The Bloodletting Bookseller: 10 Murderous Questions with Caroline Kepnes

With the creation of bookshop assistant Joe Goldberg in her debut novel, You, American thriller writer Caroline Kepnes imagined a compelling and strangely attractive serial killer. In her new book, Hidden Bodies, she reprises the character of Joe. We asked Caroline 10 murderous questions about books and her creepily charismatic leading man – will you fall for him too?

Joe uses social media to attract his love interest. Why do you decide to use social media? How do you feel about using social media now?

Facebook seems so inherently safe, this idea of a network consisting of people you’ve already met, people you went to school with. As opposed to Twitter, which has upended social norms. Think about the concept of ‘following’ someone. And to follow or be followed. I had this moment in Starbucks where I was sitting at a table, looking at Facebook. I got this strange feeling and turned and realised that someone was possibly sitting behind me, judging me for taking up a table and wasting time on Facebook. Hello, Joe.

Your use of the second person makes Joe pretty creepy. Was it always the plan to write in the second person or did that come about as you wrote?

Yes, the second person was always part of the plan because I think of the book as an unsent, untyped love letter. It’s really a transcript of Joe’s mind, beginning at the moment he redirects his attention toward Guinevere Beck.

Do you regularly have bad dreams? Does the process of creating scary characters ever affect you psychologically?

I’ve always had night terrors, but while writing gives me insomnia and energises me, it doesn’t give me bad dreams. Knock on wood! I sometimes ask myself, Why do I get nightmares from watching Sex and the City but not writing about murderers?

Caroline Kepnes.jpg

Caroline Kepnes

Graphic violence features in the books you write. How do you envisage and create these horrific acts?

I am really sensory oriented, so even this new book, which I’m writing in the third person, started out in the first person. Writing for me means getting into someone’s head. That’s why I love fiction, because it allows you to inhabit another person.

What resources do you use to ensure that your characters’ criminal activity is authentic?

I research quite a bit. The internet is my best friend. Bookstores too. And my friend Jolie Kerr wrote this book about how to remove stubborn stains – My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha. I just stopped by her podcast to talk about how great her index is for analysing crime scenes.

I think of You and Hidden Bodies as dark romantic comedies…”

This is a crime novel for book lovers; Joe is a bookseller and he makes many references to popular culture. Why did you decide to make your stalker an avid reader?

I am drawn to violent stories, always have been, whether they are by Joyce Carol Oates or Roald Dahl. I like the dark side and I like thinking about what drives people over the edge.

How do you feel about romantic comedies? Why did you decide to upend the trope in such a horrifying way?

I love romantic comedies. I’ve seen When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail dozens of times. I’m so fascinated with the way they depict these women as so profoundly loveable. And I love Nora Ephron’s intensely forgiving, sunlit perspective on people and destiny. I am inspired by romantic comedy and I do think of You and Hidden Bodies as dark romantic comedies in many ways.

Do you want us to root for the serial killer? ‘Oh yes, indeed…’

What are your own reading habits? Do you stick to crime fiction, or do you also like lighthearted stories?

I really mix it up. Last year I read thrillers, romantic comedies, books by Chad Kultgen and Taylor Jenkins Reid. I am drawn to stories with strong perspectives and solid voices. And Trust No One by Paul Cleave – there’s a great example of a book with so much love of storytelling as well as good old-fashioned violence.

What do you want your readers to feel when they read your books?

I want my readers to feel enchanted. I long to be hypnotised when I’m reading, to get that feeling that nothing else exists, that I’ve been transported into another realm. I want them to feel gutted. Conflicted. That’s where Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive was so appealing, letting you into the mind of this complicated woman. Two of my favorite classic crime favorites are The Talented Mr Ripley and In Cold Blood. And both of them read to me like criminal novels, in the sense that they’re so character-driven. That’s where I always start, with character.

Do you want us to root for the serial killer?

Oh yes, indeed. The question I hear every day is: ‘Am I nuts? Why do I love Joe?’ He’s telling you his side of the story. He’s not arbitrarily blowing people away. He’s trying to find some love in his life, trying to move on. Someone posted a quote from You the other day, in which Joe reflects on his bad childhood and turns it around and says that he was lucky to have the bookstore. He’s so good at taking care of himself and owning responsibility for his actions, and then he uses this talent to rationalise his criminal activity.

Hidden Bodies is published by Simon & Schuster, rrp $19.99.

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