'That’s torturous…but that’s Joe' : You author Caroline Kepnes on book no. 3
Caroline Kepnes breaks down the pop culture phenomenon
Pop culture may never have enough of the creepy and mercurial Joe Goldberg. The Netflix psychological thriller You, based on the books written by Caroline Kepnes, gave way to a labyrinth of social commentary that underscores the connection between narcissism, obsession, mental health and social media (Kepnes admits she thinks of social media as a character in the books; “when they added ‘stories’, that made my head explode, the snapchat-ification of it, the way you know who is watching,” the author remarks). The modern-day stalker saga moves bases to a quaint and snug island in the Pacific Northwest in You Love Me, the third book in the series.
“I grew up in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, so I went into this knowing what it’s like to live in a tight community. I climbed into many rabbit holes, reading about the way of life, the neighborhoods, the history, the tourism, all of it. After I finished the first draft, I spent a few weeks in Bainbridge. A local recent college graduate who loved You on Netflix was kind to drive me around the island. I sat down with so many great locals, did a lot of rewriting in Pegasus and Blackbird, two coffee shops on the island. So that part was delicious,” Kepnes shares. How would Joe handle small town life after New York and Los Angeles? Who is his new prey in Book 3? What about his baby? And most importantly, what makes him such an irresistible subject? Kepnes breaks down the literary phenomenon:
Did the success of the Netflix series change what you wanted for the characters, specifically Joe? Did you start thinking about him differently?
I started making plans for Joe and Love when I was finishing Hidden Bodies in 2015, so this book is a long time coming. I didn’t change my plans. I didn’t want to veer from the characters I’d build in the books. Love Quinn is devoted to her family, so I gave a lot of thought to her new role as a mother. She was born into a situation where she is protecting her brother, loving him, enabling him. In You Love Me the baby that should, in theory, make them a family is the reason they cannot be a family.
Joe has narcissistic tendencies and Love doesn’t really want to start a family. She already has a family. Joe is devastated that he won’t be the hands-on father. But he hunts for the bright side. What he can do is form another family. Healways claims to want love, but what he really wants iscontrol. A baby can’t sneak around. Joe needs to follow, to stalk. So, this felt right. He’s stalking his baby online via her mother’s Instagram stories. That’s torturous…but that’s Joe!
Why did you choose Pacific Northwest as the next location for the series?
It’s always been a place I dream about and I thought okay, Joe believes he will go free, become a dad, and start a new life with Love. What kind of life would he want? I read about the low murder rate in Bainbridge and the great public schools, all the safety that Joe would crave for his family. It was exciting new territory for me as a writer because you “bump into” people in a small town. It’s easier to keep tabs on everyone in your orbit if you’re all on an island, right?Yes and no. I wantedhim to go all in for a place where life is about the people in your community, not the people you wish you knew. The seaside, Debbie Macomber quaintness felt like an idyllic antidote to Hollywood. But as always, people are people, flawed. Joe is Joe, flawed, but he’s fixated on your flaws.
The women Joe is attracted to are all really different. Can you tell us a little about how you write the women for Joe?
I start with the two-way street. Why is Joe drawn to this woman? Why is this woman drawn to Joe? It’s all about the chemistry and the timing. Guinevere Beck can’t get Benji to be serious about her, and Joe’s courting her, specifically. Love Quinn was a twin. It was in her DNA to stand by her brother, so shewas unconsciously drawn to Joe because he too has his dark side. Joe could smell it in her DNA. It takes her a while to come to terms with that.
And now, in You Love Me, Mary Kay DiMarco is settled. She’s lived and worked in one place for several years. The steadiness appeals to Joe after so much moving around, so many women who were only just getting started. I wanted Mary Kay to be realizing she didn’t know just how thirsty she was to talk to someone new.Joe, ever the hypocrite, wants her to break her foundation so that they can have their own foundation. And that’s always the bottom line. He searches for women who appear to settle for less than he thinks the deserve and he thinks he’s Mr. More.
How challenging is it making Joe likeable, especially now that there has been so much commentary about his character design?
Readers have been waiting for You Love Me since 2016 and it’s been wild to see so many people fired up about this character that comes from my books. It was my first time putting out a third book in a series. I settled in and thought, okay, it’s just me and Joe. What got me hooked in the first place? He’s a listener, a reader, he’s trying to get happy. He’s resilient. You’d probably get along with him if you met him. You relate to him because you’ve probably Googled a person you just met at some point in your life. You’ve wanted someone else on the planet to long for you. But you probably haven’t ever murdered anyone.
Your limits are not his limits. That’s the line in the sand where every book lives. You don’t like it when you see bad behavior go unchecked, when people get away with mistreating women. Well, neither does he. But you don’t lock people in your basement like some kind of prison guard therapist. His loyalty to “you” is potentially lethal for you and your loved ones and I’m doing my spin on crimes of passion, love. I always want to make time for him to converse with his enemies. I wanted to corner him in a new way. We all encounter toxic people in our lives, but how do we respond when we catch a whiff of our own toxicity? The characters in this book have all worked to keep their social circle alive, but here comes toxic Joe, the toxicity detector. The biggest challenge is creating a story that makes me slip and think that maybe Joe really could live happily ever after. If I catch myself going there, I hope you might too.
Can you tell us a little about your relationship with social media? Do you like it, hate it, or is it somewhat complex?
Such a good question! It makes me think of The Social Network. Boy is with girl, face to face, in a dark college bar. Boy wrongs girl. Girl dumps boy. Boy gets revenge online, in his dorm room. Girl is rightfully mortified. At the end of the movie, Boy has altered the landscape of our lives, destroyed the friendship that meant the most to him. The last shot: Boy searches for Girl online.We are the same as ever, we pine, we don’t let go, and now we have abilities to communicate that didn’t exist in previous eras. On the one hand, I love that we have this new means of connection, making friends, maintaining bonds. On the other hand, I think that longing, yearning, wonder and distance are all integral partsof the human experience. My relationship with it is complex, and I think that’s true for most of us.
How did the quarantine affect your creative process? Can you share a little about how you spent your time in isolation?
It’s still blowing my mind every day. I live alone so I have beenalone…a lot. In pre-Covid times, I would carve out time to be alone, to think and to write. I’d make plans soIhadto make that deadline in order to make it to that big trip or to dinner around the corner. Sometimes I’d cancel, a friend would cancel. It’s no big deal.There’s always next week. And then suddenly…no there isn’t. I spent hours absorbing the news, the crushing daily onslaught. I read fiction when I could pull myself away from the news and I watched a lot of TV. Lately I feel hyper aware that it’s the first year of my life where I’ve spent more time watching actors than I have engaging with people in real life. Odd. Eerie.
I felt lucky that my last pass on You Love Me was due. I had an escape. And then I’d return to the world, catch up on the incomprehensible sadness, the ten new bad things that happened while I was writing and just sink into the sofa. I was waking up early and overwhelmed, so over time, I trained myself to be a morning writer. I kept the computer on my bed. And now, I’m slipping back into night writing.
Can you reveal anything about book 4?
I’m starting with Joe in a new place where he discovers his true calling. The pursuit of his passion leads tofrustration with the gatekeepers at the intersection between creativity, sensitivity, success and truth. He falls for a woman, which means trouble for the people in her life.