Features Up Close: Sarah Strohmeyer
A Fusion of True Crime and HGTV
In Sarah Strohmeyer’s new novel, WE LOVE TO ENTERTAIN, Erika Turnbull is in love with her boss Robert Barron. Which is a problem considering he’s just married his home improvement reality show teammate Holly Simmons. Her mother Kim does not approve, and Erika doesn’t have the time or inclination to listen to Kim’s warnings.
Besides, Robert must love her back. Why else ask to borrow her car and bring the renovation all of their careers are riding on over the finish line?
Kim has a different take on the situation. Men who love you don’t stash their wife’s bloody pajamas in your trash, and they don’t trade their Tesla X for a runty Kia to take their new wife on a quickie honeymoon to Canada. However, Kim tries to give her daughter space. Erika’s seizing her shot to get out of their tiny Vermont town as the successful personal assistant to Holly and Robert on the home improvement reality show To the Manor Born.
Unfortunately, Holly and Robert disappear. No calls from Holly. No texts from Robert. With the show’s finale only days away, Erika grows increasingly uneasy as she discovers inconsistencies in Robert’s honeymoon story.
And then she finds the file of death threats and hears stories about how the man they ran off the property is mentally unstable and wants his revenge. Suddenly the silence from Robert and Holly changes from being simply inconvenient to downright frightening.
The Big Thrill had a chance to talk with Sarah Strohmeyer about the fusion of True Crime and HGTV, the struggle to rise above small-town rumors, and the nature of mother-daughter relationships.
Erika and Kim are a daughter and mother respectively, who live in a small town in Vermont. And there’s nothing like small towns for gossip and grudges. Erika and Kim are somewhat infamous due to the circumstances of Erika’s father death and then the death of a classmate. Why decide to make them outsiders trying to live down their notoriety?
Because I think that’s more interesting. And I think that, whether or not we’ve done anything that wrong, in a small town, sometimes you’re already perceived as an outsider for one thing or another, and it’s unfair.
People talk about you behind your back, and you have to grow a spine and you have to greet them with a smile and go on with your life. And you know that if a situation goes awry, the first thing people are going to do is say, “Well, that doesn’t surprise me because you remember when…” As the town clerk I still know all the sexcapades of the select board members from 1958. I’ve heard all these stories. These stories don’t die with the generations. They just they go on and on.
The first series of books I wrote, The Bubbles Mysteries, were set in a town modified after the steel town where I grew up in Bethlehem, PA. I changed the names of town, streets, and stores, but I liked the culture of that town. They went to the football games. They went to the Tavern at the corner on Saturday nights. There was this regularity that I liked.
Then throughout most of my other books, I kind of left that. But then [for WE LOVE TO ENTERTAIN] I came back to this small town because of that kind of regularity. You know the grocery store where everybody goes. You know the guy at the post office. You know the local cop. I think it provides, not a closed room exactly, but it does give some structure to the story that you can then build off.
A theme running throughout WE LOVE TO ENTERTAIN is the sometime tenuous relationships between mothers and daughters. Erika is holding her mother at arm’s length, while Kim is trying to respect the space Erika wants while also protecting her daughter. Do you find this is a typical mother/daughter dynamic? And how were you able to keep the balance between unconditional love and absolute exasperation present in your writing?
Throughout my career I’ve always written for my daughter. For example, when I was writing young adult novels, my daughter and her friends were of that age for that target audience. So, I was always writing her in a book. Now my daughter is a 30-something who’s a great friend of mine and lives in Poland. I think I probably drew a little bit from that. Your child has grown up, they make mistakes, they don’t get it. Then they come around.
And I like that dynamic, especially in a small town where your mom’s right there. As anybody knows, in a small town you make one big mistake—or even make a little mistake—and no one forgets it. Erica has had to deal with it all her life and she’s looking at this couple [Holly and Robert] as, “This work as their assistant is my ticket out of here.” There’s a lot on the line and her mother gets that. She feels bad for Erica. Erica has had a bum rap.
You use Reddit chats and blog posts as an interesting storytelling technique. What made you decide to use social media to help dial up the tension and provide clues to the reader?
I thought if you’re going to [write about] a reality show, you’re going to have to have reality Reddit, right? There’s a shadow world that exists [online] that chimes in on everything. There’s this whole judgmental community where snippets of gossip can fly like wildfire, and you might be able to glean some information. But also…you might be able to really get bad information, which I think adds to the tension of a mystery novel because it’s blown [out of proportion] and then people are anonymous, so people can say anything they want.
What research did you have to do to make sure the production details were authentic?
I started, as a base, with this great New Yorker article that went into the behind the scenes of HGTV, and [sharing] what exactly is the process from soup to nuts. Of course, I went online, but I read stories of people who have been through these shows and what they had to do, what they had to wear, what the producers were looking for, and what kind of deadlines. So, it was collecting articles. I have a little file on my computer of all the little things I’ve collected over the time to read, and that was really fun. I mean, that’s the most fun part in a weird way, you know?
As for the real estate part of the plot, because I’m a town clerk I deal with real estate constantly. While I was writing this book, Vermont was experiencing this strange phenomenon where we suddenly had people moving from out of state who were buying beautiful places and pricing everybody out. They were coming in with cash and for them, it was just an easy deal. You couldn’t buy a property with a mortgage. They didn’t exist during the pandemic and people are paying way more than the listing price. And now Vermont’s priced out. People can’t buy anything here.
Is there any character you loved writing the most?
Yes, there is. Actually, there are two sets of characters. One was the assistant clerk who is inspired by my former assistant clerk. [The character] is nothing like her, but I just love the assistant clerk because she is both sassy and tough and she’s got guts. I really like that.
The other ones were the two assessors who are modeled after the former listers we have here, who are an anachronism. Though those types of guys are not going to last anymore, those people who go into your home and assess the property. It’s a certain breed of human being. That’s who those guys represent. They’re a dying breed. So those were my favorite characters to write.
I have a contract to write another book, so I’m working on a standalone thriller with a little bit of humor. I always try to find some sort of interesting nugget to build around because I find that helps inspire me. So, my next book also deals with an obscure phenomenon that’s going to be really fun for readers.
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