Emily Carpenter talks about her new book Every Single Secret, an “unabashed love letter to Emily Brontë” that explores the line between love and obsession.
Kitty Cult fans may still be reeling from Emily Carpenter’s last novel The Weight of Lies, but the Atlanta author is back with a new psychological thriller about a couple sharing their darkest secrets. Daphne Amos and her fiancé Heath head up to the North Georgia mountains for a seven-day retreat with Dr. Matthew Cerny. A psychologist celebrated for getting to the root of repressed memories, Dr. Cerny has promised to help Heath with his escalating nightmares that are putting a strain on the couple’s relationship. Daphne just goes along for emotional support.
The retreat’s isolated location in a creepy Victorian house—and the other couples attending that they’ve been told not to socialize with—only increase Daphne’s skepticism. They give up their keys and phones when they arrive and are told they’re being monitored by hidden cameras in their rooms. One night, Daphne decides to leave her room and realizes this retreat is not at all what it seems. As both Heath and Daphne start to open up about their dark pasts, Daphne wishes she’d never learned Heath’s secrets and realizes she may never be able to escape from them.
We just had to know what inspired Emily Carpenter to take couples therapy to such extremes in Every Single Secret. We also asked her about her Georgia setting, love of secrets and Emily Brontë of course. Fans of Heathcliff and Cathy will want to add this book to their collection and will have to decide whether Daphne and Heath’s relationship is the result of love or obsession.
Erin Z. Bass: I admit that marriage counseling can be terrifying sometimes, but you take it to the extreme in this book. Where did the idea come from?
Emily Carpenter: A long time ago, I read an article about the work of Dr. John Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Schwartz-Gottman at the University of Washington. He created this “love lab” where he and other research scientists and doctors could observe how couples interacted and what behaviors predicted a divorce. It’s pretty fascinating, complicated stuff, but suffice it to say, when I read he used video cameras to monitor the patients, my imagination went to a very dark place. Dr. Gottman however is very well-respected and would never do anything as sketchy as my characters.
EZB: And is the Victorian house based on a real place?
EC: There’s no house like that—or couples retreat center—up in the North Georgia mountains, that I know of. The actual house itself is modeled after Ivy Hall, which is a historic house in downtown Atlanta, that’s now a part of SCAD’s art school campus. The house is crimson and gorgeous.
EZB: Why did you decide to set the retreat in the North Georgia mountains?
EC: I love to set my books in the South, because that’s my place. It’s the geography I know, and I think the South lends a particular gothic, mysterious feel to a book. I wanted the mountains because it felt remote and isolated—a place where you could be trapped and feel danger just around the corner. I needed Daphne and Heath to fully commit to this place and their therapy and relinquish all their devices, and the mountains were the perfect setting for that.
EZB: All of your books are about secrets to some degree, but this one even has “secret” in the title. Why is that a theme you keep returning to?
EC: Secrets make for compelling drama, I think. Personally, I am very private with some things, so as I was writing the character of Daphne, I really connected with how she cannot bring herself to tell her fiancé what she believes is the worst thing about herself. I really shy away from the “shock and awe” openness of our social media culture, those confessional personal essays and blogs, so I felt Daphne’s relief in finding a person who didn’t demand that level of openness in order to have a loving relationship. I don’t necessarily think secrets are bad. We aren’t obligated to open ourselves to everyone. But if you’re hiding something really terrible, there is that risk that people who love and trust you are going to be disappointed if it comes out. And there’s the drama.
EZB: In your last book The Weight of Lies, you basically wrote two books simultaneously. How did Every Single Secret challenge your writing abilities and how much psychology research did you do?
EC: The primary challenge with this book was that closed-door aspect, the one location where Daphne and Heath go. I went into the project wanting it to feel somewhat claustrophobic to the reader, but halfway through, I was suffocating myself! It was hard to write a book where the character didn’t get to jump in a car or ferry or plane and just leave. So I came up with the present tense chapters of Daphne running for help. You don’t know who she’s running from or why, but it got me out of that house and helped me to inject a little bit of action.
The psychology research was really interesting, and not the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I had to do basic research about certain personality disorders, but also about psychologists and how they research and treat patients and a lot of groundbreaking, cutting edge stuff about the brain and personality disorders. And then I had to subvert all that in certain ways that would seem professional but questionable. I know that probably makes no sense, but it’s hard to talk about it without giving away spoilers! Basically I had to figure out what would make a good psychologist and what would make a bad one.
EZB: What books or writers inspired you for this novel?
EC: I was very inspired by a movie “Ex Machina” that takes place in one house, and things are not as they seem and the main character has to figure it all out. He goes from amused to annoyed to suspicious to terrified, and it’s just delicious. Masterful. The book that inspired me was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. The love story—or obsession story, people differ on what it actually is—between Heathcliff and Catherine was a bit of a mirror for some relationships in the book, as you’ll see by the opening quote.
EZB: Your main character is named Heath in a nod to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, and you say in your acknowledgements that this book is “an unabashed love letter to Emily Brontë.” Can you talk more about that?
EC: I can’t tell you too much about why Heath is named what he is, or how it relates to the story, but I will say, I think that love and obsession are often closely linked and I think Emily Bronte nailed that concept in a way that nobody else has. The proof being that half the people who read Wuthering Heights swoon at Heathcliff and think he’s the most romantic of heroes, and the other half think he’s the opposite. The book’s not an easy read because the language and structure is really of its time, but the story is powerful and so emotional and completely relatable in these modern times.
EZB: What are you working on next?
EC: The next book is the opposite of this claustrophobic, simmering suspense. It’s a straight up adventure thriller, and I had so much fun writing it. It also involves a mother and daughter and an app they use to find their way to each other.
Every Single Secret is one of our 2018 summer reads. View the full Summer Reading List here.