Karen’s home making dinner when she gets an unexpected phone call and races out of the house. After a car accident, she wakes up in the hospital remembering nothing. Neither the police nor her husband knows what to make of her story. When she returns home, she finds someone’s been there. Things aren’t as they seem. In this house, everyone’s a stranger.
Last year, Shari Lapena’s edge-of-your-seat thriller, The Couple Next Door, kept readers up at night. Back with another suspense drama, Shari met with Book Club Babble to discuss her latest work, A Stranger in the House.
Kate Newton: I found myself comparing this book with your previous story, The Couple Next Door, which we featured here on Book Club Babble. You’ve really cornered the market on the “domestic thriller.” How did you find yourself writing in this genre?
Shari Lapena: It was something I’d wanted to try for a while, but I didn’t think I’d be able to manage the thriller plot. I had written my earlier books without an outline and I thought thrillers had to be more carefully thought out ahead of time. But I’d wanted to write one for so long, and I had this idea that I was excited about, so I thought I’d just start with the premise and see what happened. It turns out you can write a thriller by the seat of your pants! I do find now that I do more thinking during the process about where it is headed but I still basically let the story take me where it wants to go. And then afterwards I have to look at it with my critical mind to see what needs to change.
KN: The relationships in the book are complex and as a reader I never felt quite sure of them. In the early pages, we’re trying to figure out what is up with Karen and Tom. We get the sense that something between them is not quite right. Tom begins to suspect that there is more to his wife than he thought. Is Tom a naïve character? Or is Karen’s tendency to keep secrets the main cause of tension in their relationship?
SL: I think you could say Tom is naïve, but I think of him more as someone to whom nothing really bad has happened yet. He’s trusting, and in love, and he feels the way everyone should feel when they love someone. But the thriller world is not a loving, trusting, world unfortunately. Karen is definitely keeping secrets here, and she’s very good at it; she’s had a different experience of the world than he has.
SL: I’m very fond of Brigid as a character. I find her very interesting and I’d like to say a lot more about her, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. She is someone who is a bit damaged—life hasn’t gone the way she would have liked it to—and she has dealt with her disappointment/lack of control differently than someone else might. Her relationship with Karen is emotionally charged and perhaps what I would call ambivalent—she likes Karen and wants her as a friend, but she is also jealous of her and wants what she has.
KN: You do a great job of keeping readers guessing—who’s telling the truth, and who can be trusted. How do you achieve this and at the same time not keep readers at a distance from the characters?
SL: That is one of the most important aspects of suspense writing, and it’s a difficult question to answer. You have to get the reader deeply engaged with the characters, but still be able to keep some things back so that the reader doesn’t know everything. Revealing information at the right time is an important part of pacing in a thriller. You have to reveal just the right amount of information about the character, at the right time, to keep the reader involved and guessing. It’s an art.
KN: Tom, Karen, and Brigid are quite multi-dimensional. Just when I think I have them figured out, he or she does something to surprise me. How do you develop your characters? Are any based on people you have known?
SL: I find my characters have a way of developing on their own. I don’t use a chart and set down eye colour, height, habits, etc., at all. What I do is put my characters in a fraught situation and see how they react to it, and I go from there. I find my characters reveal who they are by what they say and do. They do things that affect the plot, and then, in turn, the plot affects the characters. It’s very organic.
I don’t base my characters on anyone I know—I make them up, but I suppose bits of what I’ve seen in life come out here and there. Writers exist in the real world, as well as their own fictional world.
KN: Many writers don’t plot their endings until they’re well into the book, and twists sometimes come at the very end of the writing process. Did you plot this story out in advance, or did the plot evolve naturally?
SL: I’m the type of writer that lets it evolve naturally. I don’t plot things out in advance as a rule, but that being said, I will get an inkling part way through the book of how it might go in a number of different directions. I’ll keep those threads going, but I might not know which one will be the one I finish with or what the final twist might be.
KN: I see you brought back the detective from The Couple Next Door. Are you maybe planning a book where he is featured in the main role?
SL: I don’t want to write a series, per se, I’m more interested in standalone thrillers, and I think both my books work as standalones which happen to have the same detective. I’m not bringing Detective Rasbach back in book three. However, I have toyed with the idea of returning to Rasbach in the future and giving him his own story, and I have had so many people ask for a sequel to A Stranger in the House, that I’m starting to think maybe I could bring back some of those characters—just thinking out loud here! I’m not promising anything!
KN: Thanks so much for meeting with us. Wherever your next book takes us, we look forward to it!
Shari Lapena is an international best-selling author. A former lawyer and English teacher, she currently lives in Toronto. Shari’s previous works include The Couple Next Door, Things Go Flying, and Happiness Economics.