One of Us is Lying: An Interview with YA Author Karen McManus
Karen McManus has made a splash in the YA fiction universe with her debut novel, One of Us is Lying. The story, inspired by The Breakfast Club, is told from the perspective of four teenagers. They're all suspects in the murder of their fellow classmate, Simon, the creator of Bayview High’s notorious gossip app—and each has a motive. In a fun and gripping debut, McManus expertly spins the mystery of the year.
We sat with McManus to discuss her background and the unprecedented success of One of Us is Lying.
One of Us is Lying was on the NYT's Best Seller list for five weeks in a row. Outside of that, there have been rave reviews overall. Did you expect your book to be this successful? How does it feel?
No! I don't think anyone expects this kind of success. You sort of just put your book out there and hope people respond to it. This is unusual, and I feel really really lucky and really excited. It's really the best possible launch I could have hoped for, just because people are connecting with the characters, and I've heard so many people say that when it was over, they felt sad, or that they missed them. And that's one of the best things an author can hear: that you've created this world that people don't want to leave.
You have a background in English and journalism, which you say you've never used professionally. When did you realize you wanted to become an author, and how did you get started on your first novel?
I was one of those kids who used to write all the time. I used to write books from the time I was 7 years old to the time when I was in high school. And it's great when you're writing little books, it comes really easily, but when I tried to write more complicated books, I started and thought "okay, maybe I'm not cut out to be an author after all." I went to university, I started a career, got married, started a family, and I didn't think about writing for a very long time.
It wasn't until I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins—something about the voice, the YA voice really spoke to me, and I thought maybe I'll try writing again, it could be a fun thing to do. So I sat down at my sister's kitchen and said "I'm going to write a book!" I starting typing these ideas that were in my head and it was a very bad dystopian knock-off of The Hunger Games, but it was so fun and it got me into that creative mind space again. It was kind of like turning on a faucet and I thought, okay, more things! And I met other writers, online, mostly, but people similar to me who were just starting out and thinking, "Okay, can I do this? Should I try to do this?" and exchanging work. And that was really helpful to me, to figure out what I needed to improve on.
So I wrote that very first bad book, then I wrote a second, which was better, but not good, and I was sending these books out to agents, asking if they'd like to see them. The first book, no one wanted. The second, people were interested in, but it was just moving slowly, and then I got the idea for One of Us is Lying, and I wrote that in two months, I revised it in two months, and I started querying it in January 2015, and got an instant response. My agent—who is my dream agent—when I sent her a query, she responded within an hour and offered to be my agent within 10 days. And that doesn't happen. I had been doing that for the other two books, and I didn't hear from anybody! So it was just the right book, the right agent, the right time, and all the things I had learned, finally coming together.
Your story has unmasked parallels to The Breakfast Club. Why do you think the 80s theme that's now emerging in pop culture attracts people so much?
It might be in part because, I think, the interest in the genre is broadening, even though it's written for teens, there are a lot of people—20s, 30s, 40s, and older—who are loving the book, so I think these influences from well beyond from what current teens would remember, are kind of finding their way into the zeitgeist.
What surprised you most from the response to your book?
I was maybe not surprised, but gratified that people found the characters were so relatable. Because what I really wanted to come across was that they were real people, and they felt real to me, but it's hard to know if other people will feel the same way. It almost felt sometimes that it was a Hogwarts house, and everybody had somebody that they identified with the most. Like "I'm an Abby" or "I'm a Cooper" and they'd really take that person to heart, and that was really gratifying.
One of Us is Lying has a well-spun plot that seems to have required a lot of planning. Can you walk us through the process of how you plotted the mystery?
Initially, I just had a really broad idea of where I wanted the story to go. I knew where the end and the beginning were, and I had some idea of how I wanted to get there, so I'd sort of outline that. But I'm not really a plotter or an outliner, I'm more of a "let's just write and see where it goes" sort of person, so there were some things that surprised me. You know, some characters that developed differently than I thought. So I'd write a few chapters, and I'd sort of look at my big picture and think, "Okay, what else? What else should I put in here?" and then I'd try to outline a little bit more, so the outline got more detailed as I went on, because there was more to draw on. I'd look back and think, "Okay, you have to put some hints back here, that you didn't do, because you didn't realize that it'd be important later," so I'd go back and do that now. So it was very much by the end that I had it carefully plotted and outlined. In the beginning it was messy and tangled and I sort of wrote my way out of it.
What, or who, are you reading at the moment?
I am reading The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr, because I was just on a panel with her at Yale, and our books have actually been put together on a lot of lists—there's a sort of thriller, a similar-ish aspect, so I knew I wanted to read it and I hadn't had time, but now I'm reading it and I'm loving it. It's really good.
Do you have any advice for other writers looking to write their debut novel?
Find your writer, people. That was definitely the thing that changed the game for me. I think the reason I gave up writing years ago was because I didn't know anyone who wrote. I didn't have anyone to talk to and say, "This isn't working, what should I do?" Nobody to bounce ideas off of, that was really transformative for me as a writer, to have that kind of feedback, and friendship, because writing can be really isolating, just you in your head. It's really nice to connect with people who get that.
You can purchase a copy of One of Us is Lying here.