We’re all one step away from disaster, and Australian author Liane Moriarty knows it. One day, the sun is shining and you’re attending a backyard barbecue with friends and neighbors; two months later, it’s pouring rain and you can’t stop blaming yourself for what happened on that last sunny day.
So what did happen in that backyard? To say would shatter the considerable suspense of Truly Madly Guilty. But we can reveal that it involved a child, and that it was so troubling that Clementine is taking breaks from practicing for a crucial audition (she’s a cellist) to give talks with the sobering title “One Ordinary Day” at suburban libraries around Sydney.
Even Moriarty (whose first name is pronounced Lee-ann, if you’re wondering) has trouble talking about this one. “With my other books, I’ve been able to tell the whole story of how I was inspired to write it, but in this case it will give away far too much,” she says during a call to her home in Sydney. “So all I’m able to say is that something happened at a barbecue, and I went home with the idea for this book.”
The good thing about a Moriarty novel is that even if there’s one plot development you can’t discuss, there are plenty of others to choose from. Like Kate Atkinson, Moriarty is a master at taking several seemingly disparate plot threads and weaving them all together with a bang at the end. Also like Atkinson’s novels, Moriarty’s work is difficult to classify.
“If I am at a party and—well, I don’t say this, usually my husband will show off for me and say, ‘My wife’s an author’—but then, the first question is, what sort of books do you write. It’s a reasonable question, but I struggle with how to describe them. I tend to say something like ‘family drama,’ but I’ve never found exactly the right description for them,” Moriarty says. “I love it when other people describe them for me. I don’t think you can see your own books.”
Call them what you will, it’s plain to see that Moriarty has hit a sweet spot for readers. Her stories are full of twists and drama, but they are grounded enough in middle-class reality to elicit a frisson of “it could happen to you,” and they feature flawed but relatable characters. In her first bestseller, The Husband’s Secret, Moriarty followed the repercussions of a long-ago murder on a community and explored trust within a marriage; in Big Little Lies, she took on spousal abuse, bullying and the parenting wars. Truly Madly Guilty touches on growing up with neglectful parents, negotiating a lifelong friendship and finding a balance between career and family life. But mostly, it deals with guilt and the way it affects relationships, especially the central relationship between childhood friends Clementine and Erika.
Now in their 30s, the two women became friends as children, thanks to the prodding of Clementine’s mother, Pam, who saw that the withdrawn and awkward Erika needed a friend. Soon Erika was an honorary member of the family, to Clementine’s chagrin.
“I was really interested in that because I had just been reading a lot about how people in difficult family circumstances end up sort of couchsurfing,” says Moriarty. “They’re not officially fostered or adopted, but they end up becoming part of another family, which is a wonderful thing, but then I also started to think about what happens if one of the family feels a bit resentful about that.”
The popular, beautiful Clementine does feel a bit resentful of Erika, but she feels guilty for this after she realizes why Erika needs a sanctuary: Her mother, Sylvia, is a hoarder. Over the decades, Clementine has maintained her relationship with Erika, though they’re still polar opposites. Erika is godmother to Clementine and her husband Sam’s oldest daughter; she has a successful accounting career and is married to the sweet and serious Oliver, who also had a difficult childhood. But Clementine continues to have complicated feelings about Erika, who, she says, “wasn’t evil or cruel or stupid, she was simply annoying. . . . It was like she was allergic to her.”
Obviously, Moriarty doesn’t pull punches in writing about the intricacies of friendship, marriage and family. In Truly Madly Guilty, she expands her range to dive more deeply into the minds of her male characters, something she says readers have requested. “I made a conscious decision to explore [men] more, but perhaps that criticism was in the back of my head,” she says. Moriarty says she had the most fun writing Vid, the Slovenian neighbor who hosts the barbecue. His boisterous demeanor makes it hard for even his wife to realize how hard he was hit by the events that happened that afternoon.
But there are also lighter moments. Early in the book, Sam tries to help Clementine practice for her cello audition by setting up a mock audition in the family’s living room; his well-meaning gesture goes hilariously wrong thanks to 2-year-old Ruby and her constant companion, Whisk (yes, an actual kitchen whisk that sleeps next to Ruby, in a tissue-paper-lined box).
Balancing a creative life with family is something Moriarty, the mother of two young children, can identify with. “I have no experience as a musician, but if you’re working toward an audition, you really need to give all of yourself, which is the way I tend to feel just toward the end of the book. I want to be writing all the time, and I don’t want to be distracted.”
Luckily, the success of Moriarty’s writing has allowed her family some flexibility. “My husband is Mr. Mom: He’s a full-time stay-at-home dad. So my life is beautifully balanced, and I feel very lucky,” she says.
Moriarty never re-reads her own books after writing them (“eating something other people have cooked for you just tastes better”), but she has enjoyed the process of seeing them translated on screen. Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman optioned Big Little Lies soon after it was published. Both actors are starring in the limited series, which has completed filming and will air on HBO in 2017.
“I went along to see the filming and because there are all these beautiful, talented people looking wonderful, and David E. Kelley has written a script based on my book, that feels quite different to me. I got to see Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård in a scene. Because they were doing it so well, I was thinking to myself, oh, that’s quite good, I hope that part was mine and not David E. Kelley’s.”
For those wondering if we’ll get to hear Witherspoon attempt an Australian accent, the answer is (sadly) no: Kelley’s adaptation is set in Monterey, California. “They’ve made it all American,” Moriarty laughs. “But the school parenting experience seems to be universal. I think there are a lot of similarities between California and Sydney, so I’m quite happy with that.”
Big Little Lies was the first of Moriarty’s novels to debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list—and the first time a book by an Australian had debuted in the top spot. “We’ve looked hard! Obviously other Australian authors have gotten to number one, but no one else has debuted at number one,” she says.
Surprisingly, her success in America came before she was a bestseller in Australia. “It was my lovely American readers who broke me out. I had a nice group of Australian readers, very loyal readers, who like to point out now that they were with me from the beginning,” she says.
More readers have come to Moriarty with every book; Truly Madly Guilty is lucky number seven. We predict there will soon be many more readers buzzing about that barbecue.