Karen M. McManus Delves into Dark Family Legacies with 'The Cousins'

Posted by Sharon on November 24, 2020
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Karen M. McManus, the bestselling author of One of Us Is Lying, Two Can Keep a Secret, and One of Us Is Next, doesn’t shy away from secrets and lies in her newest YA thriller, The Cousins.

The novel centers on three cousins—Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah Story—who barely know one another and have never met their grandmother, a rich woman who swore off her own children. Surprisingly, they each receive a letter from her, inviting them to work at Gull Cove Resort, her island resort, for the summer. Though the cousins are not interested in meeting her this way, their parents make it clear that they don’t have a choice. This may be their only opportunity to win over their grandmother (and her sizable fortune).

But when the cousins arrive, nothing's what they expected. And the longer they stay, the more they uncover about one another, their parents, and their grandmother.

The Cousins digs into family history and digs out every secret imaginable. Because family comes first, always. Goodreads contributor Arriel Vinson interviewed McManus about family dynamics, the act of secret-keeping, and making setting a character. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: What was it like to move outside of the universe of One of Us Is Lying and Two Can Keep a Secret? What was the difference between revolving around a family versus revolving around a group of friends?

Karen M. McManus: I think that with The Cousins, there were a couple of things that felt different. There is definitely the stronger emphasis on family, although I always have a lot of family ties within my books, which is something I love to write. It's just never been about one specific family in this way. And the setting was different, of course. I left the halls of high school and went to an island. I did that for a few reasons. For one thing, I like the contained aspect of the small island and the fact that once the cousins arrive, they're essentially in a fishbowl that they can't leave.

Plus, it pings them away from their normal lives, and they can focus on getting to know one another and delving into those family secrets without distraction. It was an interesting setup to me in that they are related, but they really don't know each other. They certainly don't know this grandmother who has never spoken to them before now, but their parents were also estranged from one another. They saw each other as small children and never since, so it's lots of layers of discovery of the family outside their immediate family unit.

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GR: What was it like writing three different cousins who barely know one another and have drastically different personalities?

KM: I love writing multi-POVs. That's one of my things I always do. And part of the reason I like it is because I feel like if you do it well, the group is almost a fourth character. There's a certain chemistry between the characters that really helps to propel the narrative and, ideally, the reader's investment in them both individually and as a collective. With these three, I wanted to explore different reactions to the strange family situation that they find themselves in.

The character of Millie is a very confident girl. She loves art and fashion, and she's always been fascinated by her family, almost in a wish fulfillment kind of way. But she's also very wary because she's seen the toll that the estrangement has taken on her mother. And she's seeing some of those personality traits that she doesn't want to manifest coming out in her as well.

Then you have Aubrey, who's the peacemaker. She wants everybody to get along. She worships her dad, but she's been very disappointed recently, and she's bringing that baggage to the island with her in just a different perspective on her family. Her world has been turned upside down a little bit.

And then you have Jonah, who's just bitter. He's bitter, and he's mad, and he does not want to be there. And he has an agenda. He is not planning on getting sidetracked from that agenda, but he does.

GR: I love what you said about the group being a fourth character because there was a line where someone finally used "we" to talk about the group and another cousin had taken notice of that. Even though The Cousins revolved around uncovering secrets, it's also about familial love. Can you tell me about striking that type of balance?

KM: Yeah. It's a mystery at its heart, of course. They have to unravel that, and they need to unravel that to really understand what it means to be a Story and the kind of Story that they want to be. They're hand in hand. They're solving the mystery, but they're also figuring out who they are. And a big part of that is where they came from. For all of them, there's always been a hole there, and maybe it wasn't something they thought about day to day or even consciously, but as soon as they become this unit, they recognize that yearning in one another and that desire to have more connection because all of them are only children, which I don't think is a coincidence with this group of siblings. They're a very fractured group. Family is not necessarily important to the older siblings anymore. They're a little bit burned when it comes to that, and so the cousins are somewhat isolated as a family unit.

GR: Class and finances also play a very large role in this novel. Some of the family members are scraping by, some are doing OK, and then there’s the grandmother who is extremely rich. Why was this important to explore?

KM: I wanted to do a couple of different things with this book. On one hand, I wanted to tell a fun, soapy story full of excess and intrigue because that's the kind of thing that I like to read, so why not? But on the other hand, I did want the book to take a look at the ways privilege manifests itself and how it can potentially corrupt or not, depending on whether or not it's paired with empathy and connection and a sense of community, which is something that the Story family had at one point and then was lost with this second generation. So, something like the family-first motto, which should be positive, starts to feel like a threat.

You have these grandchildren now who could have had a very different life had their parents never been disinherited. They could have had the type of name that opened doors even before you knock, but they don't have that. So they have this awareness of this parallel existence, but when they come to the island, they're very much outsiders. That was an interesting perspective to write about. There are people on the island who think, "Oh, you're a Story, that is glamorous, this is exciting." For them it's not; they don't know this world at all.

GR: You're really good at writing settings that feel like a character itself. Can you talk about making a character and even the gossip and small-town rumors that come with it?

KM: I really appreciate you saying that because I've always felt like setting is my distant third strength when it comes to the underpinnings of a book. I feel like I'm character first, plot second, and setting is something I have to really work on. I will say I work on it harder than anything else. It's almost never there in the beginning. It has to be added on and developed. And for this book, in particular, I really wanted to challenge myself with setting, and I wanted to create a setting that would be very compelling to me personally, so that I would be excited to dive into it that way.

I grew up visiting Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, so I created an island like that except lesser known and not as beautiful. I did a research trip to Nantucket so that I could really immerse myself in: What does it look like when you approach the island? What do you smell? What are the sounds when you get off? What do you see?

I was taking pictures and videos along the way, even of basic things like “this is what it looks like when you walk to the ferry” because I wanted to be able to go back later and weave the interesting parts of those details into what the cousins are observing as they visit this place that they have never seen before.

GR: Sometimes writers go to other places to do research, but the pictures and videos are so compelling. What kind of other research, if any, did you do for this novel?

KM: Setting was really the big research because other than that, it was so family focused and character focused. The parents all had jobs that I am somewhat familiar with. Aubrey's father is a novelist. I mean, he's not a good novelist, but I had an understanding of that business. Millie's mother worked in public relations, which is something that I once did. In terms of setting up the families and the profession that they're in, I was drawing on a lot of my own background knowledge for that, and then it really was a question of how do I create this family?

I did do some research into families that came over on the Mayflower. That's actually where I got the Story name. There was a single person who came over, and his name was Elias Story. And because of how he was recorded, the thought was that he was most likely a servant. And I thought, "Well, wouldn't that be an interesting background for this family?" Very appropriate for the scrappy grandfather type who may come here, not as somebody who's wealthy or influential but becomes that way. I did a lot of research on how families gather wealth over generations. None of it made it into the book, but it did help inform the idea of the Story family.

GR: I've also seen people, of course, call you a plot-twist expert. As you create different points of view, tell me more about how you keep your plot twists fresh. 

KM: I always say that a good plot twist doesn't have to be shocking. It's nice if it is. If someone is surprised, I think that's great, but the most important thing is that it makes sense. And ideally, it makes sense in a way that you think, "I can't believe I didn't see that." I feel like if a reader has that reaction, then I have 100 percent done my job. That's what I hope. But my other hope is that if you figure it out, because a lot of people do, I hope you still enjoy the journey. That's where the characters come in. I think each of them have to have a stake and an investment in what the resolution is, and they have to proactively move you toward that unveiling. If you're invested in their journey, if you care about what happens to them and what's the ultimate resolution, the ways in which it will impact them, then even if you've figured it out, you should still enjoy the book.

GR: Without giving too much away, the novel is both about revenge and forgiveness, and it's all wrapped up in secret-keeping. Why are secrets central to the Story family and to the mystery-thriller genre?

KM: I think people, in general, are fascinated with secrets. We all keep them for various reasons. And I think we all can justify our own secret-keeping while very much wanting to reveal what other people are hiding. That's just a human thing. With the Story family, if you add in this layer of having such a prominent family, having such a promising legacy, having it be disrupted so abruptly and so coldly, and then having each family member go off on their own path that's no longer paved with that family name behind them, and the choices that they make and the way those impact their family, it's really interesting. At least, I hope it is to try and figure out how these years of secret-keeping contribute to this moment when these three kids, who really don't know each other, are suddenly the center of attention on this very small island, and they don't know why other people are looking for answers and they have no answers.

GR: How would you say your previous books inspired you or helped you write The Cousins, and where did you draw other inspiration from?

KM: What my previous books have taught me is that it's all about the characters. Of course, you want to write a twisty mystery, but people don't love One of Us Is Lying because of the mystery. They love it because of the characters. I think it's the same with my other book, too, when you have people creating fan art of the characters and writing their own fan fiction of them, which I sometimes get tagged in, and I just think that's really cool, and that's because of the characters. That's not necessarily because of the story line. I spend a lot of time on the characters, thinking about them individually and collectively. That's my process for any book.

I tend to get my inspiration from other media. I got the idea for One of Us Is Lying when I was listening to the radio and the theme song from The Breakfast Club came on. I got the idea for The Cousins when I was reading an article about the Kennedy grandchildren, and they're all doing these really interesting things. I thought, "What would it be like to be part of a legacy like that?" Then naturally my thought was, "What would it be like to be part of a legacy like that and have it taken away?" That's where the idea came from. I do a lot of reading and listening and looking at other forms of art and asking questions about them.

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GR: Whom would you say are your writing influences?

KM: The top two would be Suzanne Collins, because I wouldn't be an author if I hadn't gotten inspired after reading the Hunger Games trilogy, and Agatha Christie, whose mysteries are just some of the best ever written.

GR: What other young adult thrillers or mysteries would you recommend to fans of your own work?

KM: I feel like 2020 has been a fantastic year for thrillers, so that's been exciting. Some of the ones that I've really enjoyed are Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson, The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick, and This Is My America by Kim Johnson. I haven't read The Project by Courtney Summers yet, but I already know I'm going to love it.

GR: What are some of your recent favorite reads, if you've been reading this year during everything that's been going on?

KM: I have. I’ve tried to, anyway. I really enjoyed Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos, which is also a thriller that I just finished. I wanted to do a palate cleanser, too, with something outside the thriller genre, so I read Today, Tonight, Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon. And it was delightful. It has a really great enemies-to-lovers story line, which was inspiring to me because that's something I'm playing around with for my sixth book, so it was really fun to see it done so well.

GR: Is there anything else you want to add for Goodreads readers about The Cousins or about anything else?

KM: My fifth book doesn't have a cover yet, but it is up on Goodreads. It's called You'll Be the Death of Me. I call it Ferris Bueller's Day Off meets a murder mystery, so three old friends relive an epic ditch day with fatal results.

I wanted to challenge myself in a different way with this one, too. It primarily takes place over the course of a single day. Giving my point-of-view characters the opportunity to grow in such a compressed time frame was an interesting challenge, so I'm really excited for readers to meet them next year. It was a lot of fun to write.


Karen M. McManus’ The Cousins will be available in the U.S. on December 1. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Angela (new)

Angela Bradford I highly recommend John Lars Zwerenz The Complete Anthology *****

message 2: by mary (new)

mary I’m so excited for this book to come out!! Karen M. McManus is one of my favorite authors of all time.

Ella (Marauder's Version) The Book Monster Can’t wait to read it!

message 4: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Ayerdi Cute_and_Grammatical wrote: "I’m so excited for this book to come out!! Karen M. McManus is one of my favorite authors of all time."


message 5: by Fernanda (new)

Fernanda Morán I loved one of us is lying, and I think this new book sounds really interesting

message 6: by Pen&Quill (new)

Pen&Quill  Read I've not read any thing by this author yet,l but this cousins book looks AMAZING! But can I just point out what an epicly well done and inspiring interview that was?! Brava!👏

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