Joe is me. Or am I Beck?

Jennifer Platt talks to Caroline Kepnes about creating characters, death, psychology, fear and the thrill of seeing her stories on the screen

26 May 2019 - 00:00 By Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times: 26/05/2019

You and Hidden Bodies ****
Caroline Kepnes, Simon & Schuster

As most good TV shows or films, You was a successful book first. Written in 2014 by Caroline Kepnes, it became an international bestseller, translated into 19 languages. Kepnes has since written its sequel, Hidden Bodies, which is slated for a second season on Netflix, once again starring Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley.

The books are riveting, giving an uncomfortable insight into psychopaths and the nature of stalking.

The reader is in the head of Joe Goldberg, a cute bookstore owner in New York who seems normal and friendly, but is stalking Guinevere Beck and killing those close to her.

We asked Kepnes about her anti-hero Joe, her on-point references, why we don't like the character Beck, and how she feels about the next series.

You and Hidden Bodies are compulsive
and obsessive reads, but they're not easy. It's first-person narration, and being in
Joe's head is tough going. How difficult
was it creating such a character?

It's funny you say that because I'm compulsive and obsessive as a writer. I write fast, can't stop, won't stop. Then I step away and breathe. Paula Fox said something that resonated with me: "When it's good, it's like a dream, I'm just working, and I'm not conscious of myself at all as a writer." I live for that state of flow.

That said, with a character like Joe, who's constantly rationalising all events to establish himself as the hero, I love the part of the process where I am conscious of myself as a writer. I have to track the emotional arc, make sure the action and the words are feeding the engine of the story. I want us to be in it with him in real time,  at the moments of decision. I always ask  the same questions. Do I believe this? What is he feeling? Is this what really happens right now? Am I sucked in? Do I care?

The success of the narrative is the moral complexity you introduce to the reader - you don't want Joe to get caught. Did you write him in this way?

I did. I love exploring the dark side of humanity, particularly in a character who identifies as a lyrical, romantic soul. That moral paradox keeps me going. Maybe you're laughing, identifying with his social anxiety but then he does something that you would never do, and where does that leave you? I love conflict that stems from character.

Your references are on point when it comes to Joe and Beck. How much research do you do in terms of pop culture?

You feel guilty about watching Pitch Perfect over and over again. Then you write a book chock full of Pitch Perfect reference and get to be like, "Ah, that wasn't self-indulgence after all. That was 'research'."

Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho filled my heart with joy with all the dissection of Whitney Houston lyrics.

I remember the first time I read that book, feeling so addressed as a reader. That sense of having discovered something fresh and relatable and sick and depraved. Oh man, that altered my perspective on writing.

Years later, I was in the middle of writing You when Lou Reed died. That hit me hard and I was crying. My father had passed away before I started writing and he'd loved Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.

I remember thinking, "Well, I can't write today, too sad." I gave myself a pass and then I came around like, "No, it's the opposite.  I should write today."

So I put Lou Reed's death in the book; I let Joe and colleague Benji hash it out. I don't go into these books with a list of works I want to reference. The process is organic. Things that move me help me figure out what moves my characters and why. I'm a former entertainment journalist, so it's in my DNA to obsess about books and television, movies and music.

You also reference Stephen King in both books. What's the scariest book you've
ever read?

There's no-one like Stephen King. The Shining is the scariest book I've read. I saw the movie first, and my dad kept saying, "Oh no, it's great, little girl, but you have to read the book." So of course I read it and paid the price. Jack Torrance tells you that the world is an unfair, terrible place and you read that book and you're like, "Yep, right on, Jack." For me, that's the definition of scary, the heart of so many Stephen King books: the monster is not under your bed, the monsters are in the people you know.

How self-aware is Joe?

I've been thinking about this a lot. On the one hand, he's extremely self-aware. He's constantly assessing his situation and rationalising his behaviour. That said, his emotions are the centre of the universe in his head. He identifies as a martyr, almost like a veterinarian who's nobly putting sick animals out of their misery. It's also all "You made me do this", which is the classic evasion of responsibility for one's behaviour. He's not at all self-aware in terms of his place in society. He's anti-social. After all, murder is illegal, even if the person you kill is vicious, manipulative; even if they lie to you and break your heart.

Why is Beck so irritating?

I always get a kick out of reader reaction to Beck because I based aspects of her character on my 20-something self. She's from Nantucket and grew up working in service industry jobs; I'm from Cape Cod and grew up scooping ice cream for tourists. She went to Brown University on financial aid; same here. 

She moved to New York with dreams of becoming a fiction writer, I did too. She lived in a rent-controlled apartment in the posh West Village because I lived in a rent-controlled apartment in the posh West Village.

It's easy to look back on yourself and cringe. I found a journal entry from my Bank Street days where I was whining that I didn't want to learn Excel for a job. I wanted to be on The View. Eew, right?

As I started writing, I wondered what my life would have been like if I had to deal with social media and modern communication in my early 20s. Would I have recognised a Joe if I met him?

It's unfair to blame Beck for what happens to her, but we see that happen a lot in this world. We blame the girl for not watching her back. We pick her apart. She wasn't looking out for herself. She fell for the wrong man. She paid the price. And how reductive! We're seeing her as Joe sees her. He wants the impossible, to possess her, for her to like no-one but him. We criticise her because he criticises her.

I think we want to shake Beck and tell her to wake up because we want to shake our former selves, our low-moment memories where we weren't living our "best lives".

We want to scream, "Get your shit together! Stop making bad choices! Get over yourself! Wake up!" You know that saying about what we hate in others is what we hate most in ourselves?

Yep. I think most of us have a little Beck in us; a little Joe too.

How happy were you with the TV show?

The first season is so close to the book, so close to my heart. As an author, it's dreamy to see Beck walk into the bookstore, to hear Joe's inner thoughts. And as a TV viewer,  I was on cloud nine watching, because it was fun to watch. I think it's hard to adapt a book, to translate the atmosphere of a reading experience into a new medium, and I'm forever thankful for the writers, the cast and the crew.

Are they busy making the sequel?

They're shooting the second season now. I love parallel universes and I'm encouraging people to read Hidden Bodies to warm up for season two. You always want to read the book. If you read it before you watch the show, you have a uniquely invigorating viewing experience.

I can't wait to see the adaptation of Iain Reid's I'm Thinking of Ending Things. That book terrified me, and still does when I think about it. Before I watch the movie, I'll read it again because it's exciting to have the world of a book in your head when you watch the adaptation of that book.

People ask about the third book. You've  said you're writing other novels and will get back to it soon. Will you take readers to a different part of the US, after exploring New York in You and LA in Hidden Bodies?

I will have a lot more to say about that soon. Joe Goldberg's story isn't over. I can't talk about the details yet, but I think readers will be excited. We've seen him in New York, in Los Angeles, and I agree that it would be exciting to see him in an idyllic small town, where he expects people to be decent. Ha!