Kate White always knew she wanted to write suspenseful thrillers, even while she was serving as the Editor-in-Chief of Cosmo for fourteen years, but it took her time to find the right writer’s cocktail. Kate tells Zibby why she wanted such a large ensemble cast for her latest whodunit novel, The Fiancée, as well as how she managed to make so many characters each so memorable. She also shares how her own experience as a stepmother influenced her protagonist and what twisting story she plans to write next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Kate. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Fiancée.

Kate White: Thank you for having me. I’m just so familiar with what you’re doing and love it.

Zibby: I’m familiar with what you’re doing and love it too. It was so great reading this book because so often, I feel like Summer where I’m trying to get a point across and nobody is believing me. Then I start questioning myself too. Everything with the kids, I feel like I’m always having that same spiral of self-doubt or something. Anyway, tell listeners what this book is about and what inspired you to write it, please.

Kate: I had done half a locked-room mystery a few years ago. I always wanted to come back and do a full one where all the action takes place in one place. This is about a family vacation, two parents in their sixties or seventies, four adult sons and their significant others. It’s all in this bucolic estate. It happens every year. This year, it goes horribly awry. Somebody ends up dead. Summer, as you mention, she’s a voiceover actress, a struggling actress. She’s got a pretty intense inner critic. One of the other people in the setting is the youngest son’s fiancée who’s also actress but much more successful. As Summer says, is everyone on the f-ing planet doing a Netflix pilot?

Zibby: That was so funny. I loved that line.

Kate: She begins to think the fiancée is a pivotal person in what’s gone wrong and also really dangerous. She can’t, as you said, make people understand her. Part of the problem is that inner critic, that characteristic of her that makes her doubt herself. Her career is making her doubt her ability to get this point across.

Zibby: I love it. I feel like the Keatons’ compound reminds me of — did you see Wedding Crashers, that movie?

Kate: Right.

Zibby: That’s sort of how I have it in my head. I don’t know what it looked like in your head, but that’s the scenery I put.

Kate: We have a home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where it’s set, a weekend home. I just blew out everything about our place into that imaginary spread borrowing places I’ve visited, those college roommates who you went visit them for the weekend and discovered, whoa, they’re rich.

Zibby: Not only did you somehow paint a picture of this amazing place, but you crafted so many different characters in a really short amount of time. They’re all the sons and all the fiancées. You have one little detail for everybody, like Wendy who continually namedrops Yale. Everybody has a thing about them that stands out. Especially in a character drama like this, it’s part Clue, part The Big Chill or something like that with so many people in one spot. What’s the trick to getting people to remember all the different characters and not relying on hacks to craft their personalities on the page? How do you do that?

Kate: I actually wanted there to be four sons, three wives, and the fiancée, and then the parents because I felt if I got too much smaller than that, it was going to be easier to figure out who did it. Readers like a good whodunit. They like to spend part of the book thinking it’s this person. Then, no, no, it’s got to be that person. In the end, they like to be surprised and sort of feel, I should’ve gotten it and not cheated, so I wanted these ten characters. My editor actually had asked me about maybe having fewer. I understood what she was saying. You can’t make readers go, wait, which one is John? Which one is Jim? Not that there’s a John and Jim in the book. I felt I just had to borrow from people I knew, little bits here and there, so that the characters seemed real enough. I think you nailed it when you said that sometimes, and we even do this with people we know, there’s one characteristic that just stands out about somebody. It comes to mind when you think of them. We have a friend who is married to someone who you cannot go five minutes into a conversation with him without him mentioning that he went to Harvard. I borrowed that for Wendy where she drops Yale into everything. That’s just one thing I tend to think about with this guy. I think it’s trying to make sure you don’t make them cardboard-like. Give them backstories. Even have details about them that you might not even use on the page, but you know to help create that person. I was just reading today that Kate Winslet did that with Mare of Easttown. She created a lot of backstory. Then if you can give a couple of little details that the reader remembers, it helps.

Zibby: I found that very depressing. Did you watch that, Mare of Easttown?

Kate: Yes. Actually, I did enjoy it. Though, as a mystery author, I kind of knew what they might do with the twists and then another twist. I saw it coming a little bit.

Zibby: I have to say, I gave up pretty early. I gave up too early because it just seemed so depressing. You still make the characters really multidimensional. Summer has the loss of her older brother Leo to meningitis. There’s a sadness to her family because that happened before she was born. Tell me a little bit about that one.

Kate: That was just something, I don’t know how it came to me. I’ve known a few people who have had similar experiences. I just began to think this is one of those things that you didn’t bring the sadness on yourself. It wasn’t something that you were involved in intricately. It happened before she was born. Yet there was this tarp of sadness of her family. Even though her parents did their best not to let it influence her and her sister, it did. She goes into her love of the Keaton family and her obsession with being part of this family, in small part because there was this sadness in her own family. The Keatons, to her, even though it could be intimidating to some people, and it is to one of the wives, she just loves it. She embraces it. She says, “They had me from the moment they said, ‘Summer, welcome. Please join us.'” She loved it. A part for her that she struggles with a little bit is she begins to see that there are some warts in the Keatons. This family that she’s been so enamored of for six or seven years since she met her husband have some issues, some secrets. That unfolds for her in the book.

Zibby: I feel like the whole thing was very cinematic, all this creeping around and looking at people through the bushes and little scenes and outside the windows, all these little moments. When you’re writing, do you see it all in your head like that? Do you see it like, okay, I need to make this more like a scene? How do you approach the different parts of it?

Kate: I always know where the overall book is going right from the start. In fact, I’m starting a new book. I’ve got the new notebook. Then for the one I just finished, it sort of looks like this. I’ll know where I’m going. I’ll know who the killer is and why they killed and what a little bit of the backstory is and how I’m going to try to disguise the killer but still play fair with the reader. Then I plot out four or five chapters at a time. I do it on a grid on a page. From there, I just really create a bit as I’m writing. I start to get a sense of how scenes will play out. One great thing I heard the author Joe Finder say once is — I try to do something like this myself. He keeps a little post-it on his computer with three words: surprise, reversal, a reveal. Every scene needs one of those things. You never want to just have a scene where people are sitting down having coffee or a glass of rosé. They tend to have a lot of rosé in The Fiancée. It takes place in summer. They eat well. Then I tried to not just have a scene be static. There’s something that’s going to happen that is a bit maybe a surprise or a reversal or a reveal. Then I work some of that out when I do these kinds of grids.

Zibby: You’ve had this really impressive career. You’ve run Cosmo. You’ve written many books, fiction, nonfiction, all this stuff. What do you get out of writing psychological thrillers? Why do you think you do it?

Kate: Gosh, I don’t understand that I know. Like many author friends of mine, we were Nancy Drew fans. Nancy Drew was such a good role model, particularly for baby boomers who didn’t have many female role models in the workforce. Though, my mother and grandmother had careers, so that kind of worked for me. I always loved the idea of writing. I wrote from the time I was little. I put out little newspapers and magazines. I always wanted to write fiction too. I realized in college I had to pick a lane. I won this fabulous contest, the Glamour magazine Top Ten College Women contest. That kind of picked the lane for me. I just knew I wanted to get back to that other lane that I’d had in my mind to write suspense fiction. Once when I was interviewing a potential horoscope columnist, she read my palm. She looked at it and she said, “Kate, you love this office. You love being here, but there’s a part of you that likes to be in a little dark room –” she didn’t say with barn siding, but she could’ve — “and be with just yourself. I think part of it for me isn’t just the writing the suspense fiction, which I really enjoy, I enjoy the whole puzzle, whodunit aspect, but I like being on my own. I like the solitude of writing too as much as I loved running Cosmo.

Zibby: I feel like with so many characters in the book, though, it probably doesn’t even feel like you’re alone. You’re surrounded by people.

Kate: There’s one right here. There’s one right here.

Zibby: Wait, what’s the next book you’re working on?

Kate: I absolutely love this one. It’s about a woman who, her first husband has been murdered. She remarries fairly soon afterward. She begins to worry, for good reason, little clues, that her second husband knew her and had intersected with her before her first husband was killed. Then she begins to worry that he might have developed some obsession with her and might be responsible. It’s a slow burn, psychological suspense where she starts to see clues and talks herself out of them because she knows this guy. It was fun to write, I have to say.

Zibby: That’s another thing I enjoyed about this book, is that Summer is a stepmother. There aren’t often stepmother protagonists, I feel like. I guess sometimes, but especially in a family like this where she knows that she’s not the first actress to come down the pike for this role. What was it like? I’m divorced and remarried. There’s always something about, what was it before? Then with the stepkids, she has such a nice relationship with Henry too, which is so nice. I was like, wow, she’s so patient.

Kate: I have a stepson. I have a great relationship with him. He sent me the Obama biography. He knows my interests. He knows things that I like. He was a dream kid. I didn’t come into his life until he was seven, and so I wasn’t very involved in the raising of him. In some sense, I borrowed a bit about my relationship with Seth. I’ve just been so fortunate. He’s a great kid who just never was bothered by my presence. His own mother remarried very quickly after the divorce, so I think he didn’t have any real angst about his father having a new wife. I then just made up these early years almost as if I had met Seth when he was young. That was kind of fun for me to do, just to imagine what it would be like if you were a stepmother and you lucked out like I did but the kid was younger and just okay and charmed by you to a certain degree. Summer, because she is an actress, she uses some of her background to entertain him, to act out Peter Pan for him as she reads Peter Pan to him. It was an interesting experiment to do. Thank you for asking that.

Zibby: Sure, yeah. You were so funny, too, about the first wife. You had all these little things. I don’t know what your relationship is like with Seth’s mom. You were just so funny. Oh, thank you for revealing this. Thank you, Amanda, for that. That’s amazing. Of course, your mom did that. It was very funny.

Kate: That’s part of the fun of writing. I actually didn’t have much contact with her because she lived in Boston. Seth flew in every other weekend. I rarely got to interact with her. This, I just made up. That’s part of the fun of writing where you do borrow a little bit from your real life, but then you just make stuff up. It can feel kind of magical at times.

Zibby: Do you miss the magazine world?

Kate: I think what I miss are some of the great people that I worked with. My former brand director, managing editor and executive editor and my two entertainment editors, I’m still very close to. I consider them really close friends. I Zoom with them. I have dinner with them. That’s helped me to a certain degree. I worked for a great company. I still have contact with some of the top people there including the former number two at Hearst who I just had lunch with who I adore. I can at least stay connected with the people. The day-to-day stuff was so much fun, particularly at Cosmo. The magazine world was beginning to unravel. That’s part of why I wanted to leave. Unfortunately, the person who took over right after me, the numbers really ran into the ground after I left, but that would’ve happened anyway. I think she just accelerated it because of bad choices. Then there was nothing they could do. I think a lot of the Hearst magazine brands are thriving now as websites, but certainly not at print. Cosmo, when I was there, we were selling over two million copies on the newsstand. I think it sells thirty thousand now. I could see that coming because of Gen X and Gen Y. I just didn’t want to be around for the end.

Zibby: Wow, that makes me very sad. I loved magazines. You can’t even find them. I went to five stores to find Woman’s Day or something. It’s impossible.

Kate: As the field failed, supermarkets moved magazines away from the front of the store. You don’t see them as much anymore. Everything I read now, I read online.

Zibby: The thing is, though, about magazines, when you read online, it’s often stuff you search for or that you are clicking on. When you read, you get viewpoints. You flip through. You could see all sorts of things, and ads. Even the ads were fun. I still read magazines when I can.

Kate: You bring up such a good point. That’s a little bit like the argument of, should we work remotely? When you read a magazine, you discovered things that you hadn’t necessarily thought you would, in an advertisement for instance. When you’re reading online, you don’t have that same experience. I feel the same way about working remotely. People who think it’s such a good thing are going to miss that experience of interacting with other people and ideas sparking that way and romances sparking that way.

Zibby: It’s true. I think in the quest for efficiency, something intangible gets lost. That’s why I still paw through newspapers, the actual sheets, even though it’s a pain. You just see things that you might not have. Also, I think it’s so much more time-efficient than clicking through. It takes a little bit to click through to get your news and all that stuff. That’s just me.

Kate: It did. Today when I was reading The Times, there were a few stories that were in the most popular section. Then when I went back to look for them, they had already moved out of that. Then I couldn’t find them. It was chaotic. If I’d had the paper in my hands, it would’ve all been right there.

Zibby: Sometimes, though, I wait a few days. Yesterday, my husband’s like, “What are you up to?” I was like, “I’m reading Thursday’s newspapers right now.” I’m like, “Did you know this happened?” He’s like, “Uh, yeah. I knew that happened.”

Kate: Do you spend a lot of time in this fabulous study, office, library of yours?

Zibby: I do. I spend all day here. Yes, I spend a lot of time in here.

Kate: Well done.

Zibby: Thank you. What advice do you have to aspiring authors?

Kate: I would say that, ignore the people who say if you really wanted to write, you would just be doing it. That was me in my twenties. I just felt, I think I want to write fiction, but I’m not doing it. I really feel some of it is the timing that’s right for you, figuring out the writer’s cocktail that’s right for you. What’s the best time of day for you? For me, my mistake was writing at night after my husband and kids were in bed. When I finally discovered I really am a morning writer and need to get up early and do it before they get up, that was the answer. Also, for me, a great time management trick made it all possible. I would tell myself, I’m going to write this Saturday. Then I wouldn’t do it. The trick was from a guy who said that you got to slice the salami. Part of what makes projects we want to do projects we procrastinate with is that we make them too daunting. Then if you slice them down into really manageable slices, they will be less daunting. Once I figured out I’m a morning person, I like a really plain, flat desk, nothing fancy, I like to be in a small, womb-like setting, I wrote in the beginning for just fifteen minutes a day. Those would be my tips for aspiring authors. If you’re not doing it, it doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t really want to. It might just mean you haven’t figured out your writer’s cocktail yet.

Zibby: I like that, the writer’s cocktail. Do you ever have cocktails while you’re writing?

Kate: No, unlike certain authors. F. Scott Fitzgerald, that was part of what led to his demise. I just drink a lot of tea and espresso when I write.

Zibby: Nice. Kate, it was so nice getting to know you this morning. Thank you for coming on my podcast.

Kate: Thanks for inviting me into your lovely place. Thanks for all that you do for authors. It’s been great to see.

Zibby: Thank you. I really love it.

Kate: And readers too.

Zibby: I’ll be on the lookout for your next book. Take care. Buh-bye.

Kate: Great. Buh-bye. Thanks


THE FIANCEE by Kate White

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