By Dan Poorman
I discovered TV writer Caroline Kepnes’s debut novel You upon its release in the fall of 2014, shortly after devouring the work of Gillian Flynn and mourning its practically concurrent absence in my life. Though Kepnes’s book was heavily marketed as “the next Gone Girl,” to this day I choose to consider my finding You a wholly independent and serendipitous moment. I wasn’t just unconsciously following a literary trend. I wasn’t just solved by my social media accounts. The stars aligned and You was in my lap—and so my hunger for snappy, hyper-contemporary suspense literature was quelled.
So maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but after burning through You, a uniquely terrifying and hilarious tale of obsession in the digital age, I felt enlightened and downright exhilarated. I had to find Caroline Kepnes and talk to her.
So, as befit to the novel’s theme, I tracked down this poor author’s personal email address, wrote her a long-winded and potentially creepy letter of praise, and asked her for this interview.
To my delight, she graciously accepted, and made room for me across time-zones, Showtime series adaptations, and Novel #2 deadlines. She even trusted me with her phone number for this thing.
TB: First off, I want to extend my congratulations on your deal with Showtime! How do you feel about it? It must be interesting, considering this is your first novel.
CK: Thank you! I mean, talk about a dream come true; it’s like one dream coming true after another. I love Showtime so much, so for it to be there—I mean, when they told me, my jaw just fell open. Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble love the book, and they get it, so that’s the other dream. You hear stories of people’s material getting adapted and then just totally changed, so I’m so happy that I have people working on mine that really just understand and love it. Couldn’t be better. I’m thrilled.
TB: When I heard the news, Showtime certainly seemed very appropriate. I think of shows like Dexter, and after reading You, I think it would work really well on the network.
CK: Yeah! They have great dark character-driven shows. I mean, I’m one of the biggest Weeds fans in the world. They’re so good with characters like that, whether they’re actually killing people or just doing their business—that’s the kind of complicated character I love.
TB: You is narrated by a truly wicked—and I mean that in more than one context—character by the name of Joe Goldberg, a snarky (but almost rightfully so) young New Yorker who is both irritated and inspired by 21st century pop culture and social technology, to, should we say dangerous extremes? I know you must always get this question, but what exactly spawned Joe? Were you, at one point, feeling particularly cynical? Did you notice in other people this sort of hipster-eats-hipster set of beliefs? Why did you create him?
CK: I like that you said ‘irritated and inspired.’ That’s a really good combination of words there that I think accurately describes it. I had been away from Los Angeles for a while because of awful stuff going on with my family, and then I got back here and I was definitely in that shock of being back in Los Angeles, the world having changed so much while I was away—you know, Twitter and Instagram and all of that were starting to pick up speed, and I was sort of irritated and inspired [laughs]. I had a lot of conflicted reactions of my own. You know when you despise something, but you want to be a part of it? It was that kind of feeling about that way of life in general. And then, to me there is just something so liberating about inventing a character. I thought, with Twitter, which to this day amazes me, there are people that are this quick this often and expressing this much in that constrictive form—and I wanted to have my own way of expressing myself, but less directly, through this character. I thought, this is my kind of Twitter. Everyone wants to spend their time doing that, but I’d rather make up this guy who is irritated and inspired!
TB: On the whole ‘you despise it, but you also want to be a part of it’ thing: coming from even an undergrad creative writing program, where I learned a bit about the culture of MFAs and ‘making it’ in the writing world, that really resonates with me. I love and totally get Joe’s ousting of MFA culture, but at the same time he’s this brilliant guy who, if he put his mind to it, could probably write something better than [MFA candidate/love interest] Beck could!
CK: And I like that, too, because I feel for him and then I’m also horrified by him. I hate when people say, ‘Oh, I could write’ or ‘I have an idea.’ It’s like, ‘No, well then you have to go and do it, Joe.’ I like characters where one minute you’re with them, and the next minute you’re mad at yourself for being with them, and then it becomes this ongoing and gratuitous thing. That’s what got me really invested.
TB: Joe might appreciate my saying this, the lit snob that he is, but I think the term ‘unreliable narrator’ gets thrown around a lot, maybe to a point of exhaustion.
CK: Yes! When did we think they were ever so reliable?! [laughs].
TB: Exactly! Now, I wouldn’t call him one of the pack, but it’s easy for many readers of You to believe in and root for Joe, as you just said, even when he’s being totally irrational. I know I was on his side.
CK: Me too, and that’s what I like about it. To me, that’s the talent in the storytelling. It’s something I just love that’s in a million stories I’ve read, too, when someone’s doing these awful things but you’re like, ‘Well, he has a reason to, and I hope he gets away with it.’
TB: Looking at characters like Benji and Peach, and even Beck to an extent—it’s not hard to be in Joe’s corner. They’re human too, but easily unlikable.
CK: Yes. I was actually talking a couple weeks ago about that John Waters movie Serial Mom. I love the idea of that character killing people who do kind of basic things to her kids—things that aren’t completely harmful. I love mixing up real violence with emotional violence like that, you know? The way that these people hurt Joe, he feels that they do deserve to die; he feels that they’re not in any way living up to their potential. I love the way he puts people on trial. When someone upsets you, it’s so easy to say, ‘Oh, I’m just being petty and sensitive.’ But then, if you take a step back and look at them and think, ‘Well, this person’s just not a good person’—that’s what I like about Joe. He makes an interesting leap there, from ‘Someone got on my nerves’ to ‘Someone is making this world a terrible place!’
TB: And, of course as much as You relies on Joe and his sort of breakneck absorption of current events and trends, at its core it is a love story, albeit a pretty twisted one. What’s something universal about modern-day twenty-something relationships that you were trying to sort of negotiate in your writing?
CK: I think there’s so much presentation of self, and that’s something that’s changed in the past few years. It’s something that I think occupies everyone as an individual, their space and their time. It’s easy to look at the way people present themselves and think that’s who they are, that’s why they’re choosing to do something. We all have the ability to Google stalk someone, and see what their life looks like, and how that can be so true and so untrue; their choice and not their choice. It’s a strange combination of things that all get in the way of basic chemistry. That’s what I like about her [Beck] walking into the store and just kind of capturing his [Joe’s] eye. It’s a return to this basic, physical chemistry. We live in this world which creates all these barriers around that: when you meet someone online, you can talk forever and get along, but you could meet the same person in person and within five seconds be like, ‘No,’ you know?
TB: Yeah, absolutely.
CK: Also, we’re all kind of different people when we’re around different people. The part of the book I always feel like I’m talking about is when Beck says to her friend [Peach] that she likes the movie Magnolia, and Peach is like, ‘That movie’s terrible.’ Then Joe feels like he’s got a way in because he likes it, and when he says it to Beck later, she repeats what Peach said. People do that in their lives when they’re trying to figure out who they’re going to be and how they really feel about something, but I think now it just happens so much more often because of all the communication.
TB: This novel is so startlingly relevant. It’s refreshing, really. Was that your goal for the finished product from the outset, and if so, how’d it spike your writing process?
CK: I wanted it to be ideally a kind of timeless time capsule, if that makes sense, in knowing then that by the time this book comes out, it’s possible that nobody will even use Facebook anymore and there might be something new that we’re all using. I wanted it to be absolutely about this moment. Literally, I was working on the Benji scenes when Lou Reed died, and I said, ‘I’m putting that in the book!’ It was a bold move to make, but I liked making it because it gave an energy, for me as a writer, that said ‘Gotta finish this!’ I mean, I had to finish anyway, but it was a certain energy, and a specificity of ‘What is the weather like on this day? What is the world like on this day?’ that made it all very exciting as a writing project.
TB: Before You, you were already experiencing quite the career in various fields of writing. Can you talk a little about what you’ve done, and how each job post has maybe shaped your more recent major establishment as a novelist?
CK: I had done a couple of interviews with celebrities in high school, and then in college I did a really long interview with Parker Posey. It was just amazing. I was like, ‘I want to do this.’ It was just the greatest job. I was on the phone with her for two hours, having a long conversation about all kinds of stuff—it was the opposite of the Red Carpet reporting I later did. That was a great experience that got me to Tiger Beat, which was like getting a Masters in Alliteration [laughs]. Anything you write, you’re always learning something. In that way, alliterative headline-making was just great practice, and interesting too for fiction writing because, in any kind of fan magazine like that, there’s an element of lying; of just sugarcoating everything. You know, ‘This boy is just a dream! He doesn’t care what the girl looks like, he wants her to have a personality!’ Journalism is really good for fiction in that way, in getting perspective down.
Then I went to Entertainment Weekly, where there was less alliteration and more fact-checkers [laughs], and that was wonderful. I had terrific editors, and I got to come out to California for a press tour, and it was that first dreamy trip here where I was like, ‘I want to move here, I definitely want to live and work in this industry!’ and my parents were like, ‘Yeah, you had a magazine putting you up at the Ritz, that’s not what it’s like to live there’ [laughs]. So I started writing spec scripts, to sort of gear up for what it would be like to live here, and then I moved here and left my job at Entertainment Weekly and it was a big and risky move, you know, which I feel is a good thing to do in life. I started working at E! and met a lot of wonderful people there, and then eventually got my 7th Heaven script, and that led to Secret Life [of the American Teenager] later. You just have to keep writing. And then writing in different genres, for me anyway, is good, because you learn something in one genre and then go back into another with new eyes on it. But I think that’s different for everyone. For some people, that’s working on two stories at once, but I always like to say, ‘Oh, I’m working on a script, then I’m working on this and that,’ all while just meeting people.
TB: On interchanging genres: interesting, then, how you go from writing for these otherwise pretty innocent media outlets, to penning a remarkably dark debut novel. Has the darkness always been inside you? What brought it out?
CK: I’ve written a lot of very dark short stories. I’ve had tons of them published online and a few in literary journals. In prose, I just always really like to be dark, because I love going inside someone’s head. Most of my stories are extremely close first-person like that. It’s interesting how I always kept that in my short stories, which is like my free space, and then professionally wrote a lot of cheerier stuff. It was a nice switch to take the darkness and kind of expand upon it, which is something I’d always wanted to do. But then, I like when you have to write for the stuff that’s clean. It’s on the first page of You, the line ‘you’re so clean that you’re dirty’—I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
TB: For sure. I think you can find something terrible in even the squeakiest things.
CK: Yes, and even the idea that people have no horror in them is horrible! [laughs]. It’s terrifying and impossible. I love the world of 7th Heaven, with everyone being so fucking good—even while they did bad, while they were doing it they were like, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this!’ There’s a self-awareness there that is really interesting and kind of horror movie-up, you know? Someone, while raising the knife, is like, ‘I can’t believe I’m killing you!’ [laughs].
TB: Speaking of horror: Stephen King, whom you reference a few times in You, read the book and Tweeted his approval. What did that feel like, to know Stephen King has both read and enjoyed your work?
CK: It’s the best thing in the world! I mean, also just his word choice—I had the sensation that if I could have sent a Tweet from his account of what I would want him to say about it, that would be exactly it. He also said it was original and that he hadn’t read anything like it. That’s the miracle of that, where when someone feels that way, it’s wonderful, and then when it’s him feeling that way, it’s like, Jesus!
TB: Yeah, that’s incredible.
CK: And that’s something that I think gets left out of a lot of conversations about writing, the whole ‘original’ thing. There’s so many things to say about a book, and the book still stays around after you’re dead and all that, and that’s where it feels good to think, ‘I did something that he found original.’ That’s great. Hopefully that will sustain.
TB: That’s interesting, too, this relationship between new literature and Twitter. You get these 140-character reviews from anyone from an Average Joe to Stephen King.
CK: Oh, yeah, everyone’s reporting on there—and then there’s Goodreads: ‘I am 32% through this…’ [laughs].
TB: How’s your second novel coming?
CK: I’m in the final stages of revising. It’s very, very exciting! It’s my favorite time of it, when it’s almost done. It’s a similar but different book where we’re with Joe, and we get to see him kind of in a more defensive position, so that’s been the most exciting thing about writing it. It’s not just ‘And… here we go again!’, you know?
TB: Right. So we will be hearing more from Joe?
CK: Oh, yes, it is a sequel. We pick up with him a few months later, and he’s very happy, and he’s with his girlfriend—that’s what’s exciting to me, to go from this position of loneliness and desperation to ‘here’s this guy, just walking down the street, and he couldn’t be happier!’
TB: Without giving too much away, will we see Joe revert to his concerning behavior?
CK: Oh, yeah, and this is where I feel like I sound demented when I talk about it [laughs], but I’m like, ‘After what happens to him, you understand why he’s so upset.’ So yes, he’s definitely back to his old tricks, but it’s as it always is, where he has a reason for what he’s doing. He’s trying to make the world a better place!
TB: It’s time for The Taste Basket lightning round. Give me your favorite film.
CK: I’ll say Hannah and Her Sisters.
TB: TV show?
CK: Mad Men.
CK: Oh, wow! Abbey Road.
TB: And finally, short story?
CK: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” [by Joyce Carol Oates], hands down.
You is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle edition from Atria/Emily Bestler Books.