How well can you ever really know the love of your life? Bestselling author Alafair Burke (If You Were Here) explores this question in her highly suspenseful new novel, The Wife. Fans of expertly crafted marriage thrillers will no doubt enjoy this timely story of a husband accused of harassment and the wife who chooses to stand behind him. We talked with Burke about how her story relates to the #MeToo movement, how to write the perfect twist-ending and more.
How would you describe your novel in one sentence?
When the wife of a beloved public figure is accused of sexual misconduct, she is forced to take a second look at both the man she married and the women she refuses to believe.
This novel is being published shortly after the #MeToo movement gained international attention. Did this influence your decision to weave workplace assault allegations into your plot?
I finished writing The Wife in early 2017, well before the Harvey Weinstein stories nudged the #MeToo snowball down the mountain. But well before I started the book, we knew that accomplished and respected men had been accused of heinous sexual misconduct. You could probably come up with a list from memory.
And look what inevitably happens when those men are married: Their wives become part of the narrative. To the strangers who wonder how Dr. Huxtable—that nice man with the pudding pops and the voice of Fat Albert—could possibly be a sex offender, his wife is also fair game. What did she know and when did she know it? Her decision to stand by his side is itself an indictment. She condones this. She is complicit.
The man who is currently president of the United States brought a previous president’s female accusers to a presidential debate. The intended target wasn’t the man they claimed had abused them; it was his wife. The implication was clear: She had waived her right to a public life when she made the decision to stand by her man.
I googled Matt Lauer the other day. Half of the recent news items were about his wife. Had she left the country? Had she left him? Did she know he was a “player” even before they were married?
Like most women, I have a #MeToo story, too. But the basis for this book was to move beyond the “he” and the “she” in the usual “he said, she said,” and to look at “his” wife, standing outside the story, trying to live her life and wondering what to believe.
How did you balance having unreliable narrators while being aware of the cultural stigma surrounding sexual assaults?
After a long history of attacking and doubting complainants in sexual harassment and abuse cases, we might be on the cusp of a new response: I believe her. But to believe a woman doesn’t mean that every single aspect of her story will be 100% accurate. Roy Moore’s advocates have tried to discredit a woman’s account by questioning the location of a dumpster near the restaurant where she worked. In one of my favorite scenes from the book, a seasoned sex offense detective says:
The stories never line up. No one’s version is ever a hundred percent accurate. The hard part is figuring out which parts are wrong, and more importantly, why they’re wrong. Bad guys out-and-out lie because they’re trying to protect their asses. But victims? That’s trickier. Some of them almost apologize for the bad guys as they’re reporting the facts, because they’re full of guilt, blaming themselves. Or they mitigate the awfulness of what happened to them, because the full weight of it would kill them if they stopped to absorb it. Or they say they didn’t drink, or didn’t flirt, or didn’t unhook their own bra, because they’re afraid that to admit the truth would be giving him permission for everything that happened after.
Sewing doubts about the reliability of a character’s interior voice is tricky business. Part of the bargain, I think, is that a character should have an understandable reason to withhold, massage or even misremember information.
At the risk of being grossly misunderstood, I’m willing to say that some accusers lie. Not many, but some. And when it happens, it hurts the accused, the women who should be believed, and everyone who thinks that our collective belief-meter is seriously off-kilter. But even in those few cases, it’s worth asking why the allegation was less than reliable. That can be an interesting story.
You have experience working as a prosecutor—how do you balance writing about law enforcement and policing in an authentic way, but still keep it accessible for the average reader?
What’s most important to me is that the law enforcement world be depicted realistically. There’s a rhythm to a precinct and a courthouse—the way people speak to each other. I also want every scenario to be plausible, even if not necessarily typical. I love the ins and outs of policing and courtroom procedure, but I’ve learned over time that most readers don’t. If I find myself writing about the actual process, I stop and ask myself whether it advances plot, character or setting. If not, I move on.
Why do you think readers are so drawn to domestic thrillers that are centered on a marriage, and what do you love most about these types of stories?
I think we enjoy seeing characters in scenarios we can at least imagine ourselves in, and most of us have been in a relationship before. There’s also something terrifying about the idea that you’ve been sharing your life with someone who has been keeping dangerous secrets. Loving someone makes you vulnerable. That vulnerability is a well I’m happy to tap for a story.
As the secrets start to unravel, readers might feel less and less sympathy for these narrators. Is it more fun to write slightly unlikeable characters?
See, that question makes me think that my sympathies aren’t the average bear’s. I often find myself sympathizing, even empathizing, with so-called unlikeable characters, while I’m skeptical of traditional heroes. So I guess that means I’m having fun with characters whom I love and whom everyone else would avoid at a party.
This story has an incredible twist! Without giving it away, can you tell us how you go about crafting that element? What makes a perfect thriller twist?
The best twists I’ve ever written have come to me sideways, and always after I truly know the characters and the events that have brought them to that moment. A good ending can’t be predictable, obviously, but ideally, it should feel inevitable once revealed to the reader. Then it’s magic.