After studying biology at MIT, a career as a thriller writer was not the natural path forward for New York Times bestselling author Megan Miranda.
“Though I loved writing when I was growing up, I also loved science, and I didn’t know anyone who was an author,” she says. “I didn’t know what that career path would look like. So I pursued a degree in biology, worked in biotechnology for a few years, and then taught high school science.”
If Miranda had continued toiling away in the lab, her new novel, THE LAST HOUSE GUEST, might never have been written—but the call to being an author was something she couldn’t ignore. And by the time she reached her late 20s, she knew she had to do something about it.
“I had children, and came to realize I had given up this creative pursuit for too long,” she says. “That’s when my focus shifted—to give it a real shot, to treat this as my job in the hopes that it would one day become my career.”
At first, writing was just something she did on the side, late at night, after she tucked in her kids. “I had set myself the goal of finishing something—which I did—but I didn’t understand the art of revising, or all the story elements needed,” she says. Miranda soon brought the same degree of rigor that she’d used to learn science to her pursuit of writing. And that approach paid off.
After two total rewrites, that late-night project evolved into her first published novel, though “the only things that remain the same from the original version are the title (Fracture), the character names, and the first four sentences. I’d say the process of rewriting that book several times taught me a lot about the writing process and the essential elements of a story.”
Despite Miranda’s training as a scientist, she approaches her writing through instinct rather than formula. That approach was no different with THE LAST HOUSE GUEST, which is set in the vacation town of Littleport, Maine, and tells the story of a haunted young woman named Avery Greer. Avery works as a caretaker for the wealthy Loman family, helping to tend their properties and keep visitors happy.
Things haven’t been the same for Avery since the tragic suicide of the Lomans’ only daughter, Sadie. Avery is no stranger to loss—her parents and grandmother are long dead—but her grief over Sadie has left her more isolated and adrift than ever. As she struggles to move on, she becomes more and more convinced that Sadie’s death is not what it seems, and vows to try to find the truth beneath the placid surface of this simple harbor community.
The story is told by cutting between the present summer and the previous one, with Miranda revealing more and more as we shift from past to present and back again. This structural sleight-of-hand is integral to our experience of the narrative, just as it was in Miranda’s breakout novel All the Missing Girls.
“All the Missing Girls was conceived in reverse from the start, both as a way to explore character motivation and as part of the theme,” she explains. “But with THE LAST HOUSE GUEST, I tried at least three different structures before finding the focus of the story and understanding how best to tell it.”
As she kept on writing, Miranda found herself guided by an equally strong sense of place and character. “When I started with Avery, I felt that she would be tied very tightly to the setting,” Miranda says. “There was a sentence I wrote in the very early pages about the town, which also felt like my introduction to Avery: It existed through pure stubbornness, pushing back against nature from both sides. Growing up here made you feel as if you were forged from this same character.”
Over the course of the novel, Avery’s own stubbornness leads her to ask unwelcome questions about her friend’s death, and peel back the layers of mystery that hover like fog off the Maine coastline. “I’m definitely drawn to stories with a lingering sense of unease, mysteries lurking inside the people we think we know, a setting that lends itself to both beauty and menace,” Miranda says. “That feeling of isolation and growing tensions—those stories resonate and linger for me.”
The isolation Avery experiences is both internal and external, as she uncovers the buried secrets of Littleport. Although the town is not based on any single place, it was inspired by some actual locations. “I have always loved Maine, which is where my dad grew up, and we used to take a trip each summer for a week of hiking in Bar Harbor,” she recalls. “We would drive up the coast from New Jersey, stopping at many of the towns along the way.”
If the fictional Littleport feels utterly real, perhaps that’s due in part to the fact that Miranda knows its geography almost as well as some of the places she once used to visit. “At first, it was only in my head,” she says. “But in an early draft, my editor asked if I had a map I could share so she could get a sense of what I was trying to describe, and I drew one out then, which really helped focus the story setting going forward.”
After 10 novels, including several for young adults, Miranda’s decision to leave the world of science for suspense has clearly paid off. “I’m currently working on my next adult suspense,” she says. “I don’t want to say too much yet, as things sometimes shift dramatically from early drafts to finished product. But it’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for a little while now, and I’m so excited to be working on it.”
Megan Miranda is the New York Times bestselling author of All the Missing Girls. She has also written several books for young adults, including The Safest Lies, Fragments of the Lost, and Come Find Me. She grew up in New Jersey, graduated from MIT, and lives in North Carolina with her husband and two children. The Perfect Stranger is her second novel of psychological suspense and THE LAST HOUSE GUEST is the latest.
To learn more about Megan, please visit her website.