Kimberly McCreight’s new YA thriller, The Outliers, releases today. It’s the first in a trilogy about Wylie, a troubled young woman searching for her missing best friend, Cassie. Cassie’s been in trouble lately, but what Wylie discovers on the hunt for her has far-reaching and dangerous implications. Book Club Babble interviewed McCreight about the novel, writing, and what makes for a great book club.
Mary Sullivan: In the story, Wylie’s dad is a research psychologist working on understanding emotional intelligence. This research drives a large portion of the plot. Do you have a background or experience with psychology or research that inspired you? What else can you share about the impetus for this unique story?
Kimberly McCreight: I do have a degree in psychology from Vassar College. My undergraduate work gave me a very general sense of how psychological research works. In fact, I once designed and carried out my own very small study for a seminar. It tested how men and women might interpret a videotaped argument between a couple differently. I found the whole process fascinating. Unfortunately, I can’t recall exactly how the gender differences broke down, but I do remember that they were a) present and b) surprising.
As a result, I did go into my research for The Outliers aware of the concept of research methodology and how things like in-person observation as opposed to videotaping could theoretically affect results. I also did a fair amount of research into Emotional Intelligence, both reviewing studies as well as speaking to several researchers. What I describe in my book, however, is speculative and not reflective of existing research. What I endeavored to do was to thread a needle through the unknown, to the “what if”?
MS: The main character, Wylie, contends with the tragic loss of her mother, but she also admits to having psychological difficulties prior to her mom’s death. As a reader, I sometimes wondered to what extent I was supposed to be able to trust her. What was your thinking behind having a (sometimes) unreliable narrator?
KM: I absolutely think that Wylie is an unreliable narrator. But then, I believe we are all unreliable narrators to some extent. We are biased by our own life experience and our unique personalities. As a result, we are always going to be committed to a point of view that is uniquely our own. That said, I don’t think an “unreliable” narrator is the same thing as a “bad” person. Those are two very different things.
MS: In the novel, Wylie is sometimes able to peg people immediately. At times she ignores her instincts, and other times she reads people totally wrong. Why do you think she (and people in general) are so inconsistent in evaluating character? Do you think age or gender play a role?
KM: I think people are inconsistent in evaluating character because they second-guess themselves. Certainly, that is the case for Wylie. I do believe that women are encouraged to second-guess their gut instincts—as over-emotional, or irrational—far more often than men.
MS: A big theme in the novel (for me) was about complicated female friendships. Wylie and her friend Cassie initially bonded over being outsiders in school, but they grew apart as they got older. Each thought the other was difficult and judgmental at times (a correct assessment by both, it seemed!), yet each valued the relationship. Do you think there is a characteristic inherent in female friendships or in ones made in youth that make them particularly complicated? Why did you choose to portray this kind of friendship?
KM: I can’t speak to what friendships are like between two men, or for that matter what a close friendship is like between a man and a woman—all my closest friends are women—but friendships in the teenage years are extremely complicated.
These are some of our earliest attempts at intimate relationships outside of family and the bonds can be really intense—overly so sometimes. Add to that how rapidly teens are changing and the newness of romantic attachments happening at the same time and you have terrain ripe for conflict.
Cassie and Wylie have the friendship they do because it was true to their characters, but it also resonated with me personally.
Questions on Writing
MS: The Outliers is the first in a trilogy. Was your original concept a trilogy or was it a single novel? What was the process of writing and plotting like?
KM: I always conceived of The Outliers as a trilogy with the immediate mystery of each individual book resolved completely and the broader themes not fully explored until the conclusion of all three books.
MS: Reconstructing Amelia, your adult thriller, was a major success—congratulations! What motivated you to make the switch to YA?
KM: The Outliers was just the book I wanted to write and it seemed a bit more naturally classified as YA, primarily because there is nothing in it that would be inappropriate for a younger audience.
But I do think it is equally appropriate for my adult readers, and that the themes as well as the plot complexities will resonate with them, hopefully just as much. As for the process, writing The Outliers didn’t feel like much of a switch because both Reconstructing Amelia and my second adult book Where They Found Her have a teenage point of view character and both concern the trials and tribulations of adolescence.
MS: I read on your website that you got your first agent in 2001, but that it took three agents plus 11 years for your debut novel to hit the shelves. Here at Book Club Babble, we are also writers. When you look back, why do you think that first book didn’t sell? What did you learn/ what changed along the way to make the shift from aspiration to published?
KM: Books don’t sell for lots of reasons, of course, many having nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the excellence of the storytelling. But my first book didn’t sell because it was bad. Okay, maybe not bad, bad. It just wasn’t finished. I had the beginning of something great that just fizzled in the middle because I wasn’t focused enough on the spine of my story. My second book? That one was just bad. Reconstructing Amelia was my fifth completed manuscript. It took me that long to understand what I was trying to do, and then to learn how to do it.
Question on Book Clubs
MS: On your website, you said that you like to make guest appearances at book clubs. What do you think makes a good book club?
KM: People willing to disagree, but always with genuine affection and lots of respect! I absolutely love talking to book clubs—in part because I’ve never had one of my own—and I am routinely struck by how fond the members are of each other. This is true whether it’s a group from a neighborhood, or work, or old friends. There’s just something magical about a book club. It’s like a much more awesome, loving version of Fight Club. But with less blood, and lots more snacks.
Thanks to Kimberly for making the time for Book Club Babble. You can find more information about The Outliers or any of her other work at her website: http://www.kimberlymccreight.com