JoAnn Chaney on Murder, Marriage and Secrets

Talking with the author of the new thriller, What You Don’t Know

JoAnn Chaney’s debut thriller, What You Don’t Know (Flatiron Books) opens with detectives cracking Denver’s most notorious serial killer case. Jacky Seever is hauled away to prison as bodies are dug up from his crawlspace. But that’s just when things begin to spiral for those in Seever’s orbit. Seven years later when a string of similar murders occur, the reporter who covered the case, the detectives, and Seever’s wife are all pulled back into the warped world of a man who is locked away in prison. Chaney’s work is a careful study in characters and deception. The author answered questions over email recently about lies, the people who can hurt us the most, and her suspenseful debut.

Heather Scott Partington: Does anything scare you? I’m such a wimp that I read this book with my breath held and the lights on, and I kept thinking what a badass you are to write about creepy clowns and bodies in crawlspaces and skin peeling off corpses — all while maintaining tension and a kind of macabre chic. What was the first book that really scared you? Was there a quality of that first scare that wanted to bring to What You Don’t Know?

Joann Chaney: Things that scare me: something bad happening to my kids. Spiders, especially those huge ones people are always trying to cover with a bowl in YouTube videos. Being sideswiped on the interstate and crashing. So, you know, the typical stuff.

I can’t remember the name or author of this short story I read when I was a kid, but I remember exactly what it was about — a single woman has her home renovated and takes the contractor as a lover, and when the work is done she ends the relationship. But she doesn’t realize that the contractor has built tunnels behind the walls so he can creep around and watch her. He says he’s in love with her, but he’s obviously a nutcase, and decides if he can’t be with her, well — she’s gotta die. Boy oh boy, that story freaked me out. It was about obsession and lust, and the idea that none of us are safe, not even in our own homes.

I think a lot of writers have themes and ideas and issues they revisit time and time again, and that short story laid the groundwork for what I write about now. I have an ongoing fascination with the idea that things are never what they seem, that everything can look amazing and perfect on the surface and be rotten and stinking underneath. Like the home renovation in that short story — all the paint and drywall and plaster are hiding something much more sinister than you can possibly imagine.

“Everything can look amazing and perfect on the surface and be rotten and stinking underneath…”

Also: if anyone knows what short story I’m remembering, let me know. I’d love to read it again.

HSP: There’s also a lovely grown-ass Nancy Drew-ness to the novel. The reporter at the heart of the story, Sammie Peterson, is both solving the crime and finding herself hopelessly entangled in the world of the killer. She’s no victim, and yet she keeps getting caught up. Was that something you wanted to balance? How did you conceive of Sammie from the beginning?

JC: I love Nancy Drew. Just wanted to put that out there.

I think Sammie’s character is really interesting, because she’s a woman trying to get places and maybe not always going about it in the best way. It’s something of a man’s world she’s living and working in, so she’s constantly battling it out with men — her husband, Hoskins. I’d like to think she’s a modern day Lois Lane/Nancy Drew — strong, smart, willful. But she’s got issues — hell, if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be realistic. And I wanted Sammie to seem real, and I think all her quirks help make her believable. Sammie’s tough, but she’s also soft. She’s strong, but she second-guesses her choices. She makes bad decisions. Sammie’s multi-faceted — but aren’t all women?

Quite a few people have had a very strong, negative reaction to Sammie’s character — she’s unlikeable, she’s a sexual deviant, she’s an all-around terrible person. But I’d argue that those things all make her a believable, balanced character.

HSP: One of the characters says, “knowing things another person is capable of, well, those things stay with you, they change you.” Everyone in What You Don’t Know is damaged at the start of the story by knowing Seever; but I think what readers will find rewarding is the complexity of characters who we come to find are damaged well before they meet him. What You Don’t Know makes a compelling argument for being alone, or at least guarding against the compromise that comes from close association with other people. Did you start to look at people differently as you got further into writing it?

JC: That’s a good question, and one I hadn’t even considered. I wouldn’t say I started looking at anyone differently as I wrote WYDK, but I’ve always believed that the people closest to you can cause the most damage. They know you, what makes you tick, your deepest darkest secrets and fears — and anytime you get close to anyone else you run the risk of them hurting you.

I feel like at its very core What You Don’t Know is about the secrets we keep from each other, and for each other. The characters are constantly in a kind of battle, both against other characters and themselves, trying to protect these secrets and their hidden motives. And I think those sorts of relationships can make for compelling reading.

HSP: My favorite line in the book is “You can make a person believe anything.” What’s the biggest lie you’ve ever made a person believe?

JC: When my oldest son was about six or so he asked me who invented padlocks, and why. I honestly don’t know the answer. But instead of just telling him the truth, I came up with an elaborate story about a gentleman-farmer named Jebediah Masterlock who was having some problems keeping his sheep in the pen. I’ve also told my kids that a certain button under my car’s steering wheel is an emergency self-destruct in case of the zombie apocalypse. When we saw a street getting repaved I told them the old pavement was never scraped off — it was just layer after later of asphalt, and when it got too high the buildings would all be cranked up a few inches so everything was the same height.

You get the idea. I’m pretty sure my kids don’t believe a word that comes out of my mouth, but they keep asking questions and I keep spinning stories. It’s a fun tradition.

HSP: The two marriages — Jacky and Gloria’s and Sammie and Dean’s — are in some ways such interesting mirrors because they both involve the idea of turning a blind eye to a partner’s shortcomings. “Every marriage has rules,” Gloria muses, “not ones that are written down or set in stone, but they’re there just the same, creating invisible fences that only two people can see.” As the story progresses, you do a really nice job of reminding the reader that it’s what we can’t know — or what we choose not to see — that’s what we should worry about. Have you done research into the spouses of historical serial killers? (Do serial killers have spouses?) Was marriage initially a focus of the book, or did that evolve with the plot?

JC: I’d have to say that marriage has always been a key focus of this book, because in many ways marriage is one of the closest, most personal, and (sometimes) the most damaging, warped relationship a person can be in. Your partner knows you at your best, but also at your worst, and is probably privy to all sorts of information about you that no one else has. I’ve been married for fifteen years, and my husband knows things about me that no one else ever will — not my parents, not my kids. No one. Your spouse keeps your secrets — or they don’t. There’s a fantastic line in Stephen King’s Bag of Bones I kept thinking about while writing: “…marriage is a secret territory, a necessary white space on society’s map. What others don’t know about it is what makes it yours.”

“Marriage is one of the closest, most personal, and (sometimes) the most damaging, warped relationship a person can be in.”

The idea for What You Don’t Know actually first sparked because of an article I read about Jerry Sandusky, the convicted child molester who’d coached college football. The article asked the question: Did Sandusky’s wife know about her husband’s crimes, and if she had, why did she keep this terrible secret? That piece really stuck with me, and ultimately turned into the plotline involving Gloria Seever.

I haven’t done much research on the spouses of serial killers, but I do know that John Wayne Gacy (who is the inspiration for Jacky Seever) had been married, although it ultimately ended in divorce before his arrest. And Ted Bundy had several relationships while he was operating as a killer. It’s interesting because it appears that these men were able to have “normal” relationships while they committed their crimes, but it also makes me wonder what sorts of things these women experienced or saw that they overlooked or ignored.

HSP: The book is written like a movie, so I have to ask: What’s your dream cast?

JC: I’ve been asked this question many times before, and I’m embarrassed to say I still don’t have a really good answer — especially since the first line in the book is If this were a movie…

(A day later) But…after some thought and a lot of time paging through IMDB, here’s my cast list of the main characters:

Jacky Seever: Stacy Keach

Gloria Seever: Sissy Spacek

Paul Hoskins: Christopher Meloni

Ralph Loren: Patrick Kilpatrick

Sammie Peterson: Robin Tunney

HSP: There’s a scene in the bookstore where Sammie goes and finds the spot where her book will sit on the shelf someday. Where will this book sit?

JC: Dream scenario: A big stack of What You Don’t Know would be sitting on a table right in the front of a bookstore, with a glowing personal recommendation from one of the booksellers. That’s important. There’s nothing better than having someone you don’t know, a person who doesn’t give a damn whether they’ll hurt your feelings or not, say how much they love your story. How it made them think or feel differently, or how it kept them up all night.

And when What You Don’t Know goes home with a reader, maybe it’ll sit on their nightstand. Or the corner of their desk. Or on their shelf of favorite books. On the back lid of their toilet. Or wherever they put the books they love.

HSP: What’s the best thing you’ve read lately?

JC: I read Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes and Jane Harper’s The Dry — both really great, smart thrillers that were recently published. I’ve also been doing a lot of re-reading my old favorites: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin, to name a few. I’ve also been reading the Harry Potter series with one of my kids.

HSP: What’s next for you?

JC: Writing: I’m working on my next book. It’s set in the same world as What You Don’t Know and features quite a few of the same characters, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a sequel. It’s the story of a marriage gone terribly wrong — early readers have compared it to The War of the Roses, which I take as a huge compliment.

Personally: I’ll be doing a bit of traveling over the next few months for What You Don’t Know promotion, and my family will be tagging along — it’ll be business, with a good deal of pleasure. Disneyland, we’re coming for you!

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