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The Art of Writing About Psychopaths: A Roundtable


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This roundtable was inspired by You Love Me, Caroline Kepnes’s majestic continuation of the adventures of everyone’s favorite psychopath-slash-hopeless-romantic, Joe Goldberg.  I’ve written about Kepnes before, and I knew she would love this. Caroline is so smart and funny I decided to do a roundtable with her and some other writers who give good psychopath. I assembled my people—Caroline Kepnes (You Love Me), Naben Ruthnum (Find You in the Dark), Edwin Hill (Watch Her), Caroline Louise Walker (Man of the Year), and Joanna Schaffhausen (Every Waking Hour). 

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Chat-for-Psychopaths
“It’s really something to see that phrase and think right that’s where I belong!”

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Caroline Louise Walker: chat-for-psychopaths does have a cozy support-group ring to it

Lisa Levy: I usually just wing those and change them day of but I liked how this one was productively ambiguous.

Caroline Kepnes: It’s really something to see that phrase and think right that’s where i belong!

LL: Carolines, are you used to being the only Caroline? I feel like I’m giving you a dose of Jennifer.

CK: There was another Caroline in my first-grade class, and I love when there’s another. Not a Carolyn. A fellow line!

CLW: Ha, agreed, Caroline!

Joanna Schaffhausen: Hello, yes, I also enjoy the chat title, which suggests we are the psychopaths…

LL: Dude, too soon to tell.

CLW: This isn’t an intervention though, right, Lisa?

CLW: i guess we’ll find out

CK: Oooh an intervention

LL: They don’t pay me intervention money.

JS: Heh. SOMEONE’S BEEN INTO MY WEB SEARCH HISTORY!

JS: My daughter is 11. Everyone in her school is either named Sophie or Maddie.

CK: I want more young Lindas in the world

CK: Madilyn or Madison base for Maddies?

JS: The boys are Bradyn, Kadyn, etc. Everyone is also a psychopath because they’re all middle-schoolers.

LL: All the kids have old people names like Max and Sophie or weird-ass Apple or Saffron. We heard a mother call out “Montana! Saffron! Get over here” and it was funnier than it was persuasive.

JS: Madison, Madeline, Madelyn, and sometimes just plain Maddie. There are 4 in my daughter’s class alone.

CLW: I worked at a restaurant in Chicago 10 or so years ago and couldn’t believe the number of Pattys that came in. Patty and Barbara feel of the same moment, no?

JS: Ha! My kid is Eleanor, so I am guilty of the old-person name.

CK: I love to overhear that kind of thing. That’s psycho. Screaming SAFFRON at a human.

CLW: I know a few young Bears and Wolfies

JS: Barbara is totally a name that is of the era. Also Michelle. I am Facebook friends with about 12 Michelles and none is younger than 40.

CK: My cousin’s son is Q

CK: Not THE q

JS: Wait, what??

JS: Just Q?

LL: The Beatles=Michelle

Edwin Hill: I taught a class last semester with a Kelsey, Chelsea, Cassie, Val, and a Cal. And there were only six students in the class.

JS: (And sure he’s not the Q. Suuuuure.)

CK: He’a Paul Kenneth the 4th so they called him Q and well…here we are many years later

CK: Joanna it’s possible

JS: A villain origin story!

CLW: There’s a lovely novel called Q that came out 15-ish years ago. I’ve often wondered if recent years have affected sales or fan-mail in one way or another for him.

CK: The reviews this past year must be something.

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“Goodreads is the ongoing chat-for-psychopaths”

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LL: Hello Caroline Kepnes who would have guessed you have an obsessive personality?

JS: “I see here on page 17 there is a mention of pizza, which probably means the end times are upon us.”

CK: The “reader” mail too

JS: Isn’t it funny when readers look for stuff that isn’t there? I had one reader decide the woman on the cover looked pregnant, so she kept waiting for the pregnancy to reveal itself. When it never did (duh), she took two stars off. FALSE ADVERTISING.

Naben Ruthnum: Goodreads is the ongoing chat-for-psychopaths

CK: That. Is. Special. The actual removal of stars

LL: “Looked pregnant” is a phrase that does not bode well.

CK: Yes there was so much wrong with all of that

EH: I’m borrowing that one, Naben!

JS: Yes, she was very specific about why. “No pregnancy. Misleading! Two stars off.”

CK: I want to see all her reviews now

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“My favorite is probably Ted Bundy; runner up is the 11-year-old girl next door to me.”

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LL: Let’s pivot a tiny bit and have a little getting to know all about YOU. Everyone say where they are and who their favorite psychopath is.

LL: (In books, or in life if it’s someone a few of us know)

EH: I’m in Boston. Favorite psychopath is Clark Rockefeller.

CK: David Kelsey from This Sweet Sickness and I’m in LA

JS: Um, I’m in Boston. My favorite is probably Ted Bundy; runner up is the 11-year-old girl next door to me. I can’t wait to see where she’s going!

EH: I love the stories of your next door neighbor, Joanna.

LL: Tell one!

JS: When she was three, she threw a glass of ice water right in my daughter’s face (who was also three at the time) because she wanted to see what would happen.

LL: That’s totally Baby Teeth Joanna

NR: I’m in Toronto, I would go with Michael Martin Plunkett from Ellroy’s Killer on the Road, hon. mention to Bezos just in terms of scope of ambition

LL: OOH that’s good Naben. Mine is Elon Musk. And Ripley

CK: My real life one is my high school gym teacher who’s in prison for murdering his wife.

LL: Again sometimes it writes itself!

CLW: I’m in my parents’ basement in Rock Island, IL (just kidding, i’m in their kitchen, but being in their basement sounds more psychopathy and deflects from the strangeness of currently crashing at my parents’ place). My favorite psychopath is probably the gingerbread-house queen/witch in Hansel & Gretel?

JS: My high school drama teacher got busted for molesting boys. He would blindfold them, dress up like a woman and then “massage” them.

LL: Well, my town was in Capturing the Friedmans.

CK: LISA

LL: True. I knew all of those guys. They were around my age but went to the other high school.

CK: Did you have a crush on any of them?

LL: I knew them because a few were musicians and we all hung out at the beyond lame teen center which was called LEVELS.

CLW: The head of my summer camp, after whom the camp was named, also spent many summers molesting boys before getting sent to prison.

JS: I went to school with a girl who murdered her mom. I always wonder what happened to her.

LL: The mom?

JS: No, the mom got dead.

CK: Yes my head is spinning. “Got dead”. I like that. Like got milk.

JS: The teenage boyfriend who came over after the mom was already dead did more time than the daughter who actually murdered her.

NR: The chat got really molestation heavy

JS: The daughter did six months.

JS: Then she got into Harvard!

CLW: We’re back to murder now, Naben.

CLW: Don’t worry

CK: Her lawyer must be great.

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“We like learning about psychopaths because we think it protects us.”

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LL: Caroline Kepnes I did not have a crush but one of my friends did. So we would drive past his house over and over again just because. I thought he looked like a chicken.

JS: Harvard took back the invite when they found out about the dead mom.

NR: Classic Ivy League snootiness

JS: Yeah, so she ended up at Tufts with me. They…did not make her have a roommate.

NR: Tufts: We’ll Accept Murderers, But Only Harvard-Caliber Ones

LL: Ok, so what makes a good psychopath, besides an Ivy League degree?

JS: Psychopaths are entertaining because they break so many boundaries.

JS: They are terrifying and intriguing at the same time.

LL: Exactly. They are an ideal version of us because they do exactly what they want.

NR: I don’t diagnose my characters or have a DSM on hand when writing, but I do find that the traits I / we usually think of as psychopathy make for a great added unpredictability engine in the story. I think if I told myself “I’m writing a psychopath” he or she would somehow become more predictable.

JS: I think we also want to tell ourselves we wouldn’t get suckered by it. We like learning about psychopaths because we think it protects us.

CK: I don’t go into the writing with the DSM mindset. Curious about everyone with that.

LL: It would be limiting, right?

LL: You don’t want to literally write a textbook psychopath.

CLW: I don’t either. The characters definitely show me who they are and I can analyze afterward.

EH: I follow the characters, too.

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“[Psychopaths] are like Julia Roberts at the end of Eat Pray Love”

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JS: My background is psych/neuroscience…anyone else? (I had to study the DSM, ugh.)

CLW: I was just going to ask about this Joanna. With your background, do you find yourself checking off criteria or diagnosing characters when you read?

CK: I was in Robert Sternberg’s study/class on psychology in high school. Came home, got a stalker.

NR: No psych background for me, but my mother was a psych nurse and dad a psych before switching to ophthalmology.

JS: I don’t use the diagnoses for writing, though. What I find interesting is how messy it all remains. The DSM keeps getting reworked and revised because we can’t agree on what is and isn’t a mental illness.

JS: Like, psychopaths don’t think there is anything wrong with them!

CK: Joanna that’s what I wanted to do but every time I tried statistics I hit a brick wall.

EH: No psych background for me beyond Mr. Sullivan’s class in high school.

LL: That fascinates me too Joanna. I’m working on essays about illness and so much of the cultural part is constructed.

CK: I think ABOUT that a lot. We love reading them because of their confidence and private rationalization. They’re like Julia Roberts at the end of Eat Pray Love.

NR: Also plenty of functional diagnosed psychopaths out there who I don’t want rolling their eyes at my books

LL: The history of different diagnoses is fascinating.

JS: (I hated the stats part. Both times I had to take it I almost walked out of class ten minutes in because I was so bored I felt like I was dying.)

JS: Yep, most psychopaths aren’t killers. They are your asshole neighbor who leaves dog doo on your lawn.

LL: Other than Goodreads, where do psychopaths hang out?

NR: Haha, yes, CK. One of my favourite psycho cops is William Petersen in To Live and Die in LA, and I often think of his “I’m going this way” scene where he drives the wrong way on the LA freeway as such a perfect scene of psychopathic confidence rewarded

CLW: Lisa Washington DC?

CK: Naben that’s a great scene, captures the joy.

JS: Yeah, I think there are a bunch of sociopaths in government.

CK: I agree.

CLW: The last five or so years have shaken up the idea of an objectively charming sociopath, no?

LL: Well, there is overlap between psychopath and entitled.

JS: Desire for power over other people, narcissism…money.

NR: How else would you get anything done up there

LL: Or delusions of grandeur

JS: Yep, ego for sure.

CLW: Image and a projected self.

NR: Caro’s Lyndon Johnson books are borderline psychopath books… but perhaps his underlying moral code and need to enforce it on the whole country wouldn’t quite fit

CK: The desire to be elected, chosen, and then retreat and back out on promises too.

LL: No one mentioned the orange man. True psychopath.

CLW: He’s a real one.

EH: I try not to say his name anymore.

CK: I feel so tired of him.

NR: He’s such a dull one though

JS: Yes, I think the total lack of empathy is probably when most readers break from the psychopath.

CLW: Same, Ed

CK: No guile.

LL: Naben Caro’s project is a bit of psychopathology IMHO

NR: Now that he’s not in active power, of course

JS: Not voters, though, apparently!

NR: I meant that to be a thumbs up of agreement Lisa

JS: The surface charm draws you in, the taboo boundary breaking excites you, but when the lack of empathy is revealed, you recoil.

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“You are all Slack virgins!”

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NR: This is my first Slack

LL: We’ll be gentle Naben Ruthnum

CK: Mine  too Naben

NR: phew not alone

CLW: Mine too!

EH: Mine, too Naben

LL: Wow, welcome to the 2020s

NR: we’re unemployed losers apparently

NR: my people

JS: Mine as well.

LL: OMG. You are all Slack virgins!

JS: Lol, we’re all such luddites.

CK: Virgin psychopath party

CK: I sometimes hate that I like to be charmed at times.

NR: I can see the VHS box Caroline

JS: We all like it! We’re hard-wired to.

CLW: I feel so amongst my people right now.

LL: You would think a bunch of writers would enjoy a platform where you write.

JS: The psychopaths use our brains against us!

LL: You are all SEEN

CK: I like it here. It’s clear. And I like seeing your faces.

LL: Virgin Psychopath Party is my new ska band

CK: Interesting the loathing I see out there for ska

JS: Psychopaths aren’t playing by the same rules. I mean, not to go back to The Orange Man, but the part where he legit did not care whether he was caught lying offered him a perverse kind of freedom.

LL: Ska is eternal. There has always been and will always be ska.

LL: I do not understand why, but this I believe.

EH: We have our new psychopath this last week, not to return to pedos.

CK: Yes, they really do enjoy the freedom from the social contract.

JS: I mean, he made up an award a few days before the 2016 election and said he won it. Michigan Man of the Year. It does not exist. For any other politician, this would have been fatal. It was barely a footnote on his day.

LL: Joanna there is something intrinsically wrong with people who don’t care if they are caught lying. And they are legion!

CK: That’s part of the evil, the nonstop of it

EH: There’ something wrong, but those who do it well can really use it.

LL: Everyone is calculating to some degree. But where that line is really depends.

CK: The desire to play people too, the poker of it.

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“Grimm was GRIM”

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NR: There’s also the shambling idiot psychopath, though, who I’m still fond of

CLW: I think, as a reader, closely following a psychopath’s perspective in fiction invites us to commingle with Poe’s Imp of the Perverse in a controlled, socially sanctioned way. To imagine what it would feel like to be so very shameless, to just do whatever we want.

NR: The Henry Lee Lucas / Ottis Toole variant

LL: POE I’m doing a Poe piece now

JS: The Coen Brothers version, Naben

NR: Ha yes Joanna

LL: Imp is so, so good. And Philosophy of Composition too.

JS: Yes, it feels transgressive, Caroline Louise Walker

CK: We got Poe and Coen Bros, I’m happy

EH: Oh, Caroline Louise Walker that’s the fun part of the writing a psychopath.

LL: It is transgressive.

NR: CLW, I often use “the imp of the perverse” to explain why a character makes a certain decision!

LL: I just sat down with the “Tell-Tale Heart” for the first time since grad school and damn, is it good. So clever, so compact.

NR: Poe was drinking friends with Junius Booth, John Wilkes’s dad. Totally irrelevant fact but one I feel compelled to scream out whenever I possibly can.

CK: I was too young to get it when I got into it and I loved feeling drawn in and confused and knowing that it’s sustained all this time.

LL: It’s crazy that we teach it as children’s literature.

CLW: Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre played a heavy role in my childhood. I loved that show so much. Riddled with psychopaths and the children who love them.

JS: OH yeah, Grimm was GRIM

LL: All of the American canon is inappropriate kid lit. Poe, Alcott, Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Twain. Twain was a twisted MF.

EH: Jack Torrence would be a favorite psychopath, too.

JS: My parents read me the original Grimm stories, complete with grotesque illustrations…which probably explains a lot about where I ended up. :stuck_out_tongue:

LL: Why do children love psychopaths?

CK: I love him and of course Annie Wilkes.

JS: Annie! She’s fabulous.

LL: OMG children ARE psychopaths.

CK: The rules don’t apply to them. They have seized their power.

EH: We used to read those in our one-room cabin in the New Hampshire woods.

CLW: Lisa I have to think it’s because there’s such a clear polarity between good and evil.

LL: Not just Joanna’s neighbor

NR: Pursuing desire without considering consequences and getting away with it is every kid’s dream

JS: Yes, children sort of are psychopaths a bit because they haven’t learned society’s rules.

LL: They are petty tyrants with no self-control.

LL: BABY TEETH!

EH: Yes, and children love rule breakers, because everyone is always telling them what to do.

JS: But studies show that sociopathy is often present from birth. Babies who don’t react when other babies are crying in the same room with them are more likely to grow up to be psychopaths.

CK: The pure wanting of children fascinated me. That old cartoon where he asks the kid why he’s happy what he’s thinking about and the kid says “candy”

LL: And several of my exes as well

CK: The way society also praises the inner child fascinates me when yes in part, but part of growing and evolving is that you outgrow certain pleasures

JS: Bundy’s aunt tells a story about when she was visiting while he was a kid. She took a tap and woke up to find that young Ted had taken all the knives in the household and arranged them around her sleeping body on the bed, blade pointed in.

CLW: Or the way a child will approach a stranger with a non sequitur as though they’d already been engaged in conversation. No social niceties necessary, straight to the point of what they want.

LL: Adam Phillips has a couple of amazing essays about childhood and narcissism and how we evolve from being creatures of pure ID, which is what kids are.

CK: Yes and when children are blunt, that always fascinates me. A kid points and says “you’re fat”. Is that honesty innocence or burgeoning cruelty?

JS: OMG that was totally me at two. Am I the sociopath??

LL: I will cut this but my sister asked our neighbor Harry if he was named Harry because he had a hairy (censored)

JS: We were in the library and I demanded to know why some poor woman was so fat, in my best non-library voice. When my dad shushed me and didn’t answer, I POINTED HER OUT so he was clear.

CK: There’s wondering privately then articulating publicly outwardly.

CK: You were a good communicator Joanna!

CLW: And on the flip side, Caroline Kepnes how much time and energy many adults spend talking around a thing or not saying what they mean. Family secrets and false modesty.

JS: Kids don’t have a filter; it’s true.

LL: Part of growing up is developing a filter, right?

EH: You were inquisitive, Joanna. Good quality.

LL: Excellent quality for crime writer

CK: Yes, Caroline, all of that reinforcement and effort to construct and fortify a lie.

CK: Oh the filter!

LL: I had a student in a memoir class recently who said she liked taking memoir classes because she was nosy.

NR: Nosy about herself?

LL: No everybody

NR: Oh spying on the other students, I see

JS: The thing is, psychopaths do filter. They will unerringly find your weak spots and use them against you.

LL: It was refreshing as most memoir students are on the self-absorbed side.

CK: I relate to that, Naben. I babysat to poke around the house not so much for the kids.

LL: Yes true Joanna Schaffhausen Part of being a psychopath is reading the room

LL: And eat the junk food CK

EH: Oh, the snooping I did….

LL: Everyone snoops. It’s like gossip.

CK: The perceptive skills are so critical and there’s nothing like a good snoop.

LL: No one can resist a medicine cabinet.

JS: Now there are nanny cams so the family can watch you snooping…

EH: Note to self, Joanna…

CK: Curious for the parents here, do you use nanny cams?

JS: Never did, no.

LL: Am I just not remembering something? I can’t think of a recent book which had a nanny cam as a plot point.

LL: It’s such an easy way to spy.

EH: I feel like they come up in domestic suspense a lot.,

CK: I’m spacing but yes.

EH: But can’t think of one.

LL: No, Ed, I don’t think they do. But maybe they had a moment.

CLW: Do parents’ always disclose if a nanny cam is in use?

LL: If not, it’s an interesting omission culturally. What is it about the nanny cam that makes it a bridge too far?

CK: The height of them was pre social media The real nanny cam.

LL: YES true. Social Media is better than a nanny cam in most ways.

LL: You essentially spy on yourself.

JS: I think the fun part of writing a sociopath is the weird details that reveal them. I had a boss once who probably ticks a lot of the boxes. One of his main traits was that he liked to make fun of people but you couldn’t make fun of him at all. He turned up at a party we were having and met another guest, who was heretofore unknown to him. In conversation, she laughed when he tried to figure out how old his grown daughters were and got the math wrong. She was all, “And this guy’s your boss?” He laughed in the moment, but later, he went and ate her hamburger in revenge.

CK: I think it has to do with trust. And YES. We are all psycho spies now.

EH: Modern security in writing is a lot like the cell phone, though. It can be a pain to deal with at times.

LL: With all of the kids going missing in domestic suspense a few nanny cams would come in handy.

NR: I think your boss might actually have been a hero, not a psychopath

NR: Hamburger revenge is the best

CLW: It’s interesting to explore, though, how people behave when they know they’re being watched and/or filmed. In fiction as in reality.

JS: No no, he was a grade-A psycho.

LL: I like the idea of a Revenge Burger.

CLW: Me too.

LL: It has secret sauce.

LL: served cold

CK: Ooh Joanna that’s a good telling detail. LOL Lisa yes. When I asked about building security my old landlord said “of somebody wants to get in and get you they’re gonna get in.”

JS: He used to pretend we were characters in a romance novel and narrate our sex scenes together. “Joanna, my member throbs for you in my too-tight Levis” etc.

CK: Caroline I think about that a lot. Every dang day.

LL: OMG that is so pre-MeToo

EH: Oh, the things that can’t happen at work anymore…

JS: When I went to report him for sexual harassment, I had to figure out who I would report him to…

JS: AND IT WAS HIM.

CK: Levis!!!

JS: He was the person I was supposed to report sexual harassment to.

CLW: ok, that gives me chills but also feels so close to the current moment, too, Joanna Schaffhausen

LL: Yeah, I had a total harasser high school bio teacher who used to say to the girls, “If you want an A, plant one right here.” On his cheek.

CK: Of course he was.

LL: I love workplace thrillers!

JS: There is a reason I got out of research…

NR: Aside from the burger thing this guy sucks

LL: Naben, I feel like you’ve said that before.

JS: Yeah, but he was sneaky sucky, you know? He knew not to do it in front of others.

CK: I had a boss who critiqued my wardrobe every day.

JS: Except his wife.

JS: He was always the most handsy in front of his wife.

CK: Oh they know when it’s safe yes.

EH: I love workplace thrillers too. I feel like we all wear masks at work, which can be fun to play with as a writer.

JS: Because then it couldn’t be for real!

LL: Oh me too Caroline. She dinged me for not wearing pantyhose in the summer.

JS: Caroline Kepnes That is horrifying.

CK: I miss office kitchens and Lindsay Cameron’s Just One Look is a nice dive into an office.

JS: The thing is, my boss was super popular. He had the superficial charm down. His 300-person lectures would give him standing Os at the end of the semester.

EH: Psycho.

CK: The pantyhose oh gosh yes a temp agency kicked me out for not wearing pantyhose

JS: Total psychopath!

JS: What’s with the love of pantyhose???

CLW: Requiring pantyhose is psychopathic, full stop.

CK: What did his wife do, Joanna?

lisa: My boss was this terrible striver conservative weirdo and when she gave me my review my lack of pantyhose was mentioned several times. I mean its NYC in August and I’m essentially a temp. I am not putting pantyhose on for that.

CK: Control

LL: ha pantyhouse

JS: She was a housewife.

CK: Literally control top LOL

CK: And I bet she knew that things had to be just so….or else

CK: I have to run to a FB live

LL: Pantyhouse is the first album by Virgin Slack Party.

CK: This has been exquisite

NR: ha

EH: See you Caroline Kepnes

Caroline Kepnes: LOL YES IT IS

NR: Nice talking to you! Later

LL: Yeah, we should wrap up but God I love you all. Thanks for making this so fun.

CK: thank you all!

LL: YES Naben be in touch.

CLW: Oh, man. this went so fast!

NR: Thanks for doing this, Lisa, it was great

EH: Thanks lisa

JS: This was totes fun, as the kids probably said ten years ago.

LL: I know. You guys were awesome. Revenge Burgers on me.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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