Great Barrington — In New York Times bestselling author Aimee Molloy‘s newly released thriller “Goodnight Beautiful,” a husband and wife move to upstate New York; the husband, Sam, a therapist, relocates his practice to a home office, where his wife, Annie, overhears everything from a vent upstairs.
The irony is not lost on Molloy on a recent Friday morning as she describes the book, sitting outside her Great Barrington home — purchased in August 2019 — as her husband, a child family therapist, virtually sees patients in their basement. She laughs and gives a slight nod to the large yellow farmhouse, then goes on to say of the book: “It has a big twist at the end.”
The “big twist” is what Molloy is known for and why her sophomore novel, released Oct. 13 by Harper Collins Publishers, was one of this year’s much-anticipated domestic thrillers after the success of her debut novel “The Perfect Mother” in 2018. Much like Molloy’s plot twists, the road she took to become a best-selling writer of domestic thrillers is anything but predictable.
For 15 years, Molloy was a ghost writer living in Brooklyn, penning novels for “somebody who had a story to tell, but wasn’t a writer.” She got her first break in ghost writing — a break she admittedly didn’t go looking for — in 2003, when she read an article in The New York Times about James Yee, an Islamic former United States Army chaplain who was ministering prisoners in Guantánamo Bay detention camp and was charged with five offenses, including aiding the enemy, spying and espionage. Molloy said her gut told her there was something fishy about the story.
“I was kind of at this cusp where knew I wanted to write, and I couldn’t figure out how to get into it,” she said. But she knew she wanted to find out more and write about Yee. She learned the chaplain’s parents lived in New Jersey and she contacted them to ask for an interview.
“When they asked me who I write for, I said ‘nobody,’” she said. “But they still let me come.” After many months of research, interviews and two attempts to publish the story with major magazine outlets that fell through, Molloy still hadn’t been able to speak directly with Yee, who hadn’t returned her emails. Then, suddenly he called her as she was walking to the subway after just leaving work — her last day at an architectural gallery she had quit two weeks earlier.
“I answer it and it’s James Yee and he said ‘I just sold my book ... and I want you to be the one to write it,” she said. “And I said, ‘Oh, sorry, I don’t do that.’”
But the reluctant writer met with a publisher the following Monday. She was at Guantánamo Bay a week later for research.
“I learned by just jumping in,” she said.
Jumping in seems to be Molloy’s secret weapon. After becoming a mom of two daughters, Molloy said she was starting to feel doubts about her career.
“There’s something weird about ghost writing — you write a book and someone else takes credit for it.” So, she declared to her family that she would take a year to write a novel and if it wasn’t any good, at least she got it out of her system. “The Perfect Mother” — an addictive thriller set in Brooklyn about a group of women whose lives become unexpectedly connected when one of their newborns goes missing — quickly landed her a literary agent and multiple publishing offers. The book went on to become a best-seller and was later optioned for a movie by TriStar and Kerry Washington.
When it came time for her follow-up, things didn’t come so easily.
“It was torture,” Molloy said of “Goodnight Beautiful.” “My debut was way more successful than I anticipated. I thought I’d write this book and my mom would read it, or my husband. Of course, it’s wonderful, but it does put a lot of pressure on the second book.”
But all the stress, and a last-minute rewrite produced a book The Associated Press called “deliciously twisty” and reviewers are heralding Molloy’s ability to rewrite the unreliable female character that often drives the domestic thriller genre ever since the success of “Gone Girl.”
“In the original version of what I wrote, the wife in that version — you couldn’t really trust her; she was in a lot of grief, she was kind of losing it and a lot of the book you couldn’t believe her,” she said. “At the time, the #MeToo movement was happening and it started to feel really uncomfortable for me. If you look at the genre, domestic suspense is mostly women in physiological turmoil who you don’t know if you can believe.”
Her editors agreed that the rewrite was stronger and on March 1, she finished the book and was “ready to take a breath.” Twelve days later, the state shut down due to COVID-19, her 6- and 8-year-old daughters no longer able to go to school in-person. But the house, and the community, has proven to be a comfortable refuge for the family, who moved from an 1,100-square-foot apartment to 15 acres less than a year before the pandemic hit.
“it’s intimidating to go from tiny apartment to this,” she said looking at the house. “One good thing about the pandemic is it’s made us explore the property in a way that would have taken us years.”
Molloy is already thinking about her next book, while she works her way through pulling down vines in her backyard every morning. But if you’re expecting another thriller, you should know Molloy will continue to push herself in new, unexpected ways. Right now, she’s interested in writing about the rise of far-right politics and the national players who stoke those increasingly dangerous flames.
“This happened with ghost writing — I’ll do this one book and 15 years later I’m a ghost writer,” she said. “I don’t want to get into the same thing with being labeled a thriller writer. ... I’m not so committed that I don’t want to try something else.”
Molloy answered a few questions about her favorite books after discussing her newest release “Goodnight Beautiful.”
Q: What is the last great book you discovered?
A: Like everyone else in the world, we’ve been cooking more, and so I’d say my favorite discovery of late is ”The Lost Kitchen,” a cookbook by Erin French. She owns a restaurant of the same name in Freedom, Maine, where a reservation can be claimed only by mailing a note requesting one. The book’s opening essay about French’s childhood in Maine and what she went through to open her restaurant will knock you to your knees and the recipes, all with a New England flair, range from simple to challenging, and are organized by season.
Q: What is your favorite children’s book?
A: If I’ve been to your kid’s birthday party in the last five years, I’ve given you a copy of ”All the World,” by Liz Garton Scanlon. It’s a beautifully written day-in-the-life of a small, rural community, with gorgeous illustrations by Marla Frazee and diverse characters. More recently, I’ve fallen in love with ”Zita the Spacegirl,” a graphic novel series for middle readers by Ben Hatke. I will always credit this series as the books that transformed my second grader from a reluctant reader into an avid one.
Q: What is the last book you gave as a gift?
A: There’s nothing I like more than trying to match a friend to a book. In fact, we have a family tradition of gifting a book to anyone who stays the night with us and the last — before the world ended — was ”There, There” by Tommy Orange and “Dept of Speculation,” by Jenny Offill. The first is about 12 people from different Native communities making their way to a powwow in Oakland, the second a moving novel about motherhood. They are both slim books that could be read in one sitting and yet you won’t soon forget.
Q: Are there books you’ve read more than once?
A: There are some books I turn to again and again, mostly when I’m stuck writing something — anything by Toni Morrison or Jhumpa Lahiri, for example — but I recently picked up “Personal History,” the autobiography of Katherine Graham, which I first read about 20 years ago. Graham took ownership of The Washington Post after her husband died in 1963 and reading about the history of the paper was more interesting this go-round, given the recent attacks on a free press. But even more than that, this book is so well-written and vividly told, it’s impossible to put down.
Q: What books are currently on your nightstand?
A: More than I need, thanks to the library re-opening for browsing last week! My last load includes ”Migrations,” by Charlotte McConaghy; “Missionaries,” by Phil Klay; and “The Memory Police,” by Yoko Ogawa. All I need now is time to read.