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Kaira Rouda and Kimberley Belle on Writing Relationship Thrillers

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Bestselling thriller authors Kaira Rouda and Kimberly Belle write dark and twisty stories centered around a marriage. Not the happy, loving kinds of marriages they both have in real life, but marriages that are filled with secrets and lies…and murder. 

The author of THE WIDOW (Thomas & Mercer, Dec. 1) and THE PERSONAL ASSISTANT (Park Row Books, Nov. 29) sat down to talk about how the complexities of marriage and family life naturally lend itself to the plots of thrillers and mysteries. 

Kimberly: I saw the NY Post article about your upcoming book–Ex-Rep’s wife writes a novel about cheating congressman killed by wife (link:  https://nypost.com/2022/10/01/ex-rep-harley-roudas-wife-kaira-writes-novel-about-cheating-congressman/). Talk about close to home! Does your husband sleep with one eye open?

The-Widow-200x300.jpegKaira: Yes, yes he does. And he has been for quite some time now. Seriously, though, we do write some creepy characters so I can imagine being married to a person who writes domestic suspense could be a little terrifying. As for my latest The Widow, I had the chance to spend a lot of time in DC while my husband was serving in congress. It’s a place filled with dazzling architecture and memorials, cut-throat power, dazzling social events, and deeply held traditions. One of the traditions I found fascinating is The Widow’s Mandate. This is the custom of a spouse fulfilling the term of a sitting member of congress if he died in office. Sonny Bono’s wife Mary and John McCain’s wife, Cindy, are recent examples. The first, Mae Ella Nolan from California, became a US Representative when her husband died in 1922. The next century, forty seven additional women followed in her footsteps. Fulfilling this position was often short-lived for these women, and intentionally so. They were seen as placeholders, until the party could round up a suitable (read male) candidate. But some of these widows went on to have long careers on the hill. Statistically speaking, for women who aspire to serve in Congress, the best husband has been a dead husband. That’s where my novelist brain dreamed up the story of DC spouse, socialite Jody Asher and her husband, Martin, a 15-term member of congress. Life had been good for him, they were a powerhouse team on the hill, until Martin began an affair with a young staffer. That is one scandal Jody knows they can’t recover from. Martin’s indiscretions threaten to ruin everything. The affair doesn’t bother Jody personally, but professionally, it’s a legacy killer. When I wrote the story, my husband was still a member of congress. He was fine with the plot but members of his staff were a little concerned about it, to say the least. Harley’s been a great supporter of me and this novelist journey. But, to answer your question, he does joke that he sleeps with one eye open. Hopefully, he’s joking. 

Does yours? And does he have a personal assistant? 

Personal-Assistant-198x300.jpgKimberly: Yes to both. My husband is constantly giving me the side-eye, and he’s not the only one. The Marriage Lie, Dear Wife, My Darling Husband… these are a few of the titles readers have seen from me, and a lot of them make their own assumptions. It’s a common author’s affliction, I think, that people believe your stories come from personal experience. And I suppose in a lot of ways they do. My husband has a personal assistant, for example–she’s fantastic, by the way–who handles everything from typing letters to watering plants to booking our airline tickets. This is a woman with a key to our house and access to much of our private information. Passwords. Birthdays. Credit card numbers and email log-ins. We trust her implicitly, but she could do a lot of damage if she wanted to, and it wasn’t long before my writer’s brain began filling in the blanks of  all the ways a relationship like this one could go wrong. The result was The Personal Assistant, a story about an Instagram influencer named Alex whose post goes viral in the worst possible way, and it looks like her assistant AC may have had something to do with it. This woman who Alex trusted with all her secrets, who had access to her personal information and front row seats to the pressure points in her marriage, is not who Alex thought she was, and the experience exposes deep cracks in Alex’s marriage. And yes, maybe these cracks were there before AC came along, but still. It’s a cautionary tale about trust and the dangers of the digital world, but centered around a loving but somewhat dysfunctional marriage.

The husbands and wives in your stories tend to be less loving and much more dysfunctional. Why do you think marriages lend themselves so well to crime stories? 

Kaira:  There’s something psychological and historic there. People love watching true crime documentaries, 20/20, and listening to crime podcasts. I’m a decades long fan of Law & Order myself. I think all of these stories make us feel grateful we’re not living them. Maybe it’s a little voyeuristic, too? Whatever it is, I’m just as guilty. Is it escape or is it to feel better about our lives? I do know I am fascinated by places where everything seems perfect, purposefully so, but of course nothing ever is or could be. I’m drawn to suburban settings where people manufacture a facade of happiness but we all know that can’t be true, can’t be real, as much as we wish it was. It’s a uniquely American suburban dream. Insular neighborhoods, with outward beauty and perfection. The lawns are manicured, the seasonal holiday displays appropriately rotated, where kids ride bikes and play sports before sitting down to dinner with mom and dad.  I love to dive beneath the surface of lives like that, where people have more than enough materially speaking, but are restless, and always striving for more, and to fit in. And some neighbors do turn out to be murderers, of course. and some are conniving. It’s cracking the surface, revealing what’s beneath, that is fun for me to explore as a novelist. Because we all know it’s not really that idyllic. It’s a mirage. As Kirkus Reviews noted about my novel, Somebody’s Home: “Whatever the opposite of family values is, Rouda seems intent on perfecting a genre that enshrines it.”  I love that. 

So, you are more of a city girl, but it seems you find the same themes there?

Kimberly: I live in a city where the nightly news is filled with villains and worst-case scenarios. Armed robberies, abductions, shootings, disappearances, murders. For me there’s something about a city setting that automatically implies danger. The darkness lurks around every corner. But really, all those things you find story-worthy in your suburban settings are here in a city, too. The big homes with perfectly landscaped lawns, the CEO husbands and country-club wives, the fancy cars and private schools with price tags as high as a college tuition. Whenever there’s that kind of money and status in play, there’s a lot to lose. Too much. People will do just about anything to make sure their lives stay “perfect”–at least on the outside. Behind closed doors, it’s a whole different story.  

I love peeling back the layers of these so-called perfect lives and revealing the ugly underbelly. Why are the spouses keeping secrets? How do they get away with it–or not? How do their lies endanger the whole family, and is there any way to reverse the damage? I think you and I could swap settings and both our books would still hold up. Ultimately, it’s about the evil that exists in the shadows. 

You’ve lived a charmed life, too. What is it about these kinds of stories that draw you to write them?

Kaira:  Maybe it is some sort of  twisted escapism from our happy lives? I feel so lucky to be married to my best friend. My daughter, a screenwriter, confronted me a few years ago, after Best Day Ever released, and asked why I write such dark stories. She told me to stick to the light. And that made me think that perhaps these stories are a way for me to process the darkness in the world. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. In fact, Best Day Ever was filled with the words – stuck in my brain for a very long time – of some spectacularly bad, sexist, misogynistic bosses. Paul’s character, I think, was a way to process all of that, and turn it around into a story I controlled. The Favorite Daughter deals with a mom who isn’t what she seems, even though she appears to be the definition of suburban homemaker. Back to that theme of the perfect family is the perfect suburban illusion. There’s something terrifying about a housewife who is a menace. Somebody’s Home was based on many hearings I sat in on in DC about the rise of domestic terrorism. Putting this darkness into stories does help me process this type of threat and evil in the world, and hopefully, entertain readers along the way. My books do seem to keep getting darker as time goes on. I started my novel writing career with a women’s fiction novel, Here, Home, Hope,  eleven years ago, took a two year trip into romance, and then well, domestic suspense took hold of my imagination starting with The Goodbye Year. My next novel, Beneath the Surface, slated for September of 2023, is stepping back into the light a little bit, more women’s fiction and suspense combined, a little Succession meets Arrested Development. Maybe that’s a hopeful sign? How about you?  

Kimberly: My first two books straddled genres: women’s fiction and suspense with a little romance thrown in for good measure. But readers didn’t quite know what they were getting into when they picked up the story, and I decided to zero in on one genre. It didn’t take me long to settle on suspense. It both terrifies and fascinates me how something as random as being in the wrong place at the wrong time can flip even the most happy marriage upside down. Criminals go unpunished. Murders remain unsolved. The missing are never found. I think you’re right–writing about these kinds of tragedies is a form of escapism, but even more so, it helps me to process the real-world crimes. Life is messy, and it doesn’t play fair. On the page, though, I am in charge. I can serve up justice, dole out punishment, teach the bad guys a lesson, make them pay or even better, apologize. I can give my heroines the endings their real-life counterparts deserve. We talk about this a lot on the Killer Author Club, our bi-weekly show with our friend and fellow author Heather Gudenkauf. So far every guest we’ve featured has said something similar, that writing about tragedies helps give them meaning.

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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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