Midway through writing Nine Perfect Strangers, Liane Moriarty packed her bags and checked into a health resort — exactly the kind depicted satirically in her new novel, filled with guests frantic for enlightenment. Even before arriving, she fell under its spell. “I was laughing at myself as I was driving there, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll be different when I come back,’ ” she remembers. She stayed for five days. She gave up coffee. She meditated. She wrote. “I stopped at the first café on the way back and had a coffee,” she admits. “But I believed!”
One could easily imagine the experience fitting into a Moriarty novel. The Australian author, 51, has made an art form out of spinning emotional journeys — that’d be easy to laugh at were they not so cringingly relatable — into addicting page-turners, from her 2003 debut, Three Wishes, to her 2014 smash, Big Little Lies (adapted into an HBO series), to, now, Nine Perfect Strangers. Her indelible characters develop from hilarious to heartbreaking; she slowly reveals the human being — the pain, the history, the yearning — within the caricature.
Moriarty again executes her winning formula in Nine Perfect Strangers — prickly women (and a few men) confined in tight spaces, left to bicker, backstab, and lie their way toward (expertly teased) doom. Though in a bit of a departure, here they’re from different walks of life: an ex-soccer player, a grieving family, a bitter divorcée. They fend off dysfunction brewed by the resort’s director, Masha, who turns a mindfulness getaway into wellness boot camp.
Our guide into the novel is Frances, an affable romance writer whose hope for some form of revelation brushes up against her skepticism. Is there a bit of autobiography there for Moriarty? “When my husband read the book, he said, ‘You do realize that Frances is exactly the same age [as you]? When the book comes out… everyone will think it’s you,’ ” the author recounts. Moriarty then jokes that the difference between her and Frances is that the latter is more “charming,” before revealing, frankly, “There are definitely parts of me in there.”
Moriarty “enjoyed making fun” of her new ensemble, the extremity of their behavior as they both resist and buckle to temptation. The satire came naturally: One absurd sequence, in which a few guests sneak in a meat-lovers pizza, was drawn straight from an anecdote provided by the manager of the resort Moriarty stayed in for research. “Our desperate desire for personal transformation is so strong that we can give up our good sense,” she says. But Nine Perfect Strangers isn’t just slapstick. There’s plenty more to these salvation-seeking resorters: Just when you’re sure it’s a comedy, the book unfurls a grim shocker.
This is how Moriarty prefers to write — on the fly, in the process of discovery, right beside her reader. Her trademark twists come as a surprise even to her, emerging out of the paths she lays out for her story arcs and relationships. As to how Moriarty crafts her characters: She attaches extreme attributes to start, before layering them as she builds out their world. Moriarty names Lies’ Madeline (Reese Witherspoon on the HBO show) as a good example, recalling how the first detail she wrote about her was an amusing quality, plucked right from a friend’s personality — “perpetually outraged.” (“I love people who are always furious about something,” Moriarty adds dryly.) But she assures this was merely a starting point: “Madeline ended up nothing like this particular friend!”
Then there’s Masha, Nine Perfect Strangers’ tyrant of green-juice-glugging and wake-ups-at-dawn, who originated from a TripAdvisor review. Moriarty scoured the travel website when she began writing and fell hard for one particular rant. “[The guests] complained about this crazy director of their resort, banging on their door really early in the morning,” she remembers. “With pleasure, I realized that I needed a crazy person to run my resort.”
Yet Masha also defies the expectations set by that first impression. Key to Nine Perfect Strangers is that its mocking introductions are no less affectionate than the empathic shadings that follow. The novel confronts serious issues head-on as it barrels toward its conclusion, covering everything from suicide to aging to mental illness — par for the course of Moriarty’s work, which appeals largely to women. Her characters linger beyond the final pages, like a new friend who’s moved away. The author mourns their absence too. “When I first start writing [again], I always miss my characters from my previous book,” she says. “I get to know them.”
At least her Lies ensemble has lived on. Though the adaptation was conceived as a one-off by HBO, reception was so rapturous that a second season (inspired by a new idea of Moriarty’s) was commissioned; it premieres next year. Now even more Moriarty characters are earning second lives. Nicole Kidman, who won two Emmys for producing and starring on Lies, secured rights to Nine Perfect Strangers months before the book was published; several other Moriarty novels are also in development, including The Husband’s Secret (with Blake Lively set to star), Truly Madly Guilty (reuniting Kidman and Witherspoon as producers), and What Alice Forgot (a long-gestating project with Jennifer Aniston attached). But the Hollywood attention isn’t fazing Moriarty, even if she found the Lies page-to-screen experience “a pleasure from start to finish.”
“I never want to think that the film adaptation is the end result,” Moriarty explains. “For me, what’s most important is the novel. Because that’s mine.”
All this success for a writer who’s often boxed into the dubious “women’s fiction” genre. Even as her popularity boomed — and HBO’s relatively dark Lies earned more “prestige” — her rich characterizations still didn’t elevate her reputation the way they might have for a male novelist. Moriarty has issues with the “women’s fiction” label — “Why are we a subcategory?” she asks — but her opinion is evolving. She wonders whether, perhaps, it’s time to reclaim the term. “If there was ‘men’s fiction,’ men wouldn’t be tying themselves up in knots saying, ‘Women can read my books too!’ ” she cracks. “We have a lot to be proud of.”