Q&A with Mary Kubica
Best-selling novelist from Plainfield
Mary Kubica’s debut novel, The Good Girl was a breakout success in 2014, hitting the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. With her next two books, Pretty Baby and Don’t You Cry, Kubica proved she had staying power as a master of the psychological thriller genre. Deftly written and full of twists and turns, her novels are firmly rooted in the landscapes and people of the Midwest. That’s not surprising, as, with the exception of college days at Miami University in Ohio, Kubica has always lived in and around Chicago. Now a mother of two young children, Kubica lives in Plainfield, which is the setting for her latest thriller, Every Last Lie, to be published in late June. Look for a review of the book in an upcoming issue of West Suburban Living. Kubica will talk about the book at Anderson’s Bookshop in La Grange on Monday, June 26 (7 p.m.) and at Plainfield Public Library on Monday, July 17 (7 p.m.).
When did you take your first serious stab at writing fiction?
MK: I was probably in middle school when I first fell in love with writing. It was a hobby. I would write stories about “fictional” characters who were a little bit like me, maybe more adventurous, more outgoing. But it wasn’t until 2005 that I was able to focus entirely on writing, after I decided to stay at home and raise my kids.
Are your characters still an extension of you in any way?
MK: They’re all fictional. Yet I have to say there are bits and pieces of myself that I can find in both my male and female characters. I feel like I’ve drawn some of my own life into them.
Is there anyone in particular who inspired you?
MK: It was a cousin of mine. She was young, too, a year older than I am. She liked to write and my passion grew from hers. But writing was always something I was very private about. It was always something I kept to myself.
Were you always focused on writing?
MK: I played around with the idea of being a lawyer and worked as a paralegal for two years, right after college. Then I went into teaching, which was a true passion for me. If I hadn’t taken time off and gotten myself detoured into this writing world, I imagine I would be working as a teacher now.
How did you know your writing was good enough to publish?
MK: I didn’t. I wrote The Good Girl completely in secrecy because I had no idea if it was good enough to publish, and I was kind of terrified. It was the first manuscript I finished of, I don’t know, 20
or so that never reached completion. And it just seemed that the next step was to follow through, send it to literary agents and see what could become of it. I had no idea if it was good. Then I started to receive feedback from the publishing industry and I thought, well, maybe it is.
Were you lucky right off the bat?
MK: I submitted The Good Girl to upwards of a hundred agents and every single one of them passed on it. I thought for sure the book would never be published. And then, two years later one of the agents reached back out to me. She told me that when it first came across her desk, she loved it, but just couldn’t get the rest of her team on board. But during those two years she was promoted and was seeking out her own clients. She remembered The Good Girl. So I think all the time that if it were not for this one person, my book might never have been published.
What would you suggest for other authors who may have a finished manuscript in a drawer somewhere?
MK: Go ahead and send it out. And keep at it. It can certainly be disheartening to get rejection letters, but writing is such a subjective thing. And you really only need one person to be passionate about your work. You just have to keep going until you find that person. The other thing is to be open to editing. I know some authors struggle with that, but whether it is a literary agent, a writer’s group or an editor at a publishing house, they’re all going to have feedback. Writers need to be ready to take it.
How did you react to the success of The Good Girl?
MK: I was completely surprised. I had no idea what to expect. When I sold the book, I remember thinking, ‘I hope it does OK.’ But in the months leading up to publication, there started to be this great buzz about it and I started to realize that this book was going to do well. It was very exciting. With The Good Girl, I took a pretty small book tour, just throughout the Midwest. But since then, I’ve taken more significant tours. I’ve visited book festivals across the country and I’ve taken trips over to Europe to see some of my European publishers. Before The Good Girl, writing was just something I
did whenever I could find a spare minute. But now, besides my family, it has become the number one thing in my life.
Where do you begin a new project?
MK: I start with a problem. In the case of The Good Girl, it’s a missing woman. In Pretty Baby, a woman discovers a homeless teen girl with a baby. I start from there, but I don’t outline my novels
in advance. I never know how they’re going to end. Over the first couple of chapters, I introduce the characters and at the same time get to know them myself so that I can start formulating next steps. But I really try not to over think it.
Do your characters ever surprise you?
MK: They really do. It’s always amazing, you know, just the simple dialog that a character says. Certainly, I come to see them in a different light. And this changes the outcome of the novel.
Do you model characters on people you know?
MK: I don’t. They’re totally fictional. There may at times be a minute detail or a trait based on someone I know. I am quite the people watcher — you know, at the grocery store, the library. Or I’m at my kid’s soccer game and I feel like I’m definitely observing people, listening in on a conversation that somehow makes its way into a book. It’s the smallest things, you know, an expression or a phrase that intrigues me.
In your books, the narrative switches from the perspective of one character to the next. What do you like about this format?
MK: I like it because I feel like the reader is introduced to more than one character, pretty intimately. You get to hear from all these characters and I think you get to know them well by the end of the book and connect with them. The other thing though, is that I feel that multiple narrators can see the same event in a different light. In a psychological thriller that’s important because as a reader you have to figure out which characters you can trust. And you never know when you’re going to have that unreliable narrator mixed in, which is something I love. You just don’t know if what the character is telling you is true.
Thrillers are often seen as the domain of male authors. What do you think a woman can bring to the genre?
MK: You’ve heard the term “domestic noir?” I think what is intriguing is that female authors are writing mysteries that happen close to home, dealing with some of our most intimate relationships, whether it is a marriage or family
dynamics, mothers and daughters or close friends. That’s what makes them so thrilling and unsettling, but in a very good way. Readers can put themselves in these characters’ shoes. They are not that different from us and yet they find themselves in the midst of turmoil or events that could happen to any single one of us. That is something new that female authors are bringing to the table.
Did you purposely set out to write a psychological thriller?
MK: When I wrote The Good Girl I just set out to write a book that interested me. Of course, I knew it had those twisty elements in there, but I never thought of it being classified in any genre. But now that I am there, I love it.
Your novels are grounded in a strong sense of place. Is this intentional?
MK: It is. Places are very important to me. My books are mostly set in Chicago or the suburbs and for me it’s always been home. I really want readers to feel like they’re here, so I try to use landmarks, the weather, describe the streets and the people’s homes. I want my readers to kind of settle in to the location. I’m already starting to get that itch to explore a different area, maybe learn about some place new. So we’ll see.
.Often there’s a secret at the heart of your novels. Is that a starting point?
MK: Yes, I find it very interesting that you can live with people, be best friends or co-workers for years, and yet you only know what that person is willing to share. You never know what truly is going on inside their hearts and minds. This can play a prominent role in novels like mine.
As a mother of growing children, how do you set aside the time — and the energy — for writing?
MK: My kids are in third grade and fifth grade, which means they’re off at school for a chunk of time during the day and I can focus on writing. When they were little, I got in the habit of waking up at five o’clock every morning so that I could get a few hours of writing done before the kids woke up. It’s a routine that I have stuck to. I know that no matter how much life gets in the way later in the day, I always have those two hours of writing each morning.
Do you ever come up against writer’s block? And how do you go about getting your mojo back?
MK: Yes, I do, I do. I know other authors say they’ll set a word-count goal for themselves every day. I tend to look at a bigger picture. By the end of the month I want to be at a certain place in my manuscript, so it takes a little bit of that pressure off. I know that some days the words are going to flow and other days they’re not. When I’m totally stuck, the best thing is to shut down the computer, go for a walk or do some volunteering. Anything but staring at a blank screen. That’s usually what helps me work through those tricky points.
What advice do you have for those exploring fiction as a career?
MK: I would say the best thing is to read. I’ve always been an avid reader. You can learn so much from reading others, noticing the dialog or the styles they use. I was always very shy, but if you are brave enough, then join a writer’s group, take courses. Write a little bit every day. I know that people get very busy, we all do. But even 15 minutes a day will help you add to your skills.
What can we expect in your new book, Every Last Lie?
MK: It begins when a young father is killed in a car crash — he drives too fast, takes a sharp turn and goes off the road into a tree. His 4-year-old daughter is in the back seat but she’s completely fine. But soon the little girl starts having nightmares about another car on that road, following them. And so the widow sets off to find her husband’s killer.
Every Last Lie is set in Plainfield. What will local readers or visitors recognize?
MK: The town is never referred to as Plainfield, but people in the area will know. There’s a point where I talk about Rt. 59. There’s a mention of the tornado passing through many years ago — that’s something local readers will remember. And there’s a train. I live on the “wrong” side of the tracks here in Plainfield, so I can hardly go anywhere without being stopped by a train. The road where the father is killed is Harvey Road, between Oswego and Plainfield — and it does have a sharp turn. I took a few liberties, but readers who live in the area will definitely pick up on it. I’m excited to hear how they like it!
If not a novelist, what life would you choose?
I’d be a teacher. High-school history.
Books or movies?
Books. A Kindle comes in handy when traveling, but there’s nothing like holding a book in your hands.
Writers who inspire you?
I would say Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve. In the thriller genre, Megan Abbott and Chris Bohjalian are the big ones.
Pen and paper or computer?
Computer. Definitely. When I’m out and about or I get those ideas in the middle of the night I have to jot notes down on paper, but for the actual writing I rely on the computer.
Three words that describe the writing life?
It can be pretty quiet. Isolating sometimes, but inspiring.
I help in an animal shelter. And I have four cats.
Favorite area restaurant?
Front Street Cantina in downtown Plainfield.
Favorite spots in the ‘burbs?
I love Morton Arboretum and the Naperville Riverwalk.
Reasons to go downtown?
Cubs game, number one. Ice skating at Millennium Park. Going for a walk on the lakefront. Those are our favorites.