Megan Miranda picks up the phone, explaining that I’m catching her at the beginning of allergy season, also known as Spring, and we chat about her path from working in biotech to teaching high school science to returning her dream: writing. She grew up in New Jersey, graduated from MIT, and migrated to a small town in North Carolina where she lives with her family. The author of five novels for adults and several books for young adults, Miranda’s methodical plots often balance on the knife edge of science and law, while her atmospheric writing carries with it always a bedroom intimacy. In her latest and most eerie novel, Such a Quiet Place, which of course isn’t quiet at all, Miranda continues to write through the layers of a mystery, creating a prism of suspense, through the themes and characters that steadily return to her.
When we met at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, I remember you describing your kids walking to school one day in fall where the leaves fell down, all at once. That scene and moment stuck with me. What is the best or most memorable question that you have been asked?
I love all reader questions. It’s so interesting to me because there are always things that I’m thinking about when I’m writing a book, yet people pick up on their own angles. I love questions that made me think about what my own characters knew that I hadn’t considered, that have me rethinking perspective.
How did you start writing and become a writer? I know you were at MIT and a teacher initially.
Yes, I worked in biotech and was a high school science teacher. I always loved writing and was always reading and drawn to mysteries, but I didn’t the know path to becoming a writer. It was my dream and I let that part of me go for awhile. Then I had kids and was home with them at 1 and 3. I kept saying I wanted to write, so the opportunity of being at home lit a fire to finish something. I wrote at night when they were sleeping until I reached the end.
And was this your first book?
It has the same title, the same main character, and the same first few sentences, but that’s it. I got great feedback from agents and rewrote it twice from scratch. The third version of the first book is the first book that I published.
Why do you write mysteries?
My mom was a mystery reader and those were the books surrounding me when I was growing up. I love the idea that there’s a puzzle and that you can solve it as the reader. The first half of writing the book is discovering and then I figure out what they’re creating. I’m intrigued by the external puzzle element and also the other layer of the mysteries inside other people. I don’t try to write toward a trend, just stay true to the stories that I’m interested in telling.
I have read all your books, some of them twice, and a lot felt more part of the same world or atmosphere, but this one was different: why? Do you agree?
I think that thematically they’re the same. There are themes that I keep coming back to. The idea of the past returning is one theme. In this one, Ruby returning. Also, the tense dynamic between two women being at the heart of a story. This story is a whole cast, an entire neighborhood, from one person’s point of view. The boundaries of the world are contained.
You have lived in New Jersey, Boston, and now North Carolina; does place influence your writing? All are places with water and the symbolism of things washing up. And in this one, the fantasy of a place being broken.
I love setting and place and water and mountains, even though I live by neither. I love small towns and I live in one, but always feel I need the disclaimer that I don’t base my stories on anywhere I’ve lived. When you’re writing a thriller you take an idyllic and beautiful place and find out how does this go terrible wrong or take it to an extreme place. My idea in this book was to set the story in a neighborhood where you’ve only seen the positives. And then when something goes wrong: a crack in the façade and how that permeates everything. I asked: what if a crime occurs? And residents could use doorbell security cameras and other security devices thinking that they could solve that crime themselves, collectively? This book is set in the aftermath and place is a starting point of the story.
You write a lot about the many faces of female friendship and the life cycles of friendships in general. Why is this of interest?
I find it interesting to explore the layers and dynamics of women. What that can look like. I don’t pull from personal experience. I look at the elements that are important in my own life and ask what if those are disrupted? There’s so much nuance in different types of relationships and so I try to explore different angles with different types of stories.
Where did Ruby come from? A scene that stuck with me is the dinner scene and her wild appetite.
She is also a place where I started the story. I’m never sure what she’s thinking, which is important. Again, this story is set in the aftermath. When you meet her the neighborhood has worked together against her and yet, she has chosen to come back. Why? This usually doesn’t happen, but the first line I wrote is first line in the book. She emerged on the page fully formed. In the neighborhood no one knows what to make of her and there’s fear. Fearing that the killer is here again or, if Ruby didn’t commit the murders, fearing that the killer has always been here. I wanted to draw on that paranoia and tension at all times.
This book has a lot to say about community and asks if it is a strength or a vulnerability…thoughts?
Yes in this book there’s a community of people who work together as well as live close together, so they’re seeing so many facets of each other’s lives. It’s hard for them to separate because so much of their lives are entangled. But, also everyone does have their own life behind closed doors and things that they want to protect. There are conflicting interests. Somebody might not like being the center of an investigation.
This book is about a place that is a little too quiet, and of course, not quiet at all…did anything surprise you while writing it? Did you learn something? There are always clarifying elements of fear.
A lot ended up surprising me as I wrote this story. So, then I go back and rewrite. I figured out character dynamics along the way and the secrets people were keeping. Writing a draft is always a surprise.
This book is also about tensions between worlds…the neighborhood is almost like a set, as you say. Do you think that relates to this past pandemic year?
Much of this book was written last summer (2020). I started it before the pandemic, but the draft was written during it. The book itself is very insular; the neighborhood has confined boundaries and thematically that came into play. During the pandemic, it started to feel weird when my characters were going out and doing things! I did some local hiking. Research trips help to remind me of little details that I had forgotten about.
Your writing is so intimate. Do people ever recognize themselves in your work and how do you negotiate that?
I really try not to pull on anything personal. I am always trying to see an extreme version of something or push something further. Sometimes people in my life will read a line or a tiny detail that they recognize. But, really the characters develop as I write them.
I think of you as the master of things coming undone or undoings…how do you go about writing? Do you have it all plotted out?
I find a different way into each book. Sometimes it’s place, sometimes character, and sometimes the seed of the heart of the plot. I try to write every day once I start because if not it takes me awhile to get back into it. I don’t do a lot of outlining, but eventually I step back and make sure that I know where the story is going.
Photo: Magen Marie Photography