The cutest towns always have the darkest secrets
Until recently, Karen M. McManus was essentially working two full-time jobs—as a marketing professional and a writer—and all the while, raising her young son after her husband’s passing. “I was just really burnt out and sleeping for about five hours a night, so something had to give,” McManus says in a call from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Fortunately, her first book, One of Us Is Lying, became a New York Times bestseller. “It just felt like the time was right to go ahead and take that leap to writing full time,” McManus says. “It’s a big move, but so far, it’s working out.”
But the success of her first book distinctly altered McManus’ writing process for her new standalone novel, Two Can Keep a Secret. She was still working full time and writing, but now she also had a chorus of outsider voices—her editor, agent and readers—all echoing in her head with each new page she composed. “I had to learn how to shut all that out and just get back to the story that I wanted to tell,” she says.
With Two Can Keep a Secret, McManus has created a layered, twisty tale that enraptures the reader from the very beginning with a big mystery: What’s happening to the girls of Echo Ridge?
Though Echo Ridge may seem like an idyllic place to call home, Ellery and her twin brother, Ezra, see it differently. After their mother is forced into court-mandated rehab, Ellery and Ezra are shipped off across the country to live with their grandmother in the tiny town where, 17 years ago, their aunt went missing, and five years ago, the homecoming queen was killed.
“Thrillers give teens a safe space to experience and process the world that we’re living in right now, which is full of conflict and fear,” McManus says. “But life is all about balance, right?”
“I’m fascinated by places that look perfect on the surface but have this darkness underneath, and about the ripple effect that darkness can cause,” McManus says. So she conjured up a very quaint New England town with a creepy, Halloween-
themed amusement park that was once the setting of an actual murder—and yet the townsfolk still treat it like a charming tourist attraction. The twins eventually discover the secrets that everyone is trying to keep and the bodies they want to stay buried.
Prior to leaning fully into her new life as a novelist, McManus had planned on pursuing a career in journalism. She graduated with a master’s degree from Northeastern University’s prestigious journalism program before realizing, “I wasn’t really interested in writing news stories, but it did start percolating in my brain that what I really wanted to be doing was making up stories.”
But a lesson learned is never lost. “My journalism background has been very helpful in constructing mysteries in general because it taught me to look for the holes in the story,” McManus says. “That is so important when you’re trying to write this airtight plot that makes sense at the end.” She has become very good at spotting the plot holes in her own works—even writing and then shelving two previous “practice novels.”
The first practice novel was what she lovingly calls a “terrible dystopian knockoff” inspired by Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, which reignited in her the desire to write again after her husband’s death. And though she did notice an improvement in her narrative-crafting skills with her second practice novel, both had fundamental plot problems that McManus claims could not be fixed. She has, however, been able to return to her earlier books to mine them for characters. “There are all these little parts of life that you pluck from yourself and weave into each of your characters,” McManus says, “and they ultimately become their own people. But they have those little sparks of their creator inside.”
With those first two practice novels under her belt, McManus’ first published novel, One of Us Is Lying, is technically her third book. “I’m really happy it wasn’t my first idea,” she admits humbly, “because I don’t think I had the skills when I first started taking writing seriously to write a complicated plot like that.”
The wait was worth it, as E! Network has since picked up the rights to One of Us Is Lying for a TV series, and book two in the series is slated for release next year.
And while McManus’ stories certainly do fall in the darker side of the YA thriller category, they are mixed with lighter elements, humor, and strong relationships and friendships.
“Thrillers give teens a safe space to experience and process the world that we’re living in right now, which is full of conflict and fear,” McManus says. “But life is all about balance, right? So I like to try to weave through my narrative the message that even though it’s sort of inevitable to grapple with pain and loss, there’s also room for growth, hope and optimism.”
Therein lies McManus’ goal as a creator of stories for teen readers, to share this truth: “The unthinkable can happen to anybody, but it doesn’t have to be insurmountable.”
McManus believes writing has helped restore balance in her life and has reminded her that “your story’s not over, there’s more to tell here.” And if she can help lead readers back to their own sense of balance, then she believes that every word—practice or otherwise—was well worth it.
This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
Author photo by Kaitlyn Litchfield Photography.