Zibby interviews New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Mary Kubica about Just the Nicest Couple, a masterfully written and unputdownable thriller about a woman who is desperate to find her missing husband, and another couple who will do anything to stop that from happening. Mary describes her fascinating writing process, revealing her strategy for developing multiple narrators, and admitting she writes without a plan or knowledge of how things will end. She also shares what it was like to publish her first book after years of rejections, and how happy she is to be a part of the tight-knit community of thriller writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mary. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Just the Nicest Couple.

Mary Kubica: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: Yay. Could you please tell listeners what Just the Nicest Couple is about?

Mary: Absolutely. Just the Nicest Couple, it’s actually about two different couples who are really quite different. We have Lily and Christian first, who are just your perfect couple. They’re happily married, very much in love. They’re expecting their first child, so they’re really optimistic about their future. They’re in a good place. The other couple, Nina and Jake, are quite different. Their marriage is really at odds. They’re constantly butting heads. There’s just a lot of animosity in the marriage. Jake works as a neurosurgeon, so he has these incredibly long, stressful hours. Nina works as a teacher, but she’s also taking care of her mother, who is getting older and has some health issues, one of which is that she’s slowly losing her vision. She requires more help from Nina all the time, which also creates some tension and bad feelings in the marriage because Jake is a little resentful for the amount of time that Nina spends with her mother. They’re not in such a good place.

Then one night, Jake, this neurosurgeon, doesn’t come home from work. Nina is, at first, sure that it has something to do with a big argument they had the night before. She thinks he’s gone to a friend’s house or a hotel. He’s just blowing off steam and will come back in a day or two. Then time passes. Some things happen in there that make her realize something bad has actually happened to him. He’s not just somewhere blowing off steam. At the same time, this other woman, Lily, she knows that she was the last to see Jake before he went missing. She tells her own husband, Christian, what happens. The two of them decide that they will do anything to keep the truth from coming out. It’s really a cat-and-mouse game of one woman who’s desperate to find her missing husband and another couple who will do anything to stop that from happening.

Zibby: Wow, excellent elevator pitch. Way to go. That was really great. I have to say, as I told you before — I won’t say anything. I read the whole book. I got drawn in right away. All the different characters’ points of view, I feel like I was immediately rooting for sort of everybody at the same time and wanting to see how everybody was connected and then being surprised. Oh, look at that. Okay. I am the most gullible thriller reader ever. I was trying to analyze what it was. Why could I not put this book down? Was it the desire to figure out the end? Was it rooting for everyone? I don’t know. Tell me how you put it together. You’re a pro at this, obviously. How do you construct each one of your stories to have that effect?

Mary: I don’t plot anything out. I go into it having no idea, really, who my characters are or how the story is going to develop. Almost never do I know my twists when I start writing. That’s something that comes midway through the writing process. I think that I just need that time to get to know my characters and figure out what is going on in this story and take a look at everybody’s backstory and what brought to them to this point in time, and so what might motivate them to have an impact on that final twist. I’d start writing. I always start my books with some sort of problem, something that needs solving. In this case, we have this missing man. The next question I always ask myself is, who’s going to tell this story? All of my books so far have had multiple narrators, which I love doing because I think that it provides some more insight, for one, into more than one characters’ heads. As a reader, you get a more comprehensive view of the story. I think it also brings some more questions because you don’t know if you can trust all these narrators equally or if maybe somebody is intentionally misleading you or unintentionally misleading you. You have to kind of piece through that information as a reader that you’re being given.

Then I do something different that I don’t think most authors do. For as much as I can, I actually try to write one of these narrator’s stories from beginning to end at a time. In this book, we have two narrators. We have Christian and Nina. I started with Christian’s storyline. It was a little bit more difficult with this book as opposed to some of my other books because what is happening in one storyline really mirrors from chapter to chapter. They really play off of each other, so it was a little more difficult. I wrote Christian from beginning, halfway into the book, as far as I could go until I got to a point where I really felt like I needed to step back and start interspersing Nina’s story in there. I feel like I get to know my characters a little bit more thoroughly this way because I can spend a little bit more time with them instead of just bouncing back from chapter to chapter. As a reader, I know that’s one of those things that keeps me invested, is when I really feel like I know the character and I have some sort of connection to them. As a writer, that’s something that I’m aware of and really try to do with my characters.

Zibby: Interesting. I like it. Jake has this command of the medical language. Did you do research? Did you talk to doctors? Are you married to — I don’t know. Where is the doctor coming from?

Mary: I definitely did some research. I am not married to a doctor. I did as much research, really just online reading, as I could. A lot of things that delve into some more serious stuff, like neurosurgery in the case of this book, I give as much information as I feel comfortable, as I feel like I can without getting too, too much into it because it’s definitely nothing that I have any expertise in. Like I said, I did some research. I talked to enough to be able to get a feel for Jake’s character and what he does and maybe a little bit about him himself. Just hearing some of the passages, you get the feel that he’s very smart, maybe a little cold. You pick up a little bit on his bedside manner in hearing some conversation about him. I used that to create his character and then stopped when it got beyond my abilities.

Zibby: The park plays a big role in this. Actually, I should see if it’s — no. I was wondering if you had it on the cover. I knew it was dark and green. The park itself plays a big role. It feels very visual. I can see where the different parking entrances are and the different paths and this and that and how it courses by the house. Is this a real place? Did you make this up? It felt very, very real to me.

Mary: It’s a real place. I’m in the suburbs of Chicago. I modeled Langley Woods after a place called Waterfall Glen. If anybody is from the suburbs of Chicago, it’s based on Waterfall Glen. I changed street names and stuff like that. The layout, even the layout of the parking lots, is all the same. It’s an area that I like to go to to run or walk. It’s a beautiful path. For the most part, it’s not as scary as I make it out to be in this book. You go on a Saturday morning, and there are a lot of people there. You’re not really as alone as I make it out to be in the book. There are definitely paths that wander off the main path, which would be much more hidden from the main trail.

Zibby: There’s one piece of everybody’s narrative, which is this moment of, wait, maybe things aren’t what they seemed. Wait a second. Looking at something very familiar and questioning things and then doing that thing where you have to go back in life and sort of rewrite what you thought all along, tell me about that moment. It’s this combination of fear and confusion. It puts the reader very ill at ease, as it does the character.

Mary: I think we all have those moments. That’s one of the things with all of my books that I like to draw on. I feel like these characters and their experiences are not that different than our own. Obviously, they’re experiencing their worst days in this book. I like things to be really relatable. I think that we all have — something happens. Our emotions are skewed because of the way we feel about it. Then especially over time, some of those things start to change and fade. When we look back on things in retrospect, we might have different memories of the way that it happens. I think that that’s just something that we experience all the time. They always say that if somebody witnesses an accident, a car crash, something like that, all the witnesses are going to see a little bit something different based on where they were or how their memory is, what emotions they bring to that situation with them. That’s just one of those truths that I like to bring to my books because I think that it’s something that we can all relate to on some level.

Zibby: Interesting. Take me back to you as a kid. You’re a big reader. Give me the visual here and how you got to here.

Mary: A big reader. I loved to read. We didn’t have a bookstore in my town, but we had the library. I would go whenever I could. I would check out as many books as I could carry home, just anything. I loved fiction, but I loved nonfiction too. Whatever it was that I was interested in at the time, I would go and gather up as many books as I could carry and go home with them and stay up way past my bedtime reading. I just loved to read. I liked to write too, but writing was really private for me. The idea of wanting to write books for other people to read was totally beyond me. It was just one of those things that I did to pass the time. I would come home from school. I always had some sort of story that I was working on. Now that I look back on it, it was really just an extension of myself. I’d create a character that was a little bit like myself, but more adventurous, more outgoing. I’d kind of live vicariously through her. For as much as I loved to write, I thought at that time that that wasn’t anything I was ever going to want to pursue professionally. I was actually a high school history teacher for a number of years. In the summer or after school or on the weekends, just whenever I had time, I was always writing.

Then back in 2005, my daughter was born. I left teaching for a while. I thought it would be temporary. I left teaching to start my family. It was then when my daughter was home — she was weeks old. Now in retrospect, I have no idea how I did this. I got the idea for my first published book, The Good Girl. Whenever I could, if she was napping or just content, I would get on the laptop and start writing. With that book, something just clicked. I fell in love with these characters in a way I hadn’t loved any characters that I had created before that time. It was the first time in my life that I thought, I want to finish this. I want to do something with it. I want to try to do something with it. Of course, I had no idea what would become of it, but I felt compelled to try. I thought that I owed it to myself. I owed it to this book just to see what could happen. It took five years to write the book. Then when I was done, I had no idea what to do with it. I was never part of a writers’ group. I had studied education in college. I hadn’t even taken a single creative writing class. I didn’t know any authors. I just got on the internet and started researching and came up with the book The Writer’s Market, which has literary agents. I went through the book and just started finding all these literary agents that represented the kind of book I thought I had written. I was not selective, anybody that represented suspense. I sent out a hundred query letters.

At this point, I had written the book totally in secrecy. My husband knew it existed, but I wouldn’t let him read it. Nobody else knew it existed. I didn’t even have a friend proofread this manuscript for commas before I started sending it out to these agents. Sure enough, the rejections started coming in right away. There were ultimately three agents that asked to read the whole book, but then those three passed. Every single agent that read The Good Girl passed on it. I just thought, that’s that. The book’s never going to be published. I kept writing. I would love to say that if I never sold one book I would still be here writing because it’s just one of those things I’ve loved so much. Two years after all those rejections, one of the agents reached back out to me. It just so happened that when she first read The Good Girl, she was brand-new to this literary agency right out of college. She had gone through the slush pile and found The Good Girl, took it home and read it and loved it, but she was working as someone’s assistant and not in a position to represent it herself. Her team decided to pass, so she had to pass on their behalf. Within those next two years, she was promoted. Now she was a literary agent. She could represent her own books. She reached back out to see if it was available. It was a dream come true. I’m always telling people, any aspiring writers out there that are having trouble, that I was one person away from this never happening. So much of it is timing and just finding that one person that’s as passionate about your work as you are.

Zibby: That’s crazy. Is now that agent running the whole agency, basically?

Mary: She should be, right?

Zibby: That’s amazing. Then what was the process of selling it like?

Mary: Then she went out. Still, at this point, I had never told anybody that I wrote this book.

Zibby: How many years ago is this now?

Mary: I found her in 2010. I should say I queried her in 2010. She reached back out in 2012. The book was published in 2014. She went out with it. Initially, there was a lot of noes. I was nervous. Just because I had the agent didn’t mean we were ever going to sell the book. Ultimately, I did get two offers and was able to speak with both of these editors on the phone. I signed on with Erika Imranyi, who is still my editor eight books later.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You’re with Park Row?

Mary: Park Row, yeah.

Zibby: Amazing, eight books later. Tell me about the success of the first book and what that felt like after this long road to get there.

Mary: It was unbelievably exciting. My expectations were low. I had no idea. I thought, well, my family and friends will buy a copy. Maybe that’s it. I didn’t know. I didn’t know if readers — how they were going to feel about it. It takes a lot to put that book out there. I think that the first time I walked into a bookstore and saw in on the shelf, I just wanted to grab them all and take them back home with me. I was so nervous. The feedback, it was in the months leading up to the book’s release that I could tell things were all going in the right direction. I knew my publisher was a hundred and ten percent behind this book. I saw the early reviews coming in. They were very positive. It got a starred review from Publishers Weekly. I knew that everything was moving in the right direction. It was just beyond my wildest dreams.

Zibby: Now you’ve just been doing it over and over again. What is your pacing? I could do the math. You’re basically doing one a year, almost, right?

Mary: I am, yes. I’ve slowed down a little bit in the last couple years to more like fifteen-ish months. I think the more books you write, you’re trying to compete with yourself. You’re trying to outdo yourself. To make sure I could do that and come up with new twists and totally original characters, I wanted a little bit more time in there. I’ve slowed down just a little bit. COVID set me back a little bit. I found that a really hard time to write. My brain was not where I needed it to be in my creativity. For the most part, I get a solid draft done in a little bit less than a year, maybe nine to ten months. Then my editor and I will go back and forth for a little while on revisions.

Zibby: With Just the Nicest Couple, what was the first piece of this that came to you?

Mary: I loved the idea of a missing husband. We hear so many stories, in fiction and on the news, about missing women and missing wives. I myself have written books about missing women. I feel like we don’t really hear about the missing man. I wanted to examine that and see, is the story ultimately the same, or is it a little bit different? Those were some of the things that I explored. When Jake first goes missing, for one, his wife doubts that he’s missing and that he isn’t just blowing off steam. Then even when she does go to the police to get some help, the first thought is, maybe he’s just left you. It takes some time for people to really take her seriously.

Zibby: It’s hard interviewing thriller writers because I really want to talk to you about all the things that happen, but then I don’t want to give all of this away. All to say, it was very exciting. I feel like you really got me in there, in the hallways of the school and in the houses and in the park and just transported. That was fun.

Mary: Thank you. That means a lot because that’s what I want to do. That’s the goal. As a writer, you get so close to the book that you never know if it’s going to affect the reader the same way that it affects you. It really means a lot when I hear that you had that reaction to the book.

Zibby: Are you reading anything amazing right now?

Mary: I get — I’m sure you do too. I know you do. I get some early copies of books. I just finished yesterday, Ashley Winstead has a new one called Midnight is the Darkest Hour, which comes out in October and was so, so good. I absolutely loved that one. Then I’m just about to start Riley Sager’s newest, which comes out this summer sometime. I’m a big fan of his. I’m very excited to read that.

Zibby: I have to say, I feel like the thriller-writing community, it’s such a tight-knit group. I feel like you all know each other, and ThrillerFest. How does that happen? Are you all in the same Facebook group? Do you have a mailing list? You all seem to be blurbing each other and getting to know each other and panels together. Tell me about it.

Mary: Honestly, they’re the warmest human beings I think I’ve ever met. It surprised me. For one, I didn’t know — when I first got started writing, I had no social media presence at all. My editor had to give me a big boost to get on Facebook and start connecting with people. I had no idea what to expect from other writers. Would there be a lot of competition between writers? The thriller community has been so warm and welcoming. It’s kind of ironic because, of course, we’re writing really dark and twisty stuff. Just because you read my book doesn’t mean you’re not going to go read Riley Sager’s book or whatever. There doesn’t have to be that competition. Instead, it’s just been really amazing to see the way that everybody is so supportive, both online really shouting each other’s works out for everybody to read, but also behind the scenes too. There’s a lot of emails and Zooms and direct messages and stuff offering encouragement to one another. I think because writing is — we don’t have coworkers that we get to see on an everyday basis. To have that connection with other authors who really get it, the isolation or what it feels like to get that nasty review and things like that, it’s such a big help.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. What’s the next book?

Mary: I’m so close to finishing the next one. I’m so excited. I don’t do a working title or anything, so it’s just book nine. I don’t have a perfected elevator pitch here. It’s about a woman, an ICU nurse, who gets a patient who jumped from a bridge. The woman is unconscious. As this ICU nurse, she gets to know the patient’s family and people who come to visit. Over time, it comes out that the woman, she did not jump, but she was actually pushed. Now this nurse does not know who of this woman’s loved ones she can trust.

Zibby: These ideas just keep coming to you. It’s like a spout. They feed on each other.

Mary: Knock on wood. I hear other authors talk about, they have notebooks of ideas. I don’t have that. There’s always that moment of panic after I finish one book. Will I think of something new? Eventually, they do come. There have been periods where I might go weeks or a month without an idea, or I get an idea and I start writing, and I realize that it doesn’t have legs. It’s not going to work out. There are definitely bumps along the road. I’m always so grateful when I get a new idea and really get into the writing and know that I can see it through.

Zibby: Awesome. Mary, thank you so much. What are you going to do now? How long are you going to write today? What’s the plan? What is your typical day?

Mary: I’m an early morning writer. I have to say, it’s almost ten o’clock here in Chicago, and I’ve probably already written a good three hours. I set the alarm for five AM. I’m not the best sleeper, so some days, I’m up at four writing. I don’t know why, but that is my favorite time in the world to write. The ideas just flow so much better at four AM than at noon. I can’t explain it. I am so close to the end of a draft that I’m going to get back to it. I’m going to write until I have to get the kids from school because I’m ready to be done.

Zibby: How old are your kids now?

Mary: They’re fifteen and seventeen. They’re getting pretty old.

Zibby: My oldest are twins. They’re fifteen and a half. Actually, probably closer to sixteen now. Craziness.

Mary: It’s a fun age, but that time, they tell you that it goes by in the blink of an eye. It sure does. I think the older they get, the faster it gets. They’re just so busy all the time.

Zibby: Very true. Amazing. Two kids, eight books, very productive for you.

Mary: And you. I’m always so impressed with everything that you’re doing. You’re amazing.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m jealous of your early morning productivity. I feel like I never like to write in the morning. I’m like, email or read. I like to read early in the morning when I can’t sleep. I don’t know. I can’t do it. Anyway, it was delightful meeting you. Hopefully, I’ll see you. At some point, I want to come to Chicago. I haven’t been there in so long. I want to do a Chicago tour with one of our authors or something. Would love to meet up in person.

Mary: I would love that. I would absolutely love that. Thank you so much for having me on today and for all your support for the book.

Zibby: No problem. Take care. Buh-bye.

Mary: Have a good one. Bye.



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