Karen McManus has taken the YA fiction world by storm with One of Us Is Lying. The novel, inspired by The Breakfast Club, is No. 4 on the New York Times Best Sellers List. It opens with a similar scene to its inspirational source: five teenagers in detention. But in this novel, only four come out alive. One of Us Is Lying is told from the perspectives of four teenagers who become suspects, with motives and secrets. In this riveting debut, McManus expertly twists a story about kids in detention into a must-read mystery.
J.D. Myall spoke with McManus to discuss writing, publishing, and the extraordinary success of One of Us Is Lying.
What was your life like, pre-book?
I was a parent and a marketer. I still do those things. The piece that wasn’t there before is supporting the book—touring, giving interviews, writing pieces related to the book—all of which I really enjoy doing, but that fills hours that previously were spent writing.
What is something that people would be surprised to find out about you?
I am a solo parent. My husband passed away when my son was a toddler. So I am raising him on my own, working full time, and writing my book. That is a lot, so people are often surprised that there is no supportive partner in the back making it all work.
Was there a book that inspired you to write novels?
The book that inspired me to write young adult fiction was The Hunger Games. I hadn’t written in a very long time. I tried it when I was younger in high school and college. I found it really hard to finish a book. So I set writing aside. I read The Hunger Games a few years back, and I was so inspired by the world and the voice. I couldn’t stop thinking about the book. That made me want to create my own world. I did write a really terrible dystopian knock-off as my first book ever. It got me into writing again. I loved it. I had a lot to learn, and I needed to grow. That book set me on that path.
How many books did you write before your professional debut?
I wrote two. The first bad book, then I wrote a couple of sequels. I thought it would be a trilogy. Why not? No one wanted the first book, so why not write three? I don’t know many authors who even find an agent with their first book. They certainly don’t usually get that first book published. If One of Us Is Lying had been my first book idea, I wouldn’t have been able to execute it correctly. My craft wasn’t there yet.
Where do you write, from home or at a coffee shop?
I’m usually at home. I usually write at night in my office when my son goes to bed. I take my laptop to his hockey games. I wrote half of One of Us Is Lying in the stands while he was playing baseball. As long as I have the time and my computer, I can get going.
Do you hear character voices as you write?
I do. Very much so. I really did for One of Us Is Lying, which was important. With four main characters, they all have to have distinct voices, so it was good that they were so clear in my head.
Tell me about your publishing journey.
I think what helped me along the way was connecting with other writers through social media. Most of my critique partners I met on Twitter. I started exchanging and giving feedback and recognizing where I needed to improve. I learned about the business and how to get an agent. I only sent a handful of queries. Luckily, my dream agent, Rosemary Stimola, requested quickly. She offered quickly, too. I had queried two other novels with no success, so it took a while to get to that book, but things went quickly for that book. We revised a little bit; no substantial changes. The book went on submission and sold in a couple of weeks.
How did you cope with rejection during the query process?
With writer friends. You commiserate, complain, wonder, “Will this ever happen for me?” You lift one another’s spirits, and you keep going. You have to love writing and love the process of putting a story on paper, or you couldn’t possibly cope with the process of finding an agent and getting published.
What were your biggest learning experiences through the publishing journey?
From a craft perspective, I learned that I was great at characters and dialogue, but I needed to think hard about plot. My early stories would teeter out in the middle or go in strange directions. I learned I had to outline more and plan more ahead of time. Then, it was just understanding publishing as a business. Understanding how agents work, how agents approach editors, and how it takes a long time from your book deal to seeing your book on shelves.
What do you think you did right, to help you break-in?
I kept going. I kept writing. The only thing writers can control in this journey is their words. Feeling positive and excited about the story that you’re working on is the only part that you really can manage day-to-day. Always move forward, and let the ideas take you in new directions.
What advice would you give to new authors to help them develop their own voice?
Practice makes perfect. Reading a lot is great. It really helps you with voice, because you know what resonates with you. You can never copy someone else’s voice, but you can get inspired by voices that really work. That helps you recognize when your voice is working.
Tell me the story behind the story. How did One of Us Is Lying come to be?
That song, “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” from The Breakfast Club came to mind. I wasn’t writing anything new, and I thought it would be fun to do a modern retelling of The Breakfast Club with a twist—and then the phrase “The Breakfast Club with murder” came into my mind. So I started thinking, “How could you kill somebody in a classroom and have nobody know you did it?” Then, the characters started to take shape. It took two months to write and two months to draft.
Do you have a fun fact about the book that you would like to share?
There is a character in the book that my 9-year-old son named Officer Hank Budapest. My son is very proud of that fact.
Your book deals with social media, teen violence, and other hot topics. Was that intentional?
It was. I wanted the book to reflect real life and deal with real issues that kids today are facing. I think social media is a double-edged sword. It is great for connecting people, but it can be consuming and addictive. It can create a separation. Sometimes things explode online, and it feels like you’re watching television and not a peek at someone’s real life. When you lose control of your narrative that way, it can be hard to get it back.
How did you respond to finding out you made the New York Times Best Sellers List?
I was so surprised. I didn’t make it right away. Often for a debut author, the best opportunity you have is during your launch week, but it was about a month later. I was at home, and my phone had been buzzing a lot. I saw that my publisher had tweeted congratulations. It was such a surprising and thrilling moment. I happened to have plans with friends. My friend had a lovely roof deck apartment, so we had champagne and celebrated —and, of course, my son and I toasted each other with Diet Coke, too.
Hardest sentence to write: first or last?
The first. You really want to set up the idea and introduce your world. There is a lot of expectation in the first sentence.
What has novel writing taught you?
The importance of perseverance. You don’t have to be perfect to be good. The early drafts are messy. That’s okay. You can get it polished.
How has your life changed since publication?
I get to connect with readers—that is absolutely my favorite part. There are so many other things people could do, so the fact that people choose to read my book means everything to me.
What’s up next for you?
I am writing a young adult novel in the thriller vein. It’s about secrets and lies in a small town with a tragic past. Hopefully, I’ll be able to share more soon.
How can people connect with you?
On Twitter and Instagram, @writerkmc.
Thanks, Karen, for talking to us about both your struggles and your successes. Your perseverance and talent are an inspiration to us all.