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Queerness and spice: Andrea Bartz talks about The Spare Room...
...including thoughts on the pandemic, "unlikeable" women, and marketing a book that pushes beyond suspense's typically heteronormative boundaries
We’re going to talk about sex. But first, let’s talk about the pandemic! Because honestly, that was one of my favorite elements of this book. I can’t believe how quickly we’ve gone from quarantine overwhelm to forgetting how the pandemic felt, especially in its first year. You use this era to credibly establish why a woman would move into an intimate situation with another couple and make huge changes in her life and identity. Did you wonder if it was too soon (or too late?) to use the pandemic this way, and did that part of the novel concept come first or only later?
I definitely wondered if it was too soon! I started cooking up the idea for this book in April 2020—ironically, months before I myself moved in with a friend’s family (platonically!)—and I pitched it to my editors in December 2020. Back then, you’ll recall that everyone was like, “I never want to read a book about this period…I see why there are no good books set in 1918!” So I initially pitched the book without the pandemic element, and my editor rightly pointed out that it was key to upping the stakes and trapping Kelly in place…and, as I wrote, the themes that emerged felt so obviously tied to the soul-searching the pandemic sparked. I dedicated this book to “everyone who rethought everything” because I knew I wasn’t alone in coming out of it a changed—and more authentic, truer to myself—person.
A thriller about a throuple! (Yes, Autocorrect, that is a word.) The Spare Room absolutely hinges on not only sex scenes, but also a more general sexiness and sensual self-awareness as Kelly finds her way into a relationship fitting of a romance novel. (And indeed, Sabrina—the woman Kelly moves in with, is a romance author.) I admired how the scenes managed to be neither coy nor anatomically hyper-explicit. Did writing the romantic and sexy parts come naturally or did you have to discover your own authorial style in terms of what and how much to show?
My first draft of the novel had more explicit sex scenes—I published a “director’s cut” of the threesome scene on Cosmopolitan.com, before my editor suggested I tone it down to keep the book in the domestic suspense space (after all, I wasn’t trying to write an erotic thriller). Other sexy moments are generally fade-to-black or curtains-up in the moments right after. It’s funny—I really don’t think there are many explicit sex scenes, but some reviewers call the book “smut” and one (50-word!) professional review used the word “sex” or “sexy”…four times, I think? My hunch is that people fixate on the bedroom scenes because they’re queer and poly, and therefore not what we’re used to seeing in the super heteronormative domestic suspense space.
According to Newsweek, one in eight people have tried polyamory and one in six said they’d be interested in trying it. This was a huge surprise to me. Did your idea of exploring a less conventional (but not exactly rare) relationship in a book meet with enthusiasm or caution in the publishing world?
Definitely caution! My prior books are straight thrillers with relatively little queer representation, and especially after We Were Never Here broke out, we thought readers might be thrown by my shift in tone (a shift from friendships to romantic relationships) and genre (from thriller to domestic suspense). I’m the only queer person on my publishing team (as far as I know), and it was a constant push-pull—they wanted to be coy in our marketing copy and book description, whereas I saw both the queerness and spice as features, not bugs. I think we eventually struck a good balance in how we marketed the book, and though it’s different from my prior books, it’s still got the complex relationships, character-driven plot, and twisty suspense my earlier titles share. Some pearl-clutching readers are still turned off and/or outraged by The Spare Room, but it’s pretty damn clear from the flap copy what you’re getting when you pick it up!
Your novels before this one came out yearly: The Lost Night in 2019, The Herd in 2020 and We Were Never Here in 2021. You’re publishing at a cracking pace, and I believe you’re in that category of suspense writers who work closely with your publishing team, sharing early drafts (or outlines?) to keep the production line flowing. What is that like, in terms of the pressure to create, perhaps balanced by the motivation of having a team that can’t wait to read your next book?
Actually, I’m barely in touch with my publishing about a project between the time they greenlight an idea (based on a one- to two-page treatment) and when I turn in the first draft many months later. I’m not an outliner and I just need to figure out the plot by writing the book. But I’ve always been a fast producer because, well, this is my full-time job—I have to dovetail book advances (which are paid out in chunks over several years!) to support myself. I’m unbelievably lucky to have a creative job I really love, but I continue to balance drafting, revising, and book promotion among several titles at once because I need to pay my rent!
Aside from giving your readers a sexy thrill ride, were there other ideas or questions that drove you to write this book? I ask because all of your books so far seem to focus on younger women navigating work, relationships, issues of trust, and identity. I’d love to hear your own take on what themes you see developing in your oeuvre.
I’m always interested in exploring “unlikeable” traits in women: shame, jealousy, rage, obsession, insecurity, etc. There are “acceptable” ways to be a woman in society, and my heroines always fall short, whether they’re in their 30s and wondering what’s wrong with them because they’ve never had a serious relationship, or they’re plagued with shame around their own past mistakes, or—in the case of Kelly in The Spare Room—they realize they don’t actually want the husband and minivan and 2.5 kids they’ve always had pasted on their vision board. Shooting down societal expectations will always turn some readers off (I once had a reader ask, to my face, why I kept writing “unlovable” characters), but I’m just not capable of writing characters who match our expectations for women and totally lack vulnerability, aggression, self-doubt—you know, the full range of human emotions.
Thank you, Andrea!
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