Meg Williams, the magnetic central character of Julie Clark’s new novel, The Lies I Tell, is a highly intelligent woman with a gift for transforming social graces into social engineering. She’s always learning, adept at innovating on the fly. But unlike other “disruptors,” such as the tech bro founders of hot new startups, Meg is a con artist with 10 years of experience (and counting).
Despite that decidedly dodgy resume, Meg makes for a compelling protagonist as she attempts to right both personal and systemic wrongs, one awful man at a time. Her methods are strategic and well tested: She trawls social media to ascertain things like a target’s wealth, trusted friends or favorite coffee shop. Then she insinuates herself into their life in a way that seems casual but is absolutely calculated, playing whatever role is required to breach their boundaries and defenses.
As The Lies I Tell begins, Meg is back in California after many years away, and she has set her sights on Los Angeles politician Ron Ashton, who tricked Meg’s mother out of their family home some 15 years ago, a life-altering injustice Meg has long wanted to rectify.
In a call to her home in Santa Monica, California, Clark says her deep dive into the world of chicanery and subterfuge involved research on everything from business development to the California real estate market to the typical mindset of the successful grifter. “I learned about the psychology of it, the different types of cons and con artists throughout history,” she says.
Clark is familiar with con women prominent in the current zeitgeist, too, from the likes of disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes to the imprisoned faux socialite Anna Delvey. But Clark says that The Lies I Tell‘s Meg is a very different type of person. “I didn’t want her to be working with a team of people; she needed to be isolated and on her own,” she says. “But I also wanted her to be likable. And I wanted her to not leave destruction and despair in her wake.”
Whether she’s writing about two women who make a spur-of-the-moment decision to swap identities in a busy airport (the plot of her 2020 New York Times bestseller, The Last Flight) or pitting Meg against her dauntless rival, journalist Kat Roberts, Clark nimbly avoids misogynistic stereotypes. “That’s just not what I do as a writer,” she says. “The women that I write, they’re strong, they’re savvy, they’re quick on their feet.”
Kat is convinced that Meg is the reason her life went terribly awry ten years ago, when Kat’s investigation into a predatory high school principal resulted in a deeply traumatic experience. Meg is the person who started Kat down that path, and once Kat realizes the con artist is back in California, she decides it’s time for a reckoning. She figures she’ll take a page from Meg’s playbook and gain her trust before making her pay for what she’s done.
Readers who admired the alternating points of view in The Last Flight will be happy to know that Clark returns to that structure in The Lies I Tell. Details of the pain and injustice that drive both women toward retribution—their origin stories, if you will—unspool across the pages, and both characters struggle to maintain their relentless sense of self-righteousness, even as they deceive others with relative ease.
The process of gradually realizing, scam by scam, layer by layer, what compels Meg to lie, cheat and steal is as captivating as the beguiling con artist herself, and Kat comes to a similar realization as she spends time in close proximity to the woman she thinks is the locus of all her miseries. “I want to climb inside Meg’s mind, inside her life, and piece it all together, dot by dot,” Kat muses. “Take something from her, the way she took everything from me.” But what Kat doesn’t anticipate is that they will end up becoming friends of a sort, establishing an easy (albeit lie-saturated) camaraderie. There is a delicious tension as they circle each other, probing for the truths that lie beneath each other’s facades, determined to get what they want before they’re found out or somebody skips town.
“At the beginning of the book,” Clark says, “Kat thinks she knows what she wants, which is to expose Meg, get her career back on track, be the writer she wanted to be when everything was pulled out from under her. But by the end of the book, she realizes she needs something different.”
It’s a theme the author often returns to in her work. “I talk a lot about an emotional third rail,” she says, “the way the characters grow and change as a result of trying to get what they want and what they need. And what they want and what they need are often not the same thing. I think that is the heart of every book I’ve written so far and probably will continue to be part of every book that I write.”
Clark gets a lot of practice identifying and exploring characters’ evolutions in her other job as a fifth grade teacher. “At the end of every book we read, my students have to answer the question, what is this book really about? What is it that the author wants you thinking about when you’re done?” she says. “I have to answer that same question with every book that I write. . . . With The Last Flight, it was about female empowerment, it was about trauma, it was about reclaiming your voice, it was about getting a second chance. And then with The Lies I Tell, it’s about justice, it’s about taking back what you think belongs to you.”
As Meg says in the book, “The difference between justice and revenge comes down to who’s telling the story,” and it’s important to Clark that readers feel some empathy for and identify with her central con woman. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments where you won’t trust what she’s saying or wonder what her motivation is—but at the same time, you’re still rooting for her,” she explains. “That’s what I wanted more than anything. I love it when you can root for somebody who’s doing something wrong and still want them to succeed.”
It’s particularly easy to root for Meg when she encounters sexism everywhere and doesn’t let her justifiable anger keep her from adroitly turning it to her advantage. Smugness and condescension from men, she realizes, can have its benefits. “She realizes that it’s actually really easy for her to [con people] because she’s a woman, because people don’t take women seriously,” Clark says.
While other characters may not take the novel’s leading ladies at their word, it’s important to Clark that readers do. “When I sat down to write [these] female characters . . . it just didn’t feel right to me to portray them as unreliable. I love the unreliable narrator as a reader! It’s super fun to figure out! But I’m not really inclined to perpetuate that stereotype for women, being a woman myself.”
Fortunately, Clark says, “people have been really receptive. I haven’t had a single reader say, ‘I wish you would’ve made them more unreliable.’ In fact, I get the opposite.” She adds, “I think people are hungry for that. I think they like to see characters they can count on. A character doesn’t always have to be 100% honest with the reader’we’re not 100% honest with people in our lives or even with ourselves’but the intention has to be good.”
Clark says that she feels an obligation to herself, her sons and her readers to portray women in an empowering and positive way. “We’re hardworking, sane, determined people who are not going to back down from a challenge. Those are the women that I know,” she says. “So that’s who you’re going to get when you pick up a book from me.”
Photo of Julie Clark © Eric A. Reid Photography