Opening up the first page of Liane Moriarty's latest novel, Truly, Madly, Guilty, felt like putting on a familiar, comfortable pair of shoes. There’s a certain formula to her popular novels, but it’s a formula that I find engaging – and clearly others do too, as Liane Moriarty is a global phenomenon. Both Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret were No 1 New York Times bestsellers, and both will be adapted to the screen: Big Little Lies as an HBO television series; and film rights for The Husband’s Secret have been acquired by CBS Films. When we met Liane Moriarty at the Melbourne Writers Festival, we were fortunate to gain an insight into her life as an author, and to hear more about the inspiration for her work.
I’d describe her novels as ‘holiday books with substance’, or the perfect book if you need some downtime after finishing a tough read (such as We need to talk about Kevin or A Little Life). Even some of my ‘highbrow literature’ friends love a Liane Moriarty every now and then! Her language is light, contemporary and accessible. Her novels don’t require much concentration – you can simply relax and be swept along.
However, they do make you reflect. Lurking beneath the surface of the home renovations, pilates classes and school events, are the serious issues of infertility, physical abuse, infidelity, bullying, alcoholism, mental health and more. Liane is queen of the ‘what if?’ scenarios, and makes the reader think about how our lives might have turned out differently, were it not for a slightly different set of events, or decisions. For those of us living middle-class suburban lives, her characters feel like people that you know, or you could easily meet at the local school.
Her seventh novel, Truly, Madly, Guilty, focuses on three couples: Clementine & Sam, Erika & Oliver and Tiffany & Vid. The couples know each other in different ways – some friends, some neighbours, and some acquaintances. Each couple has its own, unique family dynamic, and Liane’s descriptions and observations give the reader a very clear picture of the challenges and flavour of each relationship. The climax of the story is the event that unfolds at the BBQ, at which all the families are present. This event is so disastrous that the characters all wish they could turn back the clock and restart the day differently.
In terms of the inspiration for her novels, Liane usually has one or two key events or ideas for a book when she sets out writing, and the rest falls into place as she progresses – it’s very much an organic process. For Truly, Madly, Guilty, that central idea was a terrible event unfolding at a backyard BBQ. However, she admitted that she hadn’t anticipated the comparisons with The Slap, saying, “I didn’t think Christos Tsiolkas owned the backyard Aussie BBQ, but maybe he does!”
As the novel progresses, there are two parallel storylines intertwined. Firstly, there is the story of ‘the day of the BBQ’, and then interspersed with these chapters is the subsequent fallout from the events at the BBQ, three months down the track. The lives of the characters are unravelling in different ways, and they’re all struggling to return to normal life, as they knew it.
When we met Liane Moriarty, I was half way through the book and didn’t yet know exactly what awful event had taken place at the BBQ – but I was desperate to find out! I asked her a few specific questions about the composition of the book. Firstly, she shared that she actually wrote the story exactly as it appears in the novel, chapter by chapter, in that order, jumping between the ‘day of the BBQ’ and ‘3 months later’. Initially I wondered whether she'd written the climatic BBQ scene first, but no, she hadn't. Again, it was an organic process and the story evolved as she was writing it.
Actually, Liane revealed that her biggest challenge was deciding when to have the “big reveal” about what actually happened at the BBQ: it required balancing out the need for suspense, with the fear that readers would become too frustrated and disengage with the novel. So she played around with the placement of that chapter – and eventually brought it forward from its original position. For me, it worked brilliantly, and she achieved that balance. I remained completely engaged, and was sneaking in 5-minute chunks of reading time throughout my day, hoping to speed up the eventual revelation. But others may have found the timing frustrating.
In true Liane Moriarty style, this novel draws attention to specific issues in relationships, and the way people come to terms with events that they both can and cannot control. The relationship between Clementine and Erika is central to the novel, and Liane specifically wanted to explore this idea of outsiders being absorbed into a family grouping, and how that affects the dynamics. If you’ve read the book, you’ll understand the complex nature of their friendship. Liane commented that, as females, we often hang onto annoying friendships in our lives, thinking “they’re part of my life, I just can’t cut them loose”; but men don’t seem to understand the sense of obligation to such friends, and will easily move on.
Despite the fact that there are twists and turns, Liane Moriarty’s books always come together nicely at the end, with the loose threads of the various sub-plots all tied up into one big bow. This book is no exception.
So, yes, I’d recommend Truly, Madly, Guilty – although I’m not sure it’s necessarily my favourite Liane Moriarty novel. I think that prize goes to Big Little Lies, or perhaps What Alice Forgot. Grab a copy and judge for yourself. I have a few friends lately who’ve ‘lost their reading mojo’ – if that sounds like you, this is the ideal way to reclaim your mojo!
If you’re interested in hearing more about our conversation with Liane Moriarty, then read on…
In person, Liane is very approachable, honest and unassuming. She tells it how it is, and it was refreshing to listen to her speak. Her down-to-earth style is reflected in the everyday language of her novels.
During the interview, Liane discussed the reason why she is drawn to the suburban setting. She doesn’t have a great sense of space and physical geography, and commented that she’d be “hopeless” trying to describe a landscape. Her strength lies in the observation of people and character relationships, so she sets her stories in the suburbs: a bland background, with which we can all identify, so there is no need for detailed descriptions. Then she can concentrate on the ins and outs of her suburban dramas.
Given her amazingly sharp observational skills, and her ability to create believable suburban characters, we asked Liane whether her fellow school parents ever recognise themselves in her novels? Is she wary of this, and how does she negotiate the balance between building lifelike middle class families, and offending her friends and neighbours? Actually, she replied, people rarely recognise themselves. She takes bits and pieces from different people – one person’s looks, another’s unusual character trait, another person’s family situation – and mixes it together so each person is unrecognisable. Her sisters are the only people that notice when she’s ‘stolen’ something from their lives – but she laughed that off, saying, “they know they’re fair game”!