By Leslie Lindsay
Everyone’s keeping secrets, everyone’s a little suspect, and even the dead know a thing or two, the sixth domestic thriller from Shari Lapena is one not to be missed.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS~
Always with a Book|Fiction Friday
Leslie Lindsay & Shari Lapena in Conversation
Bursting onto the domestic suspense scene in 2016, Shari Lapena is a tremendous force–a #1 internationally bestselling author–no one does claustrophobic suburban paranoia quite like Shari.
I absolutely LOVE Shari Lapena’s work. This is ‘grip-lit’ at its absolute best. Lapena has a way of reeling in readers with a taut plot, plain-spoken yet intelligent (and sometimes unlikable) characters, and more. The tension is always high, the mood is claustrophobic and yet everything is elegantly–and tortuously–done to perfection.
ABOUT NOT A HAPPY FAMILY:
Meet the Merton Family. They’re wealthy, successful, a bit uppity, and they’re harboring secrets and alliances. Set in upstate New York, where the homes are large and spacious, the grass is green, and yet…the parents are gruesomely murdered.
It’s the last family dinner the Merton Family will share-Easter Sunday. All of the adult children are over: Catherine the eldest (a dermatologist), Dan the middle child (not exactly sure what he does), and Jenna the youngest (a free-floating artist). Everyone is a little on-edge, the father is controlling and probably narcissistic, the mother is anxious, the adult children are all walking on eggshells.
That night, after every one has left, the parents are brutally murdered. An investigation ensues. All three have a good sum to inherit, but did they kill their parents? Are they somehow in conspiracy? Did only one of them do it? And who? Maybe one sibling is more disturbed than the other…did someone snap during that dreadful evening? Did someone else–who?–arrive later that night? These are all the questions and quandaries Shari Lapena lays out for readers to puzzle over–and she does it so well. Everyone seems to have a motive; they all stand to gain something–or have a bone to pick.
In this family, everyone is keeping secrets. Even the dead…
The Merton’s are so dysfunctional, carrying the weight of many secrets, but this may be one of the first books where Lapena drops in a little more backstory than in some of her previous books. And I liked it; it’s backstory that influences our current behavior, helping to paint a broader picture.
I won’t go into any details about the twist or plot, just know that NOT A HAPPY FAMILY is a deliciously dark and detailed ‘whodunit’ with a ton of tension, suspects, dysfunction, psychopathology, investigation, and more. It’s such a dark delight to read.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Shari Lapena to the author interview series:
Shari! Welcome back. I am so thrilled to chat again. Cannot believe this is your sixth book and we’ve talked about all of them, but it never gets old. Before the pandemic, we met in-person and you were wearing a cardigan, skirt, glasses, sensible shoes. You looked every bit like a sweet book-reading person, yet you write these deliciously dark tales. And we love them. Everyone has a dark side, right? What were your motivations and inspirations for NOT A HAPPY FAMILY?
Thanks, Leslie! It’s wonderful to be back talking to you again.
All thriller readers know you can’t go by appearances, so don’t be fooled by mine. Of course I’m kidding, I wouldn’t kill anybody. But I do love to read—and write—a dark tale. For this book, I wanted to go a bit further than the troubles between husband and wife that I’ve mostly focussed on in my earlier books. I wanted a broader canvas. I specifically wanted to look at adult sibling relationships, because I think they are so interesting—informed by the present and the past. They’re so complicated. And I wanted to look at expectations—those of parents for their children, and children’s expectations of inheritance—and how these expectations can warp and distort relationships. Of course, the spouses are there, full of doubt and suspicion—but I really wanted to look at an extended family here. So I thought—what better situation than a large, wealthy family with adult children expecting an inheritance? Of course, the parents had to die…
There are a good deal of characters in NOT A HAPPY FAMILY. Was there a character you ‘liked’ better than the other? Maybe one easier to write? Perhaps, a ‘hard nut to crack?’ And how do you feel about those characters now, at the end of the book?
I always love to get right inside the heads of my characters. It’s why I love to write in multiple third person point of view. It helps me get to know them all. I really enjoyed writing all of them. I find if there’s a character whose point of view I don’t love being in, that isn’t working for me, then that character doesn’t last long. I get rid of them. I found Audrey was the one who didn’t come quite as quickly as the others. The siblings I got a handle on really quickly; it took a little longer to nail Audrey’s character. By the end of the book, I feel I know them all very well—they’re like real people to me, and we’ve been through a lot together. When the book is finished, I always feel like my characters have lives that go on beyond the page, having to live with what they’ve done. I’m just not part of it anymore.
I feel like there was more backstory in NOT A HAPPY FAMILY—or maybe that was just my take. But I loved it. Obviously, you can’t have too much backstory because that slows down the forward momentum. Can you talk about the role the backstory plays in your work, and in literature in general, please?
You’re right, too much backstory slows the pace of a novel down; not enough doesn’t work either, because you have to know your characters and what makes them do what they do. This one did have a bit more backstory in it, because I wanted to understand the family as a whole—the genetics and the history behind the characters. There was a suggestion from my editors that I cut the chapter that tells the rather disturbing story of Fred and Audrey’s childhood, but I wanted to keep it in, as I felt it was really important. I’m glad I kept it.
I can only imagine your process. Do you jot down notes? Create timelines? Vision boards? If we were to get a little glimpse into your office, what would it look like?
If you’re hoping for a mad swirl of paper, you’d be disappointed. I do all my work on my laptop, and I like a clean desk. I just have a laptop and my daytimer and one notepad, which is mostly for my to do list! I prefer pad and paper for to do lists and traditional daytimers, but for writing, I do it all on the laptop. I don’t plan, I just start with an idea and go from there. Lisa Jewell calls it “plotting on the page” rather than being a “pantser,” and I like that description. Neither of us plan or outline—we make it up as we go along, at the keyboard. So—no timelines or jot notes or vision boards for me!
I understand you sort of recently purchased an old farmhouse and have been doing renovations. Can you tell us about that? Maybe it’s inspiring your next book? Wouldn’t that be creepy?
I tell you what would be creepy—a story about a contractor who dies in my novel! I think that might resonate with a lot of people. Don’t think I haven’t considered it. My brother, who lives nearby, has just bought a woodchipper. Seriously, though, we did buy an old farmhouse seven years ago, and we’ve been working on it ever since. It’s massively behind schedule, but it should be done…soon. It’s livable now at least. It was an old, abandoned Victorian wreck in rural Ontario on a hundred acres and I fell in love with it when I saw it. I especially love the floor plan—there’s a grand staircase, but also a servants’ staircase in the back, going from the maid’s quarters to the kitchen. My new office is in the maid’s quarters with a direct route to the kitchen for coffee and chocolate. It’s lovely there. We’ve been going on weekends, but we hope to be able to move there soon.
“The twists come as fast as you can turn the pages.”
What three things are you most looking forward to this fall? It doesn’t have to be literary.
That’s easy. Iceland Noir in November! I’m going to be one of the guests of honour—along with Ian Rankin, Anne Cleves, and Anthony Horowitz. I won’t have travelled in two years and I am SO looking forward to being at a literary event again in person, and seeing people, and talking about books. In Toronto we have been locked down for a very long time, although we’re opening up now.
Other than that, I’m looking forward to (I hope) moving into our farmhouse at last, and reading the new Anthony Horowitz novel, A Line to Kill, the next in the Hawthorne series. I love this series—Anthony is himself a character, a sidekick of sorts to Detective Hawthorne, and this time they’ll be solving a mystery at a literary festival. They’re funny, brilliant books. I’ve got it on pre-order.
Shari, thank you. I always love chatting with you. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten, or perhaps something you’d like to ask me?
I think that covers it for me, but I’m interested in hearing more about the book that you’ve been working on…what stage is it at? I’d love to read it. I love dysfunctional family memoirs—I absolutely loved The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Look Me in the Eye, by John Elder Robison.
Oh! Those are good ones. I devoured The Glass Castle, and always love Mary Karr. But I am not familiar with Look Me in the Eye. Looks like I will be adding more to my my precariously tilting TBR pile. Dysfunctional family memoirs are so intriguing because no matter how ‘perfect’ we think we are, deep down, darkness and tension lie; it’s what makes us human. And if we’re ‘too perfect,’ that might be a bit of a disorder, too.
I was half-way between my tenth year when my beautiful and talented interior decorator mother devolved into psychosis. Up to that point, I was under the impression everything was, well…’perfect.’ It was anything but. Model Home: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory is about uncovering those family secrets, a legacy of mental illness; it’s a matrilineal story about reclaiming oneself, resilience, genetics, but also about unearthing those fractures, bolstering the next generation. Of course, since my mother was a decorator, there are flashes of art, design, and architecture. My mother died by suicide over six years ago, so this is also a story of complex grief.
My agent is in the process of selling it to a publisher, so we’re ‘on-submission.’ I was told this would be a grueling process, but I had no idea. Ironically, I am in the midst of my own home renovations and find a bit of symmetry there. Plus, it keeps my mind off the manuscript! And I would be honored and delighted for you to read it.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Shari Lapena is the internationally bestselling author of the thrillers The Couple Next Door, A Stranger in the House, An Unwanted Guest, Someone We Know, and The End of Her, which have all been New York Times and The Sunday Times (London) bestsellers. Her books have been sold in thirty-seven territories around the world. She lives in Toronto and Not a Happy Family is her sixth thriller.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
Cover and author image courtesy of Viking/PRH/Pamela Dorman Books and used with permission. Artistic photos of book cover designed and photographed by Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagrammer.