. You write from several different viewpoints here, so one of the first things I want to know, as a writer myself, is how you managed to tackle each of these voices and implement them in the best possible way? I’ve always admired people who write books from different first person POVs, and this certainly did not disappoint.
CK: For me, what makes the Joe books the Joe books is that you are completely restricted to his point of view. There is no escape. It’s as much about that dominating, sole perspective as it as about the story, you know? I want the reader to be stuck in his head and therefore on his side. With Providence, the first thing that came to me was Jon’s voice. Loud and clear and I was so passionate, couldn’t stop writing. But during the first draft, I was like Chloe’s voice came on strong. And the same way Joe had to be just Joe, I knew there could be no Jon without Chloe, without Eggs. I was like, It’s Martyr Wars! Eggs is al ‘Hey you kids have youth on your side. Let me tell you what it’s like to be old!’ I was nervous about this because it was so different from the You structure, but I really do believe that you gotta do the thing that scares you, that keeps you up at night.
MT: What was the hardest part about writing this book? What was the easiest? How many drafts did you go through with Providence, and what was your writing process like?
CK: The hardest part was that I wrote like 150 pages of Jon’s dreams and memories and I can be very stubborn. I did not want to cut those pages. So, I didn’t. I started writing Chloe. And as I was bringing her to life, I realized that I was clinging to the Jon pages because they were a place holder for things I wanted to show from Chloe’s point of view. You do therapy on your book, you know? I was in it with that book. I think I wrote six drafts. The easiest part was Chloe, a breath of fresh air, that and the fact that there are few things I hate more than an indoor fucking pool! And I loved writing about the city. I went to Brown and it was home for me. The Providence scenes were fun, embracing my cringey nostalgia for the slim, intimidating pages of the Dunwich Horror that stumped me in this college horror class where I was more interested in learning all the horrific stuff about Lovecraft. Another hard part was the science. I did so much research and went down so many rabbit holes about photosynthesis and I tried to squeeze it all in and it was like no. None of this goes in the book. This is not that kind of story. This is a sad love story about people who are moving from denial to acceptance of some terrible things that are out of their control. The writing process was emotional. I was so hyper-sensitive that things when I went out. The first time I heard that Hippocampus song “Way It Goes” I was at a concert. I got chills like, that achy and gut busting wailing, that’s my book!
MT: You’ve created books in the past—specifically You and its sequel—that are unlike nearly anything published in the literary industry today. What books influenced you with your previous two books, and what books have influenced Providence? Are there certain authors or books you return to constantly?
CK: Stephen King always and forever because of that intense joy you can feel in his storytelling, like he is so fucking happy to be getting this down on the page for you. That’s a very specific power that has always meant a lot to me. Whatever you want to call it, childlike joy, heat, urgency, it’s that crackling sensation that the person behind these words is locked in. Fucking love that feeling! I always go back to The Street by Ann Petry. Oh that book makes me feel alive and it’s this powerful read-me-now-or-else kind of intensity to her style. I love Anne Tyler, Joyce Carol Oates, Edwidge Danticat, Elizabeth Strout and Phillip Roth. I read Prince lyrics a lot too. And I open random pages of Brian Hiatt’s book about Bruce Springsteen songs. I like lyrics, tiny stories. It helps me figure out the drive in my long stuff to look at tiny divine things. I’m inspired and influenced by things that feel divine, where I catch myself reading something special—the screen door in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” or the drowning in Flesh & Blood or the Whitney Houston part of American Psycho or the racing the blossoming peach passage in Beloved--and I know that I will remember this forever, this work that is so purely from this on person expressing themselves in this powerful specifically them-ish way, is a part of my brain now. I think about that experience and I write my stuff until it feels like it’s a tiny bit closer to maybe just maybe being that way for someone else.
MT: Did you ever find yourself surprised to be writing a book like Providence? How long did it take to write, and did you ever question yourself along the way? What was your favorite part about writing this book, and what was your least favorite part in writing this novel? Was there a particular character’s voice you liked or disliked?
CK: I wasn’t surprised because I’ve always liked to get weird. I wrote a lot of short stories with kooky, unexplainable phenomena, like this one about a children’s librarian who has a freak medical condition where she starts talking about of her vagina. A very short story! I love the weird and I bet a lot of writers would say you do the weird thing that you can’t stop thinking about or else it gnaws at you. I had been doing research, I was in the early thinking stages kind of circling Providence and Nashua, thinking about why Lovecraft was so fucked up, about why Providence is so cool, why New England and horror just go together, but I didn’t have the story. Then one day I was driving into a mall that I hate in LA and I almost had a car accident. I shrieked, it was so close and it was my fault. I was shaking. I heard Jon Bronson in my head and I didn’t go in the mall. I turned around and drove home and wrote the first chapter. In the beginning I also wrote Magnus’s side of the story. The psychopath kidnapper had become my comfort zone, but over two years it was like no, Providence doesn’t need or want his perspective. I have never written a book where I wasn’t questioning myself. Every writing day I go from the high to the low over and over. Climbing out of that low is so often where I figure out how to fix things. As for favorites…I love Crane Coma Florie. And Eggs. There’s a lot of my dad in him, so that was cathartic. And it makes me happy that American Splendor and the Kiwis with the Grown Ups 2 podcast and Hippocampus all made the final draft. I’m really bitchy with myself about the pop culture stuff. It has to prove that it belongs in there or it’s gone!
MT: What do you think, as a genre, of supernatural mysteries and thrillers? What are your favorite examples of these books and what books or authors would you refer new readers to, or writers who are trying to attempt similar books?
CK: I think it’s because of the way my family was, we had every kind of book everywhere all over the house, but I think of the author as the genre, you know? People who read my books can find lists of all the books and authors I mention in my books. Read em! Paul Tremblay and Kim Liggett are two authors who know when to slow down, when to fly. There’s specific magic in the way tense moments play out in their books. Gabino Iglesias draws pictures with words. Wendy Walker is your very smart, intuitive best friend who’s telling you a story and she knows how your mind works. Bassey Ikpi’s memoir is thrilling and supernatural with language and it makes me want her first book of fiction. Alma Katsu’s middle name is atmosphere. Perfect Days by Raphael Montes is so fucking out there that I was a little scared to meet him in person but like most people who write sick stuff, he’s grounded and sweet. Read The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood and let it blow your mind out of ooh…the water! The North Water by Ian MaGuire is a this-is-how-you-write-action book, bleak and meaty. C.J. Tudor books make me feel enthralled in that late night supposed to be sleeping kind of way. The Iain Reid book you know is I’m Thinking of Ending Things and it’s dizzying, terrific. But did you read his nonfiction book The Truth about Luck? It’s about his friendship with his grandmother and it’s exciting to know that these books came from the same brain. I say when you love an author, read all of their stuff and the stuff they go on about too.
MT: How have you felt being praised by not only critics, but by Stephen King himself? When was the moment you knew “I’ve made it”? How has that changed your life and affected the way you not only work, but view the world?
CK: I get to use the word amazing because it is truly amazing to know that Stephen King read your book and was pretty rocked by it. I first had that “made it” feeling when I found out You was being published and then when people started reading it, it was this heavy, slowly building wave of whoa…people are really reacting to Joe. It’s changed my life in the sense that it’s really fucking awesome to have an audience, to have people a few mils away from my home making a TV show based on my books. That’s wild. And then I open my Word document and go back to writing because the one thing that doesn’t change, there is no way around it. You don’t get to be like yay I wrote unless you write. I have an addictive personality and I make sure that the addition continues to be the writing itself. Getting to make stuff up every day for a living is a dream and I’m grateful that I didn’t give up.
MT: Many people view this as a sort of crime novel. I would love to hear who your favorite crime writers are working in the business today—especially women crime writers, as the genre becomes more and more of a woman-centric business.
CK: I just found an advance edition of Laura Lippman’s first book and I read the promotional copy and it was like yes, publisher, you were right to be so excited. You knew what was coming! That jacket copy felt prescient for women in the business of telling tight, insightful stories of violence. There are so many fabulous books out there right now and last year in pre-Covid times, I got to go to Bloody Scotland and meet Lucy Foley and Shari Lapena and Ruth Ware and Sarah Vaughn and many others I admire. And two brilliant women writing great dark things to watch: Ani Katz’s debut A Good Man is phenomenal and taut. I can’t wait to see what she does next. Lindsey Cameron’s Just One Look is coming in 2021. My kind of book. Sick, funny, brilliant with Mike White vibes and just fucking fun.
MT: How do you feel about women in the literary world? To me, it seems like women are progressing forward, if not wholly taking over the industry at this point. More and more women and other marginalized people are getting their chance at grabbing their own piece of the pie or place at the table. How do you feel marginalized people are affecting the literary community in general, and what do you think things will be like in the years to come?
CK: There is a long, embarrassingly overdue sense of change with marginalized people flourishing while certain others who have long been at the table know that they can’t get away with that thing they said or did a few years ago. And that’s good. That’s progress. But it’s also like how are we fucking there yet? I went to high school and college in the 90s. Everyone I knew and respected was reading things written by people who were “different” because of fucking course we wanted to learn about the world. Otherwise, you’re saying only you and people just like you in certain surfacey ways are legitimate and relatable and how gross and sad would that be? What a boring way to live. I’m happy for kids in the “margins” who want to write and be in the business of storytelling because right now, if I were in their shoes, looking at authors shining in the hellscape of 2020, I’d be like wow, that table is looking more reflective of the tables in my daily life all the time and if she can do that, I can do that. So that’s a big win for the future.
MT: You have a very large fan base, and I’m aware that’s an extreme understatement. What has been your favorite reaction to your books, with fans either speaking to you in person, or writing in private? How do you feel you are influencing fans and writers alike, and what would you like to see come from your writing in an effort to change our country or even the world?
CK: I truly don’t know where to begin. Even before my book was published, when there were advanced copies floating around, I was so excited that whatever it was about the book…it was reaching people in this way that made them feel very verbal and enlivened and how cool is that? I buckled down and wrote a book to bring myself and my family back to life after some terrible stuff, and that’s the magic of writing, when the thing that made you feel good as a writer translates into the reader. Yay! I get these notes from people who tell me about why this writing speaks to them, means something to them, got them out of some kind of emotional jam and that’s the best. I love it. I’ve heard from people in recovery, people in abusive relationships. And then I hear from people are into reading because they want to write and my stuff entertained them and now they’re finally writing the thing because they feel empowered. And then there are the people who haven’t read in ages and they could get into something I wrote and now they are back on books and just yayayay you know? I love that electricity. I miss book events. I miss casual conversation because I love those interactions. I miss a balanced life and I can’t wait when being together to celebrate a new book is a thing we can do again. A change I’d like to see…I would love for my books to make people excited about books in general. And also, writing these books makes me super self-aware of the way I am around people, and what I might not know about people I’m interacting with. So I hope that it’s that way for readers, that when they close one of my books and go back into the world with all the real people, they are a little more hyper sensitive to the mysteries of humans.
MT: Speaking of our country, which of your books might you recommend to the current president of the United States of America? What book by another writer—or story, poem or poetry collection, essay or essay collection, etc—might you recommend to the president, and could you explain why? What do you think he would learn from these pieces?
CK: I think a lot of people would agree when I say that we are done trying to reach that man. Next!
MT: What is a dream book you’ve always wanted to write, or have you already written it? Is there a certain genre or book you’d like to make, and are there any genres you’d like to mix together? Toni Morrison, among other luminaries, has said write the book you want to read. What book do you want to read, and will you write it?
CK: That Tonti Morrison quote is so important. You was not the first book I ever wrote, but it was the first time I was like fuck it, no more trying to sound like an “author”. I was always me in my short stories, but I had the novel on a pedestal and I got self-conscious when I thought about a novel. And then with You it was like fuck it. That quote about writing originally, that advice I’m always drunk raving about, it’s time to put that into daily practice and be totally engaged and expressive in and yes, sometimes, embarrassed about what I am doing right now. Now, it’s a daily wellness check with the work in progress. I make sure that I am writing the book I want to read as I write it, and I am happy to say that right now, that book is You 4.
MT: How does the revising process work for you? In addition, how did obtaining an agent and working through the literary industry turn out for you? Have you found yourself traveling down an easy road to publication and later praise and much success, or has it been a long battle hard-won?
CK: I feel like you can’t do this if you don’t learn to enjoy rejection in all its forms and use it to grow and get better. I write every book a few times, and often my editor will do that brilliant thing of knowing what worked in the first draft, what I need to pull out of the second draft and so on. It’s like you make one part of it sing and then you want everything to sing like that but sometimes you get carried away and try too hard. And that’s where editors are gold. I have always had the same approach since I was a teenager. I put my head down and work as hard as I can and write and write and write. And then I lift my head up and reach out to everyone I’ve ever known like CAN YOU READ THIS RIGHT NOW. I’m not exaggerating. In high school I entered the Sassy Magazine fiction contest. I was obsessed with the magazine and I called 411 to get the phone number and cold called an editor to interview her for my high school newspaper…and ask if she read my short story yet. Such a little asshole, yes, but I feel like you got to have some Tracy Flick in you to get somewhere. I got an honorable mention and a typewriter in that contest, but the real prize of course was the positive reinforcement for light stalking AKA networking, journalizing. Years later in LA, I was a journalist and after the interview I would shut off my tape recorder and be like Hey do you want to read my script? Eventually I got an agent through a friend of a friend. It can’t be said enough: If you want to be a writer you have to write a lot. And I heard the word no a lot. Most people do. That’s where it’s always good to be in this because you love doing it more than you love hearing the word yes.
MT: What is the most difficult thing about writing, whether in the actual creative process or editing, or what might follow?
CK: Not writing is the most difficult and necessary part of writing. When I’m full steam ahead and up a 7 like super in it and productive and then it’s 1 PM and there are so many hours ahead and the fucking sun shines and I feel too only half on the planet to drive and my brain is buzzing and I go be a human but soon, no matter how good things are going, the panic comes that tomorrow morning I will wake up and not be able to do what I did in the morning and the whole not writing part of the day can be a bit long and gritty especially in these solitary times. Fun cycle!
MT: What’s next for you, Caroline? You’ve got a big TV show in the works with a trailer already set up, and you seem to be churning out books quite quickly. What is the next book (or otherwise) you’re planning on writing?
CK: It is so nice to hear you say that because it doesn’t feel quick to me, you know? So, thank you! I am just tweaking my first draft of the fourth You book. It’s due this month and then I’ll take a breath and go back to a book I put aside a couple years ago. It was a luxury for me that I got to put that draft in a drawer and let it sit there while I worked on the books. It’s really hitting me that wow, I wrote a couple drafts of that book and now we get to have a reunion!
MT: Thank you so much for speaking to me, Caroline. It has been an immense pleasure not only to be able to ask you questions, but to read and become an enormous fan of your books. Please leave us with any thoughts, comments, suggestions, remarks, or otherwise. We love hearing from you, and look forward to hearing anything you might have to say in the future.
CK: Thank you so much, Matthew. It’s a pleasure to talk with a fellow writer. I thank you so much for reading my work and having such interesting things to say. I can’t wait to talk again, which is more motivation to keep writing, so thanks for that too!