The North Carolina author reveals how she managed to unravel a mystery in reverse with her new book All The Missing Girls.
Chat with Megan Miranda via Twitter on Friday, July 22, from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST, 11 a.m.-noon PST) using the hashtag #southernlit.
With a plot that revolves around the disappearances of two young women a decade apart, All The Missing Girls takes readers through 15 days of discovery — starting at the end. A fan of psychological suspense by Gillian Flynn, Tana French and Megan Abbott, Megan Miranda adds an original twist to her first novel for adults.
She says she always knew she wanted to tell this story backwards, but her biology degree from MIT helped her with all the trial and error involved. “I had this idea where I wanted to tell sort of the unwinding of a mystery, where you’re walking back through the pieces of the puzzle and then as the story goes kind of stripping away layer after layer and also the different motivations of the characters,” she says.
Miranda wrote the story in the order that it’s read: counting down from day 15 to day one. It was a process that involved many drafts, lists and about nine months of writing. She also used her experience as a young adult novel writer to craft a backstory that shows how what happens to us as teenagers can affect the rest of our lives.
“I’m drawn to big things that can happen in the teenage years,” the young adult author explains. “Even in All The Missing Girls, the events that set everything in motion happened when they were teenagers and I was really curious how that could affect people even 10 years later.”
It’s been 10 years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown of Cooley Ridge, North Carolina, after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared without a trace. When a mysterious letter arrives from Nic’s ailing father, she reluctantly packs up her life in Philadelphia and drives home to care for him. Within days of her return, another young girl goes missing, and Nic is plunged into a new drama that reawakens Corinne’s case and once again places scrutiny on her, her brother Daniel, former boyfriend Tyler and Corinne’s boyfriend Jackson.
As the narrator, Nic works to discover the truth about this missing girl, who also happens to be her closest neighbor in the woods, and uncover what really happened to Corinne that night 10 years ago. As the mystery unravels, Miranda ultimately asks the question: How far would you go to protect the people you love?
“I’m very interested in writing about that gray morality area of what you say you would do and then when you’re actually faced with it and it’s your loved one, what actually happens,” she says.
We were a town full of fear, searching for answers. But we were also a town full of liars.” – Nic, Day 1
In a way, Miranda is also examining small town life and how people come together — or apart — during a tragedy. Nic thinks she is returning home to help her father and brother, but she ends up confronting her past and the girl she was when she lived in Cooley Ridge. Miranda says Nic’s character was inspired by a similar drive home.
“The scenery’s changing around you, and I started to wonder about how versions of us can be tied to certain places in time, and so I had this vision of a woman who was driving home and kind of seeing pieces of her past as she went,” she says. “Nic herself is a character, who when she left tried to really put it all behind herself for a fresh start, but once she returns to the place, people there know her a certain way and so it’s hard to escape the person who she used to be when she’s actually there.”
Miranda grew up in New Jersey but experienced how tight-knit Southern small towns can be while teaching high school in North Carolina. “Everyone knew so much about each other,” she says. “Seeing that, I thought for a teenager, on the one hand it’s almost inescapable to change, because everybody knows you a certain way, but then on the flipside of that, it’s also a place that really supports each other when there’s a tragedy.”
In All The Missing Girls, tragedy strikes in the woods, which Miranda presents as a dark and dangerous place with potential “monsters” lurking behind every tree. She says summer hiking trips from Maine to Virginia growing up gave her a familiarity with the woods and the mountains. “I think there’s something about the woods that feels like there’s this fine line between the legend and the myth and reality,” she says. “I thought you can look into the woods and wonder if something’s there, but there’s also this idea that we can become something else in there when no one’s watching.”
There were secrets in those woods—the past rising up and overlapping, an unstoppable trail of dominoes already set in motion.” – Day 12
All The Missing Girls is as riveting to read for Miranda’s moments of suspense and big reveal at the end (or is it the beginning?) as it is just to see how she pulled off writing a book backwards. She admits she was a little concerned about how readers would react but felt like this was the right way to tell Nic’s story.
“I kept lists for each day,” she explains, “so there was a list of what the narrator knew and also what the reader knew, and my goal was to sort of walk that line and stay true to both.”