I'm here today with Wendy Walker. Wendy is the national best-selling author of All Is Not Forgotten, Emma in the Night, and now her latest work, The Night Before. She has sold rights to her books in twenty-three languages -- I can't even name twenty-three languages -- as well as film and television options. Wendy graduated magna cum laude from Brown University and Georgetown University Law School. Prior to her writing career, Wendy practiced both corporate and family law and worked as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. She currently lives in Connecticut with her three children.
Welcome, Wendy. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Wendy Walker: Thank you for having me.
Zibby: We were just joking about how both of us have been up. I was up last night with little kids. She was up with her big, older kid. We’ll just put that as a caveat. [laughs]
Wendy: It never ends. We’re both sleep deprived.
Zibby: Please tell listeners what The Night Before is about.
Wendy: The Night Before is about a woman named Laura who goes out on an internet date and never comes home. Then it’s about her sister Rosie who looks for her the next morning. It’s also about a man who lies and who uses internet dating to lure women out on dates under false pretenses. It is also about turning the damsel-in-distress theme upside down. I gave Laura a backstory that’s dark and filled with a little bit of anger and rage so that we actually become more afraid of what she might do to this man if she discovers he's lying than what he might have done to her.
Zibby: You can tell right from the beginning. It’s thriller-land. This is amazing. You're in it. My heart was going. I'm waiting for it. [laughs] When Laura, the main character, was six years old, she overheard her mother say the following about her. “I don't know. She was just born that way, born with fists for hands. It’s hard to love a girl like that.” How gutting for someone to overhear that, even a character in a book. Yet Laura remembers feeling what you said was a sense of pride that her mother “had bothered to see me at all. I had always felt invisible to her,” which is not what I expected her reaction to be to that. Talk to me about this and how you chose to set it up this way.
Wendy: I had to give Laura backstory that would explain her anger and also her bad choices with romantic partners. She always chooses men who won't love her. I did a lot of research on the psychology of why someone might be like that. I then constructed a backstory in her childhood that needed to include stories like the one you just read. Her perception is not in realizing that her parents did something wrong. She just has the result of that, which is these attachment issues and anger. When she reflects on these moments, it’s not with a informed reflection. It is an emotional response similar to the one she had as a child. These little vignettes were really necessary to build this understanding of why Laura is the way she is and why this man might be in danger.
Zibby: Talk to me about the psychology. You just referenced the psychology of picking the wrong men, basically. You're a former divorce lawyer. You are divorced. I'm divorced, but now remarried, have divorced parents, lots of divorce around. Laura and her parents are also divorced in the book. You write, “It was undeniable that Laura had bad luck with men. For someone so smart, and Laura was that if nothing else, she kept making the same mistake over and over. What Joe couldn't seem to grasp, the intangible thing he couldn't feel, was the reason why. This latest breakup was just a symptom, or perhaps, a warning.” Dun-dun-dun.
Zibby: In fact, then Laura tells her therapist, “Rosie says I choose men who won't love me. I choose them because they won't love me, but why would I do that?” What's up with this? Why do women choose the wrong men? Go from there.
Wendy: It’s fascinating. In all of my books, I do a lot of research. I read everything I can find on the internet. Then I actually find experts in the field to talk to me about my specific characters and how these psychological dysfunctions would play out in them. What is so fascinating about, they call them attachment styles or attachment disorders, as adults, is that they almost invariably began when we were children. We are hard-wired as we grow up. The brain is trying to figure out what tools we need to survive as grown-ups in our current environment. When the brain is trying to figure out what types of attachments we need to get used to and we need to react to, it’s taking in the stimuli from our environment.
If during that wiring period you have primary caregivers who are not giving you healthy attachments and healthy relationships, your brain will be wired around them to survive around them. As a grown-up, what's so fascinating is that you would think that you would choose the opposite, but you don't because of these wires. The perfect example would be someone who was abused as a child or witnessed abuse. You would think you would go into your adult life and pick people who didn't abuse you. You might try to do that, but there is something inside of you that is still longing for that familiar feeling you had when you were with someone who was abusive, the excitement, then the fear, the terror, and then the resolution, and then sometimes the warmth and lovingness that comes after it. You inadvertently will search for that familiar feeling.
The other dynamic at play is that there's almost this inner child inside of you that still wants to fix it, that wants to find a way to make that parent stop being abusive. Because you were never able to do it as a child, when you find someone as a grown-up who gives you the chance to fix them and finally be powerful enough to solve that problem, it’s almost euphoric. For Laura, she grew up not feeling loved by her father and being dismissed by her mother. She inadvertently chooses men who create that same feeling inside of her that is familiar and who also give her this opportunity to finally be enough, to finally be whatever this person needs to give her love. In the book, you get little glimpses into her therapy sessions when she was in New York before she went on this date that help to explain these dynamics. It’s so fascinating learning about this. It was one of the greatest parts for me in writing in.
Zibby: Did you know when you started the book that that's the psychological issue you wanted to include? What came first?
Wendy: I knew I wanted to turn this damsel-in-distress theme upside down. I knew Laura had to have issues. She had to have anger. She had to have issues around relationships. Part of the fun of this book is you get to be on the date with her hour by hour, in her head, in first-person, in present tense. You are experiencing her reactions to this man. The little bits of knowledge that she does have from her therapy sessions about what she might be doing wrong, what she might be missing, the clues, you get to live that with her. It evolved from there, when I started doing the research of attachment disorders. Then it fit so beautifully with the backstory. I was able to weave in all of the little clues from her childhood and build that backstory throughout the book.
Zibby: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you repeat that. Maybe I asked it the same way twice. [laughs]
Wendy: Oh, sorry. [laughs]
Zibby: No, I asked you the same question two times in a row, but you answered it beautifully both times. Thank you for being so willing to do that. Laura’s sister Rosie is happily married, living in the suburbs with a toddler. She gives Laura advice from her more feminist point of view. She says, “You don't need a man, Laura, not for anything.” Laura thinks, “At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s easy to say you don't need something when you're holding it in your hands. She might as well tell me she doesn't need her coffee as she inhales her second cup.” Tell me more about that and also how you feel like feminism, which is all the rage right now, it’s all everybody's talking about, is mixing with the need/want of a man in your life.
Wendy: I think wanting a romantic partner has nothing to do with feminism or any social issues at all. If you want to have a romantic partner, then you do. We get into issues that involve social constructs and feminism when a person doesn't have a choice and has to be with a romantic partner either for financial reasons or because of societal expectations. That's really not at play here. Laura needs a man because she has this dysfunction from her childhood. She needs love. She needs to resolve those issues to move forward with her life. She has a great job. She has an education. She has a loving family. She lives in a society where it’s okay to be single. It’s okay to not have children. The need is really not coming from any sort of societal pressures. It’s coming from this backstory and these childhood issues that are unresolved.
Zibby: I loved how you said that. People are so free with their advice. It’s like, “Okay. Thank you. Thank you for that.” [laughs]
Wendy: Being a single woman, of course you feel that push and pull of “Why do you need this?” The answer is it’s not that I need it, it’s just something that I want. I consider myself a feminist. I went to Brown in the 1980s. That gives me some credentials in that department. [laughs] I'm perfectly comfortable saying what I want in terms of romantic relationships.
Zibby: Speaking of dating, let's talk about the internet dating aspect of this book. You have this fictional website -- I assume it’s fictional, I didn't google it, actually -- findlove.com.
Wendy: It is, yes.
Zibby: [laugh] Good. Otherwise, how would you have picked it? You say this site has no swiping allowed. Let’s talk about what you think online dating has done to relationships and how it allows things like this to even happen.
Wendy: Wow. This could take up our whole session.
Zibby: In a paragraph.
Wendy: I have been single again for eleven years. When I first went out in the dating world, I was reluctant, but I did. I went on Match.com, eHarmony. Back then, there were no apps. You had to actually sit down at your computer. You had to build a profile. You could search for people based on things like, do they have a job? Are they still married? Do they have children? Where do they live? There was a screening process. I actually met a wonderful man on Match. We were together for many years. Back then, the danger, really, was that the person was lying. I actually encountered a professional con artist.
Wendy: Yes. It’s a longer story which I’ll tell you another time, but a professional con artist. You get wise to that, though. You start to realize, I need to google this person or go on Facebook and verify that this person is the person that he says he is. Now what is so fascinating, I have remerged. I have dipped my toe into the world of dating apps, which are on your phone. It is completely different. One man I spoke to described it as a candy store. He described this temptation to always be looking for the new batch of people that were on your screens. You could swipe left or right, left or right. You swipe right and you get a face bubble. He had screens and screens and screens of face bubbles. It was so hard to choose. How do you choose? Then you go out on a date with one. She's nice, but you have a hundred other face bubbles and more coming every single day. They're just right there.
There's this illusion of an endless supply of attractive potential partners for a date or whatever it is you're looking for. I think that is actually changing relationships. You have to have a certain amount of determination and a willingness to survive the bumps in the road. You might not like the person’s dog. You might not like their house. You might not like the things that they cook. No one’s perfect. The fact that you can then go home and say, “Eh. Let me look at my face bubbles. Maybe there's someone just like him who doesn't have these few things I don't like,” or “Maybe there's a woman who’s more attractive than the one I just had a date with. She’s not as good looking as in her pictures.”
It’s that supply that’s there. It’s always nagging at you. It’s like buying a sweater. When you go and you shop for a sweater and you'll be on a website, blue sweater -- maybe you go on J.Crew or something -- they’ll be ten of them. You're trying to choose. You put some in your shopping cart. Then all of a sudden, miraculously on the right-hand side of your screen will come advertisements from ten other websites with the same type of blue sweater because someone is watching you. It’s a candy store of sweaters. The apps now are making it a candy store of people.
Zibby: It’s so funny. A while ago when I was single, I had a friend from the finance world who used to say you can't make smart decisions without the presence of options. If you only have the one option, okay, I’ll take it. If you have three guys you're out dating, you can choose. Now, if you perceive it to be limitless -- that throws the whole equation, then what do you do? -- which of course is not true at all.
Wendy: Actually, it could probably create some sort of algorithm for this and some sort of statistical analysis model. Yes, when there are always going to be ten more people tomorrow on your screen, how do you then limit those choices? The choices are always changing.
Zibby: I recently went online to help a family friend of mine who’s turning seventy. She looks like she’s fifty. I was like, “You need to go on these dates. Just try.” I was like her [indiscernible]. I went on. I was writing all these people and pretending to be her. I got a taste of what the current state of websites are like. Whoa. Meanwhile, all the seventy-year-old men only wanted fifty or forty-year-old women. Seriously? Stan from New Jersey is not going to meet my pretend personality? Really? Good luck, man. [laughs]
Wendy: My single friends and I joke about it because men our age -- I'm fifty-two. Sometimes we all get together. Some of them will complain about how it’s so hard when they ask whether he wants to have children. We all look at each other and say, “That's because you're dating thirty-year-olds and you're fifty-five or fifty-six.” It is true. That's where the candy store situation really comes into play. The flip side of it is I have a male friend who actually has found that women use him for free meals. They’ll communicate. They’ll send more sexy pictures. Then they’ll make a dinner reservation at Jean-Georges and expect him to pay. Then he never sees them again. It goes both ways. It works both ways.
Zibby: No shortage of schemers out there. I was interested in the structure of your book. You also alternating viewpoints, first-person as you were mentioning, for Laura?
Wendy: Yes, that’s right.
Zibby: [laughs] Sorry. I'm telling you, the words are not coming out of my brain today. You also have it take place over a short period of time. I felt like there was, like that show 24, that same vibe where you're in it each hour. This is forty-eight hours, essentially, plus some flashbacks over the course of several months. How did you choose this particular structure for your story?
Wendy: First, I came up with this idea of wanting to go into the deception of internet dating. Then I decided to turn the theme upside down. Then I decided, how am I going to tell this story? I need to tell the story about the search for her because there's lots of fun stuff about how they go onto the app. They create avatars and all these things that I thought were so cool I really wanted to use. I also wanted readers to experience the date itself. I thought about all the different structures I could use. I decided to do this split time frame so that you could actually be with Laura the night before, which is where the title of the book came from. You could be with her hour by hour on that date. What it does is it creates this heightened level of suspense because you know from the start that she's going to go missing. This date is going to go very wrong. Everything that happens on that date, everything he says to her, everywhere they go, you don't know if that's the moment when it’s going to happen, where it’s going to go off the rails.
It creates an automatic sense of apprehension and suspense. Then by splitting the time frame, you also get to go to the next character, Rosie. You go back and forth with information now that Rosie doesn't have. You were just with Laura. You know why she parked the car on this one street and why her phone was found somewhere else, but Rosie doesn't. Then you want Rosie -- come on, Rosie! Figure it out. There's that. Then at the end of her chapters, she learns something new about the man. When you go back to Laura, you have that same feeling. Come on, Laura! Find out about this man. Find out the truth. The suspense is really amped up. This is the first thriller I've written that has this level of breathless suspense. I felt like the market was calling for that. It was something I wanted to experience as a writer as well.
Zibby: You were not a writer for your whole life. You have had lots of different jobs, all very interesting. You started at Goldman. You decided to go back and become a lawyer. You practiced. Then you were a stay-at-home mom. Then you even volunteered as lawyer for a while. Then you went into divorce law. Is this all basically the story?
Zibby: Then you just decided you were going to be a writer. Now, look at you. You've done it. I'm so impressed. It’s amazing. As someone who's starting out now just deciding to be a writer, what did you do? Did you take a class? Did you research online? Did it all come naturally to you?
Wendy: I wish.
Zibby: How did you teach yourself how to write books?
Wendy: I actually started writing when my first child was about nine months old. I was taking “a break” from work while my kids were little. I had what I refer to as a Betty Friedan moment. I don't know if you're familiar with...
Zibby: Yes. Feminine Mystique?
Wendy: Feminine Mystique, exactly, which was the start of the feminist movement in the sixties. It’s really about what happens to your mind when you've been educated and you've been in the workforce and then all of a sudden, you're at home. I knew I had to do something. I wanted to be home, but I had to do something that felt like it was leading somewhere. I came up with this idea to write a novel. I loved legal thrillers. John Grisham was a lawyer. He’s a best-selling author. How hard can this be? I should've taken a class. I should have actually learned how to use dialogue and narration. I spent three years writing a novel that had a great plot, but when I took it to a writing professor, I was told that I had to rewrite the whole thing because I had no idea what I was doing in terms of using these tools. He was right. I knew it did not read like a novel. There were basic things that I didn't know, but I didn't know I didn't know them, if that makes sense.
Zibby: Like what?
Wendy: The best example is chapter one. This exciting thing happens. My lawyer found the secret file. It was very Grisham-esque. Then in chapter two, he needed to pull his officemate into this adventure with him. He needed to tell her what happened in chapter one. I had five pages of dialogue where he is telling her and she's responding. To the reader, that's boring because they already lived it. He said, “You need to cut out those five pages and in one sentence of narration say, ‘Sam told Justine what happened in chapter one.’” Oh, right. Duh. I had never studied writing. That was a wake-up call. I kept writing.
My story sounds like an overnight success, but it was seventeen years and then an overnight success. I actually published two books in women's fiction before I went back to practicing law as a family lawyer. Those books didn't sell well. I went back to practicing law. I gained all of this knowledge about psychology. I also had this nagging feeling that I could still make it as a writer somehow. It was something I'd fallen in love with that I didn't expect. It had really just been an escape from my kids and “Let’s see if I can do this,” but I fell in love with storytelling. I realized that when I was practicing law again. I kept writing while I was practicing law, wrote a whole other novel in women's fiction, found a new agent who then told me she didn't think she could sell it.
That was the moment that was so instrumental in how I view life now. Some dreams aren’t going to come true no matter how hard you try. I can start doing cartwheels in my living room, I'm not going to be an Olympic gymnast. I'm fifty-two. That's not happening. You have to also have realistic expectations and pragmatism. I decided I needed to know one way or another. I said I would write one more book. She suggested psychological thrillers. I had this knowledge of psychology from the last five years I'd been practicing divorce law. I knew how to write a novel now. Everything came together. I wrote it in two months. It sold at an auction. My entire life changed. I became a full-time working author.
Zibby: It’s so cool. It’s just so cool. It seems to me very few writers have a straight and narrow path.
Wendy: They do not. It’s absolutely true.
Zibby: It’s like, “I have this book on a shelf. I tried this. It didn't work. Then I tried that. I thought I was going to do this, and I did that.” Other careers have a more linear progression. You start at this point. First, you're an analyst. Then you're an associate. You just follow along. Something with this creative...
Wendy: It’s such an unstructured world. Nobody knows what's going to sell. The market’s always changing. Tastes are always changing. You have a lot of gatekeepers. You can get five degrees in writing, master’s degrees and doctorate degrees. You can teach writing for years. That's not getting you past the gatekeepers. You have to come up with a book that they feel is current. That's your agent. Then the agent has to go and sell it to a publishing house. There are no set of credentials or work experience that are necessarily going to make you eligible for the job.
Zibby: Interesting, which can be like, job in the nonprofit world [laughs] depending on [indiscernible/crosstalk]. I know we’re almost out of time. Do you have twenty more ideas for thrillers coming down the pike? Yes? Are you already writing your next book?
Wendy: Oh, yeah. I was born to write psychological thrillers.
Zibby: You probably are going to write your next book on the train on the way home today. You're so fast. It’s insane.
Wendy: Once I have the story and then I have the basic outline, I write pretty quickly. I finished my fourth thriller. Hopefully, it'll be out next year. This story came to me -- this is what happens with writers. You'll be at an everyday event or experience, and you always think how could it turn into a thriller? I was driving back from my son’s soccer game up in Massachusetts. I was in one of these remote, desolate towns. I had to stop for gas. I was tired. The game had been really hard. They lost. It was a bad ref call. My son takes the bus, so I'm driving four hours up and back alone. I was sitting there feeling fatigued. I saw this road that was going off between these cornfields. I thought, what if I just walked away down that road, left the gas pumping, left my wallet and phone in the car, and started walking down that road? Then the whole way home I started thinking about a thriller. I’d have to get kidnapped by someone. They'd have to come looking for me. Why would I walk away? I would need a backstory.
The book that I just finished currently has no title. It started with that theme. There's a woman with older children. She doesn't actually walk away in that sense. When I did my research, I found out that most adult women who disappear have walked away from their lives. Isn't that incredible? They end up coming back on their own or they're found many, many years later, but they left on their own. They just couldn't face telling people they were leaving. I knew I had to write about this. The woman, she doesn't actually walk away, but her family comes to believe she has so they stop looking for her. Then her daughter, who’s a twenty-one-year-old adult gets a new lead, an anonymous tip that comes in. She decides to go back to this desolate town and find her mother. I used the split time frame again. You're with the mother. You're with her. You know what happens to her. You don't know exactly where she is or who's taken her. Then you're also with her daughter two weeks later when she comes back to try to find her. It has that ramped-up suspense again, but also these really interesting themes that I was able to research and bring into the book.
Zibby: That sounds great.
Wendy: I hope so. [laughs]
Zibby: I can't wait to read that. Any parting advice to aspiring authors?
Wendy: From my story before, I would say get your toolbox in shape. Learn how to write, if you haven't done that already. Know your market. If you're going to create a new genre, if you're going to create a literary masterpiece, that's wonderful. For most of us who are working authors in commercial fiction, you have to know the space that you're writing in because you have to get past the gatekeepers. They are looking at what has sold and what the market seems to want. Those are the gates you have to get through. You have to be a little bit pragmatic and smart. You have to think about the story you want you write. Ask yourself why you want to write it and if it’s something other people are going to want to read. Sometimes we’re driven to write a story because we have issues we want to resolve, but not everybody's going to get it. You have to be a little self-reflective about your desire to write the story. Really, it’s the tools. Understand your genre. Understand what structure. Know what the structures are. Learn how to use dialogue and narration for starters. Join a writer’s group or find beta readers who can give you really good feedback. Then just keep at it.
Zibby: Love that. Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Wendy: This was wonderful. Thanks.