Stephanie Tromly has lived in no fewer than five countries—born in the Philippines, she grew up in Hong Kong, spent a year in Brunei with her family, moved to the U.S. for college, settled in Canada, and is currently back in Hong Kong. Yet the setting of her debut novel, Trouble Is a Friend of Mine (Penguin/Dawson, Aug.), which, she says, takes place in a fictitious “small city in the armpit of upstate New York,” had less to do with anywhere she’d lived than her state of mind while she was writing the book and living in Winnipeg. “To be honest, the River Heights I described was my interior landscape after I had my kid,” Tromly notes. “It was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and I ended up staying home for a month and a half, not counting doctor’s appointments. Those were some dark days, and I wrote the town to match my feelings.”
As such, one might expect the novel to veer into Fargo territory. But while Tromly’s acerbic, new-in-town heroine, Zoe Webster, and her unpredictable new friend Digby get drawn into some grim local mysteries—including an unethical gynecologist and a kidnapped student—the overall feeling is closer to Veronica Mars. “The plot was something I’d jokingly made up while I was looking out the window,” says Tromly, recalling watching the activities taking place at a mansion across from her apartment. In the book, one of the mysteries that crops up involves the secretive, cultlike family that lives across the street from Zoe. “When there’s an end-of-the-world cult living next door to you, make it your business to find out what they’re up to,” Digby tells Zoe at one point. “That’s, like, a basic life rule.”
After moving to the States, Tromly studied economics and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania before going “back to square one” and getting a second bachelor’s degree, as well as a master’s, in English literature from the University of Toronto. She initially started writing screenplays, which has helped her in terms of dialogue, action scenes, and pacing, though she says that her taste for the “farcical and absurd,” including films from Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman, and the Coen brothers, has been less of an asset at times. “You can imagine how many times I’ve gotten the note ‘Over-the-top.’ ”
Tromly signed with her agent, David Dunton of Harvey Klinger, in early 2014, and he sold the novel to Kathy Dawson at Penguin that April, after which she got underway on revisions. “What I didn’t understand right away is that readers are more interested in the characters than the plot,” Tromly says. “The bare essentials that worked for screenplays—because the actors bring the rest—were just not enough. And poor Kathy had to break that habit of mine of underwriting my characters.”
Being abroad when her first book went on sale has meant that “as far as everyday lived experience goes, there hasn’t been much of a change” since its publication, Tromly says. Her husband is on a research sabbatical in Hong Kong, but the family will return to Winnipeg after the six-month stint. Though Tromly doesn’t rule out the possibility of turning back to screenplays, for now she’s sticking with Zoe and Digby: a sequel, Trouble Makes a Comeback, is slated to be published in November 2016, with a third book planned after that.