Entre Nous: Caroline Kepnes
A few summers ago, I asked my friends what book I should read. My friend Meredith suggested “YOU,” by Caroline Kepnes. I took her suggestion, because Meredith is very smart. I was immediately drawn into the world of Joe Goldberg. Obsessive, brilliant, and a tad off-his-rocker. I devoured “YOU,” and when I was done, I looked for anything else Caroline Kepnes had written and found “Hidden Bodies,” the sequel. More Joe Goldberg? Yes please. Being drawn into the humanity of her characters, despite the pathos? Yes please. Caroline’s latest, “Providence,” is just as riveting as “YOU” and “Hidden Bodies” are. I was thrilled to speak to Caroline about Joe, writing and even Jimmy Fallon. (What? Wait, we’ll get to that one.)
Marcelle Karp: I’ve been literally waiting for you to write another book after Hidden Bodies. I mean, I am so down with Joe. He’s nuts.
Caroline Kepnes: (laughing) Yes he is. I love to write. It’s pretty much my favorite thing. I wrote another one earlier this year—just a first draft so it’s hard to say I wrote it. You know how it is, you write the same thing over and over and each time it feels like you wrote it. Next year, I want to write another Joe book.
You’re going back to Joe? Wow.
Yeah. I always meant to. I just wanted to take a break and write a couple of different things. That thing of when a story is in your head and [there are] these other voices? But, oh yes, I’m not going to leave him in that prison cell.
That’s so great! I so enjoyed Providence. I love that one of your characters is a How Did This Get Made podcast fan.
I love specific exuberance; that’s what I love about that podcast. They get so worked up over something and have this angle and bring it to so many different things. I’ll never forget discovering that and thinking, this is brilliance! That where it comes from, that place of kindness and interest. When it comes down to it, these are the movies we’ve all seen and we all watch a lot. I love school and it reminds me of, oh this could have been the best class in college. Why does something with its imperfections and its strange qualities attract so many people and create that cult around that?
You delve deeply into relationships with Providence, telling the story from different character’s point of view—Jon, Chloe, Eggs.
It was the pain of relationships, the beauty of them. It’s wonderful to have a soulmate but it’s also an anchor that can weigh you down. How do you take control of that and how do you still become yourself? I just turned forty last year and I was thinking about that time in life when you feel like everything is ahead of you versus the transition to oh-this-is-the-way-it-worked-out or the perspective of this-is-how-it-ends. It’s like you never stop growing up and that was my working theme. I’m a voice person and their voices were in my head. They all became real to me. And having written so much Joe, I was dying to write a female character and see her through her struggles and her triumphs and all of that.
What I loved about Jon and Chloe, theres so much love between them, they’re always thinking of each other, texting one another, reaching out in their own specific ways. For Jon, protecting her from himself, it’s a sacrifice on an epic romantic scale.
I agree so much. Everything I write, as you can tell, is always inspired too by our modern social connections—how they’re beautiful but how they’re also kind of horrible. I was excited about her being in this position of, I’m posting this for him, hoping he’s out there. But that could also drive you nuts, not knowing who’s seeing what you do. It fascinates me every day—how we’re all wrestling with it and how it’s such a short time that we’ve had it. When you think about modern history, ten years ago it wasn’t like this. That’s a tiny amount of time. I have so much empathy for teenagers who are dealing with that because I really and truly can’t imagine being that young and having this little phone with me where everything follows you everywhere.
I felt like I got Chloe, torn in high school, more sure of herself in her adult life.
Someone asked me a couple of weeks ago in an interview if Chloe was a feminist. I kind of stumbled because I’m like, of course. It didn’t even occur to me.
As with Joe Goldberg, you’ve done a beautiful job with humanizing Jon, who is so marginalized by society, and in essence, by himself.
I’ve always been into 90210 and like real life things more so than super powers. I was like okay, I want to find out a way to write about this. In part to figure out why it’s never been something I’ve been drawn to. I loved the idea of this guy who has a quote unquote power that to me was like a science experiment gone wrong but who doesn’t know what to do with it and isn’t an alpha male. [Where] still love comes first. Him and Joe, they’re just these romantics.
Both of them are invincible, but in very different ways.
Oh, I like that, yes.
When did you know what you sounded like as writer?
I’ve been writing my whole life. I always wrote short stories. I listened to this Black Crowes song, “She Talks To Angels” on repeat (when you had to rewind it and press play again) and it made me want to write a story. That was that 14 year-old moment of, oh this is what I sound like, this is my weird thing. Of course, this was a story from the perspective of a girl whose dead of an angel dust overdose. I didn’t understand drugs. I didn’t understand anything but they made me go to the school psychologist! But that felt like home.
What was the transition like for you, from writing short stories to writing a novel?
When I tried to write a novel, it would be nothing like my short stories. My short stories were always idiosyncratic and very voice-y. But I’d sit down and tell myself, this is a novel. It would be like, “it was raining that night and the dusk…” and very formal. I went through a really rough patch in my life that lasted a couple of years where every sphere of your life is just fucked. I was kind of like, okay I can’t stand the sound of myself complaining and feeling so bad, I need to make something out of this. That was when I started writing my first novel.
What did you tell yourself to get you to that place?
“If I think of it as a giant short story that no one will ever see, that will help me.”
Writing saves me. Is it that way for you?
Yes. That’s the beauty of it. It really is powerful that way. You’re creating something. You’re not drowning in the sorrow, you’re swimming out of it.
And so, with YOU, is that where it began, out of this place?
Yes. I did that thing years ago where I took a bunch of short stories and put them together and decided this is a novel. And I sent it out. The miracle is that I got good feedback from agents who were understandably confused by some of the narrative but, you should keep going. I love rejection. I wouldn’t have written a book if I hadn’t submitted myself to so many places over the years and taken the feedback and the hits and then gone back to work again.
It’s something you learn too, as a journalist, being able to take criticism from editors and readers.
That’s so true. That was what was one of my favorite things about coming from journalism, because it teaches you to begin things and finish them and move on. That’s just the most important lesson in writing—whether it’s a draft or a new project—that while it’s there, let the work be the work. You have to step away from it and do the thinking time and it’s so much easier to do the thinking if you’ve started writing. You just start and you get to know what you’re making.
What was your first job in the world of writing?
I started out at Tiger Beat.
(A lot of laughter ensues)
I know! It was the most amazing experience all around. One day, in the New York Times, there’s an ad that says, “Do you like boy bands?” It was at the peak of the Backstreet Boys. When I was little, I was big into New Kids On The Block and Brian Austin Green. So it was this full circle. Oh, the comedy of that is that the same time I got the offer at Tiger Beat, I got an offer at Conde Nast to be at House and Garden. I don’t love homes and gardens, I mean I love to be in them but I don’t thrive thinking about them. I loved the Backstreet Boys so that was the choice for me. We had such a small staff and we did everything from writing every single word, every single cover line and going to showcases and bands would come into the office and sing to us over a muffin basket! It was surreal and amazing.
Where did you go after Tiger Beat?
I took time off where I worked as a daily background actor on this show, “The Street.” It was very short lived. In New York, you wind up doing the weirdest things. I interviewed at Entertainment Weekly and got that job and that was my first real journalism job where there is copy editing and there is fact checking.
How long were you at EW?
I always wanted to move to California. After the two years as an editorial assistant, there’s this moment where you either become a correspondent or leave. I decided, no. I want to go on my California adventure so I moved to LA. I worked at E Online for a gossip columnist and that was another very intense experience. I catch all these things at weird moments. We had cel phones but it wasn’t like now. Now, it’s like a job that almost doesn’t exist because all these people will share themselves. But that was that 24-hour job where it was like, go to this party, get into the after party and get into work at 10 am looking like a professional.
It’s ridiculous, that expectation.
I had a movie column, where it was Reel Girl (R-E-E-L for E haha). My best moment there was at a round table at a junket with Frank Langella. He made this small movie, Starting Out In The Evening, with Lili Taylor that is just so fantastic. It’s one of those movies where I feel like not enough people have seen it. He’s very abusive in the movie; I asked him what was it like to have to hit someone. He just looks at me and he gets that weird look on his face and then slapped me on the face. I mean not full on but I was like, okay. Things that would never happen now. Can you imagine? He was like, “Well, you asked a question!” I wrote it up as this cheeky little funny E thing. It’s one of those things I look back on and go, yeah wow.
We have put up with so much on the job. So you grew up on the Cape. And right now, as we are talking, doing this interview, you’re there.
I’ve been in LA for fourteen years. I always just come home a lot. It’s the nice thing about having this job too where you can leave. I love that freedom. I love going from one to the other. I live pretty much in Hollywood and you’re so enmeshed in the industry and all of these people on the hunt for something. I love the energy on Cape Cod. That’s so different, that oh, we’re so blessed, we have all this nature and we have all this beauty and intimacy. It’s two very different vibes and I really like them both. It’s so nice to have these two wildly different priority systems.
As I was preparing for this interview, I’d been watching Jimmy Fallon talking about your book all week too. What a thrill!
Yes, oh my god. I’m still in a state of shock about with that. It’s just such a miracle. I’m so happy for books in general. Could you believe how long that segment was and how much time he gave each book? I love that so much! I’m so happy! It’s just such great exposure the way he was so loving about them. I feel like I’m a broken record this month in a good way. I keep saying everything is a dream come true but it really is. I look at this month: I was in Texas for the YOU show with the show runner and I wrote an episode…
Wait. There’a series based on the book YOU?
Yes yes yes! Coming in September to Lifetime. Yes, ten episodes. Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, the show runners are just amazing and they treated the whole process like a book club.
Who plays Joe?
Penn Badgley. He’s fantastic. He’s so compelling and smart. He can do that creepy look. They really struck the chord. Elizabeth Lail, who plays Beck, she sounds like all of us in our early twenties, the overwhelming sighing desire for things. I’m blown away.
Sera Gamble. She’s the kind of badass you want working on your project!
Yes. I don’t know which one of the trades organized a panel of show runners for something and it was all men. A few of the show runners in Hollywood, including Sera Gamble, were like, you know what? We’re organizing our own panel and they did it. They just did it. It was in this positive spirit of just do something about it. To me, that’s just a great example of reacting and doing something. If more of us do that sort of thing it’s fantastic.
The more women speak up, do things that supports those of us overlooked, the more we can affect change.
The only thing that despairs me is that oh my god its 2018. But you know what? It’s taking a long time but we’re here, we’re here. You let it become part of normalcy. That’s what’s great about now: it’s just becoming more of an assumption and an expectation.