By Leslie Lindsay
Wow. I just closed the cover of THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR (August 23, Pamela Dorman Books/Viking) last night in one breathless sitting. This is the book to pull you through the late-summer doldrums or indulge in a little ‘me’ time as the frantic pace of fall is upon us. Because this book, like others in the ‘grip lit’ category will not let you go. The pacing is brilliant and relentless, a chilling psychological thriller of astounding shock and amazement.
And it’s a debut.
I don’t want to give away too much—but here’s what you need to know:
- Anne and Marcos Conti have a new baby, a beautiful townhouse, and a growing software company with the right investors.
- One night, when the sitter cancels, instead of skipping the dinner party they’ve committed to—just next door—they decide to check on the sleeping baby every 30 minutes and bring the baby monitor.
- In the short time between their checks, Baby Cora is snatched. Taken. Without a trace.
- There’s a host of unreliable narrators. They all have motive.
Join me as I chat with Shari Lapena about her explosive debut, inspiring enthusiastic praise from #1 New York Times Bestselling authors like Sue Grafton, Harlon Coben, and Lee Child—almost from the moment the manuscript sold.
Leslie Lindsay: Shari, I am so thrilled to have you stop by. I just devoured THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR. I mean, if I could have had it for dinner, I would have. Did the story consume you in the same way? And why this story now?
Shari Lapena: Yes, it was a fast book to write. Right from the beginning I got caught up in the premise and I couldn’t let it go. I came up with the idea of a couple that gets left in the lurch by their babysitter, and their solution—to leave the baby at home and take the baby monitor next door with them and rely on half-hourly checks on the baby—leads to every horrible thing that follows.
L.L.: So, THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR…Oh, I just can’t stop thinking about it. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? The pacing is just relentless. Was it that way for you as a writer? What was the time frame for draft one, for example?
Shari Lapena: First I come up with a premise, or a jumping-off point, and then go from there. It has to be something that sparks a lot for me, as this was. I don’t plan out the entire novel first—I follow where it takes me. So here, I had a couple stood up by their babysitter, and the baby was clearly not welcome at the dinner party next door. What do they do? The husband convinces the wife, against her best judgment, to leave the baby at home. That was enough to get me started. I knew the baby was going to disappear, of course—but I didn’t know the who, how, or why of it. But right away I had a setup, a conflict between husband and wife, and enough to propel me forward.
I deliberately set out to create a page turner. I wanted the pacing to be fast, and it felt like that for me when I was writing it. I wrote the first draft in about six months.
L.L.: There are so many twists and turns and so many little pieces that just sort of ‘fell’ out into the open. Things like duplicity and deception and postpartum depression. Were these pieces carefully plotted, or did they come more organically as you wrote?
Shari Lapena: Some of it I had as ideas in the back of my head, but not carefully plotted out. For instance, I knew that I wanted Anne to have post-partum depression because I knew that would make her a more complex, interesting and unpredictable character. And I knew it would make people suspicious of her, rightly or wrongly. I don’t want to give too much away, but for example, when the onesie arrived in the mail—that surprised me. I didn’t plan for that to happen right from the beginning.
L.L.: There’s a tremendous piece by Terrence Rafferty in The Atlantic that talks of a new generation of women writers tapping into the zeitgeist, taking crime writing to new places and connecting to a huge readership. He writes that woman writers have sort of given up belief in the hero-and-villain model of storytelling, and instead, rely on unreliable narrators to provide a chilling tale. I get that. I love that. What is your general take on the ‘girl grip lit?’
Shari Lapena: That is such a hot topic these days. On the one hand, gripping psychological thrillers written largely by women are not new. Years ago we had Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith. But the focus right now on “griplit” seems to be about books that are psychological thrillers written largely by women, that have a darkness to them and that explore the tensions and the potential for psychological suspense in our most intimate relationships—in our marriages, our families—and in our homes. That seems to be hitting a nerve with readers.
“Doomy domestic thrillers are what readers want now.”
~From Terrance Rafferty in The Atlantic
June/July 2016 issue
L.L.: I understand THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR is your suspense debut, but that you have other novels as well, so it’s not exactly a debut in that sense, but perhaps a ‘genre debut’ for you. Can you tell us a bit about THING GO FLYING (2008) and HAPPINESS ECONOMICS (2011)?
Shari Lapena: My first novel, THINGS GO FLYING, is about a man named Harold who is depressed, and afraid that life goes on forever. You see, his mother was a medium and he had ghosts in the house all the time growing up, throwing the dishes, so he knows life isn’t really over when it’s over, and he just can’t face it. His wife, Audrey, is a control freak with an explosive secret. They have two teenaged sons. Then Harold’s mother comes back from the dead to haunt them and Harold finds he has his mother’s gift for talking to the dead, and if there was ever a gift he wanted to return, it’s this one. Audrey is also terrified—how is she to safeguard her secret now? If she can’t control this world, how is she to control the next one? And how will she protect her good china? Harold must figure out how to find meaning in his life, and how to come to grips with the mostly terrifying idea that life might go on forever. Ultimately he is helped by being counselled by a philosopher, rather than a psychologist, under his Employee Assistance Program. I like to think of it as a lighthearted book about death.
My second novel, HAPPINESS ECONOMICS, is about a blocked poet, Will Thorne. He is married to Judy, a wildly successful celebrity economist. Pressured by a starving fellow poet, Will establishes The Poets’ Preservation Society, a genteel organization to help poets in need. But when Will meets his muse, the enigmatic and athletic Lily White, he becomes inspired not only to write poetry, but to take guerrilla action in support of poets everywhere, which his wife finds absolutely mortifying. Will ends up doing parkour and splattering graffiti poetry all over the bank buildings in the downtown core. It’s really a book about a clash of values—art versus commerce.
L.L.: Both sound very interesting! And before, you worked as a lawyer and English teacher. How have your previous professional experiences shaped you as a writer? And what advice might you give to those wanting to break in?
Shari Lapena: I would say that my law background hasn’t contributed to my writing particularly—I wasn’t a criminal lawyer who tapped into that to write legal thrillers. I don’t think teaching English makes a novelist either. I think it’s the desire and the disciplined effort that makes you a writer. You have to put the work in. For those wanting to break in—it’s harder than ever, but it’s not impossible. My best advice would be to write a really good story. People want a story. Write the story you want to write, the way you want to write it, and find your own unique voice. Then listen to your editor.
L.L.What are you working on next? Cause I’m dying to read it!
Shari Lapena: Not surprisingly, I’m writing another thriller. I don’t want to say much about it at this point, except that it’s a page turner!
L.L.: What’s keeping you up? What’s captured your attention lately?
Shari Lapena: I’ve just started I LET YOU GO, by Clare Mackintosh. I think it’s going to live up to all the wonderful press it’s received. Before that I read and loved Daisy in Chains, by Sharon Bolton. And on my bedside table to read soon: What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan; In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware; and The Secret Place, by Tana French. And I’m lucky, I get ARCs—I have The Freedom Broker by K.J. Howe and It’s Always the Husband, by Michele Campbell. And I’m looking forward to Linwood Barclay’s The Twenty-Three when it’s out in November.
L.L: What question might I have forgotten to ask?
Shari Lapena: I can’t think of anything.
L.L.: Shari, it was such a pleasure to connect. Just love, love, loved THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR and wish you much joy and success with the launch!
Shari Lapena: Thank you so much! It’s been a bit of a shock, how well the book has been received. It’s been a bit overwhelming, to say the least!
For more information, or to follow Shari on social media, please see:
About the Author: Shari Lapena was a lawyer and an English teacher before turning to writing fiction. She has written two previous novels: Things Go Flying, shortlisted for the 2009 Sunburst Award, and Happiness Economics, a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. She lives in Toronto. THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR is her suspense debut, and has sold in more than twenty-two markets.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay via various social media channels, including:
[Special thanks to M. Burkes and T. Gaffney. Cover image and author image courtesy of Penguin/RandomHouse. Author image credit: Joy von Tiedmann].