Unraveling the Mysteries Within: Talking with Megan Miranda about THE LAST HOUSE GUEST

Megan Miranda is the author of 10 mystery and suspense novels for adult and young adult readers, including the New York Times best-seller All The Missing Girls. Her latest YA novel, Come Find Me, which published in January, follows two teenagers whose investigations into family tragedies lead them to one another. In June, Simon & Schuster will release Miranda’s next title for adults, The Last House Guest, a suspense novel featuring a summer vacation town and a young woman who’s convinced her best friend’s death wasn’t the suicide everyone else accepts it was. In observance of Mystery Month, I talked to Megan about her two latest books, her favorite themes, and the draw of unraveling the mysteries within her characters.

ELEANOR ROTH: On the surface, thrillers have all the components to be plot driven, but your novels consistently plumb the depths of character in really interesting ways. Would you say it’s difficult to write a character-driven story set against the menace of an unknown killer, or does the genre lend itself well to the kinds of themes you’re drawn to?

MEGAN MIRANDA: Thank you! Diving into characters and the relationships between them is my very favorite part of stories—both as a reader and a writer—and I think the themes I’m drawn to really lend themselves to both the genre and my writing method. On the one hand, yes, plot is so important to story. But, for me, the plot develops only as I get to know the characters better. I’m fascinated with the unknown, the hidden, the mysteries, and try to explore them not only in the plot but by unearthing the mysteries in the characters. At some point in every story I write, the main character has to come face to face with themselves. The unknown—be it the killer, the hidden secrets and desires of the characters, or what each person might be capable of—is, for me, what drives the story forward.

Your adult debut, All the Missing Girls, was told in reverse; Come Find Me was the first time you’d used two points of view; and The Last House Guest uses two timelines. How do you go about finding the right structural fit for the story you’re telling, or does structure arrive with the idea?

I would like to say that the idea and structure always arrive hand-in-hand, but that wasn’t the case with this project. All the Missing Girls was conceived in reverse from the start, both as a way to explore character motivation and as part of the theme: I wanted to follow a character who needed to go back into the past for answers, her (and our) perspective shifting with each new piece she uncovers. Come Find Me was also developed with two points of view from the start: I knew the story would have two characters searching for understanding to the traumas in their lives by searching beyond the world we can see, but wanted to have their stories overlapping in the background, almost haunting one another.

I’m fascinated by the way stories are told, how and why a narrator chooses to unravel a story a certain way, and what that structure can reveal.

But with The Last House Guest, it took me several drafts to find the right way to tell Avery’s story. I began with the setting of a small vacation town, a cast of characters, and an initial vision for the structure. But I tried at least three different structures before finding the focus of the story and understanding how best to tell it, and why.

You started your career in YA, and your three adult novels to date all feature key experiences and relationships from the protagonists’ adolescence and early adulthood. In The Last House Guest specifically, Avery returns to memories of losing her parents and grandmother, meeting Sadie, and the start of her relationship with the Lomansall of which happened in her teen yearsmany times throughout the novel. Do you think writing for young adults has affected how you approach the themes of identity and relationships for adult readers and characters?

I do. Or, I think that these are themes I’m drawn to regardless of the age of the characters. My first five books were YA, and I spent a lot of time focusing on these big moments that occur during such a pivotal time, when characters are figuring out who they are, and what they’re capable of. On the adult side, I still think of those same elements, only shift that focus years later—to how those earlier experiences alter the course of a character’s life. One theme I keep coming back to—in All the Missing Girls, The Perfect Stranger, and The Last House Guest—is this focus on identity, tied tightly to experiences in the past. How people are viewed, and how they view themselves. How the past shapes us, whether we can escape it, or whether it’s continually a part of us, always living inside.

There are so many wonderful nods to the gothic tradition in The Last House Guest. Lately, there’s been a bit of a trend in female-driven suspense: protagonists who fulfill the hysterical gothic heroine trope. These characters are disbelieved by others following some kind of trauma, often on account of alcohol or substance misuse. Yet Avery is alienated and unreliable for other reasons. Can you talk about why that’s important for this story?

One of the core elements I started with in The Last House Guest was the contrast of insiders (the characters who live in the town year-round) and outsiders (those who visit each summer). But as I worked through earlier drafts, I realized that Avery embodied both sides of that equation—she is someone who grew up as an insider, but now feels like an outsider to her own town. I wanted the town of Littleport to feel like a character itself, and for each character to feel very tightly tied to the location in one way or another. But Avery is slightly adrift, even though she’s spent her entire life there. She’s seen as a traitor for selling her house to a vacation rental company, and for living with a wealthy family and stepping into their world instead. She also had a volatile adolescence, influenced by several personal losses, and her actions back then are something that, in a small town, no one has forgotten. Avery continues to be seen as a person who is not trustworthy, regardless of the person she has become, tying back to that theme of how the past defines us even years later. The other residents know the things she was once capable of doing—and so that part of her must still exist.

I know you get asked about what’s different in writing for YA and adult readers. To put a spin on it, what are the best and hardest parts about writing similar genres for two different audiences?

The best part of writing similar genres for the two different audiences is exactly that: I get to continue to share the type of stories I love to tell, with the themes I like to explore, while getting to switch head spaces now and then, stepping into a new perspective each time.

The flip side of this is that sometimes the hardest part is figuring out whose story the idea belongs to—whether the idea fits more strongly with a character experiencing an event at a pivotal time when everything is new, or whether the idea belongs with a character who filters their perspective through years of lived experiences. For me, whether a story is YA or adult is primarily about the character and the perspective the story is filtered through. So the hardest part can be deciding who should tell the story, and therefore, what type of story it will become.

You studied biology at MIT and worked in biotech before turning to writing, and I know we share a love of Michael Crichton, who wrote techno- and speculative thrillers after studying medicine at Harvard. Though your YA novels have ranged in sf bentSoulprint especially comes to mind, and Come Find Me has some X-Files vibesyour adult novels haven’t in any obvious ways incorporated your former field. How has your scientific background affected your writing thus far, and do you think you’d ever tip the scales more heavily and venture into the speculative in your adult work?

It really depends on the idea! Right now, the stories I’ve been drawn to on the adult side have centered on the mysteries in other people, imagining the hidden lives lingering under the surface of the ordinary.

I do think that my background has influenced my writing, but in different ways each time. Some of my YA have featured speculative elements more strongly, like the ones you mentioned, and others have more of a subtle nod, in the form of a question. In The Safest Lies, I knew I was writing a book centered on fear, and wondered to what extent fears could be inherited—which is a question that lingers more in the background of the story. In my adult projects, I think my background comes in more through method, or theme. I sometimes think that I was drawn to science originally for the mysteries, and the yearning to understand something more. And it’s that same pull that brings me to the page in the adult thrillers—only trying to understand and unravel the mysteries inside people.

You’ve mentioned keeping writing playlists for each book. What are some songs on the playlists for Come Find Me and The Last House Guest?

I do try to listen to specific songs in the morning before I write, which helps get me in the right frame of mind, especially if I’m drafting one project and working on edits for another. Sometimes the type of songs varies depending on where I am in the book. For Come Find Me, one of the songs I kept coming back to for various moments was “Unsteady” by X Ambassadors, which I think captures a feeling that both characters share.

For The Last House Guest, I kept listening to an acoustic version of “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. This song has also been on the playlist of every one of my adult projects, so I think there’s something tying it to the theme here . . . I find it very haunting.

Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?

I’m currently working on my next adult suspense. It’s a little too early to say much, as things sometimes shift dramatically from early drafts to finished product. But I will say it keeps in line with some of the themes I’m consistently drawn to: how the past defines us, and how well we can ever know the mysteries inside other people—including ourselves.

About the Author:

A former Booklist intern and current Booklist reviewer, Ellie is a reader and writer based in Chicago. She holds a BA in writing from Wheaton College (IL) and is the assistant to the president at Browne & Miller Literary Associates.

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