Sarah Langan reignites Zibby’s inner psychology major as the two discuss the social experiments that inspired Sarah’s new book Good Neighbors, why she wanted to create a sympathetic narcissist as her main character, and how we can all better understand troublesome people.


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

Sarah Langan: Thank you.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Congratulations on this being a Barnes & Noble Book Club pick. I know you’re excited for your event with Gillian Flynn. That’s so exciting.

Sarah: I’m really excited. It feels unreal. I think I’ll believe it happened a year from now. It’s all on Zoom. It could be a deep fake.

Zibby: Yeah. Did it really happen, or not? I don’t know. Nothing in real life seems to be actually happening, this virtual reality world we live in. But it did happen that you got picked for Barnes & Noble. What was that like? Were you super excited to find that out?

Sarah: Yeah, my heart started pounding and everything. Then I thought — it’s the same thing. Really? We’re all home. The only way we’re hearing about the world outside is through email. How do we know they’re not going to change their mind? It was really exciting. Then when the book came out, because it was a book club selection, they had it on front tables, or at least tables, in all of their stores in California. I COVID-safe visited forty-four stores and signed.

Zibby: No! Oh, my gosh, wow.

Sarah: Yeah. I’ll do more. I walk in. I have my own pen. I have two masks. I just talk to them. Now they know I’m coming to so many. They just have me sign. They take a picture. Then I give one of my books to — because I have stock — to one of the managers. It’s fun. It feels real. I’m really glad I did it, first off, because I got to meet so many people. I never have that opportunity. It’s unusual for a book to be selected by Barnes & Noble and in their front stores. I wanted to capitalize on that and enjoy it. Also, it just made it feel really real, so I was glad to do it.

Zibby: That’s awesome. The Barnes & Noble closest to us here on the Upper East Side went out of business. It was a multi-floor emporium. I used to go all the time. I would let my older kids go run around and then go pick them up an hour later. Now it’s gone. It’s so sad. I’ll get down to Union Square or something and go check out your book on the shelves. Let’s talk about your book, Good Neighbors. Ironic title since, are they really good neighbors? Not so much. I love that you have this combination of a background in toxicology and also creative writing and you use all of that to have this big sinkhole happen and ooze out from the sidewalk and capture a dog and all the stuff that happens in this neighborhood. Yet you put it in this literary fiction type of story. It’s the perfect blending of all of your stuff. Tell me about the impetus and how you decided to write this book.

Sarah: I tend to start things by the seat of my pants. I just go in. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Usually, I have thirty different ideas and a hundred different characters. I know that there’s something. I know there’s some best iteration. This is my fifth novel, my fourth that’s been published. I feel like I got it right this time. You don’t always. It’s like, yes, they all came together. They all fit in a way that was right and what I was trying to do. That started from the subconscious and then made its way into something that really was cohesive. I started a long time ago. My first three books were horror. I was just writing another horror novel, which is — I don’t mean “just” — is a feat. The narrative, I couldn’t make work because the story was too human. There was a conflict. I kept trying to bring a monster out because I know how to do that. You’ve done it before. The characters’ personal stories were so much more important than any monster that the monster, every time, felt wrong. I put the book aside. Then I kind of realized years later after I wrote another book in between that I shouldn’t write horror. I was like, this is terrifying. Raymond Chandler says when he gets stuck, he always has a character walk in with a gun. Then you keep moving. I was like, what do I do when I can’t have a character walk in with a gun? I really had to learn how to not write horror, which was fun. It was hard. It was fun.

Zibby: The scariest story ends up being the writing of the book itself. Anyway, sorry, go on.

Sarah: Once I disposed of the idea of a monster, I had to think about, how do personal relationships work? How do I really talk about mob mentality? I studied Kitty Genovese, that story of how this woman in the 1970s was supposedly murdered outside of her apartment building in Queens. It was used as a justification for people to flee the city. It was a really popular myth because I think it made people feel like okay about white flight. I think that’s why it got its traction. There’s so much going on. On top of that, the story is false. She didn’t die alone. The neighbors did call the police. When they saw that she was struggling, one of them came in and held her as she died. For whatever reason, even in sociology classes until ten years ago, it was taught that people are bad. They do these bad things. There’s this bystander effect. No one helps each other. I was really surprised that it wasn’t true.

Then I looked at the Stanford Prison Experiment which I was taught in college. That experiment is about how if you have guards and prisoners — they’re just students, but you tell them to take these roles so that one will become more masochistic and one will become more sadistic. They fill the roles they’re told to fill. We’re taught that in sociology class. That too is a lie. That experiment was debunked. The guy who ran it stopped it not actually because everyone was being masochistic and sadistic, but because it was a false experiment. Everyone around him, they were his students. They knew what he wanted from them. They were providing it to them. They were just being nice. They weren’t taking it as seriously as he pretended or as that footage shows. It was popular because people like telling scary stories about what people are really like. Then I was like, so people are good, but I want to tell the story about what’s happening right now in the world, this Trump, republican, democrat, polarized nation. We’re so fractured because of social network. Then I started studying the social network. This is long. The social network, I realized, was something that was hijacking our best instincts and making us more radical in ways that we wouldn’t ordinarily be. I thought maybe that explains more of this than humans are inherently bad.

We’ve been captured by this system where we’re told that we are morally obliged to constantly state our opinions about things that we don’t even know everything about, and then if we don’t state our opinions, that we’re failing people and people are being hurt and people are dying. Our only agency is to talk and to rile each other up. I think the inevitable end to that was the Capitol. That’s where I really got steam. Then I also had to think, who would be the ringleader of something like this? I studied narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder. Rhea Schroeder is clearly a narcissist. I was like, oh, this is perfect. They’re the only same people who are so attached to their façade that if anyone were to threaten it, they would be driven to murder. It all worked together. The story isn’t about, people are bad. The story is really about, this is the way people who are good could be hijacked. Even the narcissist is a good person. It’s a cautionary tale. It’s also about the people who avoid that hijacking, who are the kids.

Zibby: Wow, lots to discuss in there. First of all, I was a psychology major. I feel like this interview has now justified my entire college education because you referenced things from so many different classes. I’m so glad I still remember what they were. I’m like, oh, Kitty Genovese, I did that in social psych. Also, narcissism, yes, I am well-acquainted with some narcissists and am very familiar with that personality type. I think that the way you portrayed Rhea was so sympathetic, to be honest, because you explain her loss and her close relationship with her dad and the loss of that and what made her get adrift. You paint her in a picture where you understand, oh, yeah, you can see how someone would have trouble, which I think is what you’re trying to say about narcissists. It doesn’t necessarily come from a bad place. Maybe bad things make you a narcissist. I don’t know.

Sarah: I think that every bad behavior can be attributed to people fighting with ghosts. They’re really not trying to hurt you. They’re seeing something. They’re seeing a threat that’s not there from their past. It’s some defense mechanism kicking in. Those people are in real pain. Since I’ve been thinking about that, it’s so much easier to get along with people who are troublesome. I realize, oh, my god, you’re in fight or flight right now. You’re freaking out. You think that I’m doing something to you, and I’m not. I think recognizing that people are in pain and that people who misbehave are in pain, it doesn’t forgive them of their behavior, but it makes it so much more understandable. It makes it much easier to diffuse because you don’t have to come back and say, no, no. You can just move on. I think that’s the best way to handle that. Let’s not talk about the subject that triggers you.

Zibby: So just not engage, right?

Sarah: Yeah. When you see someone freak out like that, you’re not going to get through. What they’re seeing is so scary. You can’t get through to them. You just have to find another way.

Zibby: In all your research, is there anything you found that can stop the ghosts?

Sarah: I think adulthood. I think maturity and being surrounded by people who listen and finding people in your life that listen so that you’re not so scared. Also, Rhea is trying to cure herself at the start of this. She knows something’s wrong, but she’s so deeply entwined in the mass that she’s created for herself. It’s a dual reality for her.

Zibby: Have you seen the movie Bad Moms? Have you seen Bad Moms?

Sarah: Yes.

Zibby: I recently rewatched this when I was in bed with COVID for nine days. I could finally watch some movies. The Christina Applegate character who is the terror of the PTA, in the end, you find out that, really, her husband is in insider trading. She’s lost everything. Her life’s a mess. Then you look back and you’re like, that’s why she is the way she is. I thought of Rhea who becomes the whole organizer of the neighborhood and all of the things that she does. It seemed kind of similar to me in a way.

Sarah: It’s a super effective defense mechanism to take a power position so that no one else can judge you. You’re the least vulnerable person in the room. It’s exactly what a narcissist would do.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like I need to read your textbook on narcissism. I feel like we need to have an offline discussion. You have some sort of inside scoop into this whole thing. Pretty awesome. There was one passage I wanted to read, if you don’t mind, if I can find it. “It was all surface, no laughs, no confidences, no companionship. It was so lonely. The first ten years, she cried a lot, but she kept it a secret, a hidden shame because she was sure that her lackluster marriage was evidence of her own inadequacy. If she confessed her loneliness to Fritz, he’d know the truth, that she was messed up. He’d divorce her. His lawyer would unearth the accident. Everyone would know why she’d been fired from U-Dub. All of Maple Street, they’d look at her and see right through her. They’d know everything. Unthinkable. And so she dried her eyes. She buried her loneliness so deeply that she lost the knowledge of it. She stopped seeing it.” That was so great.

Sarah: I’m glad we’re talking about it. I was like, is narcissist the wrong direction to take this? You are a psychology major.

Zibby: Sometimes you can just deny something enough that it becomes your truth. Then all of a sudden, Rhea not only has all this, but then she’s carrying around secrets. Of course, the corrosive power of secrets is the worst.

Sarah: I think she feels like she’s rotten, like the worst, most horrible, disgusting, nonhuman. She just needs to keep it together for people not to find that out. If they do, her world’s going to fall apart. No one will love her. It’s the funny thing about any kind of coping mechanism that you create, which is that everybody sees you. You didn’t realize it, but they know exactly who you are. They see your flaws completely. It’s sad for that reason because I think her family knows exactly who she is.

Zibby: Then we have the other couple who — now I’m forgetting everybody’s name.

Sarah: The Wildes?

Zibby: The Wildes, thank you, and how misfit they feel in the entire community and how someone can be a beauty queen but yet is signaling all the wrong things to their community and feeling constantly excluded and has to rely almost on the kids to get invited to a party or whatever. I feel like there are neighbors who are discriminated against by how they look. Interestingly, this is not about race. This is about just one person looking different and acting different and the man with all the tattoos on his front porch smoking versus all the preppy people going off on their lives and how it feels to be different. Talk a little bit about how you made that family a central feature and just so other.

Sarah: I grew up in a conservative town on Long Island. It was mostly republican. The thing that the kids wore were polo shirts and etc. You just reminded me of my really good friend in high school. When I would go to pick her up, we couldn’t honk. We had to go to the door or her dad would come out furious because that wasn’t what ladies were supposed to do. She always had to wear a belt. She was never allowed to wear jeans. I can’t imagine if somebody with tattoos was smoking on the front stoop. You could smoke. You had to smoke in secret some place. You could drink a lot, but you had to do it somewhere in a way that was not noticeable. You couldn’t get loud-drunk. I think there’s all these rules that particularly come with people aspiring for upper middle class. They want to signal that. They want their children to follow those rules because they know, it’s true, their kids are going to do better if their kids act like that. Walking into that and thinking, “I want a piece of this. I want a piece of the American dream. I haven’t had it easy. I want my kids to have it easier. I’m going to figure this out,” I think is much easier said than done if you have no experience with what the middle class looks like, with what a nuclear family looks like. A nuclear family is a mystery in its own. I exaggerated it. She’s a former beauty queen. She comes off cold because she’s so frightened of everyone that she’s just constantly stiffly smiling and trying to do everything right. Meanwhile, she’s got tube tops on. Suburban moms do not have bodies for tube tops. It’s insulting to them. They don’t like it. It’s an affront.

Zibby: And she’s pregnant, right?

Sarah: Yeah, and she’s pregnant.

Zibby: Even worse. I mean, come on.

Sarah: She could get away with that.

Zibby: I know she can, but I’m sure everybody else would be annoyed. She looks better pregnant than I look normally, that kind of thing.

Sarah: I’m wearing Lululemon pants, so I can say they’re all in Lululemon . They’ve got the accents. If you were to ask them, what have you read lately? they’d be like, I read this self-help book about the secrets of the rich. Everyone would be like, what? They just don’t fit. What’s worse is you kind of depend on word of mouth in most jobs, and connections. She’s a real estate broker. He’s a salesman. They’re thinking they’re going to get more commissions. In fact, they get less when they move to this wealthy neighborhood because nobody thinks they would be competent enough to do any kind of work for them or to be vouched for. It’s a disaster. I think it would be a disaster for anyone trying to hold onto the American dream and go upwardly mobile. It’s really hard. I wanted to talk about that a little bit. Then what happens is they’re befriended by the queen bee who’s next door who’s like, they’re actually refreshing. I kind of hate my life. I would like something interesting to happen. I’d like to meet some interesting new people. It starts with that. Then what happens is there’s a misunderstanding between the moms, between the queen bee and between Gertie. They read each other wrong. It hits both of their defenses in such a way that they’re both terrified. It’s a disaster. Suddenly, the whole block turns against the Wilde family just as a sinkhole opens and one of the children falls inside. Then they begin to think maybe the Wildes had something to do with this. Maybe the Wildes were responsible for this injured child. Look at them. They’re so weird. They would have to be the ones to blame.

Zibby: Dun, dun, dun. Wow, that’s amazing. Somehow, we’ve just talked for so long. I feel like we’re just getting going here. Tell me what else you have coming next. Do you have other monsters coming out again in the next one, or are we delving more deeply into psychological narratives? What’s next?

Sarah: I think it’s more psychological. The next one, Simon & Schuster has it, or a partial of it. They seem to like it, so I think it’ll move forward. Not horror, but I like the ways the community works. I like using towns and blocks as metaphors for America. These American stories, I like telling. I like learning and trying to make sense of the world in that way. I feel like I can do it, so maybe it’s my job to do it. I feel like there’s so much fracture going on in this country. It’s so hard to make sense. The next book is about a town as opposed to a block. Probably, that’s as much as I can say. The last, most recent publications I’ve had are The Night Nurse which was published in Best Horror of the Year Volume Twelve. It’s not scary. It’s about a mom who just had her third child. She hires a night nurse because she’s not getting any help. It’s about those hours when you’ve had a baby and you’re just lonely and exhausted. You’re like, should I drink wine for breakfast? I don’t know. I’m so upset. I have to get kids dressed into preschool and I have a baby. It’s that three months that you’re so vulnerable, is that story. Then the other story is called You Have the Prettiest Mask. That was published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. That is about a bunch of tween girls who — I wrote this before the plague, but it’s about plague masks. It’s anti-mask, but I’m not anti-mask, so it’s a tough one. It’s about girls who, when they turn thirteen, they have to have balls and they have to wear masks for the rest of their lives. It’s not horror again. It’s more about social stuff.

Zibby: It’s a think piece. Love it. Amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Sarah: Two things. One, advice is free, so it’s worth what free things are worth. I don’t know anyone’s particular circumstances. Everyone really has to find their own way because everyone has their own unique voice. That’s one. Number two, if I were to give myself advice that I would never have listened to because I never took advice when I was younger, it would’ve been to pay more attention to the market. I’ve always sort of written whatever I wanted and felt like if I made it good enough that it would be okay. I think the truth is that, no, you really need to see what’s being published, where is it being published, what agents are representing different things, and see how your work fits and think about those things.

Zibby: It’s so funny because I interviewed somebody right before you who said the exact opposite.

Sarah: That’s so funny.

Zibby: Don’t pay attention to the market trends. Do what’s right for you. Free advice.

Sarah: Free advice. That’s right.

Zibby: I still think it doesn’t matter what the advice is. I just think it also usually sheds some light on the author, what they’re recommending, not the advice itself. All of it just adds to what’s going on in your head, which is clearly a lot of really interesting stuff. Sarah, thank you so much. Thank you for Good Neighbors. I feel like you should grab — have you read Therese Anne Fowler’s A Good Neighborhood?

Sarah: No, I haven’t. I’ve seen it everywhere.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I feel like the two of your books should be sold together as a housewarming gift. It’s both bad things, basically, that happen to communities. There’s this other book — oh, my gosh, I’m blanking on the name — by Julie Valerie. Anyway, they’re all neighborhood-y things. I feel like they should be packaged in a little box with some sort of housewarming thing and —

Sarah: — Mace.

Zibby: Mace, exactly. That would be hilarious. If I know anybody who ever moves, that’s what I’m going to do. Actually, somebody wrote The Art of Happy Moving. Now I have a whole thing. Ali Wenzke wrote The Art of Happy Moving. Now we have a three-book series. Okay, I’ll stop. Have a great day. Thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate it. Thanks for this great book.

Sarah: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Bye.

Sarah: Bye.


Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan

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