Karen McManus on Thorny Sibling Relationships, Gender Stereotypes, and Teenagers with Main Character Potential
Karen McManus’ twisty One Of Us Is Next kicks off a year and a half after the events of her bestseller thriller One Of Us Is Lying. Bayview High School is recovering from the havoc unleashed by Simon Kelleher’s gossip app when an unknown student launches a phone-based game of Truth or Dare. Yet what begins as harmless teenage fun soon grows more sinister. The mysterious person behind the game reveals dark secrets about its players, and the dares grow increasingly dangerous. When the game targets Maeve Rojas, who played an integral part in solving the mystery of One Of Us Is Lying, she teams up with her best friend, Knox, and the game’s first victim, Phoebe, to unmask the anonymous game master before things turn deadly. Like its predecessor, One Of Us Is Next is a propulsive thriller that balances unexpected revelations with heartfelt teen romance. Booklist hailed it as a “thrilling read” and Publisher’s Weekly said that readers “will inhale this complicated story of friendship and revenge.” Brendan Dowling spoke to McManus via telephone on January 16th, 2020. Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Litchfield Photography.
Maeve is at the center of the novel and was also in One of Us is Lying. What was it about Maeve that made you want to revisit this character and explore her more deeply in One of Us Is Next?
I always thought that Maeve had main character potential. The sisterly chemistry between her and Bronwyn was really fun. There was a lot to her story that I didn’t have room to explore, in terms of the childhood illness that she suffered and how that shaped her world view. Also the way that she had allowed herself to be protected by Bronwyn in a lot of ways. That was something she was starting to move away from at the end of the first book and it seemed that there was a lot to explore there.
I really love how we get to see two very different types of sister relationships in this book, between Bronwyn and Maeve and then also Phoebe and her sister, Emma. Was that something that was front of mind for you writing this book?
I love writing sibling relationships. All of my books feature them but I had never written such a complicated and a contentious relationship [as Phoebe and Emma’s] before. It was challenging because my instinct was to always push them back together. I kept wanting them to work things out and they really couldn’t. That wasn’t what their arc was about, so they were at odds for a large portion of the book. I have supportive siblings and I like to write supportive siblings, so that was a departure, but it was the right choice for them and for the book.
In introducing Knox and Phoebe to this world, were there types of high school students or high school experiences you were interested in exploring that you hadn’t been able to in One Of Us Is Lying?
I thought that the friend dynamic between Maeve and Knox was a really interesting one, particularly that they had tried dating [each other], and then dated for a while because they were both too inexperienced to realize they didn’t like each other that way. I don’t think that’s uncommon. A lot of times you think, “I really like this person! I should like them romantically too!” and that just doesn’t happen. They were able to get through that and stay friends because there was a real bond there. That was a lot of fun to write.
Phoebe was a really nice layered character in that she suffers some of the same slut-shaming that Addy did in the first book, but Phoebe stands up for herself in a different way. She brings more commentary on what’s happening around her than Addy—who had been raised to view herself as being valuable for her relationships and her looks—wasn’t able to do at the time.
One Of Us Is Lying focused so much on acceptance, and this book seems to explore how gender stereotypes affects high school students. What about that topic was intriguing to you to explore in a high school setting?
I’m certainly well removed from high school. I didn’t even question the sort of stereotypes I held back then. I see kids being so much smarter now. They’re so much more open. There’s much more acceptance, for example, on how gender can be a spectrum. There’s much more understanding of the fact that there’s a lot of social construct involved in how we consider the topic. Despite that, we still see these very old and ingrained ways of looking at what boys should be and what girls should be that’s really hard to root out completely. It was interesting to me to take some kids who are savvy and open-minded and still find themselves caught up in the type of stereotyping that was happening when I was in high school.
As in One of Us is Lying, the book is told from multiple points of view. What about that format is appealing to you as a mystery writer? What is limiting about it?
I personally have always liked ensemble casts. I like them as both a viewer and a reader for all types of media. It’s interesting to see different perspectives from different characters on the same overarching situation. As a writer, I feel that multiple characters give you more opportunity to let a reader connect with somebody. There are more chances that they’ll see themselves in one of the characters in some way. It’s also a useful tool for mystery writing because it allows you to shift at exactly the moment when a reader wants more. You sort of take them to the edge of someone’s perspective and then, “Oops! Sorry! Now it’s Phoebe’s turn, so you’re not going to find out what happens.” (laughs) It helps build suspense.
Is there anything limiting about it? How do you write around those limitations?
It’s tricky and it’s also helpful, because the reader can only know what the character knows. Sometimes that’s helpful because the character doesn’t know the resolution yet so you can keep that hidden. Yet there are times when you want the narrators to be somewhat unreliable and not be truthful with the reader, and that is harder to pull off. What you ultimately have to figure out is that they may be misleading the reader, but it’s probably partly because they’re misleading themselves too, or they have a very good reason for their internal thoughts being a little bit sneaky. That can be challenging sometimes.
It seems that the book ends with the possibility of more mysteries with Bayview’s students. Do you have plans for future books in this world?
No current plan, but I never say never because I didn’t intend to write a sequel in the first place. (laughs) I like open-ended endings anyway. My second book, Two Can Keep a Secret, ended in a similar way. It wasn’t necessarily intentional that they would mirror each other but that’s how they turned out. If One Of Us Is Next is the end of this series, I’m okay with that. I know readers have questions. They sometimes want more resolution than you give, which is totally understandable, but I didn’t write it with the thought that I’m leaving this open for more. But like I said, never say never.
Parts of this book reminded me of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock. Who were the mystery authors that meant a lot to you as a reader and writer?
Definitely Agatha Christie. I’m just a huge huge fan. I’ve read everything she’s ever written; it’s what I grew up reading. I’m a huge fan of Gillian Flynn. Like pretty much everybody, I was blown away by Gone Girl. I think every young adult author wants to write the Young Adult Gone Girl. I don’t think any of us have actually achieved that yet, (laughs) but that was such a defining book for me.
Finally, what role has the public library played in your life?
I love libraries. I had a library in my hometown I could ride my bike there as a kid; that was a big deal when I was finally old enough to ride my bike to the library and I didn’t have to beg for a ride. I would spend so much time there and take out stacks of books. The librarians knew me and they always had suggestions for me. I was very much a bookish kid, back in a time when you couldn’t connect with other bookish people easily—on social media, for example—so the library was a happy place for me in that respect.
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