Liane Moriarty is a tightrope writer—her characters and plotlines striking a near-impossible balance between the likeable-relatable and the magnetic-eccentric, the irresistibly humorous and the unbearably tragic. That she writes from Australia lends a certain exotic quality to her myriad foreign editions (not many American readers have spouses who say things like, “Don’t be ridiculous, you goose, you know I’m bloody besotted with you”), but it’s the universality of her characters and themes—inherently recognizable neighborhoods and schoolyards plunged into What would you do? scenarios—that make her a reader favorite and book club staple worldwide.
Consider how Madeline, a central character in her 2014 smash Big Little Lies (which unravels hidden threads connecting three families, with deadly consequences), contemplates turning 40: “She could still feel ‘40’ the way it felt when she was 15. Such a colorless age. Marooned in the middle of your life. Nothing would matter all that much when you were 40. You wouldn’t have real feelings when you were 40, because you’d be safely cushioned by your frumpy 40-ness. Forty-year-old woman found dead. Oh dear. Twenty-year-old woman found dead. Tragedy! Sadness! Find that murderer!”
Or how Cecilia in the 2013 blockbuster The Husband’s Secret struggles not to peek at a letter she finds, labeled to be opened upon the death of her husband (who is very much alive): “Perhaps this was a case of that vague anxiety she knew some women experienced. Other women. She’d always thought anxious people were cute. Dear little anxious people like Sarah Sacks. She wanted to pat their worry-filled heads.”
Such compulsive readability has propelled Moriarty’s slow climb to stardom. Her earliest titles, beginning with Three Wishes in 2003, made the former advertising copywriter a modestly successful living back in Sydney. But a curious thing happened when the writer found herself an export—sold to more territories than any other author at Curtis Brown Australia. The Last Anniversary, The Hypnotist’s Love Story and What Alice Forgot grew her audience incrementally; The Husband’s Secret exploded in popularity (as of this printing, boasting nearly 18,000 customer reviews on Amazon—averaging 4.5 stars, no less); Big Little Lies debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestsellers list. At one point she had three books on the list at once.
Her latest, Truly Madly Guilty, tracing the fallout from one disastrous barbecue, was an instant hit out the gate last summer. And February premieres the “Big Little Lies” HBO miniseries, starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.
Adept as she is at balancing on that tightrope, Moriarty spoke with Writer’s Digest with her feet planted firmly on the ground. Look for the feature-length interview in the February 2017 Writer’s Digest. In these online exclusive outtakes, she talks more about taking reader feedback to heart, drawing inspiration from reality, and more.
You must think a lot as you write about what you’re revealing to the reader, and how, and when. In The Hypnotist’s Love Story you gradually reveal that the book’s antagonist is actually quite sympathetic; in The Husband’s Secret the big reveal comes at the very end; in Truly Madly Guilty, the reveal is in the middle and the buildup determines the structure of the whole book. Can you talk about your approach?
Yes. Truly Madly Guilty was different: I didn’t want to reveal what happened at the barbecue because I didn’t want the reader to judge the reactions of everybody who was there. I just wanted them to see the reactions as they were and not to be thinking to themselves, Well, they should be reacting in a particular way! There was that, and also the pleasure of suspense, but it was very tricky to know when to reveal so that the reader didn’t get impatient.
I think in this book some readers did get impatient, and some have admitted to me that they’ve flipped ahead to find out what happened so they could then just relax and enjoy the story. You don’t want to reveal it too late, by which time people are just too frustrated, but you don’t want to reveal it too early because then the suspense drops, and then people think, I don’t care anymore. This was a particularly tricky book in terms of structure to write, and I don’t know—it’s done now, but who knows if I got it right. I won’t do a structure like that again, I don’t think.
What’s it like having those interactions with readers? I know some writers care very much what readers think, and others would rather not know, and don’t read reviews.
I do interact [with readers] a lot in person, and I like to get a general idea of the reviews. I need to know if there’s something that everybody doesn’t like or everybody loves. I guess I try and keep a middle ground between obsessively looking at every single review and working in a complete vacuum.
Do you see your writing life and your personal life as intrinsically linked, or are there certain boundaries that you find you’d like to draw to separate the two? I know you’re a mother to small children and currently write a lot of characters who also have small children; I imagine down the road you’ll be writing about teenagers, too.
I think they are, and I think you’re absolutely right that I won’t be able to resist putting in teenage characters, except I know that teenagers are very sensitive, so there’ll be absolutely very strict boundaries around anything that my children would ever think I was using [from] them in anyway. Maybe even I’ll have to wait—I might have to keep aside all that material ‘til they grow older, in case it does offend them.
[I’m drawing ideas from life] rather than using actual real-life events or real-life people. It just gives me sparks. So far I haven’t offended anybody because I haven’t taken anything unless it’s a little story. Like, a friend told me a story which I used in Big Little Lies of her taking swimming lessons and her husband having to jump in fully dressed—a sort of near-drowning thing—when he realized the swimming teacher had turned the other way. I always ask if [I want] to use an exact little event. Otherwise it’s all made up.
Are you working on the next book yet?
I have nothing. I’m looking for an idea, so I can’t wait ‘til I’m writing again. … It’s like when you stop exercising for a while and you think, It doesn’t really matter, I don’t need to exercise, and then the relief when you finally do exercise again, you get the endorphins—it’s exactly like that.
To read the full-length Liane Moriarty Interview, look for the February 2017 Writer’s Digest on your favorite newsstand, order a print copy or download it right now.