“You Can Still be an Asshole if You Read Books!”
In 2014, TV writer Caroline Kepnes published an unusual crime thriller called You. Her story of a creepy bookstore employee named Joe Goldberg, who stalks and seduces Guinevere Beck, a vulnerable young New York writer, takes place entirely as Joe’s internal monologue. Kepnes turns romantic-comedy tropes on their head, and makes Joe weirdly appealing at the same time. The book is also a searing satire of the New York literary scene. She wrote a sequel, Hidden Bodies, set in Los Angeles.
Last year, Lifetime turned You into a TV series, which won lots of critical praise but few viewers. Then, this year, You premiered on Netflix, and it’s suddenly a huge hit. Now, just like Beck herself, we can’t get away from Joe Goldberg. I emailed with Kepnes about books and bookstores and weird literary obsessions.
Neal Pollack: You, both the book and the TV show, really brings to life a recognizable type: The Creepy Lit Guy. Obviously, Joe Goldberg is an extreme example of this kind of person. But did you conceive him as a satire of a certain kind of young, educated New Yorker? Is he your way of getting back at the literary snobs?
Caroline Kepnes: I wanted to write a love letter to reading and bookstores because it was killing me when people would joke about books being over, when I would see bookstores closing. But, come on, you can still be an asshole if you read books!
The last scene in the book is all about Beck refusing to read, which Joe perceives as a refusal to love. She sees him for what he is. He wants to be loved for who he isn’t: an innocent, selfless, doting prince with great taste in “literature”.
At the same time, literary women don’t come off very well either. Every “writer” we encounter is a poser of one type or another. Is Beck another way of taking a shot at lit phoniness?
In college I wrote a short story for a writing workshop. My professor was like, This is like Gertrude Stein! Fantastic! I drank that Kool-Aid so fast. Within twenty-four hours I was like, Actually, this is a novel. The next thing I wrote, the second chapter of this “novel”…you can’t begin to know how bad it was. As bad as you imagine, only much worse. A compliment from an authoritative figure brought out the worst in me. I was haunted by the sense praise was bad for me. So I put a lot of that psychic energy into Guinevere Beck.
Joe seems sweet and that’s why we are seeing all these female writers from his perspective. We hear it all the time–nice guys finish last, women like to be treated like shit. I wanted to see how Joe remains convinced of his goodness, why Beck is drawn to him. It’s that bookish sweetness that we want to believe is real. He’s a voyeur and Beck wants to be seen.
There’s pressure on young women in particular to make their daily lives seem beautiful and colorful. She wants to be a writer. She feels compelled to present a certain way. But writing isn’t the most photogenic process. You’re young, you’re in New York City! You want to sit in a café and create something beautiful but there’s this message that you’re supposed to look beautiful while doing it. It’s a tall order, one that’s on a whole new level now because of social media. Which is weird. But here we are.
I’ve never seen a bookstore depicted so creepily. Was the shop where Joe works based on a specific place? Why are bookstores of that type so weird? Have you ever been hit on in a bookstore?
I love quiet small places with lots of books. In college, we had this room in the library where you weren’t allowed to talk, and the eye contact in there, wooh! I worked in a used bookstore on Cape Cod, where I grew up. It wasn’t as beautiful as the one in the show, but we did have this enormous creepy as fuck basement that was just stacks upon stacks of books and old Playboys. The place was special. I played a Stevie Wonder cassette during my shifts and spent my downtime reading Lolita at the front desk by a big window. Talk about pretentious! I had some romantic moments in there. But we will leave it at that!
The show–more than the book–takes big potshots at creative-writing programs and also Big Publishing. Beck pretty much becomes a living embodiment of a poster to the Shitty Media Men list. Was that a deliberate choice, to broaden the scope of the satire? To show what lit-type women have to go through?
Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti added these elements when we were in development, long before the #MeToo movement was a thing. It all plays so well, I love this element of the show. With the book, you’re picturing everything through Joe’s eyes. It’s a trip into Joe’s head and there is no escape. It’s a live transcript of this unprinted letter to Beck. But when you have ten episodes, you want to see these characters as they are, not just through his biased point of view. And it’s amazing to me that they were able to preserve that sense of claustrophobia while widening the lens, kicking him out of the picture so that we can see Beck confronting horny demons, talking things out with her friends.
If Joe and Beck were alive today, who would be their favorite authors? What names would they drop at literary costume parties, which, according to the show, are quite popular?
Beck would be super into My Year of Rest and Relaxation. That cover would do it for her and she would read like five pages and be like Why didn’t I write this? Joe would be on his Paula Fox kick because he is a stubborn fucker who likes old things. He’s too insecure to embrace the new.
You live in L.A. now. Do you find the lit culture there much different than New York? Are their pretensions the same? If not, how are they different?
The magic of the digital era is that I talk every day with writers all over the place. It’s hard to compare New York and L.A. because I lived in New York in the early 2000s. I can’t speak really well to what it’s like now. But in general, it feels like we live in the same world, online. You find different circles, the overlaps, it’s one of the ways in which social media is wonderful. You’re beyond geography.
Joe reminded me of Tom Ripley from the Patricia Highsmith series. Was he influenced by those books? If not, then were there any other models?
When people ask about writers you’d like to have coffee with, I always think of Patricia Highsmith. She is just so excellent with classism. Ripley can pass with these people. Dickie’s dad pays him to go to Europe. It’s exhilarating. In You, I wanted Joe to be someone who doesn’t want to win these people over. Joe doesn’t want to “fit in”. He won’t endorse that value system. He wants Beck to shun it.
American Psycho had a major impact on me. I was seventeen when I read Patrick Bateman’s thoughts on Whitney Houston. And I was ALIVE. That’s the feeling I was going for when I wrote You, in a completely selfish way, like, I’m a lot more likely to finish this book if I can wax poetic about pieces of art that save me in dark, lonely times.
Hannibal Lecter! The Silence of the Lambs blew me away, particularly this well-known part: “What does he do, Clarice? What is the first and principal thing he does, what need does he serve by killing? He covets. How do we begin to covet? We begin by coveting what we see every day.” After Joe meets Beck, he redesigns his life, breaks the boundaries to see her every day. In another dimension, this behavior is romantic. Minus the murder, obviously. But that’s the point. Where do we draw the line?
Arnold Friend in Joyce Carol Oates’s Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been is another source of constant inspiration. She’s so smart about the dangers of craving attention and it’s just such stellar writing.
And I’m life-long obsessed with romantic comedies: Soaking-wet Kirby stalks Andie McDowell into that doctor-party in St. Elmo’s Fire: “I’m obsessed, thank you very much.” Nora Ephron’s Big Box Joe Fox shuts down a matriarchal small business as he woos the small businesswoman with daisies. Her favorite flower!
Joe Goldberg doesn’t take no for an answer because, hey, look at Say Anything, John Cusack out there with his boom box. In 2012, after my parents got sick, I watched a lot of rom-coms to self-soothe. In 2013, I was like, okay, what if Ione Skye was like, “In Your Eyes” is a great song but actually, I don’t want you to come with me.
The Lloyd Dobler we know and love would have retreated and gone back to kickboxing. But what if he wasn’t as good as he seemed? And who’s to say she was as good as she seemed?