Apr/May 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Caroline Kepnes (2014)

by David Ewald

Photo of Caroline Kepnes

Caroline Kepnes isn't just a fantastic writer and bestselling author. We're also super proud to claim her as part of our extended family of Eclectica contributors. To celebrate the April 6th release of her latest novel, You Love Me, we're including two interviews I did with Caroline for our blog. This one was done in 2014 when she had just published her debut novel, You.


David Ewald     Before You, you published eight stories with Eclectica, the last one "Owen in Her Head" from 2013. Do you see your short fiction as practice in any way for your debut novel? In your acknowledgments, you mention "Owen," which I assume refers to the story published in Eclectica. How much (if any) did this story and others contribute to the success of You?

Caroline Kepnes     Bing, bing! Yes, I am referring to that story and I think writing short fiction is great practice. "The Way You Make Me Feel" was one of my first Eclectica stories; a teacher is obsessed with Michael Jackson. I think of it as a baseline place where I did a lot of stuff that excited me—pop culture references, alienation from modern social norms, the shadow of 9-11, twisted humor. And years later, "Owen" has a lot of that alienation, this woman leaves her husband because of a dream about Owen Wilson. She's frustrated that she can't get it together to enter a Glamour essay contest. And she has Facebook envy. There is thematic crossover with You. And Tom decided to run that story when I was knee deep in You and it was exciting to edit "Owen" while finishing the draft of You. I'm grateful for Tom and Matt DiGangi at Thieves Jargon, Rusty Barnes at Night Train, and now Fried Chicken and Coffee. It's a great feeling, when you write a short story and know where it might find a home.

DE     One thing I noticed with You right off the bat is the voice. It's distinct. We are very much in Joe's head for all 400+ pages. Was it a challenge to create and sustain this voice consistently for over 400 pages? Could you describe your process of staying "in character"?

CK     Thank you. I love to get into a head. And it's consuming work, joyous and intense. Sometimes I was a little off kilter after writing. I'd see a friend and start talking about Joe as if he was a real person. I wrote the first draft in a feverish state. One challenge was finding that balance between the interior experience and the exterior events, the story. I could go on for pages analyzing something random that interests Joe, but everything is better when the story is progressing. We all know that even if it's annoying! I cut a lot, killed babies. My editors are attentive to emotional, narrative issues as well as concrete realities. And sometimes when I got stuck or confused about Joe, I'd think of him at home comparing Closer the film and Closer the play and overthinking shower curtains.

DE     Despite his... tendencies, Joe seems as if he was a fun character to inhabit. Was he, or was he something far different?

CK     So much fun! I was worried it was too much fun sometimes. My mom would tease me, "He's a murderer. Are you okay?" and I would say that Joe had good intentions and that he's a nice boy at heart. It's so much fun to be in that headspace of someone who is rationalizing behavior. He cracks me up. He makes me cry. He makes me think. And he makes me have to learn about disposing bodies!

DE     In undergrad I had a professor who knocked the use of first-person present tense, saying it made the writing "like a movie." But is that a bad thing? Certainly movies (Magnolia, Pitch Perfect, 50/50, etc.) are given their due in You, and the novel at times has the feel of a movie. But again I have to ask: Is that bad? What do you think of that professor's comment, and what do you think of film's relation to the writing of novels?

CK     Let's picture this professor when he was younger, gnashing his teeth at an Andrew Wyeth painting and complaining to the girl in bed with him that narrative fiction is ultimately futile because words can never convey the power in the canvas in the absence of language. And then he's older and he goes off on "Hollywood" for producing formulaic stories and then enters the classroom and instructs his students that there is a formula: avoid the first-person present and you win. Books that are "like movies" are lesser than books that are not like movies. Bleh. No thank you. I don't agree.

The present tense felt like the right place for this book where I was exploring the difficulty that people have being "present" in this digital world, where magazines are like "your friends should put their phones in a basket when you go out to dinner". Joe faults everyone for Tweeting but he's Twitter stalking. You can't win. Nobody has really figured it out. And it's completely heartening when people tell me they were up at 2 AM compelled to finish reading my book, that it was like a movie. That's how I was when I was writing it. That's flat out awesome. I'm honored.

I write to figure things out, to "get happy" like Stephen King said in On Writing. It's so sad to think of someone choosing a narrative style because Teacher said it's better. And people will probably always love to bash present tense narrative. It's vulnerable. It's a minority. But so what? If you think it helps tell your story, you do it. It's not like omniscient third person is the road to guaranteed success. Writing is risky. It's supposed to be. I think of Napoleon's dancing at the end of Napoleon Dynamite or the moment when Andy goes alone to prom in Pretty in Pink. Both movies resonate with the writer part of me because they're about offbeat, artsy protagonists who stick to their guns. If you're writing a book, you're dancing in front of the whole school and going to prom alone every time you sit down to write. And hopefully you have Pedro and Ducky, too.

Tom Perrotta occurs to me in a talk about books and movies. People say his books are like movies because of the way they read, because they've been translated into amazing films. He's a great page one writer, gets you right into it. He's explicit with references. It doesn't get any funnier than Slutty Kay in Little Children. "Like a movie" doesn't point to his many talents, his thrashing moral compass, provocative sense of humor. I was not absorbed in these books because I thought they would make great movies. It's like in baseball when they talk about a pitcher having a lot of stuff. Tom Perrotta has a lot of stuff. The movies feel like the books and the books feel like the movies. And my favorite movie this year is Nightcrawler. It feels "like a book", thinking of the scene where Jake Gyllenhaal is ironing his clothes and watching TV. I wanted to hit pause, the way I earmark a page in a book and close it for a second to soak it in. And Magnolia shaped me because it was so unique and emotional. I felt that Paul Thomas Anderson broke the mold, the camera following the smoke through the bar, equal parts sprawling and specific. Magnolia was like a book and a film and a musical experiment and an art installation and a philosophical debate and a family therapy session. That's so his. A storyteller squishes genres together and makes something distinct is going to bug some professors, some people. That's a side effect.

DE     A lot of this novel is hilarious, really. I laughed out loud at several points (off the top of my head: the passage in which Joe describes Peach's "cottage"). Did you have much of an audience (early readers) while writing the book so that the material could be test-run?

CK     Thank you! I love to hear that because it matters a lot to me, going back to your professor and that movie comparison. I love to laugh and I am impressed when something makes me laugh. So again, thank you. My main early reader was my mom. She has read everything I ever wrote. I am so lucky to have one of those moms who typed the short stories I hand-wrote when I was a little kid. And we're very close, and she's very blunt with me. She reads everything before I send it out. And we have that shorthand communication where she can be like "On page 24..." and I'm like "I know what you're going to say, I'm fixing that." I'm spoiled. She's a wonderful reader and mother. My aunts and my cousin also read early chapters, and they love to laugh. They were all hooked into Joe, amused, disturbed, wanting more pages. And then, to say that I love my editors is an understatement.

DE     Music plays a big part in You, to the point where Joe incorporates lyrics into his narrative and uses them, in a way, to describe his thoughts and actions. (Example: "I have to collect more rocks because this jacket has a lot of pockets and Elton would have walked head on into the deep end of the river"—from Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight".) What are your thoughts on music's relation to writing? Do you write to music? What's in heavy rotation for you?

CK     "Uptown Funk" has been my holiday song. Bruno Mars is electric. That song is up and flippant and impish and soulful. Mark Ronson's energy is contagious. I also love live music. Cape Cod has wonderful bands (57 Heavy and Boombasnap if you are ever there). I don't want to say the song I've had on repeat the most lately because it's in my new book and I'm not done. But I love it when a song gets my mind going. This started in high school. My sophomore year I wrote a story about angel dust after I listened to "She Talks to Angels" compulsively. I had never written a story in direct response to a song. I sent it to Sassy Magazine and they gave me a typewriter and an honorable mention in their fiction contest. This was potent positive reinforcement. Most things I write have a theme song. And I read song lyrics online. A lot.

My You song was "Sea of Love." I knew the quavering original by Phil Phllips, romantic and nervous. Cat Power's take is heartbreaking. Tom Waits's rendition is a rushed ditty, dive bar dirty sexy. But I was fixated on what Robert Plant and The Honeydrippers did with that song. The swagger! The danger! I listened to it in the car, at my desk, at the coffee shop, everywhere on repeat! I isolated the instrumental intro and listened to that a lot too. It was the music playing in the elevator that led me into Joe's brain. And then that video!! I didn't plan to reference the video in the book when I started writing, but I'm happy it worked its way in. I have that video memorized. When I write, I need to carry the story around and a song is a carrying case.

DE     You name-drops several authors but foremost of those dropped has to be Stephen King. The Master of Horror went on Twitter earlier this month and praised You, calling it "hypnotic and scary. A little Ira Levin, a little Patricia Highsmith, and plenty of serious snark. Cool stuff." Thoughts on King and his possible influence onYou? What's your favorite work by King?

CK     My mind is still blown and I am permanently star-struck. Stephen King. Stephen King! The Shining was my first book of his and it's still my favorite. I saw the movie before I read the book and my dad was a huge King fan and he just shook his head and said, "Read the book." He was right. I also love Misery and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

DE     It has to be asked: Who and/or what are your influences (doesn't just have to be writers of course)? You may chafe at the suggestion, and I know his name is dropped too, but I get a Bret Easton Ellis feel from You. Did you have his work in mind at all when writing?

CK     Yes, American Psycho cracked my head open the first time I read it. It's so nervy and unique and infinite. And of course, the distinct voice of Patrick Bateman dazzled me. I also love Stewart O'Nan. I had Emily, Alone in mind when I was writing You because reading that book, you become Emily, this widow, and then you flip the book over and the writer is this rabid Red Sox fan guy. I love people like that, where all the pieces don't fit. The works referenced in You influenced me, Paula Fox's The Western Coast, all of Charles Bukowski. I watched the movie Young Adult a lot. It's rich with obsession and nostalgia. Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation and her music columns were inspiring to me. Waiting for Guffman is a miracle. They went through all that improvised footage and somehow they picked all the right parts and put it together beautifully. And finally, back to Stephen King. He doesn't always take lemons and turn them into lemonade. He lets them rot. And then they aren't lemons, they are murky gooey things with our reflections. The idea that Annie Wilkes & Jack Torrance could be living around the corner, that's always been large in my mind.

DE     You live in LA now. What's it like compared to living and writing on the East Coast? Thoughts on the stereotype of LA not being a "literary" city?

CK     Hysterical and absurd! It's a stereotype that will never go away, the same way New York will always feel "literary" even if Manhattan becomes Bank of America Island. You can't beat those sidewalks and those brownstones and those seasons. They all scream books. LA screams movies. But here we go again. Especially now, I mean, how many movies are adaptations of books? So you know that there are people reading the books in LA. The proof is in the movies!

More seriously, I know plenty of people in LA who are passionate about authors and novels. But the thing is, it's sunny. And more people are reading and writing screenplays than novels. And then, there's the subway factor. In New York we see each other reading. This enhances the sensation that it's a literary city. In LA, people are more likely to read at home. We can't read in the car, unless we have audiobooks and long commutes. New Yorkers don't see us reading and on it goes. And then of course, there is an asinine cultural thing about looking down on "beach reads", as if reading in the sun doesn't count because you're by a body of water, smelling of coconut, possibly drinking something that tastes like coconut. You can't call that reading. Reading has to involve suffering!

DE     Future plans? In late 2015 you have a new novel, Love, set for release. Would you mind giving a bit of a preview of that book? Will it be anything like You, or will it be a significant departure from that style of narrative and storyline?

CK     Ah yes! I'm making Love right now and no I can't resist puns. It's a sequel to You. It's about life after heartbreak. Joe is trying to learn from his mistakes and trust again. He's got someone new, Amy Adam, and he thinks he's done well because they're so alike. So no more trying to be something he's not. I think it's endearing and at times comical how we humans try to fix ourselves through our relationships with other people, and there's a lot of that going on in this book, people using relationships as self-help workshops. There's also a Joey-Locks and the Three Girls arc. Beck was too rooted in her social networks. Amy proves to be too rootless. And now Joes goes to Los Angeles –yes—where he struggles, he gets his hands dirty. And then he meets a dreamy California girl named Love. She feels just right. But is Love enough? Is love enough?