Is There More to You? Let’s Find Out: Behind the Scenes with Author Caroline Kepnes
“‘You’ is in many ways a more romantic word than ‘love’ because it’s so direct. It’s just for you. It’s a really important quality in someone when they’re able to be interested in you and let you know, but there’s also a dark side to that ‘I can’t live without you’ fantasy. I knew it had to be the title right away,” says Caroline Kepnes, author of the suspense thriller turned television series “You.”
The singular experience of growing up on Cape Cod is, in itself, a feat that creates a particular sense of intimacy and appreciation of natural beauty. For Kepnes, those lessons are ones that continuously shape her life and work. “I’m so lucky to have been born and raised on the Cape,” says Kepnes, who still keeps in touch with some of her teachers from Barnstable High School. “It has such a magical quality because of the way it explodes in the summer and quiets down in the winter—like two worlds within one. I feel like it made me a writer in that way.”
Kepnes now lives in Los Angeles, but she says that the Cape is always a constant draw for her. “I never go to the beach here because when you’re from Cape Cod, you can’t just go to the beach in L.A.!” she says with a laugh. “I can feel it when I haven’t been home in a bit. It just calls to me.”
Kepnes started her career by writing short stories. “I don’t think that I could have written a book without first writing so many short stories,” she explains. “Writing is really hard, and there are plenty of days that aren’t rewarding, but a short story gives you a sense of completion—a beginning, middle and end.” She describes her first book as a giant short story, and says she’s learned a lot from that first venture.
“I’m now much better at understanding that I save myself time if I accept that I need time to think. As tempting as it is to just run with the voice in your head, I’ve learned to take a step back and think about why something is in my head. Why, of all the things, is this what I want to write about? It’s almost like therapy,” she says.
For her debut novel, that voice in her head was Joe Goldberg, a charming bookstore manager who is perhaps a bit too attentive, especially when it comes to Guinevere Beck. The lines between romantic and sinister become hopelessly blurred and irrevocably intertwined as Joe fashions himself (with the help of some brazen social media stalking) into the perfect man for Beck. In this terrifyingly relatable 21st century love story, Joe will do anything to be a part of Beck’s life, even murder.
"'You' is in many ways a more romantic word than 'love'"
“The words ‘horrifying’ and ‘romantic’ keep coming up, and that’s something that resonates with me. I’m obsessed with how we live right now, and things like romantic comedies, so it’s exciting to see all these people having conversations about whether or not it’s OK to like this character,” says Kepnes. “It’s a really fun think-piece, which I didn’t necessarily expect when I wrote it. For me it was about telling his story, so I like seeing people not only entertained but also having passionate debates.”
Kepnes was in a coffee shop when Joe first appeared in her mind. “I was in a dark place in my life,” she explains. With both of her parents sick and having just had throat surgery that rendered her unable to speak for weeks, it was easy for her to feel like everything was despairing. But Kepnes was able to find her voice again through writing. “I felt so lost and then all of a sudden Joe was there whispering in my head,” she says. Joe gave her the opportunity to take the nastiness and cynicism she was feeling and channel it into her writing. “I probably rewrote those first eight pages 100 times,” says Kepnes. “I told myself, if I don’t feel like I know who this character is, then it’s not going to work. I tried so many different things—Joe in high school, Joe as a girl—until I was sure of what I was writing.”
The Cape appears time and again in Kepnes’ work. Beck is from Nantucket, and a Mount Gay Rum Figawi hat even makes an appearance in the television version. Having worked at Tim’s bookstore on Main Street in Hyannis, it’s fitting that Joe himself is a bookstore manager. “I also used to live in New York,” she explains. “So Beck is like a young version of me, and Joe is the dark part of me.”
“Of course, I’ve never murdered anyone,” she jokes. “But everyone’s had moments of happiness and moments of resentment, and I wanted to find the attraction between those two emotions and how those two parts of yourself relate.”
The conversation surrounding “You” has reached new levels with the recent screen adaptation of the book made for Lifetime Television and now available on Netflix. Developed by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti and starring big names like Penn Badgley, Elizabeth Lail and Shay Mitchell, the series brings the book to life in a way that was unexpected even to Kepnes. “I can’t say enough about Sera and Greg,” says Kepnes. “Seeing it all come together, as cliché as it sounds, was magical. It’s so exciting to work with people who really get it and are adamant about their own feelings when reading the book and how to bring that to the screen. There’s really no element of Hollywood to it—these are just passionate, serious people dying to make the best series they can make.” Kepnes describes “How did you know?” moments where she’d walk onto set and a scene would be set up exactly as she imagined when she wrote it. “It’s so rewarding to have people just fully understand what was in your head, because when you’re writing you’re never sure if that will come across,” she says.
“I remember being so free to play and imagine,” says Kepnes about growing up in Barnstable. “Feeling scared, excited and safe all together—that mix of feelings is something that I’m so grateful for because I feel like being able to explore those things helped me explore my writing too.”
The thing that stands out most about Kepnes’ writing is her authenticity, and a work like “You” is perhaps so intriguing because there is no right or wrong analysis of the characters and their motives. It plays with the delicate line between love and obsession, between the benefits and downfalls of a social media-driven world, between reality and imagination, and between darkness and light. Kepnes has real empathy for the way people live today, for the digital world that everyone is learning to navigate together, and while she might not have all the answers herself, she certainly knows how to pose the questions and do so in a way that is intimate, personal and wholly intriguing.
“You” and Kepnes’ other books can be found at Titcomb’s Book Shop.
A Few of her Favorite Cape Things
• Favorite town - Barnstable
• Favorite spot to relax – Baxter’s
• Favorite restaurant – The Roadhouse
• Favorite beach – Long Beach
• Favorite spot to watch the sunset – Lake Wequaquet
• Favorite thing to do in the area – Candlepin Bowling
• Favorite time of year on the Cape – Early September
• Favorite place to take a walk – Sandy Neck