This morning, Hartford Books Examiner is in the virtual company of Caroline Kepnes, who is celebrating her pub. day.
Ms. Kepnes is the author of “Hidden Bodies” (Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books)—the much anticipated follow-up to her scintillating debut novel, “You,” which Stephen King called “Hypnotic and SCARY.” A Cape Cod native, Kepnes has published many short stories and covered pop culture for Entertainment Weekly, Tiger Beat, E! Online, and Yahoo. She has also written for television shows including 7th Heaven and The Secret Life of the American Teenager; her directorial debut short film, Miles Away, premiered at the Woods Hole Film Festival. Ms. Kepnes graduated from Brown University and currently lives in Los Angeles in the same building that once housed the Hillside Strangler.
Early response to “Hidden Bodies” has been killer. Booklist praised: “The story reads like the love child of Holden Caulfield and Patrick Bateman but without the gore and misogyny, which means nothing stands in the way of the reader enjoying Joe’s cynical, murderous charm. Though it is a sequel to You (2014), Hidden Bodies may be even better on its own.” Further, actress Lena Dunham enthused, “Delicious and insane as its predecessor….The plot may be twisty and scintillating, but its Kepnes’ wit and style that keep you coming back” while Kirkus Reviews raved, “With its scathing social satire and loathsome yet strangely charming leading man, Kepnes’ sophomore effort is well worth the read.”
From the publisher:
In the compulsively readable follow-up to her widely acclaimed debut novel, You, Caroline Kepnes weaves a tale that Booklist calls “the love child of Holden Caulfield and Patrick Bateman.”
Hidden Bodies marks the return of a voice that Stephen King described as original and hypnotic, and through the divisive and charmingly sociopathic character of Joe Goldberg, Kepnes satirizes and dissects our culture, blending suspense with scathing wit.
Joe Goldberg is no stranger to hiding bodies. In the past ten years, this thirty-something has buried four of them, collateral damage in his quest for love. Now he’s heading west to Los Angeles, the city of second chances, determined to put his past behind him.
In Hollywood, Joe blends in effortlessly with the other young upstarts. He eats guac, works in a bookstore, and flirts with a journalist neighbor. But while others seem fixated on their own reflections, Joe can’t stop looking over his shoulder. The problem with hidden bodies is that they don’t always stay that way. They re-emerge, like dark thoughts, multiplying and threatening to destroy what Joe wants most: truelove. And when he finds it in a darkened room in Soho House, he’s more desperate than ever to keep his secrets buried. He doesn’t want to hurt his new girlfriend—he wants to be with her forever. But if she ever finds out what he’s done, he may not have a choice…
Now, Caroline Kepnes opens up about “Hidden Bodies” …
John Valeri: Where did the idea for “Hidden Bodies” originate – and what were the challenges of writing a sequel that would satisfy both your creative aspirations and reader expectations?
Caroline Kepnes: While I was writing “You” I wanted more. I was in no way prepared to say goodbye to this character. That said, I loved the completeness of “You.” I wanted the next book to feel whole. I also wanted to tell a story that could only happen because of what happened in “You.” So I did play with different ways into it and at the end of the day it was a matter of thinking, okay, he got away with what he did at the end of “You.” How does he feel now? What’s it like to live with that? How does that affect life? And then, in terms of narrative pull, how do I get people to meet up with him and find that he is different, yet the same, the way it is with friends? That’s what I wanted for returning readers, that mystical reunion thrill, where Joe is in love, but then of course, still Joe. Piss him off, watch out.
JV: Joe, Joe, Joe. How do you go about getting in his mindset – and what’s the trick to creating a character that does very bad things but is still oh, so likeable?
CK: Voice, voice, voice. If the voice feels authentic, then it works. It’s so important to me that he’s a human, not a lascivious, wild-eyed monster. In his mind, which is where the story lives, he’s killing people, yes, but in a more spiritual sense, he’s sparing these sad sacks, holding them accountable for failing to show gratitude for what they do have. He’s likable because of his sensitivity and hyper-awareness. He is so much fun because he does wish that everyone would just not be such an asshole because then he wouldn’t have to go and kill them. And his animalistic view, I mean, he’s basically a veterinarian for humans. And when you think of veterinarians, how hard that must be to put animals out of their own misery every day, even if you believe it’s the right move, medically, the fair thing to do, it’s got to weigh on you, the last breaths of your daily grind.
So yes! Joe is a vet for people. He’s The Euthanizer! And it’s endearing and amusing, because you never hate the vet for putting the animals down. Vets also save lives. You can’t be a vet if you don’t love animals. And Joe does love. That’s where he can get away with all this other business. He loves hard. He wants to live in a heart. And yet he’s always on the outside. So he has developed a mechanism where he assumes he’s outside because he must be better than everyone. He’s likable because he likes himself. There’s a scary aspect of that. I am fascinated by our culture’s preoccupation with self-esteem. But that feels like a whole new mess to get into.
JV: This time, the action is set predominantly on the West coast. How do you feel that freshens things up – and, in your experience, what are the greatest differences in LA/NYC culture?
CK: In “You” Joe has his kingdom. He’s got his perch in the shop. That was so purposeful for me, writing wise, that the story began with on his home turf. This girl walks into this store, we all walk into stores every day without overthinking it, without wondering if we’re safe. But this is Joe’s store. So once you’re in there, you’re his pet. (That first line of “Sea of Love”: “Do you remember when we met? That’s the day I knew you were my pet”) He is the zookeeper and he has his cage where he puts the animals. And who would know it, right? Nobody would!
In “Hidden Bodies,” I wanted to dethrone him, take his keys away, no more cage, no more castle. The joy of sticking him in this new city where he doesn’t know anyone, where he’s so threatened by everyone. He leaves his comfort zone and he has to find a way to feel like the king again. And it’s not easy to do when you live in a small apartment in Hollywood with someone else’s old pink furniture and you don’t have a car or a career or a person to call your own.
Then also, the animals, AKA, the people he deals with: In “You,” he contents with Ivy leaguers, upwardly mobile recent college grads. In “Hidden Bodies” he meets dreamers, people who come to Hollywood and think, hey, why not me? I am gonna audition. And this unnerves him. He’s that guy on the sidelines like, I could do better, but I don’t need the validation. Nothing more fun than when that guy finally gets up to give it a go.
LA/NYC: I could talk about it forever. New York involves more together time with humans, the walking culture, the subway, the proximity to other people. In The Last Days of Disco, Chloe Sevigny fights with her roommate and she grabs her coat, runs out of the railroad apartment, down the stairs and then she’s in Central Park and a little dog is biting her and she kicks the little dog and the dog owner screams and she half-smirks. New York! Freedom! You can kick docks and walk the fuck out of your home and be somewhere new, so easily, on foot.
LA is more like, you don’t just cruise on out the door. You plot your route. You think about how you’re going to get somewhere. Mileage is irrelevant because of traffic, which exists because of overcrowding. Going somewhere mostly means you alone in your car, or getting into a car with a stranger. (Yes, there is the Metro, but it’s not the subway.) Then there is the psychosis of the bicycles. The city paints lanes the way a child would take chalk and draw a pony. There is no physical room for the bicycles as well as the cars. It’s mind-boggling and it means everyone is the asshole. The cyclist is stopping the flow of traffic. The guy beeping is going to have a heart attack and kill us all, beeping as if the cyclist has an option. But then, you’re this guy on this bike and because of you everyone else is going slow. How do you not think, hmm, maybe I should take another route? And then bus drivers, they’re like, I’m a bus. Get out of the way. And the City is trying to figure it out, the housing shortage, the overcrowding. I love to read about it, the dream of the City Planner who’s like, “In 2019, we’re all going to ride our bikes everywhere!” And it’s like, okay, what if you’re drunk? What if you’re disabled? What if you have groceries? What if you don’t like bikes? What if you live in East LA and you work at some rich lady’s house in Beverly Hills? What if your job is physically stressful and then you’re supposed to ride a bike home? There’s this amazing unfinished quality to LA that I love so much, that it’s a teenager, still growing, awkward. So it’s an exciting place to write about in a novel because there is so much lively, ferocious debate about how to fix this place.
And then the dark side, the mythical history, the cloud of steaming resentment that rises from the cauldron of the nightmarish business, the dreamy weather, the way it’s sunny even when you didn’t get the job, the part, and the outright absurdity of hoping to be the needle in the haystack. It’s a gorgeous mess. I love it. (But I do like to leave it too.) I think of Stuck on You where they live at the “Rising Star” motel and Eva Mendes is like, “You don’t even need an agent! You read Backstage!” That pure blind, naïve energy is so Muppets taking Manhattan, so Xanadu. I always wanted to live here, around all these hopeful, daring people.
Daily life in LA is just so unique. Chris Rock nailed it so hard when he wrote about the racism in the Hollywood Reporter. Coming from the East Coast, that blew my mind when I moved here. Also, the idea that you live in this place where you might run into Ryan Gosling at the grocery store. WTF, right? And the idea that your neighbor might becoming Ryan Gosling level of famous. Aspiring to be in show business is openly declaring that you believe in yourself. Believing in yourself is a devastating, heartbreaking, admirable, scary, gigantic, complicated, deranged, honest thing to do. That wide-eyed “Welcome to the Jungle”/”Fallen Angel” cocktail of temptation, hope and inevitable derailment, oh God I wanted to bring Joe into it. I’m writing another LA book now, too.
JV: Speaking of culture, let’s talk about popular entertainment (aka pop culture). How does this add to the overall fabric of the series – and where do you see Joe fitting in with today’s 24/7 media blitz?
CK: I consume a lot of pop culture, so Joe does too. That way when I watch a TV show repeatedly, it’s for work. J I love to explore our life with devices, connectivity. I’m fascinated by the way we don’t disappear from each other anymore, unless we block, leave, consciously cease connection. And Joe is a great character because he was such a ghost, such a non-connector.
I thought a lot about what we get out of this social media. Facebook was this place for families and alums, friends, inherently focused on the past, people who share your memories, a past that Joe feels he missed, loner Joe. Then along comes Twitter, and it’s modern, forward. It isn’t a reunion, an album of baby pictures. And it’s so different, it isn’t about a party we all went to last weekend or that school picture where we were all kids. The ‘we’ is replaced with the ‘I’. It’s fun to evolve Joe, such a loner, to see him using social media in “Hidden Bodies.” Granted, he has an agenda, an obsession, but isn’t what we post for mass consumption often meant for that one set of eyes? Everyone has a little Joe in them. At one point or another. You know, they just also don’t have a bag of pills and knives.
JV: There’s lots of lust in these stories – including book lust. Are you a discriminate or indiscriminate book lover?
CK: I have this new bookshelf and I love my books all lined up in there. I love to pick up a book I’ve read and reread a few pages. And that book I bought fifteen years ago that I’m clearly never reading. This is where I can’t adjust to eBook life. I want to see all the books lined up. Put my signed Nicole Richie novel next to my Philip Roth. Such utterly pretentious, indulgent, fun to be had with a bookshelf! And can you ever really feel guilty about playing around with your books? But really, it’s about how your mind builds associations. That’s what I love about bookshelves, mix tapes of stories. That thing where you can’t hear a song on the radio without expecting to hear the song that comes next on your playlist. And you look at a certain book, and that book is a time in your life. That is the magic. When I think about the mixed grill in “The Corrections” I am back in New York, thinking about moving to LA. A book sucks you into the world of the book even as it permanently holds you to a moment in your world. What’s not to love about books?
JV: Also, what advice would you give to help sexify reading – and how can bibliophiles best show PDA for their favorite authors/books?
CK: By going to the place where strangers come together and play show and tell: The Internet! Like this reader shared a quote from “Hidden Bodies” where Joe is gnashing his teeth over LA people and their “guac”. That’s the dream of Instagram, Bookstagram, Twitter, all of it. I loved writing that section and you love reading it and now other people are laughing, talking guacamole, Doritos, getting excited for the book, sharing their own thoughts on guacamole. And there’s no spoiler in that passage. Yet there is specificity that tells you what this book is all about. So when you read something and you love it, and gets you going, put it out there. That’s what books are for, to tell you a story, to make you think. Great literary foreplay for all!
JV: Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
CK: One day in New Hampshire, a nice boy named Jon leaves for school. He doesn’t have the easiest life in the world. He has to take a short cut through the woods to avoid the kids that pick on him. And then he never gets school. Of course, he was never going to get there because …
With thanks to Caroline Kepnes for her generosity of time and thought and to David Brown, Deputy Director of Publicity at Simon & Schuster, for helping to facilitate this interview.