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Unmasking the Darkness

By Jaden Terrell

The darkness behind the mask. We see it in the quiet man next door who turns out to be a serial killer, the pre-teen girl who sacrifices a playmate to Slender Man, the astronaut who drives 900 miles in a pair of Depends on a mission to murder her lover’s new flame. In fiction, we flock to it, entranced by Heath Ledger’s Joker.

In real life, we stare at it in horror, unable to avert our eyes. We expect our monsters to look like monsters. Instead, they’re our neighbors, our co-workers. Sometimes, they’re people we thought were our friends.

It’s this dark side of the mundane that fascinates Canadian author Nina Laurin. Her first novel, Girl Last Seen, explores the effects of sexual assault on its victims. The critically acclaimed follow-up, What My Sister Knew, delves into the destructive force of family secrets. In her latest novel, THE STARTER WIFE, a “fairy tale” marriage begins to unravel when the wife, Claire, receives an email message from her husband’s ex-wife—a woman missing and presumed dead for the past seven years.

Laurin maintains a careful balance between the story’s action and Claire’s internal landscape.

“Claire’s insecurities about her marriage stem from the fact that she tends to think in stereotypes,” Laurin says. “So, she built all these expectations in her head of what her perfect whirlwind romance and her fairytale marriage would be like. And reality can’t help but fall short. The people who wish her ill (won’t say more because spoilers!) only use those expectations to torment Claire. They don’t have to do a whole lot—she’ll make up for it by tormenting herself in her own head. Everything that happens to her plays into her deepest fears, and when you tap into those, the person tends to act out in crazy ways.”

Asked where she got the inspiration for the book, Laurin says, “Funny you should ask—it goes to show how imagination can work in strange ways. The basis of the idea that would become THE STARTER WIFE came from a soap opera and a horror novel that have absolutely nothing in common. And if you read/watched them now, you’d never guess this is where the idea came from, because it became pretty much unrecognizable by the time I wrote THE STARTER WIFE.”

Nina Laurin
Photo credit: Mattias Graham

In a genre that relies heavily on twists and surprises, it can be challenging to obscure clues and misdirect the reader while still creating a believable storyline and playing fair. For Laurin, this is where plotting and outlining comes in.

“I’m definitely a plotter!” Laurin says, “A lot of people think being a plotter means you’re boring and inflexible. But it’s the contrary. It lets me consider all kinds of crazy plot twists and variations without having to rewrite half the manuscript every time. (Not that I’ve never done that!) And I also end up with first drafts that are a lot neater, because I try to work out all the major plot and pacing issues at the outline stage. This, in turn, helps me be more productive (and prolific).”

One of her favorite techniques is to first present something like it’s certain, only to plant the seed of doubt a few chapters down the road. “There’s no need to outright lie to the reader,” she says, “because as long as a character believes that something is true, then for all intents and purposes, it is.”

Like most successful writers, Laurin maintains a regular writing habit. Of her daily ritual, she says, “I’m one of those people who buys whole roasted beans, and these days I like a nice strong blend from a local coffee shop, Lenoir Lacroix. If it’s nice outside, I settle in with my laptop with a view of the lilacs in my yard. But when it’s not so nice, I work in the cozy armchair in my home office. I write until I’ve finished my daily word count or until the coffee runs out.”

It’s all routine now, but her journey toward becoming a suspense writer was long and somewhat convoluted. As a young writer, she was more attracted to speculative fiction, mainly dark fantasy and horror.

“I’m pretty sure my first novel-length manuscript had vampires in it,” she says, “and it won one of the earlier editions of NaNoWriMo. Sadly (or not), that’s as far as it ever got. Then I set my sights on YA fiction, and I was good at it—but a lot of people thought my work was too dark. That was my clue to try something else, so I decided to write a psychological thriller. That thriller turned out to be Girl Last Seen, which became my debut and a bestseller in 2017.”

With two successful novels under her belt, Laurin was well on her way to a solid career. But as every writer knows, each book comes with its own obstacles. When she wrote the first 10,000 words of what would become THE STARTER WIFE, she thought she had something good, but wasn’t sure the premise worked. “So I sent the pages to my agent, saying, I think this is a decent idea, but if you can figure out the twist from the first 30 pages, never mind.

Fortunately, her agent loved the pages, so she finished the manuscript. “And the rest,” she says, “is history. But yes—as the narration progressed, it became more and more challenging to parse out new information while withholding just enough so the reader doesn’t guess the twist.”

Laurin at a signing event

THE STARTER WIFE works as pure entertainment, but Laurin’s fascination with those dark corners of the human heart give the book an additional layer of meaning. While the main plot explores the complexities of marriage and romantic relationships, a subplot illustrates the issue of moral responsibility and social media. This thread, which involves an online forum, intensifies Claire’s suspicions and enhances the plot, but it also serves as a mirror for modern internet culture.

“At one point in the story,” Laurin says, “there’s a forum filled with some angry college students: they think a certain character is guilty, and they’re out for blood. The only problem is, well… they don’t know even a small part of the story, only what’s visible on the surface, as well as some very scant news coverage. Now, how often does this happen in real life? The ending of THE STARTER WIFE got some visceral reactions out of readers (which means my work here is done, I suppose?) regarding the final fate of one of the characters. The social media aspect plays into it. It’s likely the truth will never come out because of how social media coverage distorts everything and makes it impossible to separate truth from speculation.”

Truth, speculation, lies. These are all aspects of the human condition, all opportunities to explore the darkness behind the mundane. Whether in that Blainville, North Shore coffee shop, or surfing the web for fiction fodder, Laurin is sure to find plenty of inspiration for what she calls her “next twisted book idea.”

You’ll want to be around for the ride.


Jaden Terrell
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