WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Kathleen! It was such a pleasure to read your novel Are You Sleeping. How did this novel come to you, and how long did it take before you felt the novel itself was fully developed and ready in your brain?
Kathleen Barber: Hi, Matthew! Thanks so much for having me, and I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed Are You Sleeping. The novel had an extremely long incubation process: I actually started writing stories about narrator Josie and her twin sister Lanie in the late ‘90s. I was in high school at the time, and the storylines were accordingly pretty juvenile. They were much more YA family drama than suspense, but that was where I really began to develop the tension between Josie and Lanie. I spent years (decades!) writing stories about them, most of which I left unfinished. I felt a connection to the characters, but I never felt like I found “their” story.
And then my brother introduced me to the “Serial” podcast in October 2014. (For your readers who aren’t familiar with “Serial,” here it is in a nutshell: journalist Sarah Koenig began investigating the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the subsequent arrest and conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, all while creating a podcast about her findings in real time.) I was immediately hooked: I listened to all the episodes, pored over all the supporting material on the “Serial” website, read everything I could find about the case and the podcast. I followed the hashtag on Twitter, hung out in the dedicate subreddit. Like many listeners, I was obsessed.
Then I caught myself conducting a Google image search to see what some of the people involved look like, and I realized I had crossed a line. I’d forgotten these people weren’t just characters in an entertaining murder mystery; they were very real people who had experienced a very real tragedy. I began wondering how Hae Min Lee’s family must feel, knowing that people like myself were treating the violent death of their loved one as an interesting way to pass the time. It was something I wanted to explore in fiction, and that was when I realized it was the story Josie and Lanie had been waiting for. So, in a lot of ways, Are You Sleepingis about me working out my guilt for being so obsessed with “Serial.”
MT: What is your writing process like? Do you plan novels and write them based on characters or plot? What is the central driving force behind the novels you write and if you hand to simplify it, what are the steps you take toward writing and completing a novel?
KB: I always start with characters. Creating characters is my favorite part of writing, and it’s the part that comes most easily to me. Only once I’ve started developing characters can I begin to find the story I want to tell. Character development is the first step in my writing process, and it’s the first half in what I’ll call my “development phase.” While I’m working on development—characters first, but then plots and themes—I don’t do much actual writing. I try to let the story come to me and jot down notes when the inspiration strikes.
Of course, I can’t just wait for the entire story to materialize out of the ether, so once I have a more solid idea of where I want the story to go, I move on to making a rough outline. From that outline, I’ll enter the drafting phase. The resulting first draft may or may not actually resemble the outline, but I try not to stress out about that. The important thing is to get words on paper. A lot of those words will be the wrong words or arranged in the wrong order, but that’s what the revision phase is for. In that last phase, I cut, rewrite, and reorganize over and over and over until it finally begins to resemble a book I’d want to read.
MT: Strangely enough, this is the second crime novel whose author I’ve interviewed of what I call the “homecoming’ subgenre back-to-back. Of course, when I am referring to homecoming, I’m actually saying “the source of trauma.” This genre seems to have exploded after the popularity of novels like Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, among others obviously. What do you think is the most intriguing part of a crime novel regarding “homecoming”?
KB: I’m most intrigued by the psychological aspect of it, the way authors of these “homecoming” novels use past trauma to explain a character’s present actions and/or personality. It was certainly in the forefront of my mind when I was writing Are You Sleeping.
MT: Could you describe the source of trauma both for the narrator and her twin sister? I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but how would you describe the relations between the protagonist and her core family members, and you feel it doesn’t give away too much of the novel, what drives the protagonist to return home?
KB: Thirteen years before the start of the novel, narrator Josie’s father was murdered—shot to death in the family home while Josie and her twin sister Lanie were upstairs. In the wake of that tragedy, Josie’s mother slowly unraveled, eventually running away to join a cult, and her sister turned to drugs. After her sister betrayed her in an unforgiveable way, Josie left her family behind, going so far as to change her name. When her mother dies unexpectedly, Josie is forced to return home and confront her past—something that’s made more painful by a popular podcast reinvestigating her father’s murder.
MT: I’m always interested in crime novels that deal with siblings, especially twins. It seems that, in many ways, when a protagonist—first or third person—has a twin, there seems to be a parallel between what has happened (the protagonist) and what could have happened (the twin). Do you think this is the case with Josie and her twin in Are You Sleeping?
KB: That’s a perfect way of describing it! It’s frankly what inspired my decision for Josie to have a twin. I was interested in the idea that two people who were otherwise as similar as possible could experience the same trauma and yet react in two totally different ways. In Are You Sleeping, that meant that Josie and Lanie abruptly took wildly divergent paths when their father was murdered.
MT; I will make a personal confession. I have come from a family filled to the brim with crime—both crime that was committed and pursued, as well as crime that was prosecuted as well as gotten away with. My own relationship with my family and its history of crime is interesting, especially as it influences how I write my own crime fiction. What do you think is the most compelling issue currently with seemingly innocent people pulled into a family of crime? Why do you feel there are so many successful novels that deal with these issues, and what in your mind is the reason why these books are so popular?
KB: In stories about crime-riddled families, there’s often a helplessness on the part of the protagonist: no matter how much they might want to distance themselves from the crime, it’s nearly impossible to do so when the crime and your family are intertwined, as Josie discovers in Are You Sleeping.Blood is thicker than water, and all that. Because people are often deeply connected to their own families, this inability to walk away can resonate with readers. Moreover, stories in which families are affected by crime often elicit a visceral response. Readers may fear their own family members being murdered, kidnapped, or otherwise victimized, and they—consciously or subconsciously—want to read stories in which such criminals are apprehended and punished.
MT: Other than your own book, Are You Sleeping, what are your other favorite books dealing with people whose families have a history of crime? Don’t feel the need to stick to this year, decade, or even this century. What other books have shaped your writing, both in your formative years and recently? Who are your favorite crime writers working today?
KB: I’ve recently read two fantastic books about characters whose families have a history of crime: Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent and In Her Bonesby Kate Moretti. In Lying in Wait, readers know from the first sentence that Lydia Fitzsimons’s husband killed someone. The rest of the book is about the secrets and lies that led to the murder and that spiral out from it, engulfing the whole family. In In Her Bones, protagonist Edie Beckett is the daughter of a convicted serial killer. The shadow of her mother’s crimes have hung over Edie her whole life, and plague her throughout the pages of the book.
And then there’s We Have Always Lived in the Castleby Shirley Jackson, which is one of my all-time favorite books and deals with family crime. Since I read it for the first time more than twenty-five years ago (in retrospect, ten years old is a bit tender of an age to read a book about a girl who poisoned her whole family!), I have been haunted by it and have striven to emulate Jackson’s subtly sinister writing.
As for crime writers working today, it’s so hard to choose a favorite! There are so many amazing writers out there—but some of the authors whose books I’ll automatically buy are Ruth Ware, Megan Abbott, Jessica Knoll, Robyn Harding, Liz Nugent, and Kate Moretti.
MT: Which books have had the biggest impact on Are You Sleeping, and for fans of this book, what novels would you recommend readers consult for similar plots or stories, or just a crazy good mystery in general?
KB: There’s no one book in particular that directly impacted Are You Sleeping, but so many books that I’ve read helped contribute to pieces of it: Luckiest Girl Aliveby Jessica Knoll gave me confidence to write a less-than-likeable protagonist, Night Film by Marisha Pessl and Reconstructing Ameliaby Kimberly McCreight showed me that “multi-media” could be used in a novel without it seeming gimmicky, and books like In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware taught me about pacing.
I would recommend any of those books for anyone who likedAre You Sleeping, as well as The Favorite Sisterby Jessica Knoll (with a reality television show at the heart of that novel, it has the same pop culture theme as Are You Sleeping), All the Missing Girlsby Megan Miranda (a good “coming home” mystery), and Friend Requestby Laura Marshall (as you might guess from the title, this one has a social media bent). Other books I’d recommend just because I love them are The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware,Her Pretty Faceby Robyn Harding, I’m Thinking of Ending Thingsby Iain Reid, The Perfect Motherby Aimee Molloy, Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier, and Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton.
MT: I love how you involve various forms of media in your novel, including transcripts from true crime podcasts, which have become very popular in recent years. I know people who prefer true crime podcasts over true crime books. What do you think is the most important role of true crime podcasts in our society today?
KB: Thank you! Including the transcripts and other forms of media was really important to me because I wanted readers to experience the podcast within the book the same way the characters were (and, by extension, the same way I experienced “Serial”), and I’m happy to know it translated well.
I have mixed feelings about true crime podcasts—something I think comes across in the pages of Are You Sleeping—but there are some that have done definite good by brining renewed attention to cold cases. The most famous example is, of course, “Serial.” Adnan Syed has been granted a new trial (whether he gets one is another question, as the State has appealed) on the grounds his original attorney failed to pursue an alibi witness. While that alibi witness had contacted Syed’s attorneys over the years, it wasn’t until the popularity of “Serial” that she realized how important her testimony might be and renewed her efforts to be heard.
Another great example is the “Up and Vanished” podcast, which investigated the 2005 disappearance of Georgia woman Tara Grinstead. When the podcast began airing in 2016, the case was cold—but only months after the podcast’s debut, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation made two arrests in the case. They’ve given credit to the renewed media interest for helping inspire the tips that led to the arrests.
MT: There’s also an ongoing issue and argument over how and who to protect with true crime podcasts and journalism and the like. Do we protect the children and other family members of the accused? Is there any safety these days when someone close to you is either the victim or perpetrator of a crime that’s gone public?
KB: This is such an interesting question, and one that’s at the heart of Are You Sleeping. I believe we absolutely should afford family members (especially children) of the accused (and the victims) some privacy, but that’s much easier said than done. The public will almost certainly be interested in them—I think of how interested I was in the people involved in the Hae Min Lee murder—and our modern, hyper-connected society makes it easy for the public to find them. A person can try to protect themselves—lock down their Facebook profiles, make their Twitter and Instagram accounts private—but it’s still nearly impossible to hide all the online breadcrumbs. An employer’s webpage or a friend’s social media can be all that’s needed for journalists or the curious public to find them. In Are You Sleeping, Josie buys herself some privacy by cutting herself completely off from her family and legally changing her name, but those are extreme steps.
MT: I’m assuming you yourself are a consumer of true crime podcasts and books, and I’m wondering how this affected your crafting and creation of this novel, Are You Sleeping. Would you like to elaborate on this, as well as any unusual influences as well?
KB: True confession: “Serial” was the first podcast I ever listened to. I’ve since listened to some others (“Missing Maura Murray,” “Up and Vanished,” “Suspect Convictions,” and others), but I started writing Are You Sleepinghaving only listened to “Serial.” That said, you’re right in that I have a long-standing interest in true crime, particularly unresolved or unsatisfactorily resolved crime. I like historical mysteries, like the Lizzie Borden case, as much as modern cases. I admit to spending a fair bit of time on the Unresolved Mysteries subreddit.
MT: Out of curiosity, what is your favorite true crime podcast (or podcasts?) and favorite true crime book (or books?)?
KB: The first season of “Serial” is the gold standard in true crime podcasts. In my mind, it strikes the perfect balance between telling a compelling story and presenting the facts, all without feeling exploitive. As far as true crime books go, Truman Capote’s In Cold Bloodis a classic for a reason. I’m also a huge fan of Monica Hesse’sAmerican Fire, which is about a string of arsons in rural Virginia. I recommend that book to everyone!
MT: So many books these days are based on true crimes, and so many books are based on the same true crimes with different approaches and different solutions to the mystery at hand. How do you think fiction plays a part not only in making sense of and perhaps solving a true crime, but also in helping people understand why and how people commit murder or other crimes?
KB: Fiction is a safe space in which to explore other people’s lives. We can learn a lot about how other people live from reading fiction—and that includes reading about crime. Books like Lying in Wait or Social Creature, which are told at least partially from the perspective of a wrongdoer, can help a person understand what would drive someone to crime. Some nonfiction books do the same—for example, American Firereveals the serial arsonist’s motive wasn’t pyromania or thrill-seeking, but rather love.
MT: What is your writing process like? Are you a morning, afternoon, evening, or night writer? Do you set up a number of words or pages a day, or just allot yourself a specific amount of time to write? How hard did you have to fight to get Are You Sleepingpublished, not to mention getting an agent and an editor and a publisher and the like? How many revisions did you commit to before finally realizing “I’m going to be successful. This is going to be a success.”
KB: I do my best work in the morning, but I write whenever I can. I usually prefer to work in long stretches—it helps me get into the novel’s world—but I have a newborn, so I suspect this will be changing!
I set a different goal for each of the three phases of my writing process. Or don’t, I should say—I don’t set a goal in the development phase and instead play that by ear. Once I’m in the drafting phase, however, I often set a word count goal. My target varies but is usually around 2,000 words. In the revision phase, I switch my focus to time spent working, aiming for around five or six hours a day. (We’ll see how much that changes now that I have a little one!)
I’m lucky in that my path to publication was fairly smooth. During the querying process, I began corresponding with an agent who saw potential in the manuscript. She provided some extremely generous and helpful feedback, and later introduced me to my agent, Lisa Grubka. Lisa is a phenomenal agent—she worked with me through some additional revisions and then sent the manuscript out on submission. Are You Sleepingsold at auction to Gallery Books, which was a dream come true. My editor there, Lauren McKenna, is fantastic and helped me hone the story further. I can’t count how many revisions I did before the book was finally published—and even when it was published, I was still wishing I had more time to revise it further! I think that’s pretty typical, though—I don’t think any writer feels as though they’re truly donewith something.
MT: What do you think the current trend in crime fiction is currently, and how do you avoid conforming to these trends and stay true to your interests and the stories you want to tell? What trends do you see forthcoming and are these trends you’re interested in, or would rather stay away from?
KB: I think we’re still living in the Gone Girl-era, seeing a lot of books featuring borderline-sociopathic women. Personally, I love it—before Gone Girl, I don’t remember a lot of dark female characters, and I think its success has opened the door for more of these characters. I also think domestic suspense is really having a moment, which is great because that’s what I like to read and write.
MT: I tend to ask this question a lot, and I think it’s a really important question for a writer in order to ensure that he or she is staying true to his or her vision, and what he or she may want to see come out of their writing: a lot of people credit Toni Morrison with the quote that is something like write the book you’ve always wanted to read but have never found. Do you think you’ve written this book in Are You Sleeping, or do you think that’s one of your future novels to come?
KB: I love that quote! I really do think I wrote that book in Are You Sleeping, but I like to think I’ll also write it in future novels. I don’t think about a hypothetical future reader too much when I write; I think doing so will just lead you down a path to mimicking what’s already out there. Instead, I write for myself and hope that others will share my tastes.
MT: I’m sure I’ve taken up enough of your time already, Kathleen. One thing I, as well as all of my site’s readers and followers want to know, those who have read your book or are now interested because of this interview, is what you might be writing next. Do you already have a work-in-progress, and if so can you give us a title or a hint as to what it’s going to be about and when it might be published?
KB: I’m working on something right now! It’s about a woman who lives her life online, and how what she shares is used against her. There’s no publication date just yet, but I hope to have one soon.
MT: Kathleen, thank you so much for taking the time to answer the questions I’ve asked. I know you must get asked a lot of the same mundane questions, but I hope at the very least I’ve thrown in a few curveballs to keep you on your toes and maintain your interest. I really hope that, upon your next publication, you’ll consider revisiting our website for perhaps another interview, and until then, please let us know below anything that’s on your mind, as well as any thoughts, comments, suggestions, or questions for me. Thank you so much and I as well as the rest of Writers Tell All thoroughly enjoyred reading Are You Sleeping and we cannot wait to see what you’ll publish in the future.
KB: Thanks so much for having me! These have been great, thought-provoking questions.