When You author Caroline Kepnes sat down to write the third book in the series, You Love Me, she made like main character Joe Goldberg: She stalked the living daylights out of random residents of Bainbridge Island to get a sense of the place — a.k.a. Joe’s new home.
Joe Goldberg has become a cultural mainstay over the years — first in Kepnes’ 2014 novel, You, and then in a Netflix series by the same name starring Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley. Kepnes has mastered the likable villain with Joe, crafting an affable character with rock-solid reasoning behind all of his horrific actions — at least in his own mind. Book one finds Joe, a New York bookseller, falling in love with student/aspiring writer Guinevere Beck — then stalking her until he finagles his way into a relationship with her, killing anyone who gets in the way, including Beck. Book two, Hidden Bodies, sees Joe moving to L.A. to escape his past deeds, only to find a new target/love interest in the wealthy Love Quinn, who turns out to be perhaps just as twisted as Joe himself. In You Love Me, out this Tuesday, Joe is running scared, relocating to the Pacific Northwest to escape the wrath of the Quinn family — even if that means leaving behind the child he and Love Quinn bore. The past doesn’t stay buried for long, though, even as Joe finds yet another love in married librarian Mary Kay.
Kepnes spoke with Rolling Stone about her hit series, writing a convincing (and likable) killer, and what’s next on the horizon for Joe.
Joe obviously changes a lot during these books — despite still being a murderer. How do you handle that kind of character development?
At the end of Hidden Bodies, he has such specific hopes and plans, and I really wanted to make it all blow up so that he’s in the state where we begin where he feels denied and wronged. Also, he’s got this new predicament where he doesn’t feel he can so easily get away with things.
I really wanted to get into the two-way street of love with [Mary Kay] — what this woman, in particular, brings out in him — and combine that with the sensation that he’s in some ways more alone than ever because of the repercussions of getting into bed with the Quinn family. I wanted also for him to walk into a new place, this space of books that is dominated by a woman. But he’s Joe, so before you know it, he thinks of it as his place. That’s why he’s so much fun to write — no matter how good he thinks he’s being, he’s ultimately Joe and seeing everything as it affects him.
Does the writing process change at all now that there’s a show? Do you picture Joe as Penn?
It was wild. I mean, I see them in two separate spheres. I wrote two books before the show, so this was my first time writing after the show. No matter what the writing process is for me, I’m just very voice-oriented. So, it’s getting into the voice of Joe and the books and leaning into that and running with that.
I pictured so many different people throughout my daily life when I was writing Joe. And since the book is all about being inside of his head and seeing people as he sees them, I wasn’t focused on what he looks like in real life or what they look like in real life. Because for me it’s all about perception. Like, when I was younger, and I had a crush on someone, I told everyone, “He looks exactly like Richard Marx.” They’d be like, “He looks nothing like Richard Marx,” but I’m like, “He does to me.” That’s what I’m getting at with Joe; it’s all in your head to some degree.
This time around, Joe moves to Washington. Did you go there to research? Do you do specific digging for your books or do you incorporate aspects of your life?
It’s a mix. I was obsessed with Succession, so it was fun to have Joe having a conversation with people about Succession. So, it’s a mix of that, of things that I discover in my life. With this book, I read about the Pacific Northwest. I deep-stalked so many strangers that live there, reading their blogs and their tweets, to get a sense of it. And I watched YouTube videos. I read the Cedar Cove books.
Part of my motivation for finishing that draft was to actually get to go there. Going to Bainbridge Island was so helpful. After reading about the ferry, suddenly being on it and seeing how it feels going into the coffee shops and hearing the music that plays in there and all of that — it contributes so much to the atmosphere.
I’m curious if you have any unpublished books in the drawer? Did it take a while to get published?
Oh, yes. My favorite would be the time that I had a bunch of short stories and changed some names — I did work on it, but I was very young, and I was in what I think of as my Beck years. So there was that. I ghost-wrote a YA book. I ghost-wrote a nonfiction book. I have unfinished manuscripts. It always feels like, “Oh my God, look at that overnight [success].” And it almost never is.
It’s interesting to see your taste in literature through the characters — as you said, Beck is a different version of you. Joe is always reading something. This book takes place in a library, where Joe works.
Yes. And in this book, there was this phenomenal book. I read A Good Man by Ani Katz — it’s a man explaining why he did [all the horrible things he did]. It’s horror, it’s literature, it’s literary, it’s wild, it’s moving, it’s sad. You know, it’s terrifying. And I loved the idea of Joe giving this book to Mary Kay, to a woman that loves him. Being Joe, he wouldn’t see himself in this character. [I loved] knowing that the person reading the book is maybe going to pick it up and be like, “Oh my God.”
What’s the biggest misconception about thrillers?
I feel like it’s natural for us to categorize things. I love [when] you read something and it’s hard to categorize it. I understand the marketing need to categorize. I feel like with so many thrillers, you’re in horror, you’re laughing, you’re learning. I just like to think of all the books I read as all the books I read, you know?
So, are you working on the next book?
I had already written my second draft [of You Love Me] when the pandemic started. So, I was doing concentrated surgery on the book — so that was a great escape when I was, like, washing down the groceries. It was like, “I’m good. Now I’m going to go work with something that’s very familiar to me, you know?” And then I set about writing a draft of You four and God bless all the people that started books and finished them during the pandemic, because that was really challenging. We’re being stimulated so much every day, all the time. And our brains have learned so much; we’re all in a weird shape. So, I’ll be rewriting that draft, you know?
Anything you can tell us about the plot?
I’ll say that Joe has a new experience and that he’s making up for lost time. And, oh boy, that’s hard for anyone to do — let alone Joe.