In Liane Moriarty's new novel, nine strangers gather at a high-end wellness retreat looking for a 10-day transformation – and end up getting a lot more than they bargained for. Moriarty is the author of Big Little Lies among other bestsellers, and her new page-turner has already been snapped up by Nicole Kidman's production house. (Kidman starred in the HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies.)
Her protagonist, Frances Welty, is an Australian romantic novelist with a declining career and a passion for wine and good food. At 51, she's twice married, twice divorced, and is recovering from an Internet love scam.
"She was a lot of fun to write," Moriarty says. But — in case you were wondering — she's not autobiographical. After Moriarty's husband read the novel he pointed out Frances was almost exactly the same age as his wife: "Everybody's going to think you're just writing about yourself," he observed.
"I know," Moriarty replied. "That's why I made her completely charming in every way possible."
Moriarty writes about the problems and hypocrisy of the upper middle class – but with affection. "I was just fascinated by the desire for wellness. ..." she says. "I believe in it, but at the same time, find the whole thing ridiculous."
On the quest for overnight transformation
That's just such a part of modern life — this desire for instant transformation. ... When I was doing research for this book I took myself off for five days to a health resort (a very nice health resort — I did not suffer all that much for my art!) But on the way there, I can remember thinking: "I'll probably be quite different when I come back." Even while at the same time knowing that was ridiculous. But the hope that just by removing something from your diet, by changing your routine ... [you can] transform your life by doing this one thing. ... That's what I wanted to explore.
On "wellness" and "self-care"
In the modern world we do seem to have so many more insecurities. ... We're all suffering from more anxiety and depression, but at the same time, I often wonder: Is it because life is really so very good? ... If we were living in a war zone then you're not thinking of: How can I transform myself? You're just thinking of survival. ...
I believe in mindfulness and I believe in hot stone massages. ... But at the same time, obviously, people are spending huge amounts of money on ridiculous drinks and products that clearly have no benefit whatsoever.
On the many ways humans can suffer
In my book The Husband's Secret I have a character who's driving along and she's hearing about some terrible atrocity on the radio ... but at the same time she's losing her mind over her little girl's pirate party that she's trying to organize. So that's the reality of the lives we lead. ... Just because we're living in comfortable lives doesn't mean we're immune from tragedy. Behind every very ordinary looking person there's real pain.
On the term "women's fiction"
Why are my books called "women's fiction" when in fact women make up the majority of fiction readers? Why are we the "other"? Why are we the subcategory? There should be a category called "men's fiction." ... Some authors wouldn't like their books to be described as women's fiction. ... Is that because we think women's fiction means it's somehow inferior to men's fiction or to other fiction?
On a conversation she had with her then-boyfriend about her first book
I called him up and said, "I've got the cover for my new book." And he said, "Oh, I know exactly what it will look like." And I said, "Well, how do you know?" And he said, "Well, because it's a girl's book." And sadly, he described exactly the cover for the book.
I remember a slight feeling of shame that I had written a book that was "just" for girls. What a pity that I hadn't written a "real" book that would be read by men — because that would mean it was a serious book and it would be a better book. ...
I should embrace the idea that, yes it is "women's fiction" because if there was a category called "men's fiction," men wouldn't have a problem with it. ... So who cares?
Monika Evstatieva and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Nine perfect strangers gather at a high-end wellness retreat looking for transformation. They end up getting a lot more than they bargained for in Liane Moriarty's new novel. She is the author of "Big Little Lies," among many other bestsellers. And her new page-turner has already been snapped up by Nicole Kidman's production house. She joins us now in the studio. Welcome to the program.
LIANE MORIARTY: Thank you so much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the main protagonist is a 51-year-old Australian romantic novelist named Frances - twice married, twice divorced, recovering from an internet love scam with a passion for wine and good food - and a declining career. She reads like she was a lot of fun to write.
MORIARTY: She was a lot of fun to write, actually. I really enjoyed her. She's probably one of my favorite characters.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It sounds like there might be something autobiographical in there.
MORIARTY: Not necessarily, but yes, you're right. My husband, when he read it, he said to me, you do realize that by the time this book comes out, you will be exactly the same age as Frances.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to say (laughter).
MORIARTY: That's right. And everybody's going to think that you're just writing about yourself. And I said, I know. That's why I made her completely charming in every way possible.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to say she's so charming, so why not?
MORIARTY: She's all the nice parts of me. But she's different from me in that I deliberately wanted to write a character who had no children and had no desire to have children because so many of my books have featured women who were desperate to have children. So that's the way she's quite different from me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So at this health resort, the program is for 10 days. But it promises total transformation, which seems, you know, a pretty tall order.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Frances makes the point that it's because of the First World problems that we have. You know, we work too much. We eat too much. We drink too much, and then we want to pay to make it all better.
MORIARTY: Yes. And I think that's just such a part of modern life, this desire for instant transformation, the hope that just by removing something from your diet by, changing your routine - and, you know, all those articles that you see - just transform your life by doing this one thing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One, two, three, new me (laughter).
MORIARTY: Exactly (laughter), so yeah, that's what I wanted to explore.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You can tell in this book that you were clearly interested in how this idea of wellness functions in modern life. You know, we use words like self care all the time. What do you think people are looking for?
MORIARTY: So there's two sides to it. I think that in the modern world, we do seem to have so many more insecurities and, you know, mental health - mental illnesses. So we're all suffering from more anxiety and depression. But at the same time, I often wonder, is it because life is, really, so very good for the vast majority of us? And that's why you're looking for denial. Maybe, you know, if we were living in a war zone, then you're not thinking of, how can I transform myself? You're just thinking of survival. So is that part of it?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You bring up a point because your books, in many ways, I think, are about the problems and hypocrisies of sort of the upper-middle class. But it's always written with a lot of affection.
MORIARTY: Yes, that's right. And that's exactly the way I feel about the wellness industry. So I believe in mindfulness. And I believe in hot stone massages.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I certainly believe in hot stone massages.
MORIARTY: But at the same time, obviously, you know, people are spending huge amounts of money on ridiculous drinks and products that clearly have no benefit whatsoever.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I don't want to list all the characters and their stories in this book because it's a lot. And I don't want to give too much away. But many of them - most of them are suffering in a real way.
MORIARTY: Yes. And that's - as you say, I do write about people living these comfortable middle-class lives. But there is real suffering. You know, in my book "The Husband's Secret," I have a character who's driving along, and she's hearing about some terrible atrocity on the radio. And you try to give your empathy to what's going on on the other side of the world. But at the same time, she's losing her mind over her little girl's pirate party that she's trying to organize. So that's the reality of the lives we lead, that we're all trying to balance these...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, care about the world at large but also, you know, our own lives.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And in this book, I mean, the characters have real issues that they're grappling with. I mean, one family's lost a child. And, you know, everyone has a - you know, something in their...
MORIARTY: Of course, and that's - yeah. At the same time, of course, just because we're living in comfortable lives doesn't mean we're immune from tragedy. And, you know, behind every very ordinary-looking person, there's real pain. And so I'm - that's what I like to explore.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to ask you, what is it like to have your books now sort of - that they've become sort of the darlings of women-centric Hollywood?
MORIARTY: (Laughter) Well, you know, that - again, that might not last. It was just that "Big Little Lies" was such a huge success, which I'm - and I'm really proud to be part of that. And as you say - well, at the moment, actually, all my books have been optioned. But that really is because the show was such a success.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Books like yours are stories about women's lives. And that, traditionally, gets sort of shoved into genre fiction, which I love. And that's wonderful. But do you think that your novels now sort of transcend that, not because of the way that you've written them - that hasn't changed - but because there's now an acknowledgement that women's lives are interesting?
MORIARTY: It's been interesting the way my own thought processes have gone. So I have been saying, why are my books called women's fiction when, in fact, women make up the majority of fiction readers? So why are we the other? You know, there should be a category called men's fiction. But then a journalist said to me...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's called literary fiction, apparently.
MORIARTY: Yeah, apparently. Yes. So then a journalist said to me - she started with, so your books are mostly read by women. Is that correct? And I said, yes, that's correct. And she said, is it all right to say that? And I said, of course it's all right to say that. And thinking about it afterwards, I thought - I realized what she meant was - she said, oh, you'll be surprised. Some authors don't like that. And I realized what she meant was some authors wouldn't like their books to be described as women's fiction. And I thought, actually, is that because we think women's fiction means it's somehow inferior to men's fiction or to other fiction? And I really had to analyze my own feelings on it and think...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what are they?
MORIARTY: Well, I think perhaps there is - and then I was remembering when my very first book was published. And my boyfriend at the time, when I called him up and said, I've got the cover for my new book - and he said, Oh, I know exactly what it will look like. And I said, well, how do you know? And he said, well, because it's a girl's book. And I remember a slight feeling of shame that I had written a book that was just for girls. What a pity that I hadn't written a real book that would be read by men because that would mean it was a serious book. And it would be a better book.
And I really do think that I have - and that all of us - have internalized this idea that therefore means if it's called women's fiction - and because we say this. We say, don't call it women's fiction. That's condescending. But, actually, why is that condescending? - because, in fact, that doesn't mean it's inferior. So I'm coming in this full circle to think I should embrace the idea that, yes, it is women's fiction. And that's, perhaps, all part of this new phenomenon of the #MeToo movement and women taking charge - so I just think maybe now I will say.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Liane Moriarty. Her new novel is "Nine Perfect Strangers" - out now. Thanks so much.
MORIARTY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.