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Interview: July 28, 2017

New York Times bestselling author Michelle Richmond’s latest novel, THE MARRIAGE PACT, is an intense and shocking tale that asks: How far would you go to protect your marriage? In this interview, conducted by’s Joe Hartlaub, Richmond explains why she wrote the book, which was partly inspired by her longstanding fascination with cult-like organizations that lure people in with the promise of helping them to live fuller, happier lives and be better versions of themselves, and how she came up with the four rules that form the bedrock of The Pact. She also talks about the important role that Leonard Cohen and his music played in the novel, how her books (including this one) cross genres, her decision to explore the world of writing at such a young age, and the single best action she took on her road to success. When I sat down to write the questions for this interview about your new novel, I initially did some quick research on guides to marriage. There are many of them, as one might guess, and they are aimed at everyone from newlyweds to those who have been partnered for the long term, those whose relationship is faith-based, and those who are getting ready to enter into that second marriage. THE MARRIAGE PACT is about Alice and Jake, a newly married couple who find themselves using a different method. Where did you acquire the seed of the idea for this book? And how did it take root and become a novel?

Michelle Richmond: Three major things came together to form the seed of the novel. One was my desire to write a novel about two people who are deeply in love and trying to make it work. I didn’t want to write a novel of husband against wife, but rather a husband and wife together, struggling against a powerful outside force.

The second was my longstanding fascination with cult-like organizations that lure people in with the promise of helping them to live fuller, happier lives and be better versions of themselves. Some fashion themselves as religious organizations, while some portray themselves as revolutionary self-help movements. I have often sought to understand why educated, reasonable individuals get drawn into these organizations and become so enmeshed that they leave behind family members, spend massive amounts of money to take seminars or courses, and even sign extreme contracts committing themselves to the organization for life and beyond.

The third piece of the puzzle was The Federal Criminal Code, a massive tome, comprised of over a thousand pages of tiny print. The book, which is issued annually, outlines every crime you can think of, along with many you can’t, and the corresponding penalties. I wondered: What would happen if there were strict rules for marriage, and penalties for those who broke the rules? What if there was an organization that took marital “crimes” as seriously as other types of crimes? I wanted to put that concept under the microscope, take it as far as I could, and see what happened.

BRC: Alice and Jake are both highly educated individuals, yet they sign an agreement (one that at the least imposes some restrictions on them) without carefully considering it. As the story progressed, however, it became somewhat more plausible, given the force of personality of the people involved and what was promised, namely that their marriage would be successful. Regardless of the degree of believability one brings to your book, the concept of The Pact itself is fascinating. The couple is presented with a locked book, which can be opened only by a member of The Pact. At that point, the couple decides if they wish to join. That image of the book stayed with me throughout the story. Did you model it after an experience of your own? Or did it come to you while you were writing the novel?

MR: The Manual was directly inspired by The Federal Criminal Code, mentioned above. The locked box itself occurred to me as I was writing the first chapter of the book. I wanted the wedding gift from Finnegan --- the locked box containing elegant pens nestled in blue velvet, The Pact Manual, and a contract --- to appear as mysterious and exclusive as the organization itself. We tend to be more intrigued by gifts that come in beautiful, expensive wrapping, and The Pact is no exception.

Although THE MARRIAGE PACT, like any work of fiction, requires some suspension of disbelief, I don’t think there is anything in the novel that is more bizarre than what we see in the news every day. Just think of the way people give themselves over to movements and groups that claim to have the members’ best interests at heart, while anyone looking in from the outside can see that the members are being exploited. Some make a point of cutting their members off from the internet and any other form of information that might cast the organization in a bad light. Successful cults, not to mention successful propaganda machines in any sphere --- including political --- attempt to control the flow of information. I read a fascinating book years ago about Burma, explaining the lengths to which the government went to prevent offending news or information from the outside world from reaching the citizens. Imagine vast rooms of government workers armed with scissors, busily clipping anything unapproved out of every single magazine that flows into the country.

At the other end of the spectrum, I think of the normal, everyday groups that most of us become involved in, whether at the school, the office, the church, or just in our everyday circle of friends.  These groups can be wonderful and certainly provide human connection and other benefits, but they also all require something in return. When the balance becomes off kilter, the groups that should support us end up just stressing us out and making our lives more complicated and less happy. I wanted readers to think about the decisions they make every day --- not just in their marriage but also in other social aspects of their lives --- and how often they subvert their true feelings and instincts in order to go along with something that purports to be good for them, their families or their communities.

BRC: Next, I’d like to talk about the four rules that form the bedrock of The Pact: 1) Always answer the phone when your spouse calls; 2) Exchange thoughtful gifts monthly; 3) Plan a trip together once per quarter; and 4) Never mention The Pact to anyone. The first three make sense. They are all things that a couple probably started doing for each other while they were dating and should continue doing to show that they care. The fourth seems at least somewhat diabolical. How did you decide on these four rules? Were there other rules you considered and ultimately discarded? If so (and you are willing to share), what were they?

MR: Diabolical, indeed! But if outsiders know about The Pact, it is no longer The Pact. It thrives on exclusivity and secrecy.

Rule 1 came about quite naturally, as it’s an unspoken rule I hold myself to in my own marriage of 16 years. Answering the phone when your spouse calls is fairly easy and costs nothing. Of course, this assumes that your spouse doesn’t call when he knows you’re in an important meeting! Exchanging thoughtful gifts was inspired by MEAN GENES, a book on evolutionary biology and human behavior that my brother-in-law, Jay Phelan, co-authored with Terry Burnham. They write about how giving gifts at unexpected times, rather than only on birthdays and special occasions, provides more pleasure for the recipient and fosters greater feelings of connection between giver and recipient. Planning a trip once a quarter, unlike answering the phone when your spouse calls, is something my husband and I have never practiced. Most of us can’t afford to get a babysitter for a getaway four times a year, and even if we could, planning trips can be fairly stressful. So that rule is taken more from the marriage therapy playbook, an amplified version of weekly or even monthly date nights (which my husband and I have also never practiced).

Part of what draws Jake and Alice into The Pact is just how reasonable it all seems. As newlyweds, of course they think it’s a good idea to answer when the spouse calls. Of course they want to go away together! Gifts? Why not? The seeming practicality and good intentions of The Pact, not to mention the fact that they are invited by a prominent musician and businessman whom Alice greatly admires, helps to draw them in.

These four rules are the ones I decided to focus on explicitly in the novel, but the implication is that The Manual contains many more rules, and those rules are so labyrinthine that everyone is bound to break some of them at some point. Jake comments that the rules are wrapped in layers of verbiage and legalese, so that understanding the true nature of the rules is nearly impossible. The easier it is to trip up, the more control The Pact has over its members. Uncertainty about what rules one is supposed to play by causes enormous stress and insecurity; you see this in children who have inconsistent parents as well as employees with mercurial bosses. I wanted readers to experience, along with Alice and Jake, that feeling of being constantly on edge because you don’t know what is expected of you.

BRC: I was quite intrigued by the concept of The Pact from a collective standpoint. They seemed to be everywhere, not unlike the people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which, interestingly enough, was also set in northern California and San Francisco. The seeming omnipresence of the membership --- and their actions --- lent an element of the thriller genre to THE MARRIAGE PACT. Was this aspect of The Pact one of the central elements of the book for you from the beginning? How did the concept begin and evolve?

MR: I love the reference to Invasion of the Body Snatchers! We all have a little bit of paranoia that comes and goes. One of the central characteristics of paranoia is that, when you become afraid of something, you begin to see it everywhere. At first, when Jake and Alice keep encountering The Pact members in unexpected places, they think they’re just being paranoid. But, of course, is it paranoia if someone is really watching you? There is a point in the book when we learn just how big The Pact really is, but part of what makes Alice and Jake feel that the world is closing in on them is that they can’t possibly know who is a Friend and who is a true friend, who is involved, whom to trust.

BRC: I thought that Jake was an interesting choice to narrate THE MARRIAGE PACT. Given that he counsels couples and families in crisis, his approach to helping those whose lives were in turmoil was directly the opposite of what was carried out under the rules of The Pact. The subtle irony --- he and Alice were forced, if you will, by The Pact to practice exactly what he did not preach --- was one of the more striking elements of the book for me. How did you sharpen and evolve this element while you were writing?

MR: Yes, as Jake slowly delves into the world of marriage counseling, he comes to an understanding that every relationship is different and there are not clear answers to every problem. What might work for some couples won’t work for others, so in that sense, there is a flaw in the very design of The Pact. As a marriage therapist, however, he respects some of the philosophies and purported goals that underpin The Pact. The goal, after all, is “to help couples have a happy, lasting marriage.” The goal of The Pact seems to align with his own values. What he increasingly has trouble with as the story unfolds is The Pact’s methods, which are very much in opposition to the way he tries to help people.

Jake understands that relationships are difficult. He believes there are one or two ways for a relationship to get right, and infinite ways for a relationship to go wrong.

BRC: On a related note, Jake’s point of view gives the reader the opportunity to focus on Alice, who is far and away the most interesting and complex character here. Alice is a practicing attorney throughout, and her past life, so to speak, consisted of fronting a fairly successful rock band. As the novel proceeds, she feels the tug of her past career, and for more than one reason. I kept seeing her as Robin Lane --- who led a band called The Chartbusters in the early 1970s and also recorded with Neil Young --- with the charisma (but without the self-destructive persona) of Janis Joplin. Who, if anyone, did you model Alice after?

MR: What a wonderful observation! Although Alice can’t be traced to anyone specifically, she certainly falls within that long, great tradition of rock and roll that seems to inhabit every corner of San Francisco. If anything, her character, like the narrator from my last novel, GOLDEN STATE, sprang from the tiny house where my husband, son and I lived a few blocks from San Francisco's Ocean Beach years ago. Don’t we all in some ways rewrite our past, intentionally or not?

When I think of Alice, I think of that house. There are other places that remind me of Alice, too: like Amoeba Records on Haight Street, one of my favorite places to wander. I often think of that great line from the brilliant film Almost Famous: "And if you ever get lonely, you can just go to the record store and visit your friends."

In hindsight, I hope that Alice contains even just the smallest bit of Patti Smith. Any discussion of musicians and wives and love and all the rest of it probably has to begin and end with Patti Smith.

BRC: You also mentioned in your Acknowledgements that you listened to the music of Leonard Cohen while you were writing THE MARRIAGE PACT and that, as a result, he contributed a secondary but important element to the book. I found this interesting since, by coincidence, I listened to Leonard Cohen the entire time I was reading the story. What song of his is your favorite, if you had to pick just one?

MR: My favorite Leonard Cohen song? That is an impossible question, but still an interesting question to ponder. It changes all the time. This was really the first book that I’ve listened to music while writing. Usually I prefer silence --- or as much silence as I can get between family, the sounds of the home and the neighborhood, and the very affectionate and persistent Phoebe the cat, who is offended by the notion that I might ever want to work alone.

While writing THE MARRIAGE PACT, though, I happened to be going through a phase of listening to the Live in London album, and it all just naturally flowed into the book. There were times when I strayed from that album --- Songs from the Road and Live in Dublin are both great too, Popular Problems as well --- but I always circled back to it. As for favorite songs, there are a few that I keep coming back to: “Chelsea Hotel #2” and “Famous Blue Raincoat,” which breaks my heart every single time I listen to it, though I’ve listened to it thousands of times. Recently, I’ve felt inspired by “You’ve Got Me Singing.”

Today, though --- on this particular day in this particular season, at this particular moment in history --- let’s just say that my favorite is “Anthem.” As Leonard says, “there is a crack in everything --- that’s how the light gets in.”

BRC: Each of your books has tended to blur genres, and THE MARRIAGE PACT doubles down on that. The controlling and threatening aspect of The Pact clearly landed it in the thriller genre for me, and there are elements of romance and even some science fiction to it. Are you drawn toward or away from any particular genre? Did you find that you had to rein yourself in while writing the book to keep it from swerving into one genre or another? If so, how did you do it?

MR: It’s true, my books have always crossed genres. When I write a book, I don’t really think about genre. I think instead about a specific person in a particular place and time, facing a specific and significant problem. Before I turn it in, I begin to think about how it will be received in terms of genre and where it will fit. There is a tendency in the publishing industry to want to put every book in a single category, and to strip away everything in the manuscript that doesn’t fit the prescribed category. Every book can only sit on one shelf, but that doesn’t mean it neatly fits into a single genre. That said, genre can actually be very helpful in leading readers to books they will enjoy.

While THE MARRIAGE PACT is the first novel I’ve written that has landed on the suspense shelf, I always try to write suspenseful novels, because I want to entertain the reader. There are many different ways to do suspense, though, and not all require the kind of pacing that is expected in a thriller. THE YEAR OF FOG begins with a child who goes missing on a foggy San Francisco beach, and GOLDEN STATE involves a tense hostage crisis at a Veterans Administration Hospital. NO ONE YOU KNOW, which reviewers described as a literary thriller, derives its suspense from an unsolved murder that happened 20 years before.

Every one of my novels has a romantic relationship front and center, because I am a (practical) romantic, and I like to think about and write about the way two people stay together or break apart. What causes the ruptures? What helps them to repair those ruptures? I also believe that humans need intimacy. We look for it in our literature and films just as we look for it in our lives. Emotional intimacy between two characters helps us feel connected to a story and its characters, and it also inspires us to think about our own relationships. Also, in romantic relationships, we are often the truest version of ourselves, because our private moments with people we love tend to be when our defenses and masks fall away. Put your character in a room alone with his or her spouse, and you begin to see who that character really is.

The scene or scenes to which I think you’re referring that verge on horror are a true departure from my other novels, but it just felt right and organic to those moments in the story. I often have a tendency to hold back in my writing, to have protagonists proceed with caution the way I do in my everyday life. I wanted to let go of caution in THE MARRIAGE PACT, and get the characters into situations I’m pretty certain I will never encounter. I wanted to let the narrative spin out to a scarier place than I’ve been willing to go before. I had so much fun, I just might do it again!

BRC: In writing circles, there is an ongoing debate about whether one should outline a book, and thus be a “planner,” or let whimsy guide the author so that they are a “pantser,” as in flying by the seat of their pants. Which are you: a planner, a pantser, or a combination of both? And did the manner in which you wrote THE MARRIAGE PACT differ from the way you composed your other novels?

MR: I never plan or outline. I never know the ending when I begin. I like to tell stories, and I like to allow room for the story to develop in ways I don’t expect --- which also, I think, can lead to more unexpected moments for the reader. However, I usually know before I begin where the entire novel will take place and how much time it will encompass. For previous novels, I have tended to write scenes and chapters as they strike me, print them out, and then lay them out on the floor and figure out how to arrange them. THE MARRIAGE PACT was a big departure in that it’s the first novel I’ve written in a linear way, beginning to end, from the first moment of the story to the last.

BRC: Regardless of how you wrote THE MARRIAGE PACT, I’m curious as to when you wrote it. Did you follow a schedule? How well were you able to keep to it? How has your planning, in terms of writing time, changed or stayed the same since you started writing?

MR: During the school year, I write in the morning, usually beginning about 5:30, which gives me a couple of good hours before it’s time to start the morning school routine. I always start my day with coffee, and once I’ve made the coffee I get straight to the keyboard. After school drop-off, I come back and write (or revise and edit, depending on where I am in a project) until I have to start taking care of the business side of writing --- interviews, responding to event requests, connecting with readers on social media, etc. During summer vacation, I also write in the morning, but my kid these days sleeps in most summer mornings, which gives me a nice chunk of time to write.

I’ve always been a morning person, and the only time that was interrupted were college and post-college years when I waited tables late into the night and was too tired to get up early to write. When I was single but had regular office-hour jobs, I would wake up early to write before work, and I would always steal little snippets of time at the office to write. For a little over 10 years I taught fiction writing in university Masters of Fine Arts programs. During those years, I wrote on the days I wasn’t teaching. Before I became a mom, I went away for one month each summer for seven years in a row to various writing colonies --- fully funded programs where I was able to do nothing but write, alone in a room or a private cabin, from dawn to dusk, venturing away only for communal meals.

I haven’t been to a writers’ colony since my son was born 12 years ago, but I also now have a wonderful home office, a very comfy bed I like to write in, and a quiet, peaceful home that’s the ideal environment for writing, so “going away” to write doesn’t really make sense for me. I like to write alone, and I don’t like to take time off for lunch or socializing when I’m in a flow, so I’ve never belonged to one of those writing collectives. For me, it’s impossible to get any work done if there are people around and I have to break for lunch!

BRC: When did you decide that you wanted to explore the world of writing? Did you have a master plan for success, or did you simply set out to write the best book you could each and every time, to see what would happen? How did you start? What do think was the single best action you took on your road to success? And what thing, if any, did you do that you wish you could do over again?

MR: I knew I wanted to write from the age of about 11, but I thought I would write for magazines or newspapers. At the University of Alabama, I double majored in Journalism and English, but I spent most of my time on my creative writing major. Even in high school, I let all other subjects slide in order to write stories. I loved writing and didn’t want to do anything else. Just out of college, I tried to take jobs that would allow me to write. There were a lot of gigs like waitressing and even working for a tanning salon, temp work that involved pulling auto parts from warehouse shelves, all sorts of things. The main thing I wanted was time alone to write. A couple of years out of college, I had a great job at a small advertising agency in Knoxville, with a beautiful corner office like something straight out of “Mad Men.” I was a copywriter working project by project on an hourly wage, and in my downtime I closed the door and wrote stories on my Mac DuoDoc (I couldn’t afford the actual computer, just the small pre-laptop thing you were supposed to plug into a desktop).

After three years, I entered an MFA in creative writing program for one purpose only: to have time to write and to later have a teaching job that would provide me with time to write. I never considered entering a program I would have to pay for, because it seemed that more student loans would mean less time to write. When I realized that my MFA program had me doing too much teaching to earn my tuition waiver and stipend and not enough writing, I transferred to a well-funded program at the University of Miami, which kept my teaching to a minimum and my writing time to a maximum. Also, I lived on the beach, huge windows, no curtains, so I woke with the sunrise every day to write.

After grad school, I continued taking jobs that gave me that space --- including a job in Beijing where I was able to travel alone by bus all over the country, writing in odd little YMCA hotels and in the nice apartment provided by the employer.

The single best action I took was deciding at the age of 22, when I graduated from college, to design my life in a way that would provide myself with time to write. Also, I’ve always been good at sitting down to work instead of going out. I love the writing more than “the writing life” that many writers feel drawn to. I don’t want to hang out and talk about writing. If I had a bumper sticker that said “I’d rather be writing!” it would be 100% true.

Another good decision was marrying a man I met in my MFA program. He’s also a writer, but writing isn’t his profession. He is my first reader for every novel, the first person I go to when I need to figure out a plot or a character. It’s important to have a good first reader who will tell you when something isn’t any good and will tell you when it is.

BRC: If you weren’t writing, what do you see yourself doing at this point in your life?

MR: I wanted to be in broadcast news, but I didn’t have the necessary gifts. I mean, I’m pretty awkward on camera, but I want to be natural and effortless. On a whim, I auditioned to be on the first season of “Survivor” and almost made it. Obviously, if I had, my life would be much different right now (and not necessarily in a good way). I seriously considered law school but decided against it when, during my final semester of college, I ran into a writing professor of mine at a bar in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and he said, “Don’t be a lawyer. You’re a writer. Go write.”

BRC: Who would you say has influenced you most, as a person and in your career? Author and non-author?

MR: I wouldn’t name any one person, but would instead say that my childhood in Alabama, and also frequent visits with my grandparents and extended family in rural Mississippi, was a tremendous influence. I had lots of love and support from my family, but I also belonged to a bizarre --- and, yes, sometimes cult-like --- church that gave me great ideas for stories. Also, in the South everyone is a storyteller, so you grow up hearing these great, outlandish stories around the dinner table. It’s all, “Please pass the butterbeans” and “Did you hear about what happened to Myrtle when she drove her car into the ditch, bless her heart?” That stuff gets in your head. And everybody is so convincing! They tell their stories with such attention to detail, such long and winding sentences, such righteous commitment to take the story to its craziest conclusion, that the stories seem true no matter how impossible they really are. I’m surprised everybody who grew up Southern isn’t writing novels.

BRC: I have found that all great authors are also great readers. Are there any books you have read in the last six months that you would care to recommend to our readers?

MR: TIME TRAVEL by James Gleick is wonderful. I loved THE UNIT by Ninni Holmqvist and STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS by Ted Chiang.

BRC: What is next? Can you tell us what you are working on now?

MR: I’m working on a novel of suspense set in the small town near Silicon Valley where I live. I’ve almost finished the first draft, but I’m not prepared to say more than that!