Julie Clark, THE LIES I TELL

Julie Clark, THE LIES I TELL

“That’s the fun part about writing fiction. You get to imagine yourself into these roles that you never ever would do on your own.” New York Times bestseller Julie Clark joins Zibby to talk about her latest thriller, The Lies I Tell, which was inspired by Julie’s belief that women make better con artists. The two discuss what they think about the people sitting next to them at red lights, their fears about making too much personal information accessible online, and whether or not Julie wanted to try any of her protagonist’s tricks. Julie also shares her encounters with houselessness and how she strives to destigmatize it in school as a fifth-grade teacher.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest novel, The Lies I Tell.

Julie Clark: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here and to talk to you again.

Zibby: Yes, welcome back. Things have changed a lot since the last time we spoke. Oh, my gosh, it’s been a lifetime.

Julie: And yet not that much.

Zibby: I know. And yet not that much. Very true. This novel scared me to death. Your con artist with a conscience here has made me realize that I have basically made myself this victim by sharing so much so openly, so many details on social media. Now I’m like, oh, no.

Julie: Whoops.

Zibby: Whoops. Tell listeners a little bit about what The Lies I Tell is about.

Julie: The Lies I Tell is the story of a woman named Meg Williams. She’s a con artist who travels the country under assumed names creating elaborate backstories to back up the lies that she’s telling. She has very specific targets, though. She’s pretty picky about who she cons. She plays the long game. She’s not a quick in and out. She invests the time. She invests in the backstory. She makes sure all of the little details of what she’s trying to become match so that when she finally makes contact with her target, everything is in place to make sense. She’s been doing this for ten years and perfecting her craft because she has one big con that she’s waiting to pull. It’s the man who she believed destroyed her childhood, destroyed her life, and set her on this path that she didn’t really want to be on. She returns to Los Angeles to pull off this final con and take back what was stolen from her. What she doesn’t know is that Kat Roberts, an investigative reporter whose life and career were derailed by Meg ten years ago unbeknownst to Meg — she was collateral damage in something that Meg did. She’s been waiting. She been looking for her. She’s been waiting. Meg returns. Kat’s plan is to infiltrate Meg’s life and to be someone that she is not as a way to expose Meg and kind of take back what was stolen from her. It’s the cat-and-mouse story where you’re not really sure who’s the cat and who’s the mouse. It was a lot of fun to write.

Zibby: I bet. You show us almost a dry run with how Meg pursues her old teacher. She’s very cunning. Sadly, her mother has passed away at a young age. She is really homeless. She’s living in her car and doing her laundry at the Y. Dates are how she eats. She figures out how to play the system so that she has enough food to get her through the week.

Julie: That was sort of how she fell into grifting. Maybe real con artists who I believe could be sociopathic grow up and are like, I’m just going to steal from people, but Meg was not one of those people. This was not what she wanted to grow up to become. She fell into grifting by necessity, like you said, as a way to get a hot meal or a safe place to sleep at night. Then she realizes she’s actually quite good at it. Targeting someone who harmed someone that she cared about feels right to her. She has a way of rationalizing the choices that she’s making. For her, she feels like, play stupid games, win stupid prizes, my friend. I’m here to award you your prize.

Zibby: Very true. I was particularly interested in her con of the teacher and how you can basically get someone to fall in love with you if you play these apps correctly. I don’t know if this is advice I am giving or whatever.

Julie: I don’t know. I’m not on them. I do think that with that first con, she doesn’t set out to con him. She sets out to get a safe place for her to live. Then the more she learns about who he is and what he did and what he still does, she shifts her thinking about him and decides that she’s going to be the one to hold him accountable, in a way. Her only goal was to get as much out of him as she could and then move. She does. That’s one of the things that was really fun to write with Meg. She never steals from people. Everything she has at the end of a con has been willingly given to her. I did a lot of research into con artists. That’s one of the things that people say over and over again. If a con artist is really, really good, their victims want to participate in whatever it is that they’re doing. They just don’t realize that they’re participating in a crime. I wanted to make sure that Meg was justified in taking what she wanted to take. I also wanted to make sure that legal ramifications would be hard to follow. Meaning, she’s what they like to call “hard to prosecute.” A lot of her victims aren’t going to want to come forward. Even if they did, when the police say, “How did she end up with this fifty thousand dollars?” “Well, I gave it to her.” Oh, okay, sorry. That’s called a mistake, not a crime.

Zibby: How do you think, on the other side of things, we can make sure not to fall victim to some of these cons? It feels like there are landmines everywhere. I feel like every email I get, I’m like, is this spam? Can I click on this? Now I’m forwarding even the most mundane emails back to people and being like, “Hi. Is this really your birthday party invitation?” They’re like, “Yes, it is.” I’m like, “I just didn’t want to click and get trapped.” I think there’s a lot of awareness now around cyber-type stuff, especially if you’ve known anyone who has been a victim, which I have. In terms of these more elaborate things, when someone is so good and this is what they do and their real forte in life, how do you avoid being just a pawn in their process, especially when they seem to know all about you? which many of these people do.

Julie: Those quizzes on Facebook where, “Name six cities you’ve lived in. What hospital were you born in?” those kinds of things, maybe skip those because they’re just ripe with information that people can use. You may think that your friend’s list is locked down. I got a friend request the other day from somebody who had thirty-two mutual acquaintances from people that I went to college with. I was like, I don’t recognize that name. I’m fifty-two. College was thirty years ago. I don’t remember a lot of things. I texted a couple of my friends who were on that person’s list and said, “Do you know this person?” All of them, without exception, were like, “Never heard of them.” I’m like, “You’re friends with them.” It’s really easy to slip onto somebody’s list when there are mutual friends. You just have to be careful about what you put on social media. What are the things that you want to reveal about yourself? It’s a balance. As an author, and as you know, you’re an author, you’re a public figure, your brand is out there. You have to do these things. You have to make yourself available to your readers and your clients or whoever it is that your social media is supposed to reach. At the same time, you have to hold things back because you can’t give them full access to everything. You never know what little detail in a photograph or a video they might pick up on and then from there, move on.

Zibby: Okay. All right.

Julie: Sorry.

Zibby: That’s okay. I feel like my bias is to believe most people are good people.

Julie: Me too.

Zibby: That is not necessarily the truth.

Julie: I don’t know. I think that it is. I think that ninety-five percent of people out there are going to do the right thing and are going to be a — maybe not when nobody’s watching. We’re talking about, you find a hundred dollars on the ground. You look around. Okay. I think that for the most part, most people want to do the right thing. I do.

Zibby: All right, then I’ll keep my rosy sunglasses on, or whatever.

Julie: A little bit longer.

Zibby: A little bit longer. Julie, tell me about writing this book. I know you said it was fun to write. Where did this whole idea even stem from? Tell me about the two characters and how you learned more and any research. Just give me the backstory.

Julie: Let’s see. I’m trying to think where I was with The Last Flight. I think the book had been put into production. I was needing to get started on my next project. I was writing something else at the time. I had maybe a solid half written of this next book, this idea that I had. We sent it to my editor. She was like, “It doesn’t really feel like a thriller.” I was like, “Oh.” I had had this idea. I remember sitting at my son’s piano lessons. They were an hour long. I would have to sit in the lobby of his apartment building and just listen to podcasts. I was listening to a podcast about a con artist in Australia. It’s a podcast called “Who the Hell Is Hamish?” It’s about this guy who gets women to fall in love with him and then has this can’t-lose investment opportunity and steals money from them. He’s done it multiple times and traveled all over Australia and fallen in love with women and taken their money. I just remember thinking, I’m a single woman. I’m a single mom. I’m not out in the dating world. If I were, I would be super suspicious of any guy that comes in and says, I’ve got this opportunity for you. I’m a generally suspicious person. I’m like you. I’m forwarding all the emails and saying, is this you? Did you do that? I never click on any links. Even the phone calls, the spam calls, I won’t answer that.

I remember thinking, he’s pretty good at this. I can understand why she would fall in love with him. He’s handsome. He’s charming. She’s lonely. Then I started wondering, I think a woman could be better at this. I just think a woman could be a better con artist because people are more inclined to believe us, number one. When my kids were little, I used to always tell them, if you’re ever lost, go find the mom. Go find the mom with the stroller. That’s what you shoot for. Barring that, go find the grandma. Women are inherently, I think, more believable. Secondly, we’re often underestimated, especially by powerful men. That combination, I felt like, was ripe to explore. The people that Meg targets, I really wanted them to be powerful men who just thought she was not that bright and underestimated her. I just felt like, I would like her to take advantage of that bias that we have in society that a woman is sort of — at one point, she’s a life coach. It’s such a blurry occupation. That could mean anything. I think that a man like Phillip Montgomery, who’s the man that she targets for that, would be ripe to underestimate her, a powerful businessman who’s going through a very bad divorce and wants to milk his ex-wife for every single penny. Watch your back, men, because we’re smarter than we look.

Zibby: Whoa. Dot, dot, dot… I feel like we need some music. Another trick that I loved that Meg pulled was changing the website for the listing price and marking up a house and then making her clients believe that she actually got the price down when in fact, she paid over ask. That is also a genius move. Every so often, there’s somebody who has been helping us get certain things. She always says, “Oh, I don’t know about that. I’m really going to have to try hard.” Then she always gets it. He’s like, “Maybe she always knows she’s going to get it, but she just wants us to believe that it’s hard.” I don’t know.

Julie: Meg does a lot of that sort of slight-of-hand stuff. She definitely uses social media as a way to figure out how she’s going to approach people and what kind of entry point she wants to have. It’s never the target themselves. It’s always somebody in the target’s circle because people are suspicious. People are like, why are you approaching me? Who are you? Where did you come from? If you’re so-and-so’s friend, then all of a sudden, you’ve got a reference. I’m still listening to a podcast. It’s about a con woman, Lizzie Mulder, in Orange County who was an accountant for businesses. The way that she tricked them was by making her own advice indispensable. People started relying on her to handle these things, the problems that would crop up. Payroll wasn’t working right. She would come in every month and handwrite the checks herself. All the while, the reason why payroll wasn’t working well was because she didn’t set it up. It’s a slight of hand, but it’s all man-made. When you can create a problem for somebody and then swoop in and solve the problem for them, you’ve built some trust there. Meg does a lot of that.

Zibby: Interesting. Were you at all tempted to try any of this stuff yourself?

Julie: Oh, my god, no.

Zibby: No?

Julie: I’m person. I’m the one that got caught chewing gum in the school the one time I did it. No, but it was really fun. That’s the fun part about writing fiction. You get to imagine yourself into these roles that you never ever would do on your own. I think my parents were a little concerned when they read the book. They were like, “This is how your mind works?” As an author and an author of thrillers and suspense, we’re always thinking about ways to bend integrity a little bit. I don’t know what you think when you’re sitting at a red light, but I’m always looking at the person next to me and thinking, she looks like she’s got a body in the trunk. Look at her.

Zibby: I have to say, I have never thought that about the person next to me at a red light.

Julie: My kids do think I’m a little weird. They do.

Zibby: Sometimes I do wonder about the people, especially when we’re in traffic. Oh, my gosh, what is the most horrible thing that somebody is missing right now? Maybe they’re missing the flight that would get them to this. Maybe they’re saying goodbye to someone.

Julie: There’s a body in the back that’s starting to decompose and smell.

Zibby: No. Not that. No.

Julie: Next time you will, though.

Zibby: Oh, gosh. Great. I need more in the anxiety revolving door there. Thank you very much. I thought you did a really compelling job — that’s not even the right way to say that. I thought it was really compelling, the way you described Meg’s financial crisis. You said at one point, she was one UTI away from homelessness or hopelessness or whatever. A cavity, a blister, any of these little things, she couldn’t handle even one more little thing. The way even her colleague at the Y, in a way that wasn’t condescending or whatever, was able to help out and ask her to house sit even though there wasn’t really much to do and this kindness of strangers without making her feel bad — she still has her sense of pride with everything that’s going on. Tell me about that. Obviously, you’re not in this — I shouldn’t say obviously. You seem to have a nice office. You got some books. I’m assuming you don’t live in your car. How do you get in that mindset? Did you interview people? Did you just imagine what it would be like and how to go through the day just barely getting by?

Julie: A lot of different places that I mined that, books and podcasts, of course, and newspaper articles, magazines, things like that. Homelessness in Los Angeles — I live in Los Angeles. It’s a big problem here. You’ve got property here. You know when you come. It’s a challenge. Encampments are everywhere. Not all of them are drug addicts or mentally ill. Some of them are people who literally got forced out of their homes. They’re living in their cars with their student or their children. I’m also a teacher. I’ve worked in a lot of different communities. I’ve had kids in my class who are living in their car. I’ve sat across from parents in a conference and understood exactly why they’re not doing their homework, because it gets dark at four o’clock or four thirty, and they’re living in their car. They can’t do their homework. I do draw on that sort of level of desperation of understanding that one bad accident, one small accident, one thing that you or I wouldn’t really think of and move on — ugh, I broke that, or whatever — could completely derail somebody.

Zibby: There was a great — I don’t know if it’s technically middle grade. I guess we could call it middle grade. I’m very blurry on some of the terminology of the younger kids’ books. It’s called Shelter by Christie Matheson. It’s about a family. They were just okay until the dad got into an accident and then was in the hospital. They lost their house. Then they were staying in a shelter. On a rainy day, everything broke down. Just the rain was the last straw for the girl getting to school and all of this. I think about that book really because it was from the point of view of the child — not that that was the only one, but the one I read most recently — of just that minute-to-minute existence and how tenuous it all can be and how quickly it can all come crumbling down.

Julie: It’s scary. It’s really scary. We have a lot of people in our country who are living literally day to day, minute to minute. It’s uncomfortable sometimes to think about it. It’s uncomfortable sometimes to talk about it. The privilege that a lot of people have to say, let’s change the subject, that’s a huge, huge privilege that a lot of people have. You can’t do that. You can’t turn the conversation away completely because it’s uncomfortable. We have an obligation to do something.

Zibby: Aside from writing books like this, which, of course, increase awareness to the whole issue, how do you personally try to help? I know you’re a teacher. Obviously, that helps more than anything, is changing the lives of students. Maybe a better question is, how would you advise the rest of us to help? Someone listening who’s feeling moved or whatever, what should people do?

Julie: It starts with voting, to be honest with you. It starts with voting for people who have policies that are compassionate and that make sense. In Los Angeles, I think the problem really started way back in the eighties when we closed a lot of mental hospitals. There was just no place for these people to go. The problem has gotten progressively worse. I really think that the most important thing and the thing that I tell my students all the time — they’re only in fifth grade, but we spend a lot of time talking about social justice. We spend a lot of time talking about civics and what it means to be a good citizen. We talk a lot about what the common good means for us, for other people, and how we have to prioritize that. You want to vote for people who are going to put the needs of people over self. I think that we are in a crisis right now in a lot of ways. I think that the best thing you can do is to vote. Find people to contribute if you have money, to pay, even if ten dollars, to donate to campaigns, to write postcards, to make phone calls. There’s lots and lots of ways to get involved. I just think you need to wake up and realize that everybody has a voice. Everybody has power. I work really hard to make sure my students leave my class and they understand that this is their responsibility too and that just because they’re eleven doesn’t mean they can’t go home and impact the beliefs of the parents and the older brothers and sisters who are old enough to vote.

Zibby: I also think donating to local shelters, not just money, but even supplies, like getting the blankets that they need or finding out what they need in your community or communities you care about or inspiring others to support their local shelters. At least you know you’re helping someone. Voting is a one-time. It’s every couple years. A lot of people want to feel that they’re helping and want to make a difference immediately. Maybe that’s one way. So what is coming next? What characters can we expect to see on the scene?

Julie: I am working on my next book right now. I can’t really say a lot about it. It has to do with a brutal murder in a town in 1975 and the fallout from that, what really happened, and who’s really responsible for it. That’s been a lot of fun. It’s very different. It’s a little darker, definitely a lot darker than The Lies I Tell. We’ll see. I’m still in early, early days, so there’s not much I can tell. I’ll be out on tour for The Lies I Tell, thankfully, in person in lots of cities. Check my Instagram for where I’ll be, what days, what times, East Coast, West Coast, middle of the country, the South.

Zibby: What is your Instagram for people who are going right there right now?

Julie: It is @JulieClarkAuthor.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors before we go?

Julie: I would say write every day, something, even if you’re just journaling out how hard it is and not actually putting fictional words into a page. I think writing every day is something that everybody can do. If you’re waiting for the right moment to get started or the right idea to come before you sit down to write, you’re always going to be waiting. I work full time. I’m a teacher. I write every morning from 3:45 to six AM, about. I do that Monday through Friday. I do that on vacations. It’s just what I do. The Lies I Tell is my third book. I feel like you can write an entire book and publish an entire book in two hours a day. You can do that. I think that people who think, I need to quit my job in order to do this, you don’t. You don’t need to do that. In fact, I don’t recommend you do that.

Having a day job really helps takes financial pressure off of whatever’s going on for me in publishing. I can just enjoy the things that I get and kind of oof through the things that I don’t. My livelihood is not tied to how well my books are doing. It helps with the creativity to not need to rely on that. Don’t quit if your day job if you love it. If you hate it, find something else. I love what I do. I love teaching kids. I love going to school every day and not thinking about publishing for six hours. You really don’t. You don’t have time to think about it. It’s a nice balance. I would recommend carving out two hours a day to just write for yourself, whether it’s early morning or late at night or lunchtime or even on a walk and you’re voice-recording. I talked to Alex Finlay, and that’s what he does. He does a lot of talking into a voice recorder and drafting as he walks. I think a lot of people have different ways of managing the writing with their everyday life.

Zibby: Teachers don’t have time to.

Julie: No, we really don’t.

Zibby: An interesting experiment, if I’m ever in a creative writing class or something, I think we should get — maybe you could do it with your students, but to get a whole classroom of people and show them the picture of the car next to you and just have them all make up stories.

Julie: I do do that.

Zibby: You do do that? Okay, there you go. That’s why you’re a great teacher.

Julie: Kids, they’re very creative. They love creative writing. We’re doing a fantasy unit right now. You should see. They’re just so jazzed about it. It’s hysterical.

Zibby: Send any good manuscripts my way.

Julie: I know. That’s right. I have several budding authors. They’re very good.

Zibby: I really do think having a teacher who identifies talent in a writer at a very young age makes all the difference. I feel like there’s so many authors who have come on and said, I’ve been writing forever because this one teacher said something. You’re that teacher for so many. It’s pretty cool.

Julie: I hope so. There’s a lot of great stories to tell. You don’t have to have a fresh idea. You just have to have a fresh take on an old idea.

Zibby: Love it. Julie, thanks for coming back on. I’ll be following along on your tour.

Julie: Sounds good. Hopefully, I’ll see you in New York.

Zibby: Sounds good. Buh-bye.

Julie: Bye.

Julie Clark, THE LIES I TELL

THE LIES I TELL by Julie Clark

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