Kathleen Barber, a Washington D.C.-based novelist and former attorney, is the author of Follow Me, a gripping, twisty-turny look at the darker side of social media. Booklist said the story, “like social media itself, is as addictive as it is disturbing.” Amy Gentry, author of thrillers, including Good as Gone and Last Woman Standing, called it “a thriller for the Instagram age, Follow Me doesn’t let up until the final twist. It had me looking over my shoulder, closing my social media apps with a shudder, and above all, flipping pages to find out what happened next.”
Kathleen’s previous novel, Truth Be Told (formerly titled Are You Sleeping) is now an Apple TV series of the same name, starring Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul. It’s produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine!
Kathleen was kind enough to share her insight: on how she uses spreadsheets in her fiction writing; on keeping readers guessing; and on how her first book made it to television.
What’s been the biggest change in moving from the legal world to the world of fiction?
Aside from the subject matter—I practiced corporate restructuring, and I have yet to write a novel that hinges on the Bankruptcy Code—the largest change is that I am now in charge of my own time. As a lawyer, I was expected to track all my hours (bankruptcy cases are billed in six-minute increments) but now there is no one to hold me accountable if I don’t write a single word all morning. Working for yourself requires a lot more self-discipline. I used to keep track of my writing hours, and the number of words I wrote, in a spreadsheet, but now I only do that if I know I’m having trouble remaining on task.
One thing I really enjoyed in Follow Me was the sense of heightening tension and impending doom. Any tips on creating tension?
I already revealed my love for spreadsheets in the last question, and I’ll recommend them here again. One thing I like to do once I’ve competed a first draft is create a spreadsheet to map the tension. (I map other plot threads using this method too, but I always use this to check for tension.) I like to list the scenes and then write a short note about the tension present in the scene (ex: “Scratching outside window”). Then I can review the novel as a whole and focus on the tension without the distraction of the narrative. Doing that helps me see where the tension needs to be amped up and where it might be too concentrated. (Just like you wouldn’t want five tensionless scenes in a row, you wouldn’t want five high-tension scenes in a row!)
I also really enjoyed not being sure until the end just who had been obsessed with Audrey. How do you keep readers guessing?
Remember that your readers are smart. A wise fellow writer once put it this way: Whenever he thinks up a plot twist, he realizes that if he thought of it, his readers could have thought of it too — and so he sets it aside and goes deeper, looking for something truly unexpected.
Congrats on your first book, Truth Be Told, making it to Apple TV! Can you briefly describe a few steps that were key to this happening?
All the credit here goes to my fabulous team at CAA: Michelle Weiner, Michelle Kroes, and Olivia Blaustein. My literary agent connected me with them, and they are the ones who got my book into the right hands. It was such a shock to hear that Reese Witherspoon loved my book—and such an incredible thrill to see it adapted for the screen.
The show took a very different direction than the book. For example, the protagonist of my book is Josie, whose father was murdered thirteen years ago and who is now being tormented by a popular podcast reinvestigating that murder. The protagonist of the show is Poppy, the host of that popular podcast. It was so cool to see something that I had created give rise to something entirely new and different (and amazing).
If you could create a book club with anyone in the world—famous or not, living or not—any idea of a few people you might choose?
Ahh, what an interesting question! I’d include Agatha Christie because she’s really the queen of mysteries, Shirley Jackson because one of my all-time favorite books is We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Curtis Sittenfeld because I just love her work.