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Interview: May 23, 2019

The perfect home. The perfect family. The perfect lie. That’s the intriguing tagline of Kaira Rouda’s latest domestic thriller, THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER, which is set in an upscale Southern California community. In this interview, conducted by reviewer Rebecca Munro, Rouda introduces us to the book’s main character, Jane Harris, who is determined to refocus on her family after the loss of her oldest daughter the previous year. She explains what attracts her to write about narcissists and why she’s a big fan of unreliable narrators, her decision to “break the fourth wall” in this novel, and how she has used technology (which, she points out, “is completely overtaking our lives”) to her advantage as she’s plotting out her chilling, page-turning stories. Your previous book, BEST DAY EVER, focused on a husband and wife and the secrets between them. Now, in THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER, you again write of a family in suspense. It is no secret that thrillers are always a hit, but with books like yours, we’ve seen a rise in domestic thrillers. What do you think makes this genre so alluring? What drew you to it initially?

Kaira Rouda: I’ve always written stories about what’s beneath the surface of seemingly perfect lives. To me, that’s where the best stories are found. The illusion, shattered.

BRC: In THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER, your main character is Jane, a grieving mother who is just emerging from the haze of grief that has enveloped her since her daughter Mary’s tragic death last year. But as she starts to fall into her routine, she sees that her husband and younger daughter are no longer the same people they were before Mary’s death. Can you introduce us to Jane? What drives her?

KR: Jane is the perfect mother and the perfect wife. She’s just lost her oldest daughter, a year before, but now it’s time to refocus on her family. Jane likes to be the center of her family and the center of attention. She believes she has worked very hard to be where she is, and she’ll do everything she can to stay there. Her daughter Betsy is her focus now. And, of course, her husband David. She knows she hasn’t been paying enough attention to them.

BRC: Early on in your book, you write, “That’s the power of the bond between mothers and daughters. It can never be broken, even in death.” Mother-daughter themes are huge in books, but you toss in a certain edginess in THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER. Can you explain what drew you to the bonds between mothers and daughters? What do you think makes it such a compelling relationship to explore in books?

KR: Girls. It’s complicated. I am blessed to be the mom of three great boys and one fabulous daughter. The relationship between my daughter and me is so special, and uniquely feminine. That said, I think the bonds between any child and any parent are fertile ground when illusions are shattered. In this story, I happened to focus on a mother. It just as easily could have been a relationship between a father and daughter. It’s all about family dynamics, not really (to me) about female dynamics.

BRC: Although it seems that Jane’s deceased daughter, Mary, is the titular favorite daughter, there are quite a few mother-daughter relationships at play in your book. Jane herself struggles with baggage from her relationship with her mother, and Mary’s biological mother plays a role in the family, too. How did you balance all of these tense, complex relationships while giving them each the appropriate amount of attention?

KR: See above. But additionally, we are all shaped by our parents, their presence (or non-presence), their world views, their health. Jane is a product of her upbringing, for sure. She saw what she didn’t want to become in a uniquely Jane manner. Mary’s biological mom, Elizabeth, and her choices play a big role in the novel because it’s another layer of secrets. Mary’s place in the world was complex, and layered with different types of mother relationships, for sure. I’m glad you thought the balance was right.

BRC: Your characters live in an elite community full of skinny, plastic-surgery-fanatic moms in athleisure, business-minded dads (and their mistresses), and children who seem to really have it all. But with this proximity and privilege comes a loss of privacy, something that Jane worries about and adapts to, often having important conversations in just the right outfit and where the right people can hear her. Why did you choose this setting, and what advantages or disadvantages did it offer as you wrote?

KR: It’s about the perfect life being the perfect illusion. In Jane’s case, she’s quite aware of the setting in which she’s found herself. Her observations about her neighborhood come from a place of otherness. She’s well aware that most people in the neighborhood are thrilled to be there. It’s a place of privilege, but it’s also a beautiful place to be for most people. It’s the difference between a perfect setting and Jane’s internal crisis that makes for a story. Her snipes about the neighbors reflect her insecurities more than anything about them. She doesn’t have friends, as you may have noticed.

BRC: Speaking of being aware, Jane is endlessly self-aware and, dare I say it, quite a narcissist. She often addresses the reader directly, smugly asserting her brilliance or revealing a secret so that she can lord it over the reader’s head. What was it like getting into her head and writing the way she thought?

KR: Writing from Jane’s perspective was cathartic and terrifying.

BRC: Furthermore, what was it like addressing the reader so directly? How did you choose the right moments to “break the fourth wall,” as it were?

KR: I’m a panther. So when a character does that in one of my novels, I’m as surprised as the reader is. Jane may use the technique to throw you off --- much as she does with her tragic death stories. If you’re focused on what she’s saying, perhaps you aren’t aware of what she’s doing.

BRC: This is the second time you have written about a narcissist. What about them attracts you to write about them?

KR: I find them to be fascinating, and all around us to differing degrees. I’m not a psychologist, but I do find it fascinating writing from a perspective of a character who is entirely self-absorbed and self-focused. Like it or not, we live in a selfie world. If my stories can help readers see these people for what they are, that is great. Otherwise, hopefully, it’s an entertaining story.

BRC: Jane is smart and crafty --- not only does she track her family using secret apps, she also manipulates conversations and seems to know where everyone will be and what they will say long before they do. But she is not wholly reliable, either. Can you talk a bit about the use of unreliable narrators in fiction and how it comes into play in THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER?

KR: I’m a big fan of unreliable narrators. They’ve been my favorite type of novel to read, and I’m having so much fun creating my own. In both BEST DAY EVER and THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER, the stories would not be as fun coming from any other point of view. That said, it’s tough to stick with one voice through an entire novel. The challenge is to make you care about these folks --- Paul in BEST DAY EVER and Jane in THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER --- even though maybe you shouldn’t.

BRC: It has been said that the birth of the cell phone was one of the worst things to happen in fiction. Plot points like missed connections and misunderstandings can all be explained with a text now, and many authors choose to leave technology out of their books entirely. You, however, use cell phones and text messages to your advantage, but you also show how they can be misleading. Can you talk about this decision? How did you turn what could have been a disadvantage around?

KR: Technology is completely overtaking our lives. I cannot imagine not using it in a contemporary story. And Jane’s a control freak. So having spyware to track her own children is a dream come true. And text messages are just fraught with misunderstanding, but it’s so much easier to text than to talk to each other.

BRC: As in BEST DAY EVER, THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER really plays with the juxtaposition of perfection and the horrors hiding behind the façade. How do you balance these perfect families and their perfect lives (not to mention your darkly humorous titles) with the thrills and chills hiding behind them?

KR: I find humor to be the key ingredient to balance the horror. Hopefully, you’re laughing along with Jane and Paul, even if you don’t want to. If you like them, even a little, the story works. If she has you thinking about all the dangers lurking in your own home, for example, she wins.

BRC: You have said in previous interviews that you’re a “pantser,” meaning you don’t plot your novels out beforehand. How does this work with thrillers, where you have to place clues within the text as you go?

KR: I’m learning to do a very general outline now. But my preference is to have a spark of an idea and just start writing. My editor and publisher, along with my agent, are very happy I’m starting to give them a notion of the story before diving in.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it? Will we again see a narcissistic character?

KR: I am working on my next novel. I’ll let you know as soon as I know! Thanks so much for reading THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER. And for these great questions.