Avery Greer knows what it is like to feel like a suspect in her own town. Greer, the central character in Megan Miranda’s new novel, lives in a coastal community in Maine, and when her best friend commits suicide, some people begin to suspect she had something to do with the death.
She eventually uncovers a critical clue that could counter the police narrative, and starts on a quest to clear her name and seek justice for her best friend.
Miranda talks to host Frank Stasio about her instant New York Times-bestseller “The Last House Guest” (Simon & Schuster/2019) which explores themes of shifting identities and belonging. She also shares how her roots as a scientist inform her writing.
On writing a novel set in a small, fictional vacation town:
It is very much divided between the people who live there year round and the people who come in and stay in these beautiful homes along the cliffs every summer. The people who live there year round — their livelihoods sort of depend on service to the visitors. So there's a little bit of tension between them. And I really wanted to focus on this complex friendship that would cross the divide between somebody who lives there year round and somebody who is a visitor. And that's where the idea started [for the friendship between] Avery Greer and her best friend Sadie Loman, who is the daughter of the wealthy Loman family who live up on the cliffs.
On the unhappy history of the central character Avery Greer:
She has a very tragic backstory. Her parents died when she was 14 in a car accident in town. She lived with her grandmother after that, but her grandmother died when she was a senior in high school. And after that, there was a very dark time in her life. She acted out, became estranged from her friends and her community, and that's when she met Sadie. And it was the first time that she felt that she could meet somebody who would see her in a very different way from how her community viewed her. And along the way, she becomes sort of drawn into this other world. So she starts as an insider to her town, but she sort of becomes more of an outsider by the start of the story and therefore has a really unique perspective. She sort of has a foot in both worlds.
On why she is interested in the theme of shifting characters:
I am somebody who usually starts with character and theme before I think about the story. And so the themes very much inform the plot. I think about themes as questions to explore. And so the question sort of drives what the characters decide to do, and it makes me think about the different layers that are within the town. I think there's an inherent power dynamic imbalance within the town itself and also within the friendships. And one thing I would ask myself at every turn in the plot between the characters, I would say: Well, who thinks they have the power here? Or why? Or what are they willing to do for it? And those decisions would then sort of expand the story and give it a backbone. And some of the themes I'm drawn to over and over again come back to: Who we are — and especially if you are in a small town and people have viewed you one way your entire life — can you become somebody new? And I'm really interested in that transition. How can you become somebody new when everyone knows you a certain way, and if you are somebody new as you're older, do the other versions of you still live inside?
On letting her characters find their own path:
I know very little at the start of the book. I know who my characters are, and I think about the journey I want them to take. But my first draft is very much a discovery draft. I think of the first half of a book as discovering the puzzle pieces. And the second half as sort of putting them together in what the mystery is going to be. I really discover it as I'm going. Because I'm writing first person from the character's point of view, I like to go in not knowing so I can sort of channel that uncertainty.