Cape Cod native Caroline Kepnes is having the year most writers dream of. Her novel, You, a dark tale of obsession in the modern age, is roaring its way up the bestseller charts, and garnering rave reviews. Elle UK called the book “clever and chilling”, and PopSugar was one of many outlets to suggest that it might be the next Gone Girl.
Whether or not You ever hits that level of cultural ubiquity, the book has already far exceeded Kepnes’ expectations. Recently, the author spoke with Matthew Guerruckey about getting her start in television, watching her book turn into a phenomenon, and living with its dark central character.
Drunk Monkeys: Where did you grow up?
Caroline Kepnes: I grew up near Lake Wequaquet in Centerville, a village on Cape Cod. I feel very fortunate to have been surrounded by so many great bodies of water. Cape Cod is really two different places, bustling and crowded in the summer and then quiet and serene in the winter. And Cape Codders, my God, it’s a thrill to be part of that peninsula.
DM: What is it about Cape Codders that makes them so special to be around?
CK: This is a hard, good question because part of it is that universal experience of hometown love. You feel close to the people you knew when you were young, wherever you may have grown up. That said, in any seasonal economy, there is something binding about being a local year-rounder. You get that badge of honor for surviving the winter and your home is sometimes a crowded place, other times desolate. (They are getting into the social politics of seasonal communities so well right now in The Affair.) I am fortunate that I get to spent a lot of time on the Cape, and some people think that it’s backwards of me to go to there in the winter. But I mean, the winter Cape is unique, with a vibrant live music scene, joyous indoor drinking. The summer Cape is great too, but that’s a given. Also, a lot of the men on the Cape love to dance and go for long walks on the beach. And everyone is all over everyone else’s business. I just love that connectivity. And Cape Codders are so good at partying. I think that has something to do with being close to so much natural beauty. That landscape is dominant and soothing. People here feel blessed to have those beaches in good times and bad. (Omigod, I am turning into a bad nature columnist and it is time to move on.)
DM: How did growing up there influence your writing?
CK: Where to begin? New England is enchanting with the sunsets and the beaches but growing up, I was enchanted with the people. The people! I feel lucky to be born into that culture. I love that line in Gone Baby Gone, where Patrick marvels at Bostonians for being proud of their heritage when that’s something that wasn’t their decision. A lot of my characters are stubborn, illogical but then, you know, you can’t help but think they’re in the right for some reason. They’re pretty convincing. And I love to write dark/funny stories that deal with loyalty, bitterness, classism and pride. It’s like the menu at Dunkin Donuts, yes. Also, Cape Cod is a place where you work intensely in the summer. And that kind of work ethic influenced me as a writer. I’m hard on myself. I give it my all. That’s the spirit of my Cape family, something you pick up from friends, families, teachers. If you’re going to do something, whatever it is, you really do it, you push yourself. Again and again. Growing up in a place where the population routinely swells and dwindles makes you so aware of what you can’t control, the seasons, and then just as empowered by what you can control, how much you work and swim. I feel like it’s a great setting to learn discipline. (I just got back last night and I will write today so I can dance tonight, hell yes.)
DM: How has that discipline shaped how you’ve approached your career?
CK: In 1989 I saw the movie Parenthood and this line stuck with me: “My whole life is have to.” I went home and wrote in my diary about how I would have a life where my whole life is want to. Ah, youth! But that is the philosophy that made sense to me. When I graduated from college, I wanted to work at a short story factory. But those don’t exist. I loved magazines, talking to people and learning and debating about movies and TV, all things pop culture. I went into entertainment journalism and wrote stories and scripts on the side. I think you can learn a lot about writing fiction from rewriting a 300 word blurb about a television show. And vice versa. I always try to get better at writing, that’s all there is to it. And now, I am blessed. Writing fiction is my job. So of course, this means I am also getting better at procrastination. This week I was on a ladder hanging up posters. Posters! But we all know that’s part of the creative process. Kids have recess. Adults need to hang posters. I can feel it coming when I am going to hunker down and get into the zone. I try to trust my gut, but at the same time, I don’t always wait to feel inspired. When I’ve been unemployed, I would write cover letters and short stories and emails. And I mean cover letters, write one of those and see if you don’t just leap into a short story with gusto and joy. Cover letters are the worst. But finishing one is a great high. And then the want to part of the day is even better.
DM: How did you get started in television writing?
CK: I studied playwriting and fiction writing in college. Then I interned at Conan O’Brien and the pacing of daily television was too much for me. I went into entertainment journalism and continued creative writing on the side. I wrote about 7th Heaven and Sex & the City a lot and then started writing specs and pilots. I wrote a SATC and then a pilot about my internship at Conan. I asked television producers I met through work to read my scripts and eventually, I moved to LA. I got my first gig, a freelance episode of 7th Heaven a couple years later. I was elated. The best part about TV writing is that you get to have a party when your episode airs. Mine was a blast and Jimmy Kimmel was there. (Ok, so he just happened to be at the bar and it was a total coincidence, but still!)
DM: Is it odd writing for pre-existing characters rather than ones you’ve created yourself?
CK: Yeah, you’re not God. WTF, right? It’s kind of like playing with dolls (action figures for others). These characters that you know so well, suddenly you’re controlling what they do. But you have to know those characters inside and out, or else. Also, when you’re inventing something, you can get into and go aah no he’s like this! And you can erase and start over. But in television, it’s not allowed. There is no time machine. That’s what’s fascinating to me about plot in TV. There is no going back, unless, you know, you’re Bobby Ewing. (Dallas dream reference, yes.)
DM: Do you approach writing a script differently than writing fiction?
CK: Yes and no. I like beginnings. I will rewrite the first few pages over and over and memorize them and carry them in my head. And then if I get stuck midway through, I will go back to that beginning and look for a crack in the foundation. That’s just something that works for me, in part, if anything, because it’s a fun fantasy, that all narrative problems can be fixed by one sentence in the first five pages! Ah, if only. Anyway, when I write fiction I feel I’m at my best when I get into flow, that pure stream of consciousness state where five hours have passed and I have no idea what happened. Script writing is different for me because when I’m in Final Draft, hitting those formatting buttons, I’m slower. I also love interior monologues, but any screenwriter, when you hit “V.O.’ you cringe, like did I earn this? Is there a more productive way to show this character’s internal thoughts? American Splendor, The Good Girl, Adaptation and Goodfellas are outstanding VO movies that I think about a lot when I’m in Final Draft. Also, when I write a script it’s a more visual endeavor. I picture actors, what things look like. And when I write fiction, it’s the opposite. It’s mostly about hearing.
DM: Where did the idea for You come from?
CK: You came out of a very dark time in my life. My father passed away in November 2012 after battling cancer for two years and I started writing this book a few months later, when I was back in LA and realizing, oh, my dad really is dead. I am back in my apartment and he is never going to call me on the phone again. Death is reoccuring that way, and I wanted to write about that, indirectly. Someone dies and the world as you know it is forever changed and you experience those changes every day. I wanted to write about what it’s like to have your world turned upside down by another person. But I also wanted to break away into a violently different world. And then, I mean, I guess it’s obvious that I also wanted to write something very modern and funny and I wanted to have this character who goes off on social media and courtship and relationship horrors and IKEA and The King of Queens.
DM: The protagonist of the novel is a pretty intense dude, and you had to spend a lot of time in his head—was his frame of reference hard to shake?
CK: Yes! The first line of my acknowledgements is about Joe, because it so often felt that I could not write fast enough. I did not sleep a lot while I was writing my first draft. I would wake up early as if I had overslept, anxious and rush to a coffee shop and write. Then I would drive to another coffee shop and write. Then I would try to watch TV to come down and wind up writing again. And when I couldn’t do it anymore, I would be social, but it was very hard because I had his voice in my head. And it was loud. It was kind of an out of body experience. That’s my favorite thing about writing, when you hear the characters. It was hard to be social when all I wanted to do was talk about Joe, who isn’t a real person. That’s what’s so great about having the book out now. What a joy, hearing other people get to know Joe and Beck and Exclamation Point Ethan!
DM: Has a character ever been that insistent before?
CK: Oh yes. That’s what I love about writing short stories. I have a few I’ve done with very strong voices, similar to Joe. There’s a guy who goes on a killing spree, there’s a mother keeping a secret from her son, a male virgin babysitting for an emotionally disturbed young girl. And there’s Aunt Mona from the story you and Pamela published. I love working with editors. Its’ a great thing, when an editor understands the voice and has ideas about the story. All of these short voicey stories were were really helpful for me. I’ve wanted to tell a big fat story with a voice like this for a while.
DM: Part of the claustrophobic effect of You comes from how intimately connected we are to social media, and how easily we can be traced and studied. Do you think that lack of privacy has changed anything fundamental about how we interact, or who we trust?
CK: Yes. I think in a hundred years they are going to look back at this time as a psychosocial revolution. Just that you can communicate with someone so much in written form and have that immediacy, it’s a breach of nature. It’s the phone on crack. We can be close without being close. It’s that simple. And then, it’s so complicated. Where do all those tweets go in the end, you know? A Facebook update is a thing that’s meant to be disposed of and replaced. This fascinates me to no end. And part of me relates to Joe, clinging to his typewriters, his romantic affection for “old things”, just because they were built to last. But then, you can’t live in the past or for the past. So it really doesn’t matter what anyone thinks because this is how we live now. Once upon a time, men had to call women. There was no caller ID. Women had to pick up and deal with it. Like in Napoleon Dynamite. But now, it’s this weird culture where you can go online and anonymously say all these horrible things to people. Yet, in personal relationships, we are so eerily connected, there is no distance, no natural suspense of a phone call (unless the number is blocked, but then who’s answering the blocked call?). If you go on Facebook at night, you can find out what people you’re not truly “friends” with are eating for dinner, what their kids are doing. My head sometimes feels crowded. Like an attic jammed with images and sentences gleaned from social media. Our parents lived in such a different world. It was possible to drift away from people. Now, everything is so conscious. I mean, you can actively block people or go on a #socialmediavacation. But that’s so different.
DM: You is suddenly blowing up everywhere. How does it feel to watch it all happening?
CK: It is so wonderful and surreal. I am profoundly grateful to have so much support from my publisher. That love is just amazing. And then, to have people read the book and embrace it and write about it and tell their friends about it and write to me about it. I keep feeling dizzy. It is otherworldly great. I will never get over the thrill of seeing the book in a shelf at an airport or a Barnes & Noble or a little bookstore in New Orleans or on a Kindle in a state I’ve never visited. It’s a dream come true. Oh! And then, when people tell me that there are wait lists at libraries, that makes my heart pound. You put the book into the world and then people grab it and form opinions and talk about it. That’s the best.
DM: What is the highlight of the experience so far? What’s the craziest thing that’s happened?
CK: The craziest thing. The craziest thing is stopping at the newsstand and seeing the book in Peopleand US Weekly. The craziest thing is selling the rights in so many different countries and having the amazing Danish translator show up at my signing at Book Soup. I say all these things because the craziest thing is the nonstop flow. It just. Keeps. Going. And that’s the craziest thing, that every few hours, I’m like oh. Oh!
DM: What’s next for you?
CK: I am working on a second book that’s part of my two-book deal. And it’s just a miracle, to have that be the primary goal every day, a dream come true. I finished a draft and I’m revising it and this is my favorite part, when the story is there and you get to pull it apart.
DM: What is the next book about?
CK: It’s a surprise. And it’s about forgiveness. And champagne. And aspirations. And this is too hard to and cryptic so I’m going to stop now.
DM: Finally—in one sentence—what is, as best as you can figure, the meaning of life?
CK: To have that question in that back of your head at all times, when you’re dancing or writing or watching Cheaper by the Dozen instead of doing your work.
You is now available from Atria Books, a division of Emily BestlerBooks/Simon & Schuster.