“There’s nothing better than laughing when you know you maybe shouldn’t be laughing, right?”
Caroline Kepnes received huge critical acclaim for her first book You, with the its anti-hero Joe Goldberg, a despicable character who we couldn’t help rather like despite ourselves. It was a thrilling, creepy and sinister book that even managed to scare the master of horror himself, Stephen King, who described it as “hypnotic and scary”. Kepnes is back with her second novel, Hidden Bodies, and we’re pleased to report that it’s as creepy, clever and funny as its predecessor.
We find Joe back in the New York bookstore and up to to his old tricks. Of course he has a very unhealthy obsession with a new girl who he stalks all the way to Los Angeles and finds himself on a familiar trail of destruction. We talked to Caroline Kepnes about how on earth she managed to come up with the character of Joe, how she made him likeable, despite everything, and what she thinks about Stephen King…
Better Reading: How did you manage to make this truly despicable character, Joe Goldberg, so appealing and funny?
Caroline Kepnes: There’s nothing better than laughing when you know you maybe shouldn’t be laughing, right? I always think about that most basic joke, the man slips on the banana peel and falls on his ass. He’s hurting. You’re laughing. And it’s okay because, you know, his ass isn’t broken, he’s not dying. He’s stung but he’ll be alright. But I think about the difference between falling on your ass and falling off a cliff. Something I thought about a lot with Joe, wanting to make me question myself for standing by him. One minute, this guy is waxing poetic about E.E. Cummings and nailing something wrong with modern life and you’re like, yes. And the next he’s exterminating a human being and you’re like…wait. The whiplash, right? That’s exciting to me.
BR: Does he resemble anyone you have ever met? What was the inspiration behind Joe Goldberg?
CK: The inspiration is this cocktail of events. I spent a year taking care of my father when he had cancer, and he passed, and that was life-altering. The disappearance of his voice, he had a dark sense of humor. So I wanted that in my life. Then, my mom had surgery, which was like are you kidding me world, my dad just died and now my mom’s in an operating room and it’s almost Christmas and Hannukah like really come on, world, really? Then I had emergency throat surgery and vocal cord nodules and I couldn’t talk out loud. I had to communicate with a notepad. I’m obsessed with Stephen Crane, really became obsessed with him when I wrote a biography of him for an academic children’s publisher. He talks a lot about the filter, your experiences go through it and then you write. I think all this trauma and loss and aggravation, it started going through the filter (it never ends, ah life) and then I was in a position to make something dark and funny.
CK: Amazing. I mean I lost my mind in Kitson in the Beverly Center Mall. Jumping up and down and I’m throwing wallets and exasperated and I’m trying to tell the people working there what happened and they’re looking at me like I’m crazy because it’s one of those places where people don’t get excited and everyone is trying to be cool and I’m like ecstatic. His work has always had such an impact on me, to this day. I can’t wait for the next book. I think about Brady Hartsfield a lot.
BR: The reaction to You was overwhelmingly positive. Did you feel a great deal of pressure for your second novel to be as good?
CK: Oh I love that scene in The Affair when the stodgy pompous old bestseller/father in law from hell is telling his son in law, Almost everyone has one book. Almost no one has two. Yeah, I went through second book anxiety. I read about it until I could laugh about it and relax. It’s human nature to put order, to say this one is better than that one, this Godfather versus that one. And I felt pressure to put all that out of my head and focus on the empty page, just try and make the words feel good, flow. Some people like the first one better, some like the second one. The most important thing is to keep writing, go again. The positivity of creating new pages, that’s what makes those positive reviews possible.
BR: Hidden Bodies is many ways scathing of the digital age, our obsession with social media and celebrity. Does Joe’s disdain for these things reflect your own feelings?
CK: Oh I am so conflicted, a total hypocrite like so many of us. I’m on social media every day pretty much, trying to find balance. And on a neurological and physical level, I obsess over how it must be altering our brains and our bodies, our downward heads. You’re in a car, on a street and everyone is looking down when it seems there was once a biological imperative to look outward, upward for predators. And now we look for likes and dislikes. These phones are in our heads, they really are. I love exploring what that means for different people. I love anti-social Joe out there learning to be social in the phone, in life, using it, abusing it. It amuses me to no end.
BR: We understand you’re from the East Coast but now live in Los Angeles. Joe, a New Yorker, is often scathing of many Angelenos for their aspirations, always wanting to be something they’re not. How much of your own experience of living in LA influenced his thoughts and feelings?
CK: So much. The first time I came to LA was on a business trip for Entertainment Weekly Magazine, for TV press tour. I was completely dazzled. Like across the board, love at first visit. The main thing was talking to actors and writers, hearing that story, a few weeks ago there was no acting job, this guy was a waiter taking classes and now here he is on this show that might make it, might not. The inherent drama in that, the suspense of life. I love that energy and I wanted to be near it. And I am a love/hate person so of course living here, in the hurry up and wait of it, you get so moody. I love that article going around about the water being full of Xanax. I mean, of course it is. “Don’t stop believin’” is an exhausting credo.
BR: When plotting your novels, do you always know well in advance what Joe will do next or does he sometimes take you by surprise?
CK: Yes and yes. There is so much thinking before I start. And then in between bouts at the computer, there is a lot of thinking. I thought they showed that part of writing so well in the movie The Hours where she’s siting around staring and thinking. This wonderful Swedish author Denise Rudberg calls it “staring time”. I love that because it’s the truth. Writing starts with that spark, that impulse, but it only completes in thought. And those surprising moments, oh those are the reward for the hours, when you’re sitting there and the scene takes on a life of its own. But that time is not all the time. So much of it is dogged, repetitive thinking and planning and hitting the wall and not walking away.
BR: What other novelists inspire you?
CK: Philip Roth is probably my strongest influence, I’m crazy for his details and his long sentences and his commas and his Jewishness. And Judy Blume, she gets in heads. And Joyce Carol Oates and Stewart O’Nan and Charles Bukowski I love Jincy Willett, too. Paul Cleave and Mary Kubica and Tamar Cohen, they all know how to hook you in.
BR: Will we be seeing more of Joe Goldberg?
CK: I see more of him, I hear him all the time. So that’s a yes. You’ll see more of him too. Eventually.