How Fleetwood Mac, Mary Shelley, and the Manson murders inspired Rachel Hawkins' next thriller
Authors take inspiration from everywhere, and Rachel Hawkins has had no shortage of influences when it comes to her career as a contemporary thriller writer.
Her first in the genre, The Wife Upstairs, was a modern twist on Jane Eyre, while her last thriller, Reckless Girls put Below Deck and Vincent Bugliosi's And the Sea Will Tell in a cocktail shaker. Her next, The Villa, out Jan. 3, 2023, once again fuses a myriad of texts, including the music of Fleetwood Mac, the Manson murders, and the notorious summer Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley spent vacationing in a castle in Geneva.
"I have basically been obsessed with the Romantic poets and Mary Shelley and that whole scene for years," Hawkins tells EW. "There is something so like, narratively rich about that summer that they spent at Lake Geneva. It's something you couldn't make up — you've got all of these big personalities, you have all of these weird interpersonal things happening. And you have people making literally world-changing art. I knew that I wanted to do something with that idea at some point. I just didn't know what until finally, the idea of, 'What if I took those guys and put them in the 1970s music scene?' occurred to me. And then I just went from there."
The Villa spans across two timelines, the present day in 2023 and 1974, all within the complicated confines of a notorious Italian villa. In 2023, Emily and Chess have transitioned from childhood best friends to frenemies, thanks in part to Emily's success as a cozy mystery author and her constant need to compare herself to Chess' rise as a self-help influencer and mega-bestselling author. When Chess invites Em to the renowned villa she's rented for six weeks in Umbria, Emily jumps at the chance, hoping a change of scenery will crack the writer's block that's been plaguing her for months.
But the villa has a dark history, dating back to 1974 when rock star Noel Gordon rented it for the summer in a similar desperate bid to make inspiration strike. He invites another musician, up-and-comer Pierce Sheldon, Pierce's girlfriend, Mari, and her stepsister, Lara. to join him. But things quickly spin out of control as Mari ends up writing one of the most renowned horror novels ever written, Lara composes a platinum album, and Pierce is brutally murdered.
As Emily digs into the villa's history, she starts to realize there might be something more sinister to that notorious summer of 1974 and that clues might be hiding in plain sight in the works of Mari and Lara. But the deeper Emily digs, the more the villa closes in and the possibility of it claiming another life becomes all too real.
EW can exclusively reveal the cover for The Villa, which boasts a sinister crack right through the Mediterranean, lemon-patterned stucco.
We also caught up with Hawkins to talk her obsession with Mary Shelley, why the '70s have always fascinated her, and the ways in which her thriller covers keep surprising and delighting her.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In terms of your two timelines here, what made you choose the 1970s?
RACHEL HAWKINS: I have always wanted to write a 1970s music scene book. I don't know if that's because I had hippie parents. Or if it was because I was born in 1979, and I just missed it. But I had been thinking about doing something set in that time period and that scene for years. I remember when Daisy Jones and the Six came out, I was both thrilled and heartbroken. I was like, "Oh yes. This is a book I've always wanted to read." But [also], "Oh, darn, this is also the book I wanted to write." But then when I read it: "Oh, no, I'm so glad that this exists. This is so different from anything I would do. Now I can just enjoy it." I still always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do something in that time period. Whenever I'm approaching starting a new book, I'm always thinking about what's interesting to me, what's something that is on my radar, something I've really been thinking about. When I was coming up with this book, I had just watched an episode of Doctor Who that was set during that particular summer and Mary Shelley and Lord Byron were characters in that particular episode. It reminded me that I was super into all of that, and then, it smushed into this '70s music idea. And then it became a thriller in the way these things happen.
Clearly your '70s characters are inspired by the Shelleys and Byron, but were there other events or moments of the '70s that influenced you as well?
A little bit. There's definitely a slight vibe of the Manson murders going through there. The idea of these darker rumors because these were sex, drugs, and rock and roll type people. Was there something inherently evil about what happened in terms of the murder, stuff like that.
Is some part of this about putting the respect on Mary Shelley's name that it deserves?
I definitely think she has a good amount of respect on her name these days. But yes, it's about digging into the ways in which both Mary Shelley in real life and the Mari in my book and a lot of female creators over the years, do sometimes have their art sublimated into their romantic lives. Those sort of things take over. That was definitely something that I wanted to talk about. It's interesting in actual literal Mary Shelley's case and in the fictional Mari's case, the ways in which women's art is not always taken as seriously. There's a line in the book where she talks about how the idea was that she and Pierce, who's my Percy Shelley stand-in, are supposed to create together and it's going to be this amazing thing, but somebody needs to buy the milk. Somebody needs to vacuum the carpet and somehow that always ends up being her. That was definitely an idea that I wanted to explore. Having read biographies of Mary Shelley, she was forever doing secretarial type work for both Percy and Lord Byron, transcribing their poems and things like that, while being like a humongous genius in her own right.
In terms of the novel that makes your Mari famous, it's called Lilith Rising. That's a name that gets invoked a lot in popular culture, particularly when we're talking about women and power and the patriarchy. What drove you to invoke Lilith here?
Well, like any girl who graduated high school in 1998, Lilith Fair was quite big for me. It's a name that's invoked a lot when it comes to feminism. And I thought that there was something fun about having her use it and as the title of a novel in 1974, when it might not have been quite as well trotted out as it is now. It's a little nod to her being a little ahead of her time as Mary Shelley obviously was as well.
The 1970s is the greatest era of music in history. If you were going to recommend a track or two to pair with the book, what would it be?
I don't think you can go wrong with "Rhiannon" by Fleetwood Mac. That's always a vibe. You cannot go wrong with any Fleetwood Mac on this. I have a whole playlist that I link to on Twitter a lot. The book was originally set in France before I decided to move it to Italy. So I made this huge playlist, and it's full of French pop music of the '70s which was so hard to find. I had to do all these searches of like, "What was the top 10 in France the summer of 1974?" Then I completely scrapped the whole France part of it, but the playlists were made. I'd done too much work on it.
We've been locked down and a little more limited, but did you go to an actual villa for research? Or is there one that inspired the one in the book?
I wrote this last summer so, no, sadly, I did not get to really go anywhere. However, I actually had been to Orvieto, which is the town that the villa is set around, in 2016. Hilariously, while I was in Orvieto, I was reading Romantic Outlaws, which is Charlotte Gordon's joint biography of Mary Shelley and her mom, Mary Wollstonecraft. It's funny that now, all these years later, these things combined into this one book. I have been to Orvieto and Rome and places that show up in the book, but sadly no villas yet.
In the modern timeline, you really dig into frenemy relationships. How would you say the female friendships in this novel compare to those in your previous thrillers?
This one is the darkest of them all to me because these two women really do know and really do love each other. In a weird way, it's maybe the most familiar and the most twisted.
We're debuting the cover and you've gone from torn wallpaper to a ripped shirt to cracked stucco. Can you walk me through that evolution of that?
Yes. One of the things that I really love about all of my covers for the thrillers is that they're very bright and colorful, and hopefully draw you in, and then there's always a flaw. Which is very much what the world of the books is meant to feel like too. In The Wife Upstairs and Reckless Girls and now in The Villa, these are glamorous people living glamorous lives. There's something a little aspirational about all of it, but there's a lot underneath. So I love that visual cue on each book cover of: "This looks perfect. It's not."
Do the lemons signify something in particular?
Probably just how much I enjoy limoncello to be honest. When we got the cover, I was like I've got to go back and put more limoncello references in the book
If you were going to tease this book in three words, what would they be?
I'm going to cheat and I'm going to do three words for each storyline For the modern timeline, we've got — toxic female friendships. And then for the 1970s one, we're gonna go with sex, drugs and rock and roll.