Interview with Shari Lapena

Posted by Goodreads on July 30, 2018
How well do you really know the person sleeping next to you? Hopefully better than the couples in Shari Lapena's beguiling marriage thrillers The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House know each other.

In her new thriller, An Unwanted Guest, Lapena turns her attention to a larger cast of characters trapped in a mystery that takes place over the course of a weekend at a secluded mountain lodge. Who could have predicted the violent ice storm, ensuing power outage, and string of murders?

Lapena has earned her fans through her expert pacing, character development, and attention to detail. But the Toronto-based author, who started out writing literary comedies, said she used to doubt whether she could pull off a thriller. She spoke with Goodreads contributor Stephanie Goldberg about her seat-of-the-pants writing style, the inspiration behind her latest book, and her journey from literary novelist to "sneaky" thriller writer.

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Goodreads: You worked as a lawyer, an English teacher, and managed an English as a Second Language school before writing your first novel. What led to Things Go Flying?

Shari Lapena: I find with a lot of writers, we just kind of shuffle from thing to thing because we really want to be writers. Until we actually settle down to become writers, we're just kind of trying on other things. I worked full-time for many years, and then I had a baby; I wanted to stay home with him. He would nap in the afternoons. I always wanted to be a writer, and I thought, "I finally have the time—I'm just going to write a novel." I sat down and just started without any kind of plan, and I came up with Things Go Flying. I was doing it all in secret. My husband knew I was writing this book, but no one else. Once I got started, I never had trouble selling books or getting agents. But my literary books themselves didn't sell well. Literary fiction in Canada is kind of a tough go unless you're one of the really big names.

GR: Is that when you started writing thrillers?

SL: I always wanted to write thrillers because that's what I grew up reading and loving. That's my go-to genre when I want to escape, when I want to watch TV on Netflix. I'd always wanted to write one, but I just didn't think I could do it because I've never been able to plot beforehand. I should have spoken to more thriller writers because the more I'm at this, the more I realize a lot of thriller writers are like me and kind of make it up as they go, tweaking it here and there. I still don't work from a plan. I just find that I'm not the kind of person who can sit down and come up with a whole book in my head, not without the characters leading me to what's going to happen next.

I finally thought, "Enough of this." I was kind of tired of the literary fiction I was writing. I spent about three years on a third literary comedy that wasn't going anywhere. I had an agent for it, but they weren't shopping it. I thought, "I'm just going to write a thriller in secret. I won't tell anybody because I really want to write one. I want to see if I can do it."

All I had was this idea for a couple, and this idea about leaving your baby and going next door. I live in a semi-attached house, and I wanted a situation where the parents were somewhat culpable, but it was understandable. Like, yes, they left their baby behind—but they were only on the other side of the wall. And, yes, the [baby] monitor was broken—but they were checking on her.

I wrote [The Couple Next Door] on my own, with no planning, in about six months. It was so fun to write. I've never had an easy book since.

GR: Did you follow the same process for A Stranger in the House?

SL: My process seems almost different with every book. With Stranger, I had a much harder time because everybody was watching. [Couple] had done really well, I was on contract, I only had a year to get the book done, I wasn't used to working with lots of editors. I had that difficult-second-book thing they say you get when you've had a book that's a hit. It took me a while to get over it. But once I got into it, I was able to work without a plan and go where it needed to go. Then I had to go back and rework the beginning quite a lot. So, yes, I followed the same procedure for that one where I didn't plan it out ahead of time. All I had for that one, in a way, it was even less than I had for the first one.

I liked the idea of a woman killed somebody and she's had this accident, so it's all going to come out. I didn't have the backstory. I didn't know who she killed. I knew there would be problems in the marriage as things came out about her past and what was going on. The creepy neighbor across the street, she just kind of popped in. I really like her—Brigid. And it just kind of went on from there.

GR: And An Unwanted Guest?

SL: An Unwanted Guest was different because it's a puzzle mystery, and you can't just wing that one.

I was inspired by the Agatha Christie book And Then There Were None. I always loved that book, where people start dropping like flies and you don't know who's going to be next.

Those puzzle mysteries are very hard to write. You have to account for where everybody is at all times in your head. I had to stop halfway through and think again about what the possible options were. And I had to go through lots of edits to set up the right clues. It was really complicated. I don't think I'll be doing another puzzle mystery for a while.

For my next one, I'm going back to my old couple style where I just have an opening premise—which I won't share—and it's going from there. This one, interestingly, having struggled a lot with the third one, I do have a better idea of where it's going to end up. I'm only about one-fifth of the way in, and I have about five suspects. I'm kind of sure it's one of two, but it could change. I don't normally, this early, even have a good idea of who the suspects are.

GR: What makes writing this one so different?

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SL: I think it's that I had a lot of advice from my agent and my editors to try and figure it out. They love to have outlines with everything figured out because timelines are very tight for these thrillers when they come out every year. They don't really want a writer flailing around at the last minute saying, "I don't know how it ends." I guess the writer doesn't want to be flailing around, either. [Laughs] With this one, I'm thinking more as I do it than I did for the first two.

GR: How did An Unwanted Guest come to be?

SL: I had done two of the husband-wife things; I wanted more characters. And I wanted to do more with setting. Part of the appeal of my first two is they could be set almost anywhere. I wanted to do something where the setting was more part of the story, and I wanted to do a nice old hotel and being stuck. I figured I could only do that in the winter because I don't know how you could isolate people unless you had an ice storm.

GR: In a previous interview, you said you and your husband are restoring a Victorian farmhouse, complete with a maid's quarters and back staircase. Was that the inspiration for Mitchell's Inn, where the story takes place?

SL: Do you know what—there is a little bit. When we saw that house, it was this derelict abandoned house, but one of the things I loved most about it was the staircase. There's this huge grand staircase. Not quite as grand as the one in the book. And there's a darker, more rustic staircase in the back. So that was playing on my mind a little bit.

I was thinking of that design when I designed the hotel because with a back staircase, there's no end of things you can do. This book wouldn't have worked if I didn't have the back staircase.

GR: And what about Candice, a writer working on a novel she's excited about? Were you thinking about yourself, or your writing process, when you developed her?

SL: I'm in there. I had some fun with her because, I thought, she's kind of like me. I always write in yoga pants, pretty much. And when someone asks her what she's working on, she says, "Oh, I don't like to talk about it. It just sucks all the energy out of it." That's what I always feel like. I prefer to work without a plan and without input, and I don't really like to talk about it. She's sort of based on me, I guess. I had fun playing the writer there.

GR: Some of your narrators can be a little unreliable. How do you successfully execute this technique?

SL: There are just so many ways to do unreliable narration. Basically, the person whose head you're in is holding something back or even lying to you, and you're not aware of it until the end or later on. It's not easy to do. I would love to take a course on unreliable narration. I kind of figure it out with each one I do.

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, it won the Booker prize. It's just this wonderful story about this butler, and it's such a great book. He's so subtle with unreliable narration because the character is actually lying to himself. Another one he did, [Never Let Me Go]—where they're unreliable, but they don't know they're unreliable. I'm just in awe of people who do it well. It's an art.

We don't trust the narrator the way we did back when Agatha Christie wrote The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. One of the rules was, the narrator never did it. She broke that rule, and now everyone is breaking the rules. It is harder to do it well. You have to be sneaky. Most thriller writers are very sneaky people, so it's fine. [Laughs]

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GR: What types of books do you read while you're writing?

SL: I tend to read quite widely. I do read nonfiction. I like memoirs. I like to read memoirs about dysfunctional families. The Glass Castle I loved. I read books about psychopaths. I read books about history. I'm really into Russian history. I also read literary fiction and a lot of thrillers. I know some writers say, "I don't read thrillers when I'm writing." But I'm always writing because I do a book a year. So, if I didn't read when I was writing, I would never be reading.

Right now I'm looking at [a stack of books] on my bedside table. In the next three or four weeks I'm going to read Laura Lippman. I've got a B.A. Paris book there. I'm reading a new one out called The Rumour by Lesley Kara. And An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen. I get all my books for free. It's one of the best perks about being a writer.

GR: As a former English teacher, what non-curriculum books do you encourage students to read and why?

SL: I always say—I'm a firm believer in this—kids should read what they like. Even my kids, who are good readers, they complain about books they're made to read in high school sometimes. In Canada, I don't know if it's the same in the States, they don't buy new class sets. They have the same ones as 40 years ago. They're still doing Lord of the Flies and [A Tale of Two Cities]. There's nothing wrong with those books, but it would be nice if they had the money to get something more current.

But kids should read what they like. I bought my son the Captain Underpants books, and then he went on to Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. My daughter really likes Margaret Atwood. Middle school seems to be where kids drop off. That's where the Percy Jackson series and the Magnus Chase series come in. Like Harry Potter, it gets them reading series and waiting for the next book. That's what I would recommend.

GR: Earlier you said that you didn't used to think you'd be able to write a thriller. What do you want aspiring—even established—writers to learn from your journey?

SL: It took me years to get up the confidence to try a thriller because I didn't think I could do it. That's why I wrote [The Couple Next Door] in secret. I thought it would be a flop. I didn't think I'd be able to finish it.

I tried once before—it was about a woman on a bicycle trip. She went missing, and I had no idea what happened to her. [Laughs] That one went in a drawer, and I never saw it again.

Write what you get excited about. Write a thriller, even if you think you can't plot. Don't write a book that you think would do well in the market, because nobody can predict what's going to do well. If it's not exciting to you, it won't be exciting to anyone else. Take risks in your writing, and find your own voice. If there's anything I've learned, it's that there really aren't any new ideas. What makes a book original is the voice—how you tell the story. If you can work out that voice, you'll be unique enough to find readers.

Comments Showing 1-33 of 33 (33 new)

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message 1: by Mark (new)

Mark Nystuen Very interesting interview, well-written

message 2: by Jim (new)

Jim Crocker Congratulations Shari. The Couple Next Door was the Psychological Thrillers Reading Group's Book of the Month (BOTM) in  January 2017. Go Shari Go!

message 3: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Congratulations Shari! I truly enjoy your books! Great interview!

message 4: by Vickie (new)

Vickie Excellent and informative interview! I’m looking forward to reading the new book since I loved THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR.

message 5: by Victoria (new)

Victoria McMahon Great interview. I loved both your books. Can’t wait for the new one

message 6: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Great interview. I love to hear what writers are reading and what inspires them. Makes me even more excited to read this book!

message 7: by Jenn (new)

Jenn Kellam I cannot wait to read this book, I am so excited! I absolutely loved the last two I've read, and I look forward to reading this one too!

message 8: by Andrea (new)

Andrea I cant wait to get my hand on this book. I loved The Couple Next Door. It was just the kind of book I love to read. Looking forward to "An Unwanted Guest" (no pun intended)

message 9: by Michelle (new)

Michelle What a great interview! I'm looking forward to reading this book, I'm so excited! I loved the last two books! Keep them coming.

message 10: by C.A. (last edited Aug 07, 2018 08:06AM) (new)

C.A. Wittman I really enjoyed this interview. I love Shari's writing and I have kept an eye out for her next book. I laughed out loud when she spoke about how complicated puzzle mysteries are and she won't be doing another one too soon, and I completely agree with her advice on inspiring a love for literature in young people.

message 11: by Linda (new)

Linda Atamian I have read both The Couple Next Door and Stranger In The House.
Both of them were as thrilling as Shari Lapena meant them to be.
Interestingly, I first heard about Lapena's work in the book blog of a not very intellectually focused tabloid--The New York Daily News!
Thank you, New York Daily News. Now I'm going to read An Unwanted Guest!

message 12: by Didi (new)

Didi Irwin Loved reading this interview! Good job!! Just picked up An Unwanted Guest today as I really enjoyed Shari’s 2 previous works. Also, yay she’s Canadian!

message 13: by Lanita (new)

Lanita So glad I read this. I've tried writing, wrote 5 long chapters (in a week -it somehow just flowed) and it got stolen (physically -someone stole my handbag, am old school like to handwrite in an exercise book). Since then, have been too scared to write as I am like Shari -I don't plot or have enormous whiteboards with characters etc. I love Shari's last comments -"..its the voice".
Thanks Shari for sharing.

message 14: by Zen (new)

Zen I was hoping Shari would mention that she was mentored by the well known Canadian author David Adams Richards who encouraged her w/ her first mystery-he is now a Canadian Senator

message 15: by Sibusiso (new)

Sibusiso Charles I have learn a lot from this interview and please allow me to share what i have learn in community theather.

message 16: by Iqbal (new)

Iqbal Uddin You're greatful writer on the time!

message 17: by Blayne (new)

Blayne Smith I can't wait to read your books.

message 18: by Cathy (new)

Cathy Great interview very inspiring !

message 19: by Davy (new)

Davy Love that Shari has no plan, no plot, just let's the story unfold as it goes. Bit like life, really. Nice

message 20: by Mary (Meesa) (new)

Mary (Meesa) I really engaged with this interview, Shari. Interesting and informative. Thank you.

message 21: by Lisa (new)

Lisa I really enjoyed reading your interview Shari, can't wait to read your new book .

message 22: by F.B. (new)

F.B. Bennett Joanne wrote: "Great interview. I love to hear what writers are reading and what inspires them. Makes me even more excited to read this book!"

message 23: by F.B. (new)

F.B. Bennett Ms. Lapena is a gifted writer! Looking forward to reading more of her books in the future! Terrific interview; it was interesting to hear about books she has read and also about what students are reading in Canadian schools!

message 24: by Katherine (new)

Katherine Just got Unwanted Guest on audio. Can't wait to listen.

message 25: by Reem (new)

Reem Faris good analysis

message 26: by GA (new)

GA Lowrey I don't know you. You don't know me, but we will become best friends - or your books and I will.

message 27: by Emma (new)

Emma Shaw Great interview. It's interesting to read how she didn't think she could write a thriller after reading her amazing books.

{U n s o l v e d M y s t e r y} An Unwanted Guest is my next read. I'm very excited about it! =)

message 29: by Loretta (new)

Loretta Rinzel Loved The Couple Next Door!! Plan on reading A Straner in the House very soon. Really enjoyed your interview. It’s always nice to know more about the author of great books.

message 30: by Dywane (new)

Dywane Congats Shari?

message 31: by Mahesh (last edited Aug 25, 2018 03:10AM) (new)

Mahesh Krshnan You are my favourite mystery / thriller writer. What I like about your writing: you catch the reader by the neck and make him/her pay attention. You don't beat around the bush, your writing is crisp with well chosen words ( so in a way double pleasure of enjoying the language too), riveting, seat-of-the-pants style with a never a dull moment. After the novel is over, I usually have a hangover for a week. If I am left in a isolated island, you know what I would like best ( apart from satiating my hunger) ! In terms of popularity , you deserve to be with the likes of John Grisham. Love from India!

message 32: by Jovanie (new)

Jovanie Garay i'd like to read your book, too!

message 33: by Pam (new)

Pam Carmichael I just finished The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena, wow someone pinch me!! This had me on the edge of my seat all the way through it. Great writing and wow the ending was out of this world. I just can't believe how much the characters became like a family to me, you just have got to read it!!! I sure will be reading more of her other books!

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