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The Magic of Misdirection

By Dawn Ius

Bestselling author Kate White is no stranger to taking things to a new level.

Even before she ran one of the most popular magazines in the world—White served as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine from 1998 to 2012—she’d begun staking her claim as one of the most formidable (and inspiring) businesswomen in the world.

While running the show at Cosmopolitan, White used her platform to pen a handful of nonfiction books that provide important (and timeless) career advice for women. Her groundbreaking bestseller Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead but Gutsy Girls Do continued to highlight her deft skill with a pen—and launched a speaking career that took her all over the world. If that wasn’t enough, even while doing all that, White—an avid fan of Nancy Drew books as a child—had begun carving out her niche in the fiction world.

Her first thriller, If Looks Could Kill (2002), was a Kelly Ripa book club selection, hit the New York Times bestseller list at #10, and spawned a series of novels featuring intrepid journalist Bailey Weggins. Again, White could have rested on her laurels, but she continued to push herself as an author and started writing standalone novels of suspense in-between her Bailey Weggins installments. Her first, Hush (2010), also hit the bestseller list, proving once again that White wasn’t—and isn’t—done “levelling up.”

She does so again with this year’s standalone thriller THE SECOND HUSBAND, the chilling story about a woman whose seemingly perfect marriage is shaken when new evidence comes to light about the death of her first husband. As police poke around in the now-reopened case, Emma realizes that she might not know her new husband quite as well as she thought—and though she hadn’t met Tom while married to Derrick, she’s shocked to realize the three of them had attended the same business dinner just two months before Derrick’s murder.

In this interview with The Big Thrill, White shares insight into what sparked this expertly plotted psychological page-turner, the magic behind her shocking twists and turns, and why she loves writing about strong females.

I recall you telling me a bit about this book when we last talked, but THE SECOND HUSBAND is even better than I imagined—it might be my new favorite of yours. What I don’t remember, however, is what sparked this story. Can you share a little about the novel’s inspiration? 

Kate White

I wanted to write another psychological thriller about a marriage, and I started with the “What if?” strategy I know many authors say they use, too. I think I kicked it off by first asking myself, “What if the protagonist was married before?” and “What if her first husband was murdered?” and “What if they still haven’t caught the killer?” And then eventually, “What if she remarried pretty soon after the murder, almost too soon in the eyes of some people? What would that say about her? What might it say about her new husband?”

Around this time, I was reminded of something that had happened with me and my own husband. We were walking with umbrellas—closed because it hadn’t started to rain yet—and I started twirling mine like a baton, because I’d taken baton lessons as a young girl. And he stopped in his tracks and blurted out, “Wait, you know how to twirl a baton?!”

Though we’d been married for years, I guess I’d never told him about my secret baton twirling skills, and it actually seemed to throw him a little that he hadn’t known that about me. It was such a silly little thing (I mean, it wasn’t like he was finding out I’d once been in jail for embezzlement!), but it got me thinking how much I wanted to play with the notion of how we can love someone very much and for even a very long time and still be in the dark about aspects of who they are.

Your books always have twists and reveals—but in THE SECOND HUSBAND, it feels as though you took things to a new level. Do you think this is a skill you continue to hone as you write, or do some stories just have twists so organically built in that it’s really dependent on the book?

THE SECOND HUSBAND is Kate’s 16th suspense novel, and she says she’s always happiest when a cover matches an outfit in her closet.

Thanks so much, Dawn, and you raise a good point. As thriller authors, especially if we write a book a year, we do have to keep taking things to a new level. I always include a fair number of twists and reveals, and that means that with each book there’s the challenge of not only making those elements strong, but also fresh, different from the ones used in previous novels I’ve written.

It’s a skill I definitely keep trying to hone. I actually learned something about misdirection from reading a couple of books about magic. Magicians, of course, employ lots of misdirection and, interestingly, they sometimes have completed a trick almost before you know they’ve announced they’re doing it. That taught me some good stuff about the timing of misdirection—though I still can’t pull a white dove from my sleeve.

But as you said, it’s great, too, if twists can happen organically because then they’re less likely to seem contrived. I’ve been finding it helpful to keep coming back to my characters and let some of the twists evolve from who they are and what they feel desperate to have. A very organic approach.

Before too long, your protagonist Emma Hawke is questioning everyone around her, including her new husband, Tom. Still, she manages to embody that “fierce female” hero that is inherent in your novels. I’d love to hear more about the inspiration for her, and how you might describe her.

I like to write about women who, despite what might have happened to them, are strong and ultimately resilient. I don’t really do nut jobs, though I enjoy reading about them. Emma has had some setbacks, including a bad first marriage, but she wants things to be better in the future. She runs her own trend forecasting and research business, and she spends a lot of time looking at data and making sense of it for clients. I not only researched the field for the book but also relied on info I picked up from several forecasters and researchers I worked with when I ran Cosmopolitan. I always found those people so interesting. They were good at looking at data and making predictions. One of them told me a piece of advice that I’ve lived by ever since (and included in the book): If you’re having a tough time making decision, don’t just keep staring at the information you have and thinking harder, which a lot of people do. Instead, gather more information to help you see the situation more clearly.

This June, White, who was in the first coed class of Union College, gave the commencement speech there, received an honorary doctorate, and got to meet some of the school’s English majors/future suspense authors.

The problem for Emma is that she’s much better at analyzing data in her work than she is in her personal life, especially evolving information about her new husband. She’s too close to it, and, like a lot of us, she also wants the information to spell out only what she wants to hear. It helps when she finally reminds herself of the forecaster “rule of three.” If something happens once, it’s chance, if it happens twice, it’s curiosity or coincidence, but if it happens three times, you need to pay attention.

The “dead/missing husband” and “wife-as-suspect” trope (or vice versa) is fairly prominent in domestic suspense—so much so that you could have risked being lumped in with other books like it, but THE SECOND HUSBAND truly stands out. Without spoilers, what are some of the things you knew you needed to do differently to ensure this was a fresh story?

Thanks again, Dawn. You really know how to make a girl’s day. Yes, there are so many suspense novels with a marriage at the center. I tried to make mine different by toggling back between the first marriage and the second and exploring how they begin to intersect for Emma in very scary ways.

White lives and writes in Uruguay every winter. When she and her husband traveled there this past December, it was their first time back in almost two years.

One of the themes of this book might be something along the lines of: it’s truly not possible to outrun the secrets of your past. Aside from a compelling read—check, check, and triple check—what do you hope readers take away from this book? 

Mostly I hope readers are entertained by THE SECOND HUSBAND, that the book is a something they can devour on a beach blanket or porch chair or airplane seat since we’re all traveling again, thank God. And that it will keep them guessing.

And yes, maybe there’s some takeaway about how we deal with the past. Emma initially tried to bury the past “in a shallow grave,” she says, and it later caught up with her. These days we seem to live in a culture in which when we make a mistake, people often tell us, “Oh, just let it go,” or even “What do they know?” Though I don’t think it generally pays to be haunted by our pasts (unless we’ve done something very bad), it’s good to face our mistakes head-on and learn from them. As George Santanyana said back in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

THE SECOND HUSBAND is told in two time periods—and I was trying to think if that was something you’d done in any of your previous 15 books. What were some of the challenges—if any—of tackling that dual timeline?

This was a first for me. I guess you could say I’ve been a dual timeline virgin up until now, though I’ve done prologues before. Interestingly, I didn’t set out to include flashback chapters. In the first draft, I revealed the story of Emma’s first marriage simply as back story here and there throughout the book, but after my editor read the draft and I’d had some distance from it, I came to see that there needed to be more about the first marriage so that the reader better understood what was torturing Emma, keeping her up at night, and directing her actions.

I always find that period in the writing process so helpful—when you’re waiting to hear back from your editor, which in my case is usually a few weeks. It’s such a wonderful chance to come back to the book after a period away and read it with a fresh eye.

White gives the 2022 commencement speech at her alma mater, Union College, in Schenectady, New York.

I know you like scented candles when you write—what was the scent for THE SECOND HUSBAND?

Ha, it was this new one I found and love from Kobo called Himalayan Red Spruce. I don’t like florals, so I’m always looking for a candle with a scent that’s not only woodsy, but also capable of transporting me to an exotic place. And this scent certainly does that.

I’m an avid follower of your social media, and while I love the book talk, some of my favorite posts are related to food—you find or make the most amazing meals. I know you edited one edition of the Mystery Writers’ of America Cookbook. Any thoughts about doing another?

Since it was hard to pin down so many busy authors (yup, the “herding cats” metaphor really applied), doing one version of the cookbook was enough for me.  Funny thing is, being asked to take on that project was actually an eye-opener for me. Author Frankie Bailey, who I think was on the MWA publishing committee, apparently suggested me for the job not only because I was an editor (I was running Cosmopolitan at the time), but also because she’d noticed that I often mentioned meals in my novels. Until that moment, I wasn’t aware of how much I did that. I’m not a great cook, but I cook a lot because I love food, especially easy stuff. I’m in heaven this week over a recent recipe in the New York Times that’s nothing more than sliced mozzarella topped with sliced cherry tomatoes that you’ve marinated in a red wine and garlic vinaigrette, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Hey, I just have to share it.

Speaking of sharing, what can you say about what’s next for you? 

I recently handed in my 2023 novel, and now I’m doing some editing based on my fabulous editor’s suggestions. The book is about a young woman who inherits $2.5 million from a man she had a one-night stand with 12 years before, and it soon becomes clear that her life will be upended unless she figures out the reason why he did it.

Gosh, I loved writing this book. And as soon as I get the edits in, I’ll start on the next book. Though I’m probably going to take a couple of weeks to just do nothing except read, swim, walk, birdwatch, eat corn on the cob, and drink rosé.

Dawn Ius
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