Katia Lief, author of the new thriller You Are Next (September 28), remembers the moment when her desire to be a writer jelled: her third grade teacher, after reading a story she had written, sent her parents a note that said, “Katia could be a writer.”
She wonders what would have happened if the teacher’s note had encouraged her to be a dentist. Fortunately for her and for readers, it didn’t.
With You Are Next and its sequel, Next Time You See Me, which follows quickly in October, Katia is in a sense embarking on her third career as a writer, with a third name.
Katia Spiegelman was born in France to American parents, grew up on the east coast, graduated from Sarah Lawrence College at 19, and held a number of jobs before she began publishing mainstream novels. When she turned to stand-alone thrillers, she wrote under the nom de plume Kate Pepper. Now, with her new thriller series, she is using her married name, Katia Lief.
Does the use of your real-life name have special significance for you?
When I started writing thrillers, part of the reason I used a pseudonym was that it came as such a surprise to have shifted literary gears in such a radical way. My first thriller sold quickly, and I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. Now that I’ve done it for a while, and continue to feel interested in and challenged by the genre, shifting to my real name (well, technically my real name is Katia Spiegelman Lief) means that I’m here to stay.
Why did you decide to write a series after several stand-alone thrillers? How does working with Karin Schaeffer, your series protagonist, differ from writing characters once and leaving them behind? Have you found it challenging or energizing (or both)?
I have found it enormously energizing to continue developing the same characters in subsequent novels. Every time I finished one of my standalones, I wanted to stay with the characters, but never did. When I learned that my new publisher was going to publish my next two books one month apart, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to run with a series. It’s very satisfying to begin a new novel already knowing the characters well, and to pull strands from the previous story into the new one. After finishing the second Karin Schaeffer novel, I really missed her and Mac and was eager to get back to them. It’s like having close friends no one else knows about…though soon other people will get to meet them, too.
Could you tell us about Karin? What kind of person is she, and what are the driving forces in her life?
Karin’s driving forces are her strength, independence, impulsivity, and a deep love of family. As powerful as her instincts are, though, she also doubts herself; she acts quickly, but later she’ll pause to analyze the rationality of what she’s doing, and if necessary, she’ll change course. The loss of her first husband and child to a brutal crime ripped away her underpinnings, and the sense that she no longer had anything to lose made her dangerously fearless. YOU ARE NEXT charts her course through some very self-destructive territory, and then, in NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME, the love and balance she’s managed to reestablish in her life are threatened, and she reacts with characteristic strength and impulsivity to try to prevent new loss.
Why did you turn to crime fiction after writing those early, lighter novels? What drew you to the dark side?
I’ve always taught myself how to write by deliberately practicing elements of craft; I have a shelf full of novels (some published, some not) dedicated to mastering things like plot, humor, mystery, dialogue, character development, and so on. My first published book was my master’s thesis, a sensitive literary novel about a boarding school. The second was a plot-driven romantic comedy about dating in New York City in the 1980s. When I decided I needed to better understand suspense and how it operates, I wrote a thriller that, to my surprise and delight, landed me with a multi-book contract and a career in commercial fiction I hadn’t quite foreseen. I feel as if I stumbled on crime fiction, but I find it endlessly fascinating.
Did you make a conscious choice to write thrillers rather than traditional mysteries? What does the experience of writing a thriller offer that you might not find in writing a mystery?
I never considered writing a traditional mystery, probably because as a reader I love the visceral sensation of suspense that forces me to keep turning pages. I want to write the kind of books I love to read, which means writing books that get deeply under my skin on an emotional level. As my writing students will tell you, I strongly believe that suspense has to be present in fiction to make it interesting, regardless of whether a book is categorized as literary, suspense, comic, romance, etc. For me, suspense is all about the evocation of emotion, and asking questions that aren’t answered until the bitter end.
You wrote in an article once that your career as a novelist has been a struggle. In what way?
It took me twenty years before I started earning a living as a novelist. As a young aspiring writer, I worked the proverbial day job and wrote whenever I could. Later, as a mother, the balance was more complicated. It gets to the point where you have to make very tough choices about how you spend your time, where you put your energy, and as a writer where your focus will be. I stuck with writing novels because I love it and feel driven to keep writing, but I probably explore less than I would have if I were independently wealthy or didn’t have children. But that’s just the nature of life: you set on a path, you make choices, and you hope for the best. Overall I feel I’ve been very lucky.
Which writers have influenced you, and how? Do you find that you continue to learn by reading the work of others?
I always learn by reading the work of other writers, regardless of what kind of writing it is. In fact, I think that reading is one of the best ways to learn how to write, because it forces you to analyze what’s working, what isn’t, and why. I’d say that the suspense novels that have most influenced me (so far) are The Collector by John Fowles, Ian McEwan when he writes suspense, and anything by Patricia Highsmith. They all dig deeply into the consciousness of their characters to create vivid portraits of danger on every level. The suspense is deep, slow and intense…the kind that really gets under your skin.
What aspect of writing gives you the most satisfaction?
Sitting alone in my office for hours and giving myself over to the pure invention of creating a fictional world is bliss. My idea of a perfect day is when nothing much is happening, just time to write and later time with my family.
After you get readers hooked with two books a month apart, how long will you make them wait for #3? Can you give us a title and a hint of the story?
Number three is in the works. I’m not sure what the title will be, but I can tell you that the story explores posttraumatic stress disorder and human trafficking. I can also tell you that Billy Staples, who was badly injured at the end of the second book, will play a major role.