I reviewed With Malice recently and was pretty blown away by a tale of Jill and Simone, with the former trying to piece together the events that led to Simone’s death and her stay in hospital — with a case of amnesia. Jill cannot remember the six weeks before Simone’s death, including the events that led to her friendship ending with Simone … or did they really make up after all?
Jill is a unreliable narrator that I couldn’t help but feel for in one breath and wonder whether she was capable of killing her best friend. That’s the beauty of this book — Eileen Cook has woven a tale that will have you changing your mind from one chapter to the next, and you’ll love it!
In this interview, she graciously answered some questions about Jill and Simone, and writing an unreliable narrator.
What are you reading right now?
What do you wish you’d known before you started writing YA?
It’s something that I think is more general than writing just YA – and that is the idea that there is no “right” way to write a book. When I was first starting I was certain there was some kind of secret that I had to learn in order to be a “real” writer, how to outline a certain way, or use a certain type of plot structure – something. What took me awhile to understand is that writers have all different approaches. Some outline, some don’t. Some make collages, or do long character interviews. Some people start with the final scene and others write from beginning to end. It doesn’t matter how you write the book – just that you keep writing.
Jill and Simone have a complicated relationship – on the surface they are everything you’d hope to find in a friendship, but the truth is not as simple. What inspired this friendship and the story behind With Malice?
I’m fortunate enough to have some friendships that are very long term. They are some of the most important people in my life. Long-term friendships change and evolve and that process isn’t always easy. We have roles in friendship–I’m the funny one, you’re the outgoing one etc. It’s hard when people change from those accepted roles. I wanted to capture that moment where Jill and Simone are becoming different people, going in different directions. It’s scary for both of them and they aren’t honest with each other about how they’re feeling.
Friendship can be the best thing in your life – but it can also be dark and dangerous. I can honestly say I never had a friendship like this (nor do I want one!) but I did find it very interesting to write about.
One of the key questions I wanted to explore in the book is “what are we really capable of doing?” Most of us have a sense of where our boundaries are. We might lie to a boss about why we were late to work, but we would never lie to a friend. Another person might not lie at all, and yet another might be willing to lie to anyone as long as the lies “didn’t hurt anyone.”
One of the things Jill has to sort out in the book is if she is capable of what people are accusing her of doing. If Simone had survived the accident she would have a different perspective of what happened. (Although there is no guarantee it would be any more objective than Jill’s point of view.) By having Simone die, it raised the stakes for Jill – it truly is a case of life and death. It also means that she can’t balance her views with what Simone says happened.
Reading the book, I went from sympathising with Jill to sympathising with Simone and back again – I thought the book walked a fine, balanced line between the two – what was the hardest part writing this friendship, with one character dead and another alive?
This book was a challenge. I lost track of how many different drafts there were! I would take things out and then add them back in. I wanted to leave the reader changing perspectives – from thinking in one chapter they knew what happened and then second guessing themselves in the next. I’m happy to hear that in the end the balance worked.
What helped with the writing is that I actually like both Jill and Simone. They’re complicated women with wonderful traits and also huge flaws. Neither of them see each other, or themselves, clearly. If things had gone differently and the two of them had it out with an honest discussion none of the events in the book might have happened.
I thought With Malice captured a case like this in the social media age wonderfully well – everyone has an opinion about something they don’t know. What did you learn about social media and young people after writing this book?
I am VERY grateful that when I was a teen and making all the mistakes I made that there was no social media. When I screwed up (and I did) there was a limited range of how many people knew.
Social media is great for making connections. The downside is that everyone can have a window into your private life and more than that- feel completely comfortable telling you their opinion. It’s much easier to be harsh behind a keyboard. People say things they never would in real life. Because your life and details of your life are on their computer- they can, and will, weigh in. What I wanted to show in the book is how dangerous those judgements can be.
What was the most important thing you learned writing about an unreliable narrator and from her POV as well?
Jill was a wonderful character to write because she honestly has no idea what happened in the weeks she’s missing due to her memory loss. The reader is trying to figure out what the truth is at the same time that she’s trying to figure it out.
It was important to me that the reader feel that while they may not be able to fully trust Jill, that they never felt that I “tricked” them as the writer. The truth is that most of us are not “reliable” all of the time. We tell people what they want to hear – or also just as likely – we tell ourselves what we want to believe about ourselves. Even if Jill was an unreliable narrator I wanted her to feel real to the reader.
What’s next for you this year?
I’ll be doing some travel and promotion for With Malice. But of course I’ll also be working on something new. I’m the happiest when I have a book project underway. During the periods when I’m not writing I feel a bit adrift and purposeless. I love the day-to-day process of trying to get an idea from my head onto the page and seeing how it evolves and changes.
My current book involves a young woman who is a fake psychic. This has given me an excuse to do a whole bunch of random research including the fact that I am getting to be pretty good at reading Tarot cards. I can’t tell you too much about the book at this point, but it involves a missing girl and a bunch of lies that cause more trouble than the main character ever imagined possible.
In non-writing stuff I have a trip to France planned and I am SUPER excited about that.
With Malice is an engrossing, riveting read. When you give it a go, let me know what you think!