In Tanen Jones’ debut novel, The Better Liar, Leslie learns she cannot claim her half of a $100,000 inheritance unless her sister does as well. She travels to Las Vegas to collect her long-estranged sibling, Robin—who, Leslie is shocked to discover, has very recently died. Then, Leslie meets a woman who could be her sister’s twin and hatches a plan: Mary, an aspiring actress, will accompany Leslie to Albuquerque and pose as Robin, and each woman will receive $50,000. They just have to fool several people for a week, sign some papers and collect the cash. What could go wrong?
We spoke to Jones about her experiences as a first-time novelist, her take on the mutability of memory and why we’re so fascinated by the idea of doppelgangers among us.
Congratulations on your first novel! Has the experience so far been what you thought it’d be, in terms of what it’s like to write a whole, entire book? Or wait for other people’s feedback and edits? Or hold in your hands a finished book with your name on it?
The biggest surprise has been the enthusiasm other people have shown for The Better Liar from the start. I came into the publishing world with a little behind-the-scenes experience, having worked at an academic press and interned at a fiction imprint, and I know that it’s typically a long road. I had written novels as a kid and spent college compiling a thesis of short stories, but The Better Liar was the first novel I wrote as an adult, and things moved very quickly for it. I mostly felt intense relief at receiving professional edits and copyedits, like, yes, God, please tell me how to make it better.
No one can prepare you for how surreal it is to hold a book you wrote. There was a period after college when I wasn’t writing anything. I stopped talking about writing because I got angry with myself: Why should I go on talking and never doing? My partner, whom I’d been with for two or three years, didn’t know that’s what my ambition was, because I became so embarrassed to bring it up. To remember how awfully small I felt about it then and look at my own book on my shelf now—I feel very grateful to have crossed those years.
You previously worked as an editor of criminal justice and law textbooks. Did this work spark your interest in creating your own stories? Were you able to use things you learned from your previous career in The Better Liar?
It did a little! I worked on a criminal justice title that had a chapter about women and crime—why women don’t commit most types of violent crime as often as men, or why it isn’t reported that they do. As far as I’m aware, no one really knows for certain why this is. But we have lots of theories, and one of them is social ties, that because women are more pressured to perform the labor of childcare and maintain social relationships on behalf of the family, they are less likely to become disaffected. That pressure was compelling to me. It was something I too have experienced in certain ways, and because it was invisible to me until it wasn’t, it was only possible to bear until I realized I was bearing it. I wanted to write about that feeling.
It was so interesting to see the characters’ different approaches to lying. Even though the inheritance scam was her idea, Leslie is so tense and furtive, while her pretend-sister Mary maintains a daring and open attitude. Was it fun to move between Leslie’s attempts to maintain control and Mary’s what-could-go-wrong decisions? Did you employ any rituals or practices that helped put you in the various narrative headspaces?
Writing this book felt like acting, and since I usually write entire scenes at a time, I typically had at least 24 hours between roles to recalibrate. Leslie’s scenes were definitely more difficult, as she turns so much of herself inward. I worked hard to give this book genuine emotional weight, and to do that I had to deeply empathize with and reason my way through decisions I would never make in real life, which often felt quite destabilizing when I surfaced from a writing session.
As for rituals, I played certain songs over and over to keep pace with the scene I was running and rerunning in my head. I must have played “Wedding Bell Blues” 4,000 times while I wrote this book.
Do you see aspects of yourself in your characters? Does one (or more) of them remind you of yourself in any particular way?
Yes and no. Between the three narrators, I’m more of a Leslie, I think. I have a really comprehensive Google calendar, and I would rather eat glass than fail publicly. But I’m queer like Mary and Robin, and Mary has my taste in music. Robin has my inability to let anything go.
“No one can prepare you for how surreal it is to hold a book you wrote.”
Your story is a delightfully complex one, with three points of view, so many layers of lies and deception and lots of revelations. Did you lay out the entire novel before you started writing, or are you more of a let-the-thoughts-flow sort?
I lay out every twist and turn, for every draft, and I write chronologically, even for rewrites. But I do invent smaller things as I go along, or I discover that certain scenes need more or fewer beats to achieve the right pace. I read my work aloud to myself sometimes, and I’ll even tap along with it, making the rhythm of the writing audible, and fix lines that go on too long or ending paragraphs that don’t strike the right note. I wrote the first draft very quickly, pushing myself through the entire novel just to reward myself with the experience of writing the ending I had in my head, a big percussive finale that I couldn’t wait to put down on paper. That ending, although I rewrote its tone several times, never changed in essence throughout the editing process. It was what made this book special from the start.
The idea that people aren’t who we think they are is, of course, great fun (and sometimes scary) to think about—what about the notion of hiding in plain sight most fascinates you?
I’m obsessed with spies and identity and deception. Part of the idea for this book came from thinking about how the only way to understand a family dynamic is to be inside it, but once you’re part of it, you can no longer see it clearly—so I wrote an outsider who could pretend to be an insider. I’m not sure where my obsession comes from, maybe because I spent adolescence feeling that my appearance obscured me. There are a lot of adult men who like to exercise their egos on young girls. I grew frustrated that they saw me as such an easy target. I used to wish I could shock them with the truth of me somehow—grow 10 feet or take off my face. But of course they wouldn’t have been at all shocked or even particularly interested in whatever truth I had to show them.
Albuquerque served as an intriguing backdrop for your story. The line about how backyards there “look like aquariums waiting to be filled with water” was particularly evocative. What about the city made it an appealing choice for you? Have you spent much time there, and/or did you visit to research the look and feel of the area?
My mother grew up in Albuquerque, and my grandmother still lives there. I visited almost every year as a kid and still go for holidays. I wanted to write about a place I was familiar with, and I’ve always thought Albuquerque would be a good place to set a noir. You can jump and see the whole city, it’s so flat, which lends it an interesting visual contrast to characters who conceal almost everything.
Although I’ve been many times, you can credit all the street names in the book to my grandmother, who got in her car and literally drove every route in the book to fact-check it for me. She was so excited that I set the book in her hometown but very concerned that Albuquerque locals would know me for a fraud.
“I read my work aloud to myself sometimes, and I’ll even tap along with it, making the rhythm of the writing audible.”
Since your book is called The Better Liar: Are you good at spotting when someone might be hiding a part of themselves or practicing some other form of deception?
Probably not! Luckily, I think most people lie about smaller things: lies to seem more together, or more likable, or to keep from burdening other people. I almost always buy it, and I constantly believe that everybody else has a very easy, Instagram-ready life.
What’s coming up next for you? Perhaps a book tour, a relaxing vacation or another novel (no pressure!)?
I’m taking off work January 14 to walk around NYC and try to spot my book in bookstores and cry, and then on January 15, I’ll be launching the book at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn! Please come and see me—I’ve never met any of my readers in real life yet, and it would mean so much to me.
I do have another book in mind right now. It’s not what people might have expected me to write after The Better Liar, but it’s just as twisty. Wish me luck.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Better Liar.
Author photo © Rachel Thalia