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Author Annie Ward on crafting her thriller, The Lying Club

Mar 23, 2022

THEPITCHKC.COM reported by Nick Spacek

Kansas City writer Annie Ward’s new book, The Lying Club, comes on the heels of her 2019 success, Beautiful Bad, and ratchets up the tension tenfold. This “devious tale of revenge, murder, and deceit based on her own experiences of working at a hyper-elite prep school” sees Ward interweaving the stories of three women in a Colorado town.

It’s a novel that’s nearly impossible to put down, with characters fully fleshed-out and real, while not skimping on all matter of sex, drugs, and lies.

Out this week from Park Row Books, it’s a beach read in the making, and we were excited to hop on Zoom with Ward to discuss the writing of The Lying Club, how her experiences shaped it, and what it’s like trying to follow a successful debut.

The Pitch: This is ultimately a book about relationships between all of these different women. What was the initial thread that started The Lying Club?

Annie Ward: The initial thread would have been my background as a high school and college athlete and the relationships that I had with my teammates. I went on to be a coach at a private school on the East coast.

I always knew that I wanted to write a book about those relationships, because the parents versus the coaches and the coaches with the kids was kind of crazy, and I thought that it would be a really good environment for a thriller.

Then there was bringing into the view of this horrible thing that happened in USA Gymnastics. I started out being a gymnast here in Kansas City, and I did gymnastics three hours a day from the time I was six to 13.

When the whole thing with Larry Nasser abusing all of those girls happened, I was really physically sick. I thought, as a fiction writer, I could tell a story about that kind of insidious environment and the abuse and draw on my own personal experience as an athlete, a coach, and a mom of athletes.

I’ve done it all. I’ve played all the roles that are depicted in The Lying Club.

There are multiple generations in this book. Did you lean into your kids to make the young characters in this book seem real?

Not so much, because the younger generation in this book is 15 and 16-year-old girls, and I have little boys that are younger than that, so they weren’t that helpful.

I do have nieces and nephews who are the appropriate age to be interviewed about things that I don’t know very much about. Like, “What do you do when you’re doing a TikTok,” or, “What kinds of pictures do people send each other on Snapchat?”

I had a lot of young people that I could tap into to get the necessary information, shall we say. Also, I’m a little bit young at heart, and I got into a lot of trouble when I was a teenager, so it really wasn’t that hard to figure out what people might be getting up to. For the older generation—that’s me, so it was easy to write them.

What are the in’s and out’s of crafting a thriller like this? It starts out very much in medias res. As the book goes through, you’re jumping back and forth in time. One could argue that Natalie is the protagonist, but you’ve got multiple characters and plots. Do you have note cards and the red thread up on your wall?

I’m a Post-It girl. I’ve got Post-Its everywhere, but you’re making me laugh, because this is really funny. The book that I published previous to this was called Beautiful Bad, and it literally had four timelines. According to the reviews, some people found the multiple timelines jumping back and forth a little confusing.

To answer your question, when I was doing this, I was like, “Okay, let’s keep it simple. We’re going to tell one story. We’re going to go chronologically. We’re going to tell it from multiple points of view. The only other thing we’re going to do is cut to the police interviews.”

When I look at this book, I’m like, “I did a pretty simple structure.” The story that starts six months ago is told all the way to the end, interrupted only by the interrogations.

And yes, Natalie was always supposed to be the protagonist, and she is the protagonist, but I had so much fun writing Brooke, Linda, Nick, and Asha, too. They just started talking to each other, and they started to need a little bit more space, so they started to get their own chapters. By the time I was getting to the end of it, I felt like it was really an ensemble.

When writers start to step away from the lead, things can get a little less interesting. Here, even when you’re focusing on the kids as opposed to the adults, it gives insight back and forth between the different characters. There’s no cartoonishness. The characters have layers. While they might initially be presented in one way, we discover there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface.

One of the things that I really try to do in my books is use character arc. A lot of writers usually use character arcs just with their protagonist, or maybe their antagonist, so that they start out one way and they’re very different at the end of the book. It’s one of the ways that I try to keep a thriller suspenseful and surprising.

When you come into this book, and you’re presented with a group of people, and you make assumptions about those people—what I’m hoping is that every single one of them surprised you by the end, because none of them were who they were presented to be. I think that’s really a great tool to keep readers guessing.

We’re definitely guessing all the way to the end with The Lying Club. The characters are not monoliths. They change as things go on, and you’re never quite certain what’s going on. We touched on this a little bit earlier discussing your previous book, but what are the challenges of following up a successful debut?

I’m going to try not even to get emotional while I say that, honestly, it was really, really hard. I’m going to go out on a limb and say even scary. With a lot of it, I have to put the blame on myself, because I didn’t know what was going on.

I sold Beautiful Bad in 2018. I had not had very much success as a writer. I mean, I was published and things like that, but I hadn’t had a big book and my agent was like, “Guess what? Your book has gone to an auction. There’s several publishing houses bidding on it in America and the UK, and we’re selling territories, and Warner Brothers wants the film option,” and all kinds of stuff.

I’m a nervous person to begin with, so I’m like, “Okay, well, this is great. Let’s just do whatever we need to do,” and they’re like, “And they want a two-book deal!” I was like, “Okay, where do I sign?”

This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but I had no idea what I was signing up for, with a two-book deal. None. Very extremely naive. I thought that a two book deal was like, “Okay, Beautiful Bad‘s going to come out, and then I’m going to write another book about what I want to write about, and I’m going to give it to them when I’m done.”

It was not like that at all. They told me, “Your next book is due on the day that Beautiful Bad is released,” which means that “We’ve sold the book and it’s in production. There’s a year up to when it comes out and during that year, you write your next book.”

I’ve never written a book in a year, ever, and I doubt I ever will. I certainly couldn’t write a book during a year when they were viewing this as a very big book, so they were sending me on a lot of publicity. I was going to conferences, and conventions, and bookstores even before it came out.

I knew that I wasn’t going to meet my deadline for this new book. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know what I was writing about. I started having anxiety attacks, and I felt really sick for part of that year at trying to get that book out. Stomach aches and all the bad ways that anxiety manifests itself.

I turned something in on the deadline. It was not accepted, nor should it have been under any circumstances. At that point they were like, “Okay, it’s time for you to start from scratch,” and they gave me another year.

Clearly, at that point, I’m no longer one of those people that has a chance of being a-book-a-year author, which is really the cash cow for publishers.

I had an entire other year to write the next book, and I did. I turned in my first draft, and it was okay. I mean, first drafts are never perfect, but I’m going to say this one was okay.

Then, a week later, it was COVID. My kids were home and needed to be homeschooled. I was dealing with all of this stuff about COVID, but at the same time, the publisher was like, “Okay, we’re taking a step back. No pressure. People are working from home. Deadlines have been pushed back. There’s a supply chain problem. We don’t know when this is going to come out. Just take your time.” And I was like, “Oh, I can write again. This is amazing. Now that there’s nobody waiting for it [imitates ticking clock], I can write again.”

I did three more drafts, and I took it from something that was okay to something that I was actually proud of to be a follow up to Beautiful Bad.

Beautiful Bad is probably the “project of my life,” and I really did want to respectfully follow it up with something that was good. Thanks to getting that deadline moved, I was able to turn it in, and everyone was happy, but it was hard. The second book is hard.

You had a book come out way back in 2002, The Making of June, and in between that and Beautiful Bad, you were a writer working in film. How do you make that transition from writing for film to writing books?

What you said is kind of technically true, but the truth is that I always went back and forth, and it might just be easier if I just tell you the trajectory.

I went to college at UCLA, and I took a lot of English classes there, but I wasn’t thinking about being a screenwriter at that point in time. The year after that, I got out of college, and I realized how hard it was working. I was like, “I’d better write a novel and sell a novel.” I’ve always been kind of naive.

I wrote my first novel in the two years after graduating from college. It was a YA novel that probably should have been an adult novel, so I did technically write a novel before going into film. But even though that novel got attention, and we thought at one point in time that it would be published, it was not.

But it was the only reason that I got into film school. The crucial element of my film school application was that I had written this novel. My first actual paycheck for being a writer was for a film.

After film school, I decided that I was frustrated with the LA lifestyle. It sounds kind of crazy. I wasn’t really a good person with all the excess and, you know, it’s very glamorous.

I decided that instead of staying and trying to follow up my film career there, I was gonna get a backpack and move to Europe and write another novel.

I went from writing the novel that didn’t get published, to selling a film that I did get paid for, to moving to Europe, to writing a book that eventually was published.

But what did I do then? I went back to writing screenplays, because I was living in Eastern Europe, and there was a film company there called New Image Millennium films that hired me to script doctor these wonderful but low-budget sci-fi movies. A lot of them ended up on the SyFy channel here. I just was having so much fun that I stayed five years.

I didn’t go back to writing books until I got back to Kansas. I was like, “I should do what writers do, and I should move to New York.”

So, I moved to New York, and then I couldn’t even write for four years. I was so busy cocktailing, tutoring, and coaching to pay the bills that there wasn’t even any time to write Beautiful Bad until I got back here to Kansas and basically allowed myself the affordability to work and write.

Kansas has been great in that regard. Since then, I haven’t done any more screenplays.

How is it for you, being a writer in Kansas City. One has to suppose asking that is a very weird thing, considering you got back and started revisions on The Lying Club right as COVID hit?

Being a writer in Kansas? First of all, it’s awesome. It is great. I grew up here, and I’ve used so many places in Kansas City as inspiration for chapters in my books.

Beautiful Bad is set here. It has scenes that are set at the Classic Cup on the Plaza, and it has scenes that are set on the farm where I grew up. There are also scenes with characters walking through the deli at the Walmart in Gardner. I mean, it’s really all over the place.

Kansas City is just such a great city, especially the book community. Vivian [Jennings] and Roger [Doeren] from Rainy Day Books did my launch of my first book, Beautiful Bad. I’ve done events with Christian Overgaard at Afterword Tavern & Shelves, and The Lying Club is being launched by the Green Door Bookstore out here by me, because I was thinking I could get more friends and family if I do it out here.

All of these store owners are just absolutely fabulous. I just think that people that love books are usually the nicest people. There’s so many book clubs in this city. It’s insane.

When I first published Beautiful Bad, the invitations for book clubs started rolling in, and once a week, I could just count on going to someone’s house and feel like, “Here’s some hors d’oeuvres, and here’s some wine, and there’s 30 of us and we all read the book.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was doing a book club a week there for awhile. I just feel like Kansas City is a great place for people who read and people who write.

Annie Ward’s The Lying Club is out March 22 from Park Row Books.

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