Karen M. McManus’s debut YA novel—the thriller One of Us Is Lying—launched with a bang, and plenty of buzz, in May 2017, and has now spent 68 weeks on the New York Times YA Hardcover bestseller list. The book is in development as a TV series for E!, and a sequel, scheduled for spring 2020, was announced this past summer. But fans don’t have to wait that long to get another McManus mystery fix. Her new book, Two Can Keep a Secret, goes on sale January 8. (And she has another standalone thriller in the wings as well, for spring 2021.) We spoke with the author about how she tackled expectations for her sophomore project and what she likes about writing stories with a twist.
Your debut novel, One of Us Is Lying, was such a great success. Did all of that attention affect your approach to your new book?
Yeah, it did somewhat. Part of it was simply logistical. I was still working fulltime back then and I had always written at night. I wrote from nine o’clock at night until midnight when I wrote One of Us Is Lying, after my son went to bed. Then, after the book launched and it took off, suddenly those hours were eaten up with travel and promotion and other things that were wonderful, but they weren’t writing time. So I struggled with just finding some time, on the one hand.
On the other hand, I wasn’t very far into the book at the time. I had a draft but I wasn’t happy with it and I was revising it. I had all these new voices in my head, not only my agent and my editor’s voices, which are helpful, but also you have reader reactions in mind. You’re realizing people are going to be reading this book and it was a little bit intimidating. I did find myself struggling to clear all of that out of my head and just focus on the book. So it took me longer to finish than I would have liked.
Second books are hard in general, though. I think most authors talk about that a lot, which is actually comforting to me to hear from other authors who have found it challenging writing in this new dynamic that they’re in, as maybe a contracted author or an author who’s looking to extend an option potentially. It’s a different headspace. I did get through it and I’m so happy with how the book turned out. I learned a lot about my own process, what’s working and what’s not working, all things that I’ve been able to apply to my third book, which is not quite done yet, but it was a lot easier to draft.
Can you talk about what sparked the idea for Two Can Keep a Secret?
The original kernel of an idea was to take a small town with a tragic past and have characters whose families were affected become part of a new mystery. I’ve always been interested in the power of secrets. That’s one of the things I explored in One of Us Is Lying, the lengths people will go to in order to protect these hidden parts of themselves and what happens when those parts are exposed. There’s a similar theme in Two Can Keep a Secret, but here it’s even broader because there are generations of secrets that have piled up in this one small town. And the two main characters both have ties to Echo Ridge’s infamous unsolved mysteries and even though they weren’t directly part of those, they experienced these ripple effects from growing up in families that can’t move on. They want answers, which is a very natural desire, but one of the things they ultimately have to consider is whether there are some secrets that shouldn’t be told.
It’s a very layered and twisty mystery. And one of the challenges in early drafts was I found myself following the wrong plot thread, and then I’d have to unravel it and go back and rebuild it from the beginning. There are probably six mysteries, total, in this book. There are all kinds of little sub-mysteries, there are personal mysteries, and then they feed into the much broader mystery of what’s happening in the town. Balancing all that was my biggest challenge.
Writing mystery thrillers with multiple points of view—so far this looks like a real sweet spot for you. What do you like about this structure and genre?
As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed multi-POV books, because I like ensemble casts. I like getting inside multiple characters’ heads and I like to see different takes on the same situation. As a writer, I think multi-POV can create empathy and engagement in readers because there are more opportunities to connect with a character. I naturally gravitate toward that as a narrative structure, but I’ve also chosen to create plots for which, in my view at least, the multiple perspectives are required to tell the story properly.
With One of Us Is Lying that was interesting because when I shared very early drafts with beta readers years ago almost everyone thought I had too many POVs. They found it confusing. I made a brief attempt to write the book from one character’s perspective only, but I knew immediately it wouldn’t work because the story needed all four of them. I tried to address that feedback in different ways, by deepening the characters and trying to strengthen their voices, but the story had to be told by more than one person. That was true of Two Can Keep a Secret as well. It required the perspective of characters on the opposite side of the unsolved mystery coin: one family has a victim, one family has a suspect.
So, my approach is to try and create multiple narrative arcs. You have one that drives the main story and has the characters intersect with each other, but also a separate arc for each character that’s in line with their individual personalities and perspectives but it still blends with the whole.
I feel like with thrillers, multi-POV really lends something because part of what you want in a thriller is page-turning elements and you want pace. You can play a lot with multi-POV in taking your reader to the edge of something and then switching right before you get there. Ideally, also, you’re creating characters that people are invested in because that is what ultimately makes people flip pages—they care what happens to the people involved. It’s what I love to write, so I’m happy that I get to keep doing it.
In Two Can Keep a Secret, the lead character Ellery is a lover of true crime and an aspiring detective. Is she a protagonist you might want to write about again?
What I find with characters is that what I’m interested in is their journey. What I hope is that by the end of the book they’re doing things in the last chapter that would have maybe seemed impossible in the first chapter, yet are consistent with them as people— they’re consistent characters but they’ve also grown. By the time they reach that point, I’m not that interested in staying inside their head. But I’m still interested in the universe, so I could see up-leveling secondary characters and telling a different story within that setting, which is actually similar to what I’m doing in the sequel we announced recently for One of Us Is Lying. It’s the same setting, but it’s different point-of-view characters, so that I can tell new stories.
Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus. Delacorte, Jan. 8 ISBN 978-1-5247-1472-7