Writing team Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s latest book, An Anonymous Girl (St. Martin’s Press 2018; $27.99), another psychological chiller and follow up to their best selling The Wife Between Us, tells the story of Jessica Farris who, thinking that all she has to do is answer a few questions to earn, some money, signs up for a psychology study. But as the sessions take on a scary intensity, she starts to believe the enigmatic doctor conducting the study has somehow learned too much about her and the secrets she is hiding.
The authors recently collaborated with Times correspondent Jane Ammeson on the following Q&A.
What was the inspiration for your latest novel?
It’s tricky for us to answer this because our ideas percolate over a long period of time. Every day, when we are brainstorming our plot, we throw out about a hundred suggestions – and the next day, we reject 99 of them. But there are a few key elements we can point to that inspired part of the foundation of An Anonymous Girl.
We wanted to create a sense of intimacy for the reader, so, in addition to having Dr. Shields’ voice be in the second person, we structured the ethics and morality quiz that Jessica took in a way that allows readers to consider how they would answer the same questions. This interactive element was really appealing to us, and we’ve heard from a lot of early readers that they loved answering the ethics questions and learning how their friends or book group participants would respond.
Did you have to do much research in the field of psychology to write An Anonymous Girl?
One of our favorite parts of writing An Anonymous Girl was researching the psychology experiments we incorporate into the novel. Greer was a psychology major (and English minor) and her mother was a practicing psychotherapist for many years, so this is an area of keen interest for her. And Sarah majored in journalism, with a minor in psychology.
In fact, in college, Sarah was actually a guinea pig in a bunch of experiments through NIH (the National Institutes of Health) to earn extra money. At first, she did pretty innocuous tests, but the ones that paid the best were a little more invasive. The final one she did involved being given something that made her super groggy–then her dad found out about it, and that was the end of her time as a guinea pig!
What’s it like co-writing? I understand you share many of the same interests and talk together all the time about ideas, characters, etc. How does that translate into the actual plotting and writing?
We absolutely love working together, and we are a co-author team for life. We write every single line of our novels together, which is highly unusual – but we can’t imagine doing it any other way. Perhaps our biggest challenge was figuring out the logistics of co-authoring a book, since we live in different cities. There was a learning curve to setting up our systems – we needed to become familiar with Google Docs in order to write together in real time, and Google Hangouts so that we could simultaneously talk.
Recently, we added in something new. We now meet in Philadelphia, midway between our home cities, for a 48-hour marathon work session every month or so. We stay in a hotel that has restaurants and a gym and we usually only leave the hotel for one brief walk outside. Otherwise, we work around the clock and through every meal. We bring along giant Post-It notes and cover the walls with them – detailing character notes, ideas for scenes, and the narrative arc of the book.
One difference between us – Sarah likes the walls so messy that Greer has nicknamed her “Carrie” from the show, Homeland, whereas Greer prefers them to be neat. We get an enormous amount of writing done during our getaways – but as usual, our only enemy is time. We never have enough of it!
Do you ever have disagreements about which way the novel should go or what the characters would/should do?
We share strikingly similar narrative instincts, but occasionally we do have different opinions about the direction of the novel or traits of our characters. This turns into a discussion, not a disagreement. We have an important rule: If something in the book isn’t working for one of us, it isn’t working. We talk through it until we find a solution that makes us both happy. The foundation of our relationship is deep friendship, support, and respect, and that lends itself to a collaborative writing process. We have a saying we love so much we had it printed on matching shirts: Better Together. That sums up how we feel about each other.
Did you scare yourselves at all when writing An Anonymous Girl? It certainly kept me on edge.
Thank you! We take this as the ultimate compliment. During our brainstorming sessions, one of our favorite phrases is What if… One of us will come up with a chilling idea and then the other one will up the ante. We definitely try to creep each other out and love it when we give each other chills. That “goosebump” moment tells us we are onto something good and scary. Our goal is to create books with visceral, palpable tension.
What: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen talk and book signing
When: Tuesday, January 29 @ 7 pm
Where: The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL
FYI: (773) 293-2665; bookcellarinc.com