I just finished reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It isn't a book for a young audience, but I couldn’t ignore the number of weeks this book spent at the top of the NYT bestseller lists. The story centers around the disappearance of a young woman on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary, and a missing person investigation that snowballs into a series of twists revealed through the eyes of two unreliable narrators.
An unreliable narrator is often defined as a narrator whose credibility has been seriously compromised. In some cases, the narrator is made unreliable due to mental illness. In others, the narrator is deceitful, intentionally withholding information from the reader. In either case, this narrative technique depends heavily on the author’s ability to create an early connection between the reader and the character, and then manipulate that relationship to keep the reader turning pages, even while the reader begins to distrust that character’s perception and interpretation of the events that follow.
Some recent examples of unreliable narrators in YA lit include: Going Bovine by Libba Bray, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, and Liar by Justine Larbelier. But I am particularly intrigued with Hysteria, a newly released YA thriller by Megan Miranda, which (like Girl Gone) employs a psychologically precarious and secretive narrator to tease out a terrifying mystery.
Today, we’re turning the bright lights of the SSA Interrogation Room on YA Thriller author, Megan Miranda. Megan is the author of Fracture (Walker/Bloomsbury, 2012), Hysteria (Walker/Bloomsbury, February 5, 2013), and VENGEANCE (Walker/Bloomsbury, 2014). She has a BS in biology from MIT and spent her post-college years either rocking a lab coat or reading books.
Here's a little peek under the stunning US and UK covers of her new book, Hysteria!
Mallory killed her boyfriend, Brian. She can't remember the details of that night but everyone knows it was self-defense, so she isn't charged. But Mallory still feels Brian's presence in her life. Is it all in her head? Or is it something more? In desperate need of a fresh start, Mallory is sent to Monroe, a fancy prep school where no one knows her . . . or anything about her past. But the feeling follows her, as do her secrets. Then, one of her new classmates turns up dead. As suspicion falls on Mallory, she must find a way to remember the details of both deadly nights so she can prove her innocence-to herself and others. In another riveting tale of life and death, Megan Miranda's masterful storytelling brings readers along for a ride to the edge of sanity and back again.
Hysteria's protagonist has been found not guilty by reasons of self-defense for killing her former boyfriend. As the story unfolds, the reader is led at times to question Mallory’s innocence, as well as her state of mind. Why did you choose to present Hysteria through the eyes of an unreliable narrator?
First of all, thank you so much for having me! Honestly, when I started the story, I didn’t think, “She’s going to be unreliable.” And I don’t think I even realized it when I was drafting—I knew she was skipping things, or choosing what to say, or missing elements—but I didn’t put a name to it at the time. I think it’s a case of character and story reflecting one another. In this case, the story of HYSTERIA is able to exist because she’s unreliable. What is haunting/stalking her, and why is it happening? And she’s unreliable because of the story (she does not want to remember—or talk about—the horrible events that she was a part of). They developed off one another, and I don’t think either would work on its own.
As authors, we all go through our own discovery process as we develop our characters and get to know them well enough to write their stories. Was your process different in developing Mallory’s character as an unreliable narrator? In what way?
Mostly, it was the same way I’d develop any character—by discovering through writing. But in this case, a lot of the story elements have to do with the fact that Mallory isn’t sure if the things haunting (or stalking) her are real or not. So there was a secondary mystery, which is also part of the bigger plot—discovering who Mallory really is, but through first-person narration. So it’s not that my process differed so much—it’s more that the process took me in a different direction—more into her psyche. It became a process to unravel Mallory, along with the external mystery.
What challenges did your unreliable narrator present while you were writing Hysteria, and how did you overcome those challenges?
She’s a narrator who doesn’t necessarily trust herself. And if she doesn’t trust herself, how can the reader fully trust her, either? If the reader can’t trust her, how can they fully connect to her? (This is something that’s really important to me, as connecting to a character is the most important thing for me as a reader) I made the conscious decision that Mallory would never overtly lie to the reader. She’s unreliable, yes. But she does not lie, exactly. She’s vulnerable, and she’s honest in her perceived assessment of herself. Instead of viewing her primarily as someone who maybe shouldn’t be trusted, I tried to use that trait to make a connection. Not trusting yourself should be a horrifying thing—and I tried to have that feeling translate, through Mallory, to the reader.
It allows you to create several mysteries within the same thread. What’s happening externally, and what’s happening internally? Are the things she’s showing us true? Are they all a product of her mind? Is the danger out there, or is it already inside her? In solving a mystery, she has to first overcome herself before she can overcome the external factor.
I also think having an unreliable narrator allows you to explore them more as a character inside the thriller (why are they this way?), which is my favorite part of writing.
As a reader, what are your favorite examples of stories featuring unreliable narrators?
Some of my favorite movies feature unreliable narrators/main characters (The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense). As for books, well Gone Girl is way up there for me. Life of Pi is another. Most recently, Code Name Verity, which is unreliable because of its structure—the story is told as a written confession, but we know it’s given under duress, so the reader constantly wonders… is this true? I completely loved it.
What’s coming up, and where can readers find you?
Next up, I’ve got the sequel/companion to my first book (Fracture), which comes out in early 2014. You can find me IN PERSON here (I’ll be on tour for HYSTERIA end of Feb/early March).
What writing secret will you reveal to us under the harsh light of the interrogation room lamp?
I rely on multi-colored sticky-notes and multi-colored pens (and caffeine) for revising. It probably looks like complete chaos to anyone else, but assigning colors to plot threads helps me balance, and follow each arc. And I like seeing it off the computer screen.
How do we know we can believe you?
No comment :)
Learn more about Megan Miranda at her website, follow her on Twitter, or like her Facebook page. And don't forget to enter our drawing for a chance to win a free copy of Hysteria!
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Purchase Hysteria now:
Barnes & Noble
ELLE COSIMANO set aside a successful real-estate career to pursue writing. She lives with her husband and two young sons, and divides her time between her home near Washington, DC and a jungle tree house in the Mayan Riveria. Her YA novel NEARLY GONE will be published by Kathy Dawson Books/Penguin in Winter 2014, with a sequel coming in 2015. Learn more about Elle on her website, twitter, facebook, and Goodreads.