Kimberly McCreight, A GOOD MARRIAGE

Kimberly McCreight, A GOOD MARRIAGE

Zibby Owens: I loved talking to Kimberly McCreight about her book. She is the author of The New York Times best-selling book Reconstructing Amelia, which by the way was the fifth novel she wrote but the first to sell. That’s a great story in and of itself. That book, Reconstructing Amelia, was nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, and Alex Awards and was called Entertainment Weekly’s favorite book of the year. It was also optioned for film by HBO and Nicole Kidman’s Blossom Films. Her second adult novel, Where They Found Her, was a USA Today best seller and a Kirkus Best Mystery of the Year. She’s also the author of The New York Times best-selling young adult trilogy The Outliers, which was optioned for film by Lionsgate and Reese Witherspoon’s Pacific Standard. Her latest book is called A Good Marriage. It is really good. You should definitely check this out and follow all the twists and turns that I had to do. It was great. Listen to hear more about Kimberly.

Welcome, Kimberly. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kimberly McCreight: Thank you so much. I’m very excited to be here.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners what your amazing book is about? I truly enjoyed it and got so wrapped up in it, by the way. The kids were sitting next to me when I was reading it. I was like, “ Oh, my gosh, you guys. No, no. It’s not — wait. No, you’re not going to believe it.” Now my little daughter, she keeps asking me, “Who was the culprit?”

Kimberly: That’s awesome. I know when you’re including the kids in it, that’s a good sign. You can’t help yourself. That’s a good sign. My book, A Good Marriage, is set in my neighborhood, Park Slope. It takes place over one week in the summer when most of the kids are away at sleepaway camp and their parents are all gearing up for the event of the summer which is an adult-only party with a sexually adventurous side to it, sexually adventurous but fun. It was always meant to just be fun. This year after the party, one of the women turns up dead. Her husband is quickly arrested. He reaches out to a former law school classmate named Lizzy. Lizzy is to the neighborhood whose own marriage is falling apart. As she’s drawn into Park Slope, she quickly realizes that neither her friends nor his wife were who they appeared to be. Then her own husband doesn’t seem to be either. A Good Marriage is part legal suspense, part domestic suspense. It’s also meant to be a genuine exploration of what it means to sustain a marriage over time and the secrets some couples keep and the compromises they make in order to stay together whatever the cost.

Zibby: Awesome. Well done. Good summary. Let’s back up here to this sleepaway camp party where all the parents are sneaking upstairs to different rooms to get together with different people. Did you just make this up? Was this a party you were invited to? Am I just not invited to the sleepaway camp parties? What’s going on? I don’t know.

Kimberly: I don’t know what to tell you, Zibby, if you’re invited. I don’t know what to tell you. No, it’s a party we host every year now. It’s not . Although, I have definitely started considering it after writing the book. The party itself was really a compilation of a couple different things, parties like that that happen, parties that I know about, situations that I know about. I will say it’s not an exact replica of an exact party. It’s really a piecemeal compilation of a number of different things from Park Slope.

Zibby: I was very struck by how chill everybody was about what had been going on and who had been upstairs with who. Everybody’s just, oh yeah, no biggie kind of attitude.

Kimberly: In the process of writing this book I talked to a lot of people in all different areas like middle of the country, California, just friends. I was talking about the subject matter. Really, almost everybody had a story of something like this in their community, which I found really interesting. A piece of it is people don’t know if it’s real. None of the people I spoke with had been to the parties themselves. I’ve actually heard of someplace of people wearing a particular kind of clothing to signal on Friday nights that they were going to be at this party, that it happened. I know that for sure they do go on. I think they take different forms depending on what community you’re in.

Zibby: Wow. Well, interesting. I’m remarried as of three year ago, so I’m not really in the market for any swapping. I wish I had known. No, I’m kidding.

Kimberly: If it changes, you can let me know and I’ll try to connect you.

Zibby: No, no, no, I’m good. I’m all good. That’s funny. Tell me about how you got such a good legal perspective in this book. It very much felt like you must — are you a lawyer yourself? I should know this. It was all very real and detailed and everything.

Kimberly: I was a practicing attorney for three or four years. I was a big-firm litigator in New York. I worked at Cravath right out of law school. Then I worked at Paul, Weiss. I do have big-firm experience, but that was all as a corporate litigator. The only criminal experience I had, I did a little bit of pro bono work. I was a summer intern at the US Attorney’s office. I have a little criminal experience, but I could not, certainly, have written this book without being a lawyer. What it allowed me was to know what I didn’t know. From that point, I consulted a lot of experts. I had a criminal defense attorney who let me shadow him. He took me to Rikers. I actually went to Rikers and sat in one of those rooms and rode the bus and did the whole thing, so I know what that’s like. I went and watched him argue in court and listened to him talk about his clients. Criminal law is a very specific thing. If you go to a national law school, I went to Penn in Philadelphia, you tend not to learn about a lot of the details of it.

I did that first, and I consulted a US attorney who had made the transition to working in a private firm to get some of those details because, again, having my background, I knew enough to know what I didn’t know and what questions to ask. Then after I had written the book, I had a lot of people read it. I really wanted to get the details right. I had that same criminal defense attorney read it. I had a prosecutor read it. I consulted a retired homicide detective. I consulted a fingerprint expert who worked on the fingerprints during 9/11. I did a lot of research. I tend to do the research after the fact, though. I really just wrote the book first. To me, those things don’t lead. They are things to be worked out after the fact. I did have to change some details to get that kind of stuff right at the very end. I really lead with character first, not even with story. Then once I get the characters right, then I work on perfecting the mystery. Then last for me is really those kind of details because I think you can tweak the story to make the details exactly right.

Zibby: But the twists and turns in this book, there were so many. I kind of go into thrillers now thinking, okay, something’s not going to be what I think. Let me have it. Where is it going to pop up? In this case, there were so many red herrings, essentially, and things. When you were plotting, did you have it all in your head? Did you actually think maybe you were going to go down that one path and then said, oh no, wait, this could be even more interesting? Does that question make sense?

Kimberly: Yeah, it absolutely makes sense. The first issue is I don’t plot in advance. There is no plotting that takes place. Like I said, I really start with the — I wanted to write a book about marriage. That really led me for me, the themes and the characters. That was my starting place. I don’t work out all those twists and turns. I will say that I know the whodunit part, which I will do my best not to give away. I know that there’s kind of always one big central mystery. I know, is it going to be the person who it’s set up to be at the beginning? etc. I’ll know the answer to that question. The rest comes through the writing and revision, really. I do a first draft. Then I do about ten or twelve rewrites of the entire book. By rewrite, I mean I always rewrite every single word and pull out whole plot threads and knit them back together. I figure out the story really through that process of writing it. That sounds terrible. It is kind of terrible and terrifying because you’re perched on a ledge a lot of the time being like, I hope I better figure this out, how it’s going to come together. You’re writing, oftentimes, from an instinctual subconscious place where I know something should be true, I just don’t always know why.

That’s when relying on the characters helps because if you know your characters really well and they’re really well-developed, the answer to the why — there’s a scene early on in the book where Lizzy, who’s the main character, she works with a more senior partner who has her take on her friend’s case and has her do that. I knew that would be true. I knew he would do that. I knew who he was, but I didn’t know why he would do that exactly in the very first draft. Later it becomes, not a big twist, but a small one in the book, why he wants her to take on the case. That, I figured out through knowing him later. That really developed later. There is no cooler thing for me, that’s why I do it, is when it all locks together and you’re like, oh, my god, that’s why I did that, to be able to see it revealed to you. When the twists feel genuine, a lot of them were surprising to me as I revised. That’s the way it has been for me in every book I have ever written. Like I said, the scary part about that is you’re writing blind most of the time. Until very late in the process is it clear to me that it is going to work out. You don’t always know.

You’re right, there are many twists. What I like about that is you might get some of them, but it’s highly unlikely you will get all of them. I like the idea of every reader finding a way to be surprised in it. I hope that there’s surprise, but I hope that I’ve seeded enough. Every single one of the twists is supposed to be well-seeded enough that at the end you feel like, I didn’t know that, but I should’ve or could’ve known that if I had been paying attention, and that they’re satisfying for who the characters are. For me, when I read a mystery, I never want to get to the ending and feel like somebody was brought out of left field. You’re like, oh, here’s the killer. It was the person you didn’t meet. You could not have guessed because you didn’t meet them before. That drives me crazy. I really want to feel like, damn it, ah, that should’ve been obvious. That again, it takes a lot of revision. It takes a lot of readers giving you reactions because it’s a very delicate balance between giving enough information and too much. You cannot figure that out on your own because you know all the twists. Honestly, even my agent and my editor at a certain point, we all know the twists too much. You have to constantly be finding people who don’t know and make sure that they didn’t see something coming too much. It comes down to single sentences. You’re deciding, do you say that one thing that will be one thing too many? Obviously, I enjoy it too. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.

Zibby: Wow. It just shows when you read it, it comes together so well. It’s nice to know that you didn’t just sit down and type it all out and have it — that makes me feel better as a reader, how much thought and energy and effort went into it. It’s just really remarkable. How long did this book end up taking start to finish?

Kimberly: Usually, it’s like eighteen months for me from start to finish. The first drafts are very fast. I’m working on a book now. I can write three or four hundred pages in a few months, but they’re terrible. My agent’s like, “When are you going to be done?” I’m like, “Soon, but it’s terrible.” Nobody can read that. That’s terrible. If you do an outline first, you’re frontloading your work. You’re figuring things out in advance. That’s your process. I can write the first draft quickly, but the revision process is probably a ten-month-long process. It feels bad sometimes. A lot of the time it just feels like my process. I’ve accepted that that’s just the way it is. While it can sometimes feel like wasted time, it’s time I would’ve spent outlining. You’re doing it at the back end or the front end depending on your style.

Zibby: This is like if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s working for you.

Kimberly: Exactly. If I could find an easier way to do it, I would. For now, I’m stuck with this, which is just my process.

Zibby: It is what it is. At least it works. I also found it really interesting in the book, seeing up close the relationship between Lizzy and her husband and his dependency on alcohol and how that played out throughout the book and the different attempts to try to curtail it and failures and how it affected her. Can you talk more about adding that as a through line of the book as well?

Kimberly: I’m a recovered alcoholic myself. It’s something I just wanted to write about. I didn’t get sober until after we were married, I guess two or three years after we were married. It’s obviously different because this book is written from Lizzy’s perspective, from the spouse’s perspective. Certainly, alcohol in our marriage didn’t play out the way it did. It was actually very not extremely disruptive. It’s very disruptive in Lizzy and Sam’s life. He loses his job as a result. It puts him in financial difficulties. Again, my situation wasn’t that, but that’s very common. It was interesting to look at it from the perspective of a wife having to deal with that fallout and take on the mantle. It’s really complicated, obviously, becoming sober.

I think the issue more broadly which everyone can relate to is the idea of whatever your spouse’s problems are, whatever they struggle with, the fact that their problems do become your problems. I was just actually talking to my husband about this the other night. I think one of the biggest challenges in a marriage that lasts a long time is, how do you continue to have sympathy for your spouse and really want to help them with their problems when their problems do feel like your problems — you’re like, don’t bring that to me, that’s my problem — and continue to care and have empathy and sympathy for those issues when they’re so inextricably linked with your own? Anyway, that was how the alcohol played out. I obviously have a lot of knowledge from my own experience about what’s it’s like to — it’s very scary to be an alcoholic and to have blackouts and not remember things. I hope that people empathize a little bit with Sam.

Zibby: I think you wrote him in such a way that you do feel bad. He’s devasted when he wonders what could possibly have happened. Your heart really goes out to him. It’s a really tricky situation.

Kimberly: Absolutely. I think it’s easy to say you wouldn’t stay if you’re Lizzy or you would make different choices, but then it’s really seeing them play out on a moment-by-moment basis as she struggles to be like, I’m going to make an ultimatum now, or I’m going to do this thing. You can see why it’s so easy. These problems look so easy from the outside when you’re not in the marriage yourself. It’s a lot more complicated when you’re in it.

Zibby: I feel like any problem inside a marriage is magnified because you’re living it 24/7. Like you were saying, it’s mirrored back and forth, so it grows exponentially. What do you think? You’ve written now, a book called A Good Marriage. What is a good marriage?

Kimberly: I think that, really, the center point of the book is it’s different for every couple. That maybe is or maybe isn’t a satisfying answer. A bit of what the book looks at is I think that we believe that as a society we try to say that marriages — there is a good marriage, or at least there’s clear things you must to do to have a good marriage. You must be faithful. You must become completely honest. Your spouse must be your best friend. There’s these rules. If you do these things, that is a good marriage. I just think it’s really kind of a fallacy. I think that that might be true in certain marriages. How could there be one kind of good marriage when people are all so different? I think a marriage really is a living thing between two people. There’s you. There’s your spouse. Then there’s your marriage, which is something that has to be cultivated and sustained and changes over time because you change over time, and so does your spouse. The things you need change over time, which is why some marriage don’t succeed and people don’t stay together, because they change. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they were wrong to begin with.

I don’t want people to come away with an idea that there is one thing that makes a good marriage. I’d rather have them questioning the notion that there are these specific ingredients that are going to be true for every couple. There’s an example of — again, I don’t want to do too many spoilers. That’s the trouble about talking about a mystery. There’s one couple in the book, they’re brutally honest with each other. They say everything that is on their mind. That isn’t necessarily the best thing. There’s another couple that does have an open marriage. That doesn’t necessarily turn out badly for them. I’m really trying to play with some of these expectations and notions. Actually, the mirror of that in the book is the legal system because that’s kind of the parallel. I think that’s another institution where we’re like, there’s right and there’s wrong. There’s black and there’s white. It’s very simple. In this book, it’s very clear that both on the prosecution side and the defense side, there’s a lot of gray and a lot of ambiguity. Really, what is guilt? What is innocence? It’s meant to look at both of those things.

Zibby: It’s so great. That’s what made it so hard to put down. It’s also great because you always wonder — everybody bandys about the expression, you never know what goes on behind closed doors. At least now you’ve opened up a few doors for us and we get to peek in.

Kimberly: That’s very true. The thing that made me want to write the book to begin with was really that we spend time with other couples who’ve been married a long time also. I just never cease to be amazed at how different all those couples are and how different their marriages seem. Some, the power dynamic is totally different or they’re really affectionate. Some bicker. We’ll come home from dinner and I’m always like, wait, so do they hate each other, that couple we were just with? Or is that just their thing? Are they joking? I just find it fascinating. It’s not even that people are necessarily trying to hide something. It’s not like they’re trying to put on a perfect front. I think it’s just the nature of it. Some people don’t even know themselves whether they’re happy. That’s a whole nother layer on top of that.

Zibby: My husband and I went to a party in the last six months, or maybe a year now. He got home and he’s like, “I feel like we just went to a party where everybody there hated their spouse.” I was like, “What do you mean?” He’s like, “Couldn’t you tell? Everybody went to separate corners of the room. There were all these angry stares.” I was like, “I didn’t even notice.” I was just bebopping along so excited to see everybody. He’s like, “No, no, no.” We had been just married then. He’s like, “We were the only happy people.” Meanwhile, I’m screaming at him about something, so who knows?

Kimberly: That’s the thing. When I come home and I say, “Are they happy?” I’m like, wait, but are we happy? What does that even mean?

Zibby: I know, and the fact that no matter how close you are, it’s still something you don’t share that much about with even people who are super close to you because there’s the sacrosanct institution part of it where you just don’t share it all. I don’t know.

Kimberly: It is a very complicated thing. That’s for sure.

Zibby: Can you say anything about the next book you’re writing or what the plot is?

Kimberly: It’s about a group of old friends from college who head upstate for the weekend. They have this troubled past. That troubled past ends up intersecting with them running afoul with some locals upstate. They’re a group of city hipsters who head upstate to the Catskills for the weekend. That’s really all I can say about it for now. I’m excited about it. It’s got a pretty unique structure. I’m having a lot of fun writing it.

Zibby: I love unique structures, whenever there’s something different. That’s why I also loved in your book how you had all the transcripts from the court interviews. There’s a word for that that I’m not finding right now.

Kimberly: Grand jury testimony.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you for that. I went to business school. I did not go to law school. Awesome. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Kimberly: Yes, so much advice. It was a very long road for me to sell my first book. I wrote four unpublished books. It took me a decade from the time I stopped practicing law to sell my first book. I think it’s really important to understand that it can be a really long road if what you want is publication with a traditional publisher. There’s a lot of hard work involved, but there is also a degree of luck. I think it’s important to recognize that. I think that you cannot underestimate the importance of getting feedback, like having a writers’ group. It doesn’t have to be a group, even just a couple — you don’t want just one person. You want several people because opinions differ. It’s such a subjective enterprise. It is impossible, as I was talking about with my book and trying to figure out the mystery, you really can’t see what you’re doing, if the story in your head is the story that’s ending up on the page, if you don’t have people responding to it. That’s just really a part of the process. You have to learn to take feedback and digest it and figure out what it means for you. Perseverance does matter. I think it’s easy to look at people who have published books and think that came easily for them. Behind every published author is usually a story of a lot of failure.

Zibby: What made you keep trying after four books that didn’t sell? Why did you not give up?

Kimberly: Terror. I had thrown away a pretty illustrious career to chase a dream, so that was a piece of it. I did get extremely lucky. My first book I wrote, I took a leave of absence from my job, which is lucky. I was able to know I could give it a try and I had this job to go back to. I was able to defer my law school loans and all that stuff. That’s been lucky. In that time, I got an agent. I finished a book in that year and I got an agent. I almost sold it right away. When I talk about luck, yes, it was a rejection, but to have that success so quickly — relatively speaking as a writer, success can come in the form of rejection sometimes. To have that success, I held onto that for years because I really believed that if I had accomplished — I had no training. I was never an English major. I had never taken a class in writing. I thought if I did that in a year — I’m a big believer in hard work, and so I thought if I keep working at it… To be clear, by the time I was on book four and it was year ten, things were dark. It was not good. That was 2008. I had started looking for a job again. I had decided that that was it. I was done. I had things to offer the world. I just was more unhappy than I was happy chasing this dream. I was like, I’m going to go back and be a lawyer, but no one would hire me because everyone was out of work. Literally, I looked for a job everywhere.

I finished Reconstructing Amelia, my first book, only because I couldn’t find a job. I actually finally got a job offer working at Penn Law in their communications department. I’d have to commute from New York City, take the train every day. It was ridiculous. I got that job offer two days before the auction was held to sell Reconstructing Amelia. I sold it. Then I got to call and say, “I’m not taking the job,” which was the best phone call to make ever. Anyway, it’s not easy. That’s my point. You have a lot of dark times. You have to find ways to get affirmation and build a life around the process that allows you to keep doing it. Again, I’m really lucky. My husband financially supported me. It’s important to know that, know people’s stories, because it’s easy to look at people and be like, how’d they do that? I had somebody supporting me financially. It enabled me to chase a dream. You have to find either a day job or a situation that allows you to not give up.

Zibby: Wow, that’s super inspiring. Thank you so much. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for shining light on a lot of other marriages for my reading pleasure.

Kimberly: Of course. It was so great to meet you. Thank you so much for the time.

Zibby: You too. Thank you.

Kimberly: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Kimberly McCreight, A GOOD MARRIAGE