Kaela Coble talks about the secrets of friendship and shares an extract from her novel, Friends and Other Liars.
1. Can you tell us more about your book, Friends and Other Liars?
Friends and Other Liars is about a group of childhood friends from a small town who reunite when one of them commits suicide. After the funeral, they are handed envelopes with notes written by their deceased friend that contain their biggest secrets. They’re told they either need to share them with each other or risk them coming out publicly. The story largely centers around Ruby St. James, who left town a decade ago and hasn’t spoken to any of her old friends since. It’s a book about friendship, first love, and the effects our biggest secrets have on our lives.
2. What inspired you to write this book?
I grew up in a small town like Chatwick, with a great group of friends like the ones in the book. Our unique relationships were a major inspiration for this book. I wanted to write about the complexities of childhood friendships that carry into adulthood – how those connections evolve and change but the foundation is always there. The incorporation of the characters’ secrets was a fun way to tie it all together and make it more interesting to write.
3. If you have to pick one favorite character from the book, who would it be and why?
I love all of them, of course, but I have to say I had the most fun writing both Ally and Emmett. They both totally crack me up. Ally because of her unique dichotomy between fierce maternal friend and gossipy Queen Bee; and Emmett because he doesn’t let anyone get away with anything, especially Ruby, who he has such a funny brother/sister relationship with.
4. What was the hardest part of the book to write?
The hardest part to write was probably the romance between Murphy and Ruby. It’s difficult to write about that type of relationship without reopening old wounds from your own first experience with love and heartbreak. And of course it was challenging to figure out what everyone’s secret should be and how to weave that into the story without giving it away!
5. Can you describe Friends and Other Liars in 3 adjectives?
Wow that is a hard one to answer! I took to Goodreads and borrowed some from reviewers, so you know it’s not just me bragging. The ones I liked most were Juicy, Addictive, and Tantalizing.
6. What is your creative process like?
Once I’ve decided what I’m going to write (whatever concept or characters I can’t stop thinking about), I start by fleshing out the characters, developing some of their quirks and backstory and mapping out a few plot points. I do all this in a spreadsheet, so I can create the chapter outline a few chapters at a time and remember major events. Then I just write for an hour every day (I’m currently still working full-time, so this is all I can manage right now) and chip away at it until it’s a real story. I’m never able to plot more than a few chapters in advance – it’s too overwhelming and everything changes as I start to write anyway. I know that doesn’t sound very glamorous – people picture authors holed up in a dark room with whiskey and cigarettes not eating or sleeping for days because they’re so consumed with inspiration. That sure sounds fun, but I’m more of a routine and spreadsheets and asleep by 10 kinda gal.
7. Who are some of your own favourite authors at the moment?
Books I’ve recently loved are Megan Miranda’s All the Missing Girls, Bridget Asher’s All of Us and Everything, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Lisa Lutz’s How to Start a Fire, and Jennifer S. Brown’s Modern Girls. I’m also a longtime fan of Elin Hilderbrand, Liane Moriarty, Elinor Lipman, Wally Lamb, John Steinbeck, and John Irving.
8. What’s one book you wish you had written?
Well what author doesn’t wish they had written one of the blockbusters like Gone Girl; Big Little Lies; or Eat, Pray, Love? But beyond the success, every time I read or watch The Hunger Games trilogy I get this intense jealousy that I didn’t get to write it. That must make me sound sick considering it’s about children who have to murder each other to survive, but honestly the concept and the world building must have been so fun to write.
9. When did you decide to write and what prompted you to start?
I’ve always enjoyed writing but never seriously thought I could write a book until I backpacked around Australia by myself. I was in one of those “Who am I? What should I do with my life?” kind of phases, (hence the backpacking). Near the end of my trip I was sitting in front of this waterfall reflecting on all that I had experienced and had one of those thunderclap moments when I just knew I wanted to write a book about my trip. It took me a couple years after I returned to actually got the nerve to start writing it, and of course the book was awful and didn’t get picked up. But it was the book I had to write to get my feet wet and to prove that I could finish something difficult to accomplish.
10. What are you working on next?
My next book is about what happens to two best friends when one of them kills the other one’s fiance in a drunk driving accident.
When Ruby St. James returns to her hometown of Chatwick, Vermont, it’s under the worst circumstances.
It’s been ten years since she’s been home, and she tells herself the solitary life she’s built in New York City suits her just fine — at least well enough to avoid slicing open the scars left by her first love, Murphy, or her bipolar, recovering alcoholic mother.
But when one of her estranged childhood friends commits suicide and another compels her to attend the funeral, guilt draws her right back into the tumultuous world she escaped from a decade ago.
Her plan — to hightail it out of town the minute the last rose hits Danny’s coffin — is delayed when her former friends are called together for a reading of Danny’s last words. Their hopes to gain some sense of closure are quickly dashed when the note drips with bitterness, accusing them of abandoning both him and the promise they once made to always love and trust one another.
As punishment, they are each handed an envelope containing their darkest secret and told they can either reveal them or keep quiet, risking the secrets coming out publicly in a trap Danny left behind.
As the secrets begin to trickle out, Ruby struggles between the pull to reconnect with the friends who once meant so much to her and the desperate need to keep the secret that changed her life.
Fraught with emotion, suspense, and hope, Friends and Other Liars is the story of five friends coming to terms with what it means to betray the ones who love you best.
Look at them. I’m dead and they’re still pissing me off.
They’re disgusting. Sitting in their pew, huddled together like a pack of wolves. Each playing their part in mourning—the bereaved, the wilted, the guilty. They clutch at one another, leaning on each other physically and emotionally for support. Shaking heads, balled fists, crocodile tears. Asking why, how. Dabbing their swollen eyes with crumpled tissues. Declaring their loyalty and love for one another. For me.
Really, they hate each other, and they hate themselves, and they hate me for making them face their own mortality. And they love me because it fuels their sick sense of pride in their little clan. The crew, they call themselves, even though they haven’t been whole for a decade. “Still supporting each other after all these years,” they declare, even though they wouldn’t know true support if it helped them climb out of a grave.
There’s Ally, the great beauty of Chatwick, sitting tall and stoic, practically cradling a weeping, whimpering Steph in her arms. Ally’s expression as she comforts Steph says everything about her that you need to know. In this most horrifying moment, she is proud to be the crew’s leader, to be the default person in whom to find solace. But the tightness around her lips and the slight narrowing of her eyes shows a bit of the self-righteousness she feels. Steph is a girlfriend of the crew, not an original member. What right does she have to this display? Ally shoots glances at her perfect husband, Aaron. High school sweethearts; couldn’t you just puke? Talk about not being an original member… Aaron the dreamboat isn’t one either. He didn’t swoop in until our sophomore year of high school. And if you ask me, we would have been just fine without him.
Emmett and Aaron sit together instead of with their respective significant others, no doubt upon Emmett’s insistence. He has always orchestrated the seating arrangements to split between genders. He’s the youngest of three brothers, and therefore the noise, the gossip, and the full range of feminine feelings have always made him uncomfortable. The heightened emotional state caused by my death is no doubt more unbearable for him than my death itself. That he is allowing Ally to tend to his sobbing girlfriend, offering no comfort of his own, comes as no surprise.
He and Aaron mimic the same posture—leaned forward, their elbows resting on the thighs of their cheap woolen pants. They face the front of the church, careful not to make eye contact with each other, so they won’t have to utter one of the lame platitudes they’ve heard too many times over the past days. “He’s in a better place.” “He’s finally at peace.” And my personal favorite: “He’s with Roger now.”
While they should be focusing on the tragedy that is (was) my life, instead my casket is a big, fat, polished-cedar reminder that one day this will be them. They ponder all the predictable questions that even people of the mildest intellect contemplate when faced with untimely death: Where do we go when we die? What will they say about me when I’m gone? What does it all mean? Tomorrow they will look into low-premium life insurance plans to take care of their burgeoning families, should something happen to them. It will make them feel like men in control of their lives. But they’re not. They’re boys, and they’re not in control of shit.
Speaking of boys, Murphy isn’t here, the coward. He always picks the easiest option, and in this case (and many cases), that means hiding. I’m dead, lying here about to be carried off and buried, but all he cares about is winning the argument. Murphy showing up would mean I got the last word, or that he had forgiven me, and either of those would mean he’s weak. He doesn’t realize he’s the weakest one of the bunch anyway.
That brings me to Ruby. She sits in the pew between the girls and the boys, the space between her and them so slight you would only notice if you were looking for it, like I am. She watches Ally comforting Steph, occasionally reaching out a hand to squeeze one of Ally’s. I know Ruby feels genuine grief, but mostly discomfort. She doesn’t know her place anymore, her role. I’m only now realizing that she never really knew it. She’s been an official outsider ever since she dared leave Chatwick at eighteen, but even before that, she and I were always the ones straddling the curvature of the crew’s closed circle. One foot in, one foot out. The dark ones.
I know it’s terrible how much enjoyment I get from watching her squirm, but it’s just too entertaining. Besides, with the fate of my soul no longer a question mark, I’m enjoying what I can. My death will be hardest on Ruby, for sure, but she’ll never admit it, and our crew won’t acknowledge it. She left. She abandoned us, so she can’t possibly feel it as deeply as they do. It’s amazing how grief turns so quickly from a group activity to a competitive sport.
It seems all of Chatwick turned up in their patent-leather shoes and cheap polyester blends. “To show their support,” they’d say. For who? Me? Four days ago, they wouldn’t have pissed on me if I were on fire. Most of them are only here to satisfy their morbid curiosity, whispering behind hands and rolling eyes, gathering tidbits to relay later to their neighbors who were unable to make it. But some are here for my mother, Charlene, whose deli (formerly my stepfather’s) is where they happily spend their food stamps. Either way, I wish they wouldn’t have come. It makes them feel too damn good about themselves, and they don’t deserve it. And I don’t deserve the show either, even if it is fake.
Mom stares blankly ahead of her as the priest eulogizes yet another man who has let her down. I look—well, looked—just like her. If you shaved off her two curtains of waist-length blond curls and straightened out her chest and hips, we would look like twins.
Nancy, Ruby’s mother, sits next to Mom, holding her limp hand. Nancy is the one who made all these arrangements, and despite the overabundance of flowers, I still appreciate her efforts. She saved my mother from having to coordinate another funeral, and I think one is enough for a lifetime. Ruby’s never forgiven Nancy for the way she handled her own illness back in the day, but as dicey as things got in the St. James household, they didn’t hold a candle to my family. Besides, Nancy’s one of the only assholes in this town who has any compassion, and I’m grateful she’s decided to bestow it upon Mom when she needs it most.
That’s all I ever needed. Compassion. If I’d ever gotten a shred of it from any of the people in this room, maybe I wouldn’t be in this fucking box.
My “friends” all think they will finally be rid of me once they’ve fulfilled this obligation. They will go back to the “happy,” normal, vanilla lives they lead, and their guilt will subside eventually.
Dumbasses. They have no idea Mom found the letters this morning.
Kaela Coble lives in Burlington, Vermont, and is a member of the League of Vermont Writers and a graduate of the WoMentoring Project. This is her first novel.