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Not Every Villain Needs an Origin Story

By Dawn Ius

Meagan Jennett doesn’t mind bucking stereotypes—in fact, her sensational debut novel YOU KNOW HER thrives because of it.

In this cat-and-mouse thriller, we meet Sophie Braam, a bartender in small town Virginia, where the unfortunately all-too-common harassment of women in the service industry prompts a very atypical response. At the end of her patience, Sophie snaps. And that’s when things get bloody.

Enter officer Nora Martin—new to the Bellair Police Department and battling her own harassment issues as a woman on a male-dominated force. When her path crosses with Sophie’s, they forge a connection based on their shared frustrations.

But when the bodies start piling up, Nora begins to suspect that perhaps Sophie knows a little more about the serial killer hunting their small town than she’s letting on. To say this puts their burgeoning friendship on shaky ground is a gross understatement.

In this exclusive interview with The Big Thrill, Jennett talks more about why she doesn’t believe every villain needs an origin story, plus shares insight into her publishing journey, and dishes on what cocktail best describes YOU KNOW HER.

Congrats on your debut! Even before I read the book, I knew I’d be hooked—you’ve tapped into the growing trend of female serial killers, and you have a blurb from Chelsea Cain, whose book Heartsick is the reason I love to read and write thrillers. What can you share about the inspiration for YOU KNOW HER?

Thank you! And I love that blurb from Chelsea! She doesn’t know this, but I share a birthday with Hunter S. Thompson, so to have my writing called “gonzo” was incredible. Best compliment you could give me, I think.

The inspiration is so many parts of my life, honestly. I worked in the service industry for almost a decade, which of course is a huge part of this. Beyond that, I have very vivid memories of being about five or six years old and hearing about dead women. We’re surrounded by them in Virginia, in part due to all the murder ballads and ghost stories you grow up with—every bridge in the county had some dead woman living underneath it. On a more serious note, there were some horrific murders that happened in the Blue Ridge when I was a child. Alicia Showalter Reynolds, Lollie Winans, Julie Williams… these names have haunted me since I was a child. Sadly, they were the first of many that have been killed too close to home for comfort.

If I had to pinpoint the moment that this spark came to me, it was in a conversation with a dear friend at the Barrow Street Ale House in New York City. We were sharing beers after a meeting with our poetry group, and he told me a story that gave birth to Sophie in my mind; she grabbed me by the ear and wouldn’t shut up until I started writing.

I love this line in your bio: “Meagan Jennett is an escaped bartender who traded in crafting cocktails for crafting her own tales.” I love a good cocktail—what’s your favorite to make and why? What cocktail would you say best describes YOU KNOW HER?

Meagan Jennett

I always loved making margaritas. All of them—from the neon green monstrosities we’d serve at the sports bar I worked at, to the more elegant versions at date-night bars. They’re just so much fun. You can add different flavors to them, different salt rims, spice. They always feel like a party. Spring has been creeping in around the edges here in Scotland and, a few days ago I saw I had a perfect lime just sitting on my counter, begging to be used, so she got sliced and squeezed into a perfect Friday afternoon treat. I was actually impressed with myself, since it’s been a few years since I’ve made one. All the classics though, are so much fun—the Martinis, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds. They’ve stuck around for a reason, and the people who drink them regularly can be very picky about exactly how they want them made; so when you get that nod of approval from an old hat who loves his Martinis “perfect,” it just makes your night.

On that note, I think YOU KNOW HERE is probably a Martini. I go back and forth on whether she’d be dry with a lemon twist, or have a splash of olive juice in there. She’s got bite, but there’s definitely something swimming around underneath that has the feel of brine. Maybe dry with an olive. Compromise.

The protagonist in YOU KNOW HER is a bartender in a small town in Virginia—she’s obviously inspired somewhat by your former career. What aspects of Sophie are drawn from your personal experiences? Can you share a little more about her backstory—who she is before the inciting incident that turns her into…someone else?

That’s a hard question because I know Sophie’s backstory, but I chose not to divulge it to break the expectation that’s arisen in media that every villain needs an origin. I bristle against that idea, actually. The truth is, that Sophie’s just a woman. She has some difficult things going on in her background. Her relationship to her father is not good. She got a little spiky if I pushed about her mother, and there is some history there that was inspired by that story my friend told me at the bar. Overall though, she’s living a pretty nice life. That’s what made her so interesting to me. I wanted to challenge myself to write a character who does evil things for no big traumatic reason, and see if I could get an audience to follow along with her anyway. I think her experience as a woman is so relatable to so many people, that it (hopefully!) works.

All that said, there are absolutely parts of Sophie’s experiences that were drawn from life. Like her, I got myself behind a bar as soon as I was able. It seems small, but having that physical barrier between you and customers was so important to me. It doesn’t stop everything, but it does stop the hands on you. If I’m honest, I’m also just a better bartender than host or server on the floor. You have to be bright and chipper on the floor, in a way you don’t have to be behind a bar. I guess I’m like Sophie in that I’m a bit of a sarcastic wit, much better suited to pouring drinks and bantering with my regulars than dancing around the restaurant.

The opening chapters of YOU KNOW HER are incredibly suspenseful—we’re rooted in Sophie’s POV and are with her closely when her life dramatically changes. I’m fascinated by the structure you’ve chosen in that we essentially see the killer’s “origin story.” What did you hope to show the reader by structuring the book this way?

It was really important to me that people be able to journey with Sophie. It’s hard, writing killer women, because you’re bumping up against all these tropes that we’ve seen before. Female serial killers are so rare, or at least are caught so rarely, that the images we have of them, culturally, are almost cartoonish. It’s just so beyond the pale of our experience for a woman to be acting in this way that she must be a flattened stereotype. I wanted to challenge that, so I decided to put us all, myself included, into Sophie’s mind. To understand her, you have to see the world how she sees it, you have to feel what she feels.

One thing that was very important to me, was to show the small ways men let women down all the time. Lindsey and Ty, Sophie’s bar owner and manager, they’re not bad guys. But they’re immature, they lean on her when they really shouldn’t, and they don’t stand up for her either. It’s those little insults, every day, that really built a resentment in her, added to the constant harassment she’s already getting, working in the service industry.

On a more basic level, I don’t know if I have the brain to craft a true mystery novel. I’m in awe of people who can weave together all these threads and keep readers guessing right up until the end. I ended up writing a thriller accidentally, because I had the seed of an idea of this woman who snaps one day and starts killing men, and so for me, that journey was where the story was. What sort of woman would finally say, “Enough!” and how would she get away with it?

On the flip side we have Nora Martin, the investigating police officer. I’d love to hear a bit more about the inspiration for this character. Can you recall a moment when she really came into focus for you?

I love Nora. I love Sophie too, but Nora has always felt more like a friend to me. That being said, she’s very quiet. When I first started the book, I thought it would only be from Sophie’s point of view, and for the first few months of working on it, it was. Sophie just had so much to say, and she wouldn’t shut up. Nora just showed up one day, walked right in and introduced herself and then sat down to watch. Suddenly I had two women who were looking at one another, but only one of them was really speaking. For a while, I just tried to write Nora as I thought she needed to be, but that wasn’t giving me a story or a character that felt authentic. So, I sat down one day and I “interviewed” her. In high school, I took one year of drama class, and I used to do that with the characters I played. You start with basic questions—name, age, birthday—and dig through layers as you go. Nora holds her cards very close to her chest, so interviewing her was how I got her to talk.

If I have an in-life inspiration for her, it’s probably one of my best friends from elementary school. They share a lot, now that I’m thinking of it. Very smart, very quiet. Enjoys a good joke when the moment’s right. We still keep in touch, so I can see how little bits of the decades of our friendship bled into this character who I love so much.

While this is first and foremost a thriller—and an excellent one at that—there are some undercurrents running through the story that speak to timely (and perhaps longstanding!) societal issues—diversity, gender inequality, misogyny. What do you hope the reader takes away from this story?

Thank you!

It’s been a strange experience, reading early reviews and blurbs, and seeing so much about a sort of palpable rage dripping through the pages. There is rage, absolutely. But I think what it really is, for me, is a manifestation of grief. In doing my research for this novel, I listened to countless hours of true-crime podcasts, I watched too many documentaries, I even wrote a “found” poem using only lines from murder ballads and text from articles about murdered women. I was horrified to discover that it’s far too easy to find stories that match up, sometimes almost line for line, with murder ballads. I’m also someone who has personal experience with male violence against women. About a month after I started writing, one of my friends was killed by her husband. So I think, for me, those ghosts floating around in the background are all too real. And I think they are for too many people, especially women.

It was interesting, bringing pieces of this to workshops while writing it. The women in the room all always understood Sophie’s rage. The men usually didn’t. They couldn’t understand how she’d go from zero to sixty so fast. Fair enough, if you haven’t lived a life being picked apart, or watching violence against your gender used as a staple form of entertainment. I guess I hope this close-up view, through both of my female characters, gives any men reading YOU KNOW HER a perspective they may not have understood or paid attention to before.

A novel is such a major undertaking—there’s the writing of it, then of course, months of revising and polishing. How did you know this was the project that would be the catalyst for your career switch? Could you share a little about your publishing journey?

It’s been a journey! I knew I wanted to do something creative—for a while that was actually photojournalism. I also knew I wanted to write a book, eventually, but I never really took that seriously until the fall of 2017, when I applied to the University of Glasgow on a whim. By that point, I’d decided I couldn’t work in food service much longer, and I wanted to be in a space that was dedicated to writing. Glasgow was appealing because it was away from the United States which, as I’m sure we all recall, was in a turbulent and angry state at that time. So, not having any formal writing education, I applied. And I got in. I deferred for a year, and then moved to Glasgow in September 2019.

That was honestly the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. I took a chance, and put myself into a room full of people, most of whom had far more education than me, so it was a bit of a scramble at first, but I found my footing. I actually showed up to Glasgow with a very messy first draft of YOU KNOW HER. I took that year to first write around it, and then come back to it, tear it apart, and build it back up. Glasgow was also where I began to take myself seriously as a teacher. I’d worked for two years as a substitute teacher in the States, and I took a job working for a wonderful program called Widening Participation in Glasgow that offers support to students who may have a lot going on at home and who struggle in school. I’m now working as a graduate tutor at Glasgow Uni, and am hoping to move into academia when I graduate. So it’s really been a two-fold career switch for me.

As far as publishing goes, I hit the ground at the exact right time and place. My agent, Mark Falkin, is very smart and really thinks things through and makes strategic plans. Within a month of going on sub, I had two offers, one of which was from MCD, which I accepted. I will say, starting a PhD while trying to edit a debut novel was definitely a challenge! I don’t recommend it. Luckily though, everyone from my editors to my supervisors has been so understanding of my schedule and respectful of one another. I feel so blessed to be in this place.

The book feels like it was inspired by some classics—Thomas Harris’s Hannibal books, Chelsea Cain’s Gretchen Lowell books, for example. What other books or movies were kicking around in your head as you wrote YOU KNOW HER?

It’s wild to me that my work is even mentioned in the same breath as those two authors’, and such an honor! Thomas Harris, in particular, was a huge influence on me, growing up. I devoured his Hannibal Lecter novels; I actually wanted to be an FBI agent at one point in time. We’re all lucky that I gave up on that dream! But there are absolutely shades of Starling in Nora—her last name, Martin, is a nod to Harris. Starlings and Martins are both birds that look alike, and sometimes steal each other’s nests.

I know this goes against traditional advice, but I tried not to engage with literature or film that seemed too similar to YOU KNOW HER while I was writing it. I wanted to write my own book, tell my own story. So instead, I worked my way around the story. I read books about grief, and books about ghosts, such as Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh and Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians. I also loved Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, which puts us into the mind of a woman convicted of murder and sentenced to death. One of the biggest influences on me was Na Hong-jin’s film, The Wailing. It’s a wonderful Korean horror film, that slides between an almost camp-style comedy, powerfully dark scenes, and beautiful landscape shots. That film introduced me to the concept of a hungry ghost, and the idea that a living person can be a haunting, something I wanted to explore with Sophie.

YOU KNOW HER is set in small-town Virginia. How did you land on that setting?

Easy enough—I’m from small-town Virginia! I think, for a thriller, small towns are so interesting too, because everyone knows everyone. Or at least, they think they do. I was curious about how someone like Sophie could hide something so big as murder, right out in the open. What sort of personality would she need to have to not only not say anything, but to keep a straight face at work, when she’s no doubt hearing all the gossip? I also love rural Virginia. It lends itself so well to that lush tradition of Southern Gothic, which is a style and genre I just adore, and wanted to play with in my own writing.

What can you share about what you’re working on now? 

I wish I had a quick answer to this! I’m currently pursuing a Doctorate of Fine Arts at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland. It’s essentially a creative doctoral thesis, your dissertation being a novel or poetry collection. I’m researching the Scottish diaspora through Northern Ireland and ultimately into a tiny part of the Virginia Blue Ridge, just outside of what’s now Shenandoah National Park. There’s these layers and layers of stories there, centuries of history and language that’s had such a broad impact on the Southern Appalachian region in general.

Shenandoah National Park is a beautiful park, but the history of its founding is quite dark—the State used eminent domain laws to remove poor people from the land; it was especially painful because they were going up against a long tradition of British tenant farming traditions, coupled with a cultural memory of turbulence and a general distrust of the government. One interesting thread I’ve found is the story of the cannibal—it comes originally from Ayrshire, the region which many “Scotch-Irish” people hail from. Seriously, look up Sawney Bean!

I’ve also been thinking a lot about what it means to be an immigrant myself. I’m hoping to settle permanently in Scotland, and standing on the shoreline that my ancestors very well may have stood on, learning the dialects and languages they probably spoke, has been unexpectedly emotional. Rolled all together, my DFA project is looking like some sort of hybrid poetry-essay monster, with a focus on recreating oral storytelling styles on a page. A little more experimental than YOU KNOW HER, for sure.

I’m also kicking around my second novel, based in the Park land around the time of removal. I don’t want to say too much and jinx myself, but there’s some magic and probably a few ghosts, and of course, moonshine!

Dawn Ius
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