Emily Carpenter is the bestselling author of the suspense novels, Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, The Weight of Lies, and Every Single Secret. She took the time to speak with me about her novels, what writers influenced her, and why she writes multi-dimensional protagonists. She also offered her advice for emerging writers and what she’s working on next. Check out our inspiring discussion!
Your novels are full of suspense and family or marital intrigue. Were you drawn to those kinds of books as a reader? If so, do you have any favorites?
Oh, absolutely. As a kid I was all over Nancy Drew and Lois Duncan’s books. As a teen I loved romance with suspense or intrigue. Also Agatha Christie. I’m a huge fan of Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier, and the Bronte sisters. And of course, reading Gillian Flynn and Harlan Coben helped me pinpoint books I wanted to write myself.
You expertly jump back and forth between locations, time periods, and/or narrators in your novels. What’s your writing process like? How do you keep track of the story?
For me, my process is (borrowing a phrase from Sara Paretsky) very untidy. It kind of drives me crazy because it’s unique from book to book, very organic and therefore really unpredictable. It scares me sometimes, because I take a leap of faith with each new book I start—believing that at some point, things are going to click and I’m going to really understand a character or figure out a great plot point. But I never have it all at the beginning when I start. I just have this incredibly strong hunch that this story has a lot of fascinating elements and it’s full of possibility. So my process is just to forge ahead and get it all down on the page and trust that it’s all going to work out if I keep hammering away at it.
Your new book Until the Day I Die focuses on a mother-daughter relationship. Having a teen daughter with a well-formed personality myself, I was impressed by how realistic Shorie was, and how realistic their relationship was. It’s complex and not always perfect. Did you draw on real life experiences for that?
Definitely. I mean, even though I’m older, the feelings of being a teenager are never that far away for me. I remember so much of the stuff I dealt with really vividly. Also I do have three kids, all boys, all very different, and we’ve totally had our clashes. They’re all very particular to who that kid is and how the two of us relate to each other. Girl or boy or anything in between—honestly, relationships are complicated.
I think specifically, the beginning of the book where Erin is moving Shorie into her dorm room at college and their fighting was something I wanted to capture. The intensely emotionally-charged feeling. And how when it doesn’t go well—it doesn’t turn out to be this picture-perfect moment of a bittersweet, loving send-off—well, that is just crushing.
Most of the protagonists in your books are strong-willed, smart, and a bit flawed. I love that. I think their multi-dimensional natures make them so interesting. What or who has been your inspiration for this approach?
I find characters that are too sweet or compliant and passive to be really uninteresting. That said, I do happen to be writing a character now who’s basically dedicated her life to shielding and protecting her fragile mother, but she’s really incredibly bitter and resentful about it, and I consider that just below the surface, she’s basically this powder keg ready to blow up all over everybody. I just think that’s far more realistic, fun, and interesting to have those kind of people as protagonists. And, I don’t know, I happen to be extremely strong-willed, and sort of smart-ish, and very definitely flawed, so maybe I’m just writing characters I can relate to.
All of your books contain a plot mystery that needs to be solved, which makes for fun and engaging reading, but when I read Until the Day I Die, the plot was so compelling and thrilling that I couldn’t help think that this particular novel would make a fantastic movie. Any plans?
That one was super-fun to write because it was such an adventure as opposed to my other books which lean more toward the interior and the psychological. This one had running from bad guys and jumping off waterfalls and dodging scalding sulfur pits. The previous book I’d written, Every Single Secret, involved a lot of creeping around an old, decrepit mansion deep in the woods, so I loved having the contrast of the modern, technological aspect of the app, Jax, along with the physical action.
What advice would you give to new writers? Any querying stories or publishing setbacks you’d like to share?
I think there are two things for all new writers to keep in mind. Get better and keep trying. One doesn’t work without the other. Do whatever it takes to improve your writing: read great books, take classes, and seek out smart criticism. And then keep trying to get that agent or to sell your book. It’s a tricky thing to know when to keep pushing versus giving up on a particular book. I’ve got three in the drawer that, for different reasons, just didn’t work. But you have to follow your gut. Sometimes it’s just a matter of reworking and revising. Sometimes a book needs to be abandoned.
What are you working on now? Any events or plans we can look forward to?
I’m writing the follow-up to my debut Burying the Honeysuckle Girls. It’s called Reviving the Hawthorn Sisters and it follows Dove Jarrod, one of the characters from the original book. She was a tent evangelist in the 1930s and beyond, but she has a secret—several, in fact—that her granddaughter Eve is uncovering and having to face. In terms of events, I’m going to be talking to the Georgia Romance Writers group next weekend. I’ll be in conversation with Kimberly Belle at FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, Georgia at the end of June and up in New York and Pennsylvania in mid-July.
Last night I stayed up late and finished Emily Carpenter’s outstanding new novel Every Single Secret. It’s a psychological thriller set in Georgia that focuses on an engaged couple, Daphne and Heath, who both have damaged, dark pasts. Heath has violent nightmares, she has anxiety. In an effort to curb his nightmares, Heath suggests they visit an eccentric therapist in the mountains who has an excellent reputation but non-traditional methods. For instance, you check into his mansion for a week and agree to being filmed in your bedroom. Patients can’t speak to each other nor enter the house’s private zones. Definitely not the usual approach. Daphne and Heath go for it anyway, determined to get through the last troubles of their relationship before they marry.
A Page-Turning Puzzle
Of course, not everything is at seems. Daphne begins to uncover inconsistencies that alarm her. She befriends a fellow patient despite strict no fraternizing rules. She explores forbidden areas. All of this leads to more and more disconcerting discoveries while dredging up Daphne’s own disturbing past. Carpenter masterfully ends most chapters with a hook or reveal that propels the reader to turn the page. I did.
Overall, that’s the strongest argument for reading this book. It’s compelling and mysterious. We want to know what is going on with this odd therapist who seems removed and rationale but is willing to have a glass of wine with Daphne. We wonder about her fiancé’s seemingly nice but maybe aggressive behavior. We even wonder about the bizarre decor in the fireplaces and the surrounding creepy natural setting. Daphne discovers a lot of strange clues that are mystifying. If you like Gone Girl or Girl on a Train, you will like this book.
The novel has a couple of minor weaknesses. First, and it sounds small but it’s actually key, you have to buy into the idea that a therapist would film people in their bedrooms. The story doesn’t offer much clinical explanation for why that’s necessary. And anyone who’s seen a therapist knows that filming a patient in private is not only an extreme ethical violation but therapeutically damaging. People in vulnerable states need to feel safe. Filming them does not make them feel safe. So that a therapist would exist who would even broach that was difficult for me to buy into. Related to that, the book’s message, perhaps unintentionally, took a swipe at psychological treatment and therapists.
The other tiny difficulty I had was in the timeline. There are essentially three time periods Carpenter jumps back and forth into. At first, they’re confusing. I needed several chapters to get into the book’s rhythm, but once I did, the switches were fine. So if you pick this book up, be prepared for that.
A Strong Suspenseful Story
Overall, Every Single Secret is a masterfully crafted thriller, both surprising and horrifying at its end. Emily Carpenter weaves a suspenseful story with distinct characters, an atmospheric setting, and fast-moving plot that keeps you wondering. It’s a work of great imagination to have created this story around a “retreat” meant to heal people but ultimately does the opposite. An impressive read.
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