After one of their friends was suckered by a charming sociopath she met through the London Review of Books’ personal ads, literary heavyweights Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment got involved. Using the nom de plume A.J. Rich, they co-wrote The Hand That Feeds You, a psychological thriller seasoned with a hefty dash of retribution.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your novel—about a grad student who comes home one day to find her fiancé dead, then discovers he wasn’t really who he claimed to be—was inspired by your friend Kathy Rich. What happened to her?
AMY HEMPEL: Jill and I had both known Kathy for a very long time. Near the end of her life, she got involved with a man who was very keen on her. He asked her to marry him! But she was never allowed to visit him. He always met her in New York, or on vacation. When he couldn’t spend Christmas with her, she got suspicious. She found out that he had, in fact, several other fiancées.
How did she learn about the other women?
JILL CIMENT: Her computer broke, and she called somebody to fix it who mentioned, very casually, that she could also hack.
HEMPEL: Sort of a Lisbeth Salander.
CIMENT: Kathy said, “Well, how much would it cost to hack into somebody’s email?” She said, “$250.” So Kathy said, “Go ahead,” and discovered an entire world of him flirting with one fiancée after another.
HEMPEL: It was mind-blowing, the levels of deception. She wondered how she, an accomplished, successful, attractive woman, had gotten sucked in by someone like that.
Kathy originally planned to write a novel about the experience herself but died before she could. Did you have any trepidation about picking up the project?
HEMPEL: We didn’t hesitate at all.
CIMENT: We were doing something she would have appreciated—and gotten a real kick out of.
Did either one of you ever meet her fiancé?
HEMPEL: I did. No alarms went off in my brain. I didn’t find myself rushing to tell Kathy, “Ditch this guy! Something’s wrong!” He was persuasive. He fooled us all.
I’d want to sue someone if he tried to deceive me like that.
HEMPEL: Oh, God, yeah—or kill.
CIMENT: You can’t imagine the pleasure we had when we killed him in the first chapter.
This article originally appeared in the July 24, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick up the issue on newsstands now, or subscribe at ew.com/allaccess.