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What Would You Do?

By Mindy Carlson

Author Rebecca Kelley’s latest novel, NO ONE KNOWS US HERE, asks the reader this poignant question: “What would you do if you were her?”

It’s a hard question to answer.

We meet (anti)hero Rosemary, who is living in her ex-boyfriend’s closet, holding down a minimum wage job, and trying to pull herself together enough to become a parent to her newly orphaned half-sister, Wendy. She’s struggling, to put it mildly.

Actually, we meet her as she’s plunging a knife into a yet-unnamed man’s throat… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Her mysterious roommate, Mira, invites her out to dinner and hands her a phone. Except it’s more than just a phone. It’s Mira’s life. Her other life. Mira is paying for dental school by being a very well-paid escort. And now that dental school is finished, she’s offering Rosemary the chance to fix her life and help her desperate sister, Wendy.

Rosemary chooses to use Mira’s phone. Almost immediately, billionaire social media mogul Leo Glass notices her and offers her a year-long position as his paid girlfriend. He gives her the perfect apartment and a monthly salary large enough for her to care for Wendy. But he also makes it clear she is his. Her movements are monitored. Her behavior mustn’t embarrass Leo. And she must do what she’s told no matter what else might be going on… or who else needs her.

Rebecca Kelley

It doesn’t help that after signing Leo’s contract and entering this new life she’s fallen hopelessly in love with her neighbor, Sam. Rosemary is a woman of her word, though, and is going to fulfill her contractual obligations. But as Leo grows more demanding and his control of her increases, Rosemary begins to sense the danger Leo presents. To her. To Wendy. And to Sam.

So, what would you do? Do you freelance in a field that’s notoriously dangerous, taboo, and illegal to help rescue your sister from a dangerous home—or do you just try harder at what you’re already doing?

Here, The Big Thrill chats with Kelley about unlikeable women, social media’s role in society, and whether or not love is a choice.

The concept of NO ONE KNOWS US HERE is fascinating. It’s Pretty Woman meets Indecent Proposal. A sex worker gets an offer of a new life for her and her sister, plus more money than she can imagine, for pretending to be a billionaire’s girlfriend for one year. It’s very much a book that has the reader pondering what decision they would make if handed such an offer. How did the idea for this novel come to you?

Originally, I was inspired by reimagining Crime & Punishment with a female Raskolnikov. He has a girlfriend, Sonia, who is a kind-hearted prostitute, and I knew I wanted to bring that element in, too. I thought, hmm, what if I make Rosemary a combination of Raskolnikov and Sonia?

Rosemary makes the decision to take over Mira’s sex worker business to provide her the money she needs to take care of her sister. You’ve said you wanted to write a novel that featured a woman as cold-blooded, yet Rosemary is likeable and sympathetic in her struggles. Was that a conscious choice? Did you care if your reader found her likeable?

Kelley at Oneonta Falls in Oregon a few years ago

In my earlier drafts, Rosemary was less sympathetic—she had an even harder time connecting with Wendy and didn’t want to take her in. (She had her reasons, but still, she was ice cold!) For whatever reason, I tend to enjoy writing about emotionally repressed characters who, deep down, yearn for love and connection. In subsequent drafts, I did end up trying to show what was going through Rosemary’s head a bit more, which probably results in making her more likeable.

Still, I don’t like getting hung up on whether my characters are likeable. I feel like readers don’t really need to like a character to be invested in them.

Social media is almost a character on its own in your book. Mirror phones with the social media app are in everyone hands. Glasseye cameras are posted throughout the city. It’s so prevalent, it has a way of directing and influencing behavior, both in making small and large decisions. The Glasseyes bring social media into a more 1984/Big Brother era. Do you think regarding social media, NO ONE KNOWS US HERE is a kind of cautionary tale?

I wasn’t really thinking of it like that, but it certainly could be a cautionary tale. Social media makes us feel like we know each other—but what do we really know? If you love someone, you should see them and notice when they are struggling—something Rosemary fails to do with her sister. But if you watch them and keep tabs on their every move, that isn’t love, it’s manipulation.

Kelley in Spain in October 2022
Photo credit: Gina Kelley 

Wendy, Rosemary’s little sister, has struggles of her own. She’s 14 (which is hell in itself), her parents are dead, her father sexually abused her and Rosemary, and now she’s living with her father’s parents, which doesn’t seem to be a picnic. Unsurprisingly, she is having some mental health issues. She moves in with her sister and we find they don’t connect like either of them had hoped. Given that NO ONE KNOWS US HERE is told from Rosemary’s point of view, what can you share about Wendy’s hopes and dreams in this story?

What Wendy wants is very simple: She wants her sister to take her in so they can be a family. Wendy is very clear and upfront about this desire, so it hurts her when Rosemary brushes her off or ignores her various cries for help. Reconnecting with her sister is what Rosemary wants, too, but it takes her most of the book to acknowledge that.

Leo Glass—creator of the Mirror social media app and the Glasseyes—believes one can fall in love simply by deciding to do so. Or at least that’s what he tells Rosemary, who he’s hired to give him the “full girlfriend experience.” Does Leo really believe love is a decision? And where did that belief come from?

I don’t know where Leo came up with it, but I know I heard it first from Dr. Phil in the early 2000s. I was watching his show and he bellowed out, “Love isn’t a feeling. IT’S A CHOICE!” I think the context was something about married couples, about making the decision to stay devoted to someone. That makes sense, but at the time that line—“LOVE IS A CHOICE!”—struck me as completely untrue. You can’t just “choose” to love someone, and that’s that. If that were the case, we could be paired off randomly, choose to love each other, and make it work.

Kelley in Spain, posing with a new friend Photo credit: Gina Kelley

Given that Rosemary and her neighbor Sam fall for each other at first sight (very romantic), you also demonstrate to us that who we love isn’t a conscious choice. Do you think both “deciding to make it work” and “we can’t help who we love” are valid relationship scenarios?

Yes, definitely. I’ve always been fascinated by both of these extremes—the arranged marriages between strangers that result in a deep and lasting love, or the impulsive “we got married a week after we met” couples who stay together for 50 years.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a new psychological suspense novel, also inspired by an old classic. We’ll see where it goes!