WRITERS TELL ALL
Kimberly McCreight (A GOOD MARRIAGE) is a damn fine writer with incredible talent, taste in books, and all the right answers!
Matthew Turbeville:Hi Kim! It’s so nice to talk to you about your new blockbuster of a novel, A Good Marriage. I devoured the book—it was amazing, and I highly encourage everyone reading this to buy a copy.
Can you tell us a little about the background of the novel, and your writing career? How did you become a writer, and how hard was it to get your foot in the door to publish your first novel?
Kimberly McCreight:A Good Marriageis set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and takes place over a week in the summer when most of the kids are at sleepaway camp and their parents are gearing up for the event of the summer—an adults-only party with a sexually adventurous side. The party has always just been in good fun. Until this year, when a woman turns up dead afterward. When her husband is accused, he calls on an old law school classmate for help. Lizzie, the lawyer, is an outsider to Park Slope, and as she’s drawn into the neighborhood she quickly realizes that neither her friend nor his wife were who they appeared to be. But then neither is Lizzie’s own husband. Part domestic suspense, part legal thriller, A Good Marriage is also a genuine exploration of what it means to sustain a marriage over time—the secrets couples keep and the compromises they make in order to stay together—whatever the cost.
As for getting published, like a lot of writers, my road to publication was pretty long and awfully dark. It took me 10-plus years, four unpublished novels, and three agents to sell my debut novel, Reconstructing Amelia. And, no, it was not easy not to lose hope in the face of so much rejection.
MT:What is your writing process like? Are you a morning/evening/night writer? Do you have any strange practices or methods in writing, and would you mind sharing them with us? What about revision? Do you love it or hate it?
KM:I write every day, regular work hours, usually 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Of course, depending on the day, some of that time is spent on administrative tasks. I think the biggest quirk to my writing habits is how rigid they are and how many hours I write every day. To be clear, this isn’t because I am better than other writers—I am just slow. Or, rather, my process is. It can take me a dozen drafts to get to a version of the book that can be handed in to my editor. As for revision, my opinion of revision varies depending on what kind of revision you are referring to. For me, the hardest stage of revision is getting from the free-wheeling, book-length extended outline I create first to some semblance of a real first draft. That’s where the real heavy lifting is. It’s also the place where I’m most often convinced I may not pull it off. The later stages of revision are a lot easier, and more fun—when you’re just going in to make surgical changes.
MT:You’re also a lawyer. Another author I admire who’s a great lawyer is the amazing and wonderful Alafair Burke (shoutout to Alafair, my friend). Outside of actually knowing the law, what do you think you bring to writing through being a lawyer, and is there anything you get out of writing for practicing law?
KM:I love Alafair! She’s such a fantastic writer (and a really nice person)—her plotting and character development are equally deft and always so perfectly balanced. Her books are all fabulous, but I especially loved The Ex andThe Wife!
A Good Marriage is part legal thriller, so being an attorney was directly relevant. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to write A Good Marriagewithout having gone to law school. But I was a corporate litigator, so I had only basic knowledge of criminal law. But at least I knew what I didn’t know. From there, I consulted a lot of experts to fill in the blanks.
More broadly, my law school training always helps me with structure and story, particularly because I write mysteries. What you learn in law school is to anticipate the opposing argument and solve against it. It’s similar to the misdirection required of a mystery—you have to anticipate how the reader will interpret certain facts and craft your red herrings accordingly.
MT:I love how you use transcripts and other ways of telling the story, including multiple points of view, to increase suspense and dread, and draw the reader forward. Were these parts included in the first draft of the novel? How did you decide to use multiple ways of telling the story, and how did you choose how to tell what?
KM:Every adult novel I’ve written has been from different narrative points of view, often different timeframes, and includes several different non-narrative elements. It’s just the way I see a story. And, believe it or not, there were even moreof these elements in early drafts of A Good Marriage! In the end it was way too complicated—my terrific editor, Jennifer Barth, was right about that. I ended up paring down the different elements, combining some and ultimately discarding others. The goal, of course, is to have those elements add suspense but not bog down the narrative. It’s a very tricky balance that you really need outside insight to get right. I was lucky to have the help of my amazing editor and wonderful agent, Dorian Karchmar, in getting the book there.
MT:When you write about a lawyer, do you ever feel you’re projecting any parts of yourself onto her character? What about the other characters, including the initial victim in the novel and the male characters? Do any of them seem to have a lot in common with you?
KM:For sure I have a lot in common with Lizzie, the main character in A Good Marriage. As a result, she was the hardest character to write. I had to work hard to separate her from me so that she could have a unique and fully developed personality of her own. But I share something in common with almost every one of the major characters. Without some connection, it’s hard to render characters in a believable way.
MT:There are amazing twists throughout the novel, including some pretty huge twists at the end. Did you start the novel with the ending in mind, or knowing the twists, or did the twists come as you wrote them?
KM:Well, first off, thank you! And I usually know the “who done it” or at least the “who didn’t do it” at the very beginning—because that does help to ground the spine of the story and it’s usually inextricably linked to the major themes. But in many ways “who did it” is much less interesting to me than the “why it happened.” The many twists and turns that get the reader to understand why are most definitely things I figure out along the way. Often those small plot discoveries end up being some of the most satisfying twists.
MT:A lot of thrillers depend on constant murders, bodies showing up, etc., to prove the writer can leave the reader in suspense and wonder. You use different techniques—would you mind talking about how you create conflict in the novel between multiple characters, and what’s necessary to keep the reader hooked?
KM:To me the greatest mystery in life is whypeople do the things they do—yes, including acts of physical brutality. But so much violence done between people never leaves a physical mark. I’m drawn to understanding why people hurt one another, but, more importantly, how they find the strength to keep on loving others despite that. In my books, the good and bad of all that often takes place between several different characters. Again, these aren’t things I work out in advance. Rather, they develop organically from the characters.
MT:What do you hope readers take away from this book?
KM:That a good marriage isn’t just one thing. It can, and does, mean different things to different people. And that’s okay.
MT:Are you working on anything new? A new work-in-progress you can maybe hint about to our readers? We’re dying to know what’s coming next. A Good Marriage was so fantastic, and I know that I for one cannot wait for your next book.
KM:Thank you! Yes, I am hard at work on my next book. Still first-draft territory, which means that terrible heavy lifting of first-round editing still lies ahead of me, unfortunately. But the fact that I love my work-in-progress anyway says something. My new book is about a group of college friends with a troubled past who reunite to head upstate from New York City for the weekend. While there, violence erupts, and soon the question becomes where the real threat lies—with the less-than-welcoming locals, or maybe somewhere much closer to home.
MT:Thank you so much for speaking with us at Writers Tell All. We loved your book so much and are glad we got to pick your brain for a moment. We can’t wait for whatever you release next. Please leave us with any lingering thoughts, ideas, or objections, and thank you again, Kim. The book was a total thrill ride and I promise readers it’s worth every cent.
KM:It was such great fun! It’s always a treat to talk with people who read the same book you wrote. And you asked the absolute best questions. Thanks for having me!