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Interview: July 30, 2015

Mary Kubica’s debut novel, THE GOOD GIRL, was a runaway hit, ringingly endorsed as “GONE GIRL with heart.” Now, she follows up with an impressive sophomore effort, PRETTY BABY, about Heidi Wood, who, despite her husband's objections, takes in a young mother and her four-month-old baby. As clues into the girl’s past begin to surface, Heidi is forced to decide how far she's willing to go --- and what she's willing to risk --- to help a stranger. In this interview with’s Norah Piehl, Kubica talks about generous characters and selfish characters, charity gone wrong, and reining in plot points to allow the story maximum suspense. She also shares how the success of THE GOOD GIRL has changed her life, including some of the best letters she has received from her fans. PRETTY BABY starts with the idea of an act of charity or compassion that eventually goes off the rails. What was your inspiration for the novel? Have you ever had a good deed misfire (maybe not to this extent, of course!)?

Mary Kubica: The inspiration for PRETTY BABY was really a lucky idea that popped into my head at a time when I needed it most. I had a looming deadline for a proposal for my second novel and was struggling to come up with an idea. I was getting a little frustrated with myself and the self-doubt was starting to build, and that’s when it came to me: an image of a young, homeless girl standing in the rain with a baby. I wasn’t sure yet what her story would be, but I knew she was going to be a major part of this novel. 

Thankfully I have not had a good deed misfire to the extent that Heidi’s does, but certainly we all have those moments when we go out of our way to help someone and they don’t appreciate the gesture. This can be frustrating. Many years ago, I initiated a story time at the animal shelter where I volunteer. Parents and kids could stop by for crafts and stories, and a chance to learn about and interact with the animals. In time, the plan misfired, and rather than the program creating an awareness of animal homelessness, it became a source of free childcare. Needless to say, I was discouraged.

BRC: Heidi Wood, your main character, is the kind of woman with a soft spot for many admirable causes. Was there anyone in your own life who provided the impetus for Heidi's character?

MK: I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by plenty of giving and compassionate people in my life, and, in fact, the antitheses of Heidi --- those who are self-indulgent and greedy --- are much harder to find. Charity is certainly a quality I instill in my own children, and my husband and I make a great effort to be sure they’re aware of those in need. I suppose the inspiration or the impetus for Heidi’s character is all around me in my family and my friends, but in the case of Heidi, of course, that goodwill backfires in a way she never would have imagined.

BRC: Heidi's complicated feelings and longings about motherhood also seem to play into her desire to help Willow and, especially, Willow's daughter, Ruby. What were you trying to say about motherhood or parenthood through Heidi's story?

MK: Parenting is not easy, and, as a mother myself, I feel we have certain expectations for our children or our roles as parents that don’t always play out the way we’d planned. This can be disappointing, whether it’s something small such as an outing to the zoo that doesn’t go according to plan or something much larger, like a woman’s inability to have children when motherhood is something she’s always dreamed of experiencing. PRETTY BABY takes a look at motherhood, the good and the bad, and examines what happens when it isn’t quite everything one woman dreamed it to be.

BRC: The relationship between Heidi and her husband, Chris, is particularly fraught at times. How would you characterize the dynamics of their marriage?

MK: Heidi and Chris are at a crossroads in their life, where their once-happy marriage has been strained by outside factors: a difficult child and busy work schedules, medical issues and more. They are also different people, Heidi being very solicitous toward others and Chris a little more egocentric. Chris also feels slighted by Heidi’s need to help others all the time, shifting her attention away from him. The marriage is certainly fraught at times, and it evolves in different ways through the novel as various stressors add even more tension to their marriage.   

BRC: Portions of the novel are told from the point of view of Heidi, her husband Chris, and Willow, the young woman they take in. How did you capture each voice? Was one more difficult than the others to capture?

MK: If I had to choose one voice to be the hardest to capture, it would be Chris. Of the three narrators, I feel I have the least in common with him personally, and so it took a greater effort to capture his voice. That said, once I had it, I really enjoyed the somewhat sardonic, macho tone of Chris’ voice and had a great time developing his character. Developing a character’s voice is like having a conversation with a stranger; at first it’s a little awkward and uncomfortable, but in time it becomes much more natural and less strained. By the time I’m well into the writing process, there’s little doubt in my mind what a certain character would do or say. They become very real to me over time. 

BRC: Although it's not quite as complex structurally as your debut novel, THE GOOD GIRL, PRETTY BABY is still plenty complicated and still requires you as a writer to keep several narrative strands from getting irreversibly tangled. What kind of process do you use for constructing your narrative?

MK: In the case of PRETTY BABY, I wrote the story of Heidi and Chris separate from that of Willow. Willow tells her story to us in a different time frame; her story is unique and doesn’t overlap with that of Heidi and Chris until much later in the novel. Using this method, I had an easier time capturing the characters’ voices, as well as organizing the story lines, and then was able to merge the two stories together in the end.

BRC: I imagine that writing suspense fiction is incredibly difficult, giving away just enough to keep readers guessing and on edge without broadcasting too many plot points too quickly. Do you have early readers or a writers' group who help you evaluate when you're striking the right balance?

MK: I do not! I have a wonderfully talented agent and editor who help point out any errors in plot points as needed, but I like to keep my early drafts to myself. In fact, I don’t share a manuscript with anyone other than my editor, my agent and my husband until the edits are complete and the book is done. 

BRC: Your debut novel, THE GOOD GIRL, had been described as GONE GIRL with heart. How do you balance creating suspense with eliciting readers' sympathy for your characters?

MK: The characters need to be multidimensional, and they need to be human. They should have flaws, like all of us do, and tackle some of those same issues in their everyday lives as we do in ours. The more genuine a character is, the more a reader will relate to them; I firmly believe this is true. We need to sympathize with these characters, whether it’s in the form of a heartbreaking backstory or just some unimaginable position they find themselves in. What I love about THE GOOD GIRL and PRETTY BABY is that they take ordinary people and place them in extraordinary situations, and the reader gets to see what happens when everyday people are stretched in ways they didn’t think they’d ever go.    

BRC: THE GOOD GIRL was very successful. What was most surprising or gratifying for you about the process of publishing and publicizing your debut?

MK: I had no idea how THE GOOD GIRL would do before book launch. The success itself was by far the most surprising element of publication for me, but the most gratifying is getting to visit with readers and hear how much they are touched by the novel or how much they enjoyed it. Writing a book is such an introspective task; these characters live completely inside an author’s head until the time comes to share them with the world. It can be completely daunting, but I’ve found readers to be some of the warmest and most welcoming people around and feel extremely blessed with how enthusiastic most everyone has been of THE GOOD GIRL. 

BRC: What reader mail touched or surprised you the most?

MK: In short: all of them. I never expected to receive a single note from a reader, and yet I am inundated with them every day in the very best way. I receive Facebook posts, Twitter messages and emails from readers telling me how much they enjoyed the novel. It makes me smile every single time. But there is one in particular that I will always remember, from a man who said he and his wife were reading THE GOOD GIRL at the same time, and described the way their separate bookmarks leapfrogged through the pages of the book. The note was so sweet, and left me with such fantastic imagery of those two bookmarks swapping places throughout the novel. I also received one handwritten note --- the one and only handwritten note I’ve received --- sent to Harlequin Books and then forwarded to me. In a day of email and social media, I was touched to see the extent someone would go to make sure I knew how much they enjoyed my book. I am extremely indebted to my readers.

BRC: I see that THE GOOD GIRL's film rights have been optioned. Any updates on where that project stands?

MK: My understanding is that they are in the process of choosing a screenwriter! It’s so exciting, and I can’t wait to see what becomes of it. 

BRC: I imagine many readers will be spending some late nights with PRETTY BABY this summer. What has been your favorite book of the season so far?

MK: Pam Jenoff’s THE LAST SUMMER AT CHELSEA BEACH is a winner! I devoured this book in two days straight, and imagine many other people will, too. It’s a historical fiction novel about a young Italian girl who meets up with a family of Irish Catholic boys and chronicles their experiences during World War II. Pam tells the most beautiful love stories, coupled with the hardships of war. This one is a must-read!

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

MK: I’m finishing up my third novel as we speak, which will likely release in the summer of 2016. This one is another psychological thriller that simultaneously tracks the disappearance of a young Chicago woman with the appearance of a mysterious young woman in a small harbor town on Lake Michigan’s eastern shores. More details coming soon!