WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: HI Mindy, I just got done reading your phenomenal novel, Everything You Want Me to Be. It was a stunner. I feel bad for not picking it up earlier—there are lots of books that get a lot of press and turn out to be sort of boring or a drag. Everything You Want Me to Be does not fall in the category. How did you come up with this novel?
Mindy Mejia: There was an abandoned barn not far from my house when I was growing up that was slowly being consumed by a lake. It was one of those images that imprints in your head, and when I sat down to write a murder mystery it was the first thing I saw. I knew Hattie was inside that barn, stabbed to death, and I needed to find out how she got there.
MT: I was completely taken by the incredible multi-dimensional characters and the storyline, the language poetic and plain and simple to follow all at once. How were you able to present three separate voices so carefully (it feels effortless) and to such a degree that it’s incredibly easy to recognize each voice and the difference between each of them?
MM: I have to find some common ground with each character, which acts like my passport into their heads. I read through all my old high school journals to find Hattie’s voice. Peter and I are both vegetarian runners, and Del had the voice of my maternal grandfather. Once I found my way in, it became easy to know what they would or wouldn’t say and which words belonged to each of them.
MT: I am very curious in turn as to how you went about writing this novel. What was your writing process like when approaching a concept that is so blasé and you are able to make it incredibly new and just astounding? Did you write each character voice at once, or manage to go back and summon up the voices with each turn of the character changes?
MM: Everything started with Hattie, with this dead girl that I had to get to know. I wrote Hattie backwards, breathing her back to life, because I’ve never particularly connected with books where the body is merely a plot device, something to get the action started. To me it’s always a person, it’s always a tragedy, and I wanted the book to be as much about Hattie’s life as it was about her death. Del and I discovered Hattie together, with his investigation revealing her to both of us, and of course revealing Peter’s part at the same time. I usually spent a week or so with one character before jumping to the next.
MT: Which voice did you have the most fun writing? Which character did you have the hardest voice writing? Was there ever a character that you did not like? Megan Abbott advised me to never judge my characters—how do you feel about this?
MM: I agree with Megan 100%. I always love my characters, no matter how poor their choices. I’m not sure, as a writer, how I could convey their humanity if I didn’t love them. Del was the most fun to write, but Peter had the best lines.
MT: How many drafts did you go through in creating the novel? Did it start as something else entirely, as many novels do, and become something different? What sort of writer are you: morning, noon, afternoon, evening? How many pages or words do you write today?
MM: Ooh, good question. I just went back and counted five drafts. A lot of things shifted over those drafts. I didn’t know who the killer was until the very end of the first draft, so I had to go back and change a lot of things that were adding up to another suspect. The timeline compressed from two years to eight months. As far as writing habits, EVERYTHING was written almost entirely on my lunch breaks over four years. I left the corporate world last year, so I now write mainly in the mornings and early afternoons with the help of 1-2 cups of coffee.
MT: This novel, at least for me, was an incredible roller coaster of a book that I stayed up all night reading. Did you anticipate the novel being so addictive? I had to keep finding where I dozed off because I was determined to find out the truth about each character. I really and truly regret not having read this novel until now.
MM: I’ve felt that way about books too, especially ones that have been in my TBR pile for months. It’s like finding a diamond lying around your house. No, I never imagined EVERYTHING would be received so well and so widely. It’s been translated into over twenty languages now and it’s still stunning to get emails from readers around the world.
MT: Who are your biggest influences in writing today? Especially crime fiction—and especially women? This book seems both completely like a work of its own but also influenced by so many works that have come before it. Were there any books you kept coming back to when writing this book?
MM: My main inspiration when writing was SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS. I still marvel at the quiet complexity of that book and was very influenced by Guterson's sense of place and his ability to wrap a love story into a mystery. Today my biggest influences include Neil Gaiman, Celeste Ng, and Louise Erdrich, and I will drop anything to read Megan Abbott, Amy Gentry, Mary Kubica, or Caroline Kepnes.
MT: You were able to make each character unreliable, and it’s not until the end that the reader gets any closure—and even then, it’s only partial, which I love. How hard was it to create these timelines which are all the same story, but told from different perspectives?
MM: Each character brought a piece of the story that no one else knew, so I understood what I wanted from each of them during their chapters. The crucial part is understanding the nature of their unreliability. Are they protecting a secret? Do they lack self-awareness, or are they putting on a show? Once I tapped into those motivations, their perspectives become much easier to write because I can see the filter.
MT: Did you know the ending before you began? How did you go about planning out this brilliant novel? I would like to also point out to readers that I relatively walk the line between fan and critic, but at this point I’ve become just a fan asking fan-questions.
MM: lol-I’m happy to answer both critic and fan questions! As mentioned earlier, I had the wrong character for the killer in the beginning, so the real killer surprised even me. The final scene was also a late addition because my agent wanted a bit more denouement after the climax and that turned out to be one of my favorite scenes. It practically wrote itself. For most of the planning, I walked through the timeline and decided who needed to tell what, then set out the major reveals to keep the stakes rising.
MT: I may have to cut this interview short because I am such a fan and don’t want to spoil the novel for all of your future fans (or current fans who just haven’t gotten around to this book). What is your advice to new and aspiring writers who want to write things similar to your own work?
MM: There is no substitute for suspense. You can have the most gorgeous characters and setting, but if a reader doesn’t want to know what happens next, they will stop turning the pages. Also, invest some time in understanding point of view, because your entire book will boil down to that. You need to know who is telling the story, where they are telling it from, when they are telling it, and how limited (or unlimited) their perspective is. This is the filter through which your entire world will be siphoned.
MT: I’m going to pretend that I’m not reading your next book and ask you what is coming up next. What is your next book about, without spoilers if possible, for your ever-faithful and loyal readers, plus people who have just been turned onto your writing?
MM: Ha! Okay, I’ll pretend I haven’t moved on to writing the book beyond the next one. My next release is LEAVE NO TRACE, which is coming September 4th. (We are officially open for preorders on all platforms.)
There’s a place in Minnesota, hundreds of miles of glacial lakes and untouched forests called the Boundary Waters. Ten years ago a man and his son trekked into this wilderness and never returned. Their campsite was found ravaged by what looked like a bear. They were put on the missing persons list and presumed dead until a decade later, when the son emerged. Violent and uncommunicative, he was found ransacking an outfitter store and brought to a psychiatric facility where Maya Stark, the speech therapist on staff, is charged with making a connection with this boy who came back from the dead. But Maya, who was abandoned by her own mother, has secrets too. As she’s drawn closer to this enigmatic boy who is no longer a boy, she’ll risk everything to reunite him with the father who’s disappeared from the known world.
MT: Thank you so much for talking about this masterpiece with me, Mindy. I cannot wait to see how your next book goes, and how hard I’ll have to restrain myself from giving away any spoilers. I’m so excited you have another book coming out so soon! Please feel free to leave any closing remarks/comments below, especially if there are any answers I’ve completely omitted. And to the readers: Please go pick up this book as soon as possible.
MM: It was my pleasure! Thank you for all the great questions. I’m so glad you loved EVERYTHING and can’t wait for you to meet Maya and Lucas in LEAVE NO TRACE