Mary Kubica and Megan Miranda have much in common. Both former high school teachers-turned-bestselling novelists, they found their calling writing psychological thrillers. While both Kubica and Miranda were keen on writing from an early age, it wasn’t until they were in their twenties, at home raising young children, that they wrote the novels that would launch two very successful careers. Between them, they’ve published fifteen books in the last seven years, with new thrillers coming from each this year.
On the eve of the release of Kubica’s 6th novel, The Other Mrs. (Park Row, 2020), Kubica and Miranda sat down to discuss the importance of setting in their novels, particularly the backdrop of the state of Maine, which is just one more thing these authors share.
Mary Kubica: You’re from North Carolina and I’m from Illinois, yet we each chose to set our most recent books, The Other Mrs. and The Last House Guest, in Maine. I once said that all of my books would take place in Chicago, but with this one, it was time to break the mold and try something new. I’m pretty enamored with Maine, and was in need of a chilling, secluded setting for this book: a sparsely populated island off the coast fit the bill. Why did you decide to set The Last House Guest in Maine?
Megan Miranda: My feelings toward Maine are very similar—I love it—and the idea for this book was partially inspired by the setting itself. I knew I wanted to set The Last House Guest in a small vacation town and focus on an intense friendship that crosses the divide between the people who live there year round and the people who visit each summer. My dad grew up in Maine, and my family used to spend a week each summer hiking and exploring around Bar Harbor when I was a teenager. We’d drive up the coast from New Jersey, stopping at all these unique, picturesque towns along the way. I like to think of setting as character, and there’s something so distinct about each place we’d visit—I wanted to capture that same feeling with the fictional town of Littleport. As I was writing though, I found the characters and plot taking a cue from the setting itself. The setting and the story definitely developed side-by-side during the process. How did the Maine island setting in The Other Mrs. impact the story for you?
MK: For the longest time, I only fantasized about Maine, but knew in my gut it was somewhere I needed to go. When my family vacationed there for the first time, we took a little two-lane highway all the way from Kennebunkport to Bar Harbor, driving through many small, seaside towns along the way—which sounds incredibly similar to what you and your family have done! Setting is so important in a novel, and you do a top-notch job of transporting readers to the high-end, exclusive vacation town of Littleport. Your detail is rich and vivid; I could picture the wealthy homes, the beautiful, coveted seashore. It adds so much ambience to the novel. The Other Mrs. takes place on a not-easily-accessible Maine island and, though also a community of summer homes, it takes place in winter, after the tourists have left, leaving behind only a small number of unwelcoming local folks. The feeling I hoped to evoke is unsettling and claustrophobic. As winter sets in, there’s a growing concern that the ferry, which is the only way the islanders can access the mainland, won’t run in inclement weather. With any luck, this adds to the tension of the novel, in the same way that the clash between locals and the summer people adds to yours in The Last House Guest. Is Littleport an actual town, or was it your creation? And, if the latter, did another town or towns in Maine help inspire it?
MM: Ohh, that drive does sound very familiar! When I was working on an early draft, I realized it had been years (decades!) since I’d last been up to Maine, so I took a trip with my parents, husband, and kids, driving up and down the coast for a week. I wanted to make sure I was capturing the feel of the place—not just the parts that stood out in my memory. Littleport is fictional, though. I like the freedom of creating a place, and usually find the story and setting feeding off each other as I write. But that recent trip to Maine definitely helped inspire some aspects of the town. Geographically, I’d say Littleport takes some inspiration from Bar Harbor, Camden, and Cape Elizabeth—with features of each, but hopefully unique to itself. I adore the setting you described for The Other Mrs.—it feels unsettling and claustrophobic in description alone. And there’s so much tension built into the setting from the start: an island with one way in or out, in the cold of winter… I get a chill just thinking about it. I’m also fascinated by the flip side to summer vacation towns—what they’re like in the winter. Same question for you here: Is this an actual island, or inspired by a real location? Was there any particular research you needed to do while writing?
MK: The change that comes over these towns when the tourist population leaves is remarkable. There’s the obvious population shift, but year-round residents can harbor resentment toward the tourists who take over their community for three months of the year, and then leave. When winter comes, many homes are left vacant and some businesses close their doors; it’s a very different scene! One of the islands I researched noted an 80% decrease in population during this time, from about 5000 tourists in the summer months, to just over 800 year-round residents. The island in The Other Mrs. is also fictional, but it’s influenced by places like Peaks Island, Chebeague Island, Vinalhaven Island and Monhegan Island, many of which are found off the coast of Portland. None was a perfect match to what I was looking for and, as you say, I love the freedom of creating a place. I could make it exactly what I needed it to be! There was research involved, dealing mostly with the daily facets of island living; for example, how frequently does the ferry come and go, and, if you work on the mainland (as one of my characters does) how do you get there once the ferry brings you across the bay? Do you need to leave a car on the mainland as well as on the island? And what about things like healthcare and law enforcement, all of which come into play in The Other Mrs. I’m used to Chicago, where these things are plentiful. But in parts of Maine, they’re scarce. In my research, I discovered that on some of the more remote Maine islands, doctors are given a tax credit to move and work there because of the scarcity of physicians. Did you come across anything in your research that surprised you?
MM: That is really interesting—and definitely not something I’d given much thought to before, since I also live near a city with a fairly consistent population throughout the year. On our recent visit to Maine, there were specific elements I set out to learn more about (the lobstering industry, and the history of it), though they didn’t end up making it into the book, story-wise. But I think they still informed the framework of the town, and my understanding of its history. The thing I found the most surprising on that trip was how my perspective had shifted from the last time I’d been there. It was really interesting to look back at which elements stood out in my memory, and which I now struggled to find context for. My family and I ended up taking a lot of the same hikes I remembered loving as a teen, but the exposed cliffsides with the stunning views that had seemed so exciting back then were suddenly terrifying now that I was in my thirties, with my own pre-teens beside me. The experience made me think a lot about memories and perspective, and it ended up giving rise to the structure of the story—when I realized that the element that was shifting throughout the story was time, and how one person’s relationship to a place can suddenly change. How what had been beautiful can turn terrifying in a different context. That research trip ended up significantly altering the framework of the story, and opened up a different angle to explore. Did any of your research or experiences inspire something unexpected in The Other Mrs.? Did the story change as you wrote, or did you have the plot figured out from the start?
MK: I took my kids to the Grand Canyon a few years back. They’re about the same age as yours. I remember very little of the majestic views, but rather how terrified I was that one of my kids might go over the edge. It’s a similar experience to yours, and one of the reasons that mothers and children often sneak their way into my novels: the stakes are higher when the people we love are at risk. This is the foundation for most of my novels, which almost always places a family at the center of some upheaval. With The Other Mrs., Will and Sadie Foust have just inherited a home in Maine after a sister of Will’s dies. They uproot their sons and move, taking guardianship of Will’s sullen sixteen year old niece at the same time. When, soon after, a neighbor winds up murdered, Sadie becomes a person of interest. The only way for Sadie to clear her own name is to find the murderer herself, putting herself and her family at risk. I had parts of my ending figured out in advance, but the particulars of the plot and some of my characters’ backstory and motivations, revealed themselves to me throughout the writing process. I bet you’re hard at work on another novel, Megan, or that you have another due to release soon! My next book takes me back to the suburbs of Chicago. What about yours?
MM: This sounds so good. I can’t wait to read it! My next book, The Girl From Widow Hills, will be out in June. It’s set in North Carolina, though not the same area as where I live. It’s about a young woman who was the subject of intense media attention as a child, after surviving the trauma of being swept away while sleepwalking during a rainstorm—where she was then lost, and trapped, for days. Eventually, she moved away and changed her name, but just as the twenty-year anniversary is approaching, she wakes outside to find a dead body at her feet—making her the center of a story, once more.
MK: This sounds incredible. Suffice it to say then that regardless of where a book takes place, setting is critical. It evokes emotion, which, in our genre, is often ominous and atmospheric, and laced with a constant sense of tension or jeopardy. I’ve heard setting likened to a character before and find that in the books that transport me most, this is entirely true. Setting takes on a life of it’s own, don’t you think?
MM: Absolutely! I also think our view of a setting changes based on our state of mind—when we are afraid, we see the potential for danger everywhere. In that way, setting can heighten emotions that may be lingering under the surface of a story. I completely agree about setting taking on a life of its own. Especially in our genre, it becomes something we can sense—even if it’s not on the page yet—coming for us.
Mary Kubica is a New York Times bestselling author. Her sixth novel THE OTHER MRS. will be published by Park Row Books on February 18, 2019.