Liane Moriarty’s story begins in the leafy suburbs of Sydney, Australia. It’s where she led her pack of four sisters and a brother through the varied adventures of childhood. It’s also where the self-effacing author squirrels away in the periodic quiet of her home office—while fending off the distractions of life as a wife, mother of two, sister, and daughter—to write blockbuster novels.
Moriarty is speaking via Skype from that office, her shoulder-length blonde hair framing her piercingly blue eyes. The space, she says, breeds more chaos than calm. “It’s treated with no respect whatsoever. Children come in and out. There is no doubt that if I was a man, everyone would be creeping around Daddy’s office while he wrote his important books. At one point, my husband said, ‘Come on, this is where you write!’ And I said, ‘No. It’s a hot desk!’ ”
Her workplace may feel hectic, but Moriarty’s homeland has grounded her eight internationally bestselling novels. Among them are the 2014 global hit turned HBO miniseries Big Little Lies and 2013’s The Husband’s Secret, which, per publisher Henry Holt, has sold more than two million copies worldwide and was optioned by CBS Films. Moriarty is one of the few authors ever to have had three books listed on the New York Times bestsellers list simultaneously. Holt will be releasing her latest, Apples Never Fall, in September.
The novel, like much of Moriarty’s work, explores the dysfunction hiding beneath the surface of a seemingly happy, successful middle-class family. Stan and Joy Delaney, who have raised four beautiful children, just sold their tennis academy. They’ve maintained a passionate marriage for 50 years. But when a strange young woman stumbles onto their doorstep one night, their lives take a mysterious turn. Before long, Joy disappears—leaving her children to question their parents’ marriage and the family history they thought they knew.
Family influence can run deep. As children, Moriarty and her sisters read voraciously and wrote stories of their own for pleasure—and for the occasional commission. She scored her first book deal in grade school, when her entrepreneurial father paid $1 for her three-volume series, The Mystery of Dead Man’s Island.
“I think my whole career has been about trying to get back to the un-self-consciousness of writing when you are a little girl,” Moriarty says. “I have to work hard each time to achieve what I used to achieve instantly when I was a kid with no barriers.”
Writing took a backseat in Moriarty’s adolescence. Though she had always loved the craft, she couldn’t imagine that her passion might ever translate into a “real” career. The practical firstborn got a business degree, took a variety of corporate jobs, and started her own ad agency before landing on freelance copywriting.
But the urge was always there, and storytelling, as it happens, runs in the family. Of Moriarty’s five siblings, sisters Jaclyn and Nicola are also successful novelists, and both wound up playing key roles in her career.
“I was visiting my sister Jaclyn, who was studying at Cambridge, and I remember sitting on her bed and reading her first young adult novel, Feeling Sorry for Celia, and being amazed by it,” Moriarty says. “But that still wasn’t enough to push me—until the day she told me that it’d been accepted for publication. I was filled with pride for her, but I was equally filled with envy, because she’d done what was our childhood dream. And I wasn’t even trying. I’d just put it completely aside.”
Moriarty promptly left copywriting and enrolled in a master’s in creative writing program at Macquarie University in Sydney. While there, she finished her debut novel, Three Wishes, which was published in 2004. “The whole time I was writing that book, I remember feeling a sense of relief,” she says. “It was a relief because I was finally writing again. It’s like the feeling you get with exercise. I’d forgotten how good this feels. It was just like when I was a kid—pure relief and joy.”
Moriarty’s smart novels are a pleasure to read—and hard to put down. Her characters, often dealing with swirls of complicated relationships, stifling social pressures, and dark secrets, are surprisingly relatable. She thinks that secrets are the crux of a good story, and that a large cast of characters, treated with tenderness and love, is the best way to struggle through and emerge with revelations readers won’t forget.
But that kind of tenderness takes time. Tired after writing and touring for her last novel, Nine Perfect Strangers, Moriarty asked her editor for more time—two years instead of her usual one—to write Apples Never Fall. The extension allowed her space to experiment a bit.
“I thought, I’ll just limber up my writing, and I won’t actually write a novel yet,” she recalls. “So I asked my sister Jaci to give me some writing prompts. She gave me a little description of a bike lying on some grass, with apples spilling from its basket. I didn’t intend for it to be a book, and I almost felt a bit embarrassed, because it was supposed to be a warm-up. But I just started writing.”
Moriarty begins each day editing what she wrote the day before. “Even though the words ‘The End’ no longer appear, I always still type them,” she says. “I like to write that as if it really is the end. I like writing—and redrafting—over the course of a year because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I need time for things to unfold because I’m making it up as I go along.”
Along the way, Moriarty’s audience taught her something about herself. Once referred to as a writer of women’s fiction or chick lit, she used to feel dismissed or belittled. “I would say, ‘It makes no sense! Why are we the subcategory when women read most of the fiction?’ ” she explains. But then she realized that the label isn’t necessarily pejorative. “I’ve started to embrace the term ‘women’s fiction.’ My audiences are filled with women, and now there are these wonderful women producing adaptations of my work and starring in them.” These wonderful women now include Meryl Streep, one of Moriarty’s favorite actors, who played the role of Mary Louise Wright in the adaptation of Big Little Lies.
“I’m so lavishly lucky in that regard,” Moriarty says. “I can hardly talk because I feel so spoiled. I know some authors have had terrible experiences with adaptations. But my experience was just such fun, and I’ve made new friends as well. It’s such a thrill. It’s sort of funny, really—quite separate from the actual books I write. There, it’s just between me and the readers.”
Back home at her hot desk, the familial chaos has a calm of its own. There’s truth in all the mess.
“It is such a privilege and a pleasure to know that this is my job,” Moriarty says. “I still feel a little bit foolish when I sit down to think, ‘I’m writing a story.’ How embarrassing! You’re a grown-up sitting there to write a story! Except, I remember, I’ve got a very grown-up contract. So that makes it valid.”
Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos has written for Forbes, Newsweek, and Working Mother.