The Wife Upstairs author Rachel Hawkins calls her next thriller 'Below Deck with murder'
Rachel Hawkins could probably give just about anything a Gothic lens.
The author, who had a smash hit with her contemporary Jane Eyre re-telling The Wife Upstairs earlier this year, has a flair for the atmospheric thrills of the genre (her degree in Victorian literature doesn't hurt). And that's how she arrived at what she's dubbed "island Gothic" for her next thriller, Reckless Girls.
EW can exclusively reveal the cover for the novel, slated to hit shelves Jan. 4, 2022.
Set on a remote island in the South Pacific, Reckless Girls follows Lux McAllister and her boyfriend, Nico, as they're hired to sail two women to this island. Stuck in a dead-end job in Hawaii and filled with grief-induced wanderlust, Lux can't wait for the opportunity, bonding with the passengers, Brittany and Anna.
Despite a history of shipwrecks, cannibalism, and sinister rumors, Meroe Island at first seems a paradise. Things take a turn when they arrive and find another boat, the Azure Sky, already anchored there with gleaming, golden couple Jake and Eliza enjoying all the island has to offer. They quickly settle in to a new life off the grid, a seemingly blissful, free-spirited existence.
But the arrival of a skeevy stranger sends things spiraling, exposing dark pasts and lies. When one person goes missing and another turns up dead, the island transforms from paradise to prison, leaving Lux to wonder if anyone will get out alive.
EW called up Hawkins to talk about her vibrant new cover, just how she coined the notion of "island Gothic," and why even a murder island seemed like a great getaway after the last year of the pandemic. Read more after the cover.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So The Wife Upstairs was inspired by Jane Eyre, is this new thriller inspired by any particular text?
RACHEL HAWKINS: This is definitely not a re-telling of any kind; it's all me. But it is for sure inspired by other kinds of books like this that I loved when I was a teenager. I remember seeing And the Sea Will Tell by Vincent Bugliosi in the library, and I was so entranced by the title and the skull under the water on the cover. Ever since then, I always wanted to write a book where there was a deserted island and murder, so it's definitely inspired by things that I've loved but not nearly as directly inspired as The Wife Upstairs was.
It's being billed as "island Gothic," which I don't believe is a term I've ever heard before but I love it. Can you explain a bit more what that means?
We came up with that and loved it. It takes a lot of the aspects of the Gothic. One of the things that's very interesting about Gothic books is that place is almost a character within the book. Rebecca isn't Rebecca without Manderlay. You want the place to be its own character, and so, in doing a deserted island book, I really wanted to build up the mythology of the island itself. It's Meroe Island, which is a made-up place in the book, and so we worked in all these things about the history of the island, little snippets from emails or from travel guides that build up the sinister nature so that the island itself is almost like a haunted house that people are coming to. Even though it's this beautiful, tropical paradise, it still radiates menace in the way that big houses do in Gothic. That was really fun to play around with, to mash those tropes together of the deserted island book, but also the Gothic. And where can you go with that?
You've written YA, middle grade, romances; what led you down this new twisty path of modern thrillers?
I've always loved thrillers and mysteries. It's one of those things where I should have clued in earlier that I wanted to write these kinds of books given how much I read these kinds of books. I love everything by Ruth Ware and Riley Sager; these are always authors that are auto buys for me. It really came down to that thing of chasing what you most wanted to do, what were the stories you were most interested in. I've wanted to do some kind of sinister island forever, and it doesn't really fit for me in any other genre but this. I could definitely have done a YA island thriller, but I was feeling uncomfortable with the idea of killing teenagers. But with adults, it's like, "Hey, it's fine. You guys knew what you were getting into. You should have thought this through." It's just always chasing the id and paying attention to what you're really interested in and what you're reading.
You're really good at writing beautiful, effed-up rich people. How have you perfected that and why is it a subject that fascinates you?
It's funny — a friend of mine the other day when I showed her the cover for Reckless Girls, she was like, "I feel like your genre now is aspirational murder." And I was like, you know, there's nothing wrong with that. I always think themes of class are interesting, and it was a thing that I was actually dealing with in the last YA books that I wrote. In Prince Charming and Her Royal Highness, it was regular people coming up against immense wealth and the ways in which wealth twists people, the ways in which wealth protects people and doesn't protect others. I always think that there's such rich stuff, no pun intended, to be mined there.
I think a lot of it just comes from when I was growing up, I read YA, but there wasn't a huge amount of it, and so when you were still a teen, you bounced to Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz and Danielle Steel. Those books are so fun because the people are ridiculously rich, or the situations are so over the top that it really lets you go to some wild places because you care about these people, but also you can get a little twisted with it. That was always my thing in The Wife Upstairs, I want you to sympathize with Jane, but also you don't worry about her. She's got this. Even if she doesn't, well, she's not the best person in the world. That thing of beautiful, effed up rich people, it gives you freedom to go to some darker places, which is fun.
The Wife Upstairs played a lot with gender roles and desires, and I know you studied literature and sexuality in college, so might that play a role in Reckless Girls?
Definitely, a huge theme in Reckless Girls is the things that men can get away with. And the things that women can't. And how do you start trying to even the playing field as it were? That's another thing that I'm very interested in, and I definitely think that it's a question that we've all been asking a lot in the last — I mean, we've been asking it forever, but certainly, I think in the last few years with the #MeToo movement, with everything that has been going on, it's a thing we've been looking at more — the ways in which money and power protect certain types of people, and are used to hurt other types of people. That was definitely a thing that I wanted to explore with this book.
This cover definitely has a visual connection to The Wife Upstairs, but I just want to verify, other than both being thrillers by you, they're not linked, right?
No, they are not linked. This is in no way a sequel to The Wife Upstairs, but it's definitely a spiritual successor. The main character of Reckless Girls, Lux, is a little bit easier to love at first glance than Jane, so I'm definitely exploring a lot of the same themes that were interesting to me in The Wife Upstairs, but no, they're not direct sequels. This is the brand. It's floral, but there's death. [Laughs]
So tell me more about this cover concept and how you took the wallpaper of The Wife Upstairs and made it work for an island thriller?
I'm very lucky; I got this and was immediately blown away by it. I had said that I definitely wanted something that invoked the tropical theme. I joke a lot online that my biggest goal is that people pick up my books in airports. So, I always want things that look like something that when you can fly again, you will snatch up on your way to going somewhere glamorous. That's one of the things I really loved about this. I love the eye-catching yellow; I love the big pink flowers; I love that it's alluring, but then you look at that rip, and you're like, "Is that a tear or is that like a stab wound? What is it?" I love that both The Wife Upstairs and Reckless Girls have these covers that are beautiful and enticing, but there's this sense of menace, which is a big theme in both books.
We've all been cooped up for a year, so is this sort of your revenge on beautiful tropical vacations for being unavailable to us?
It absolutely was. This is the only book that I wrote completely while in quarantine. And I think that is kind of why it's just all over the place — they're in England, they're in Paris, they're in Rome, they're on an island. That was me needing to get my inner travel nerd out. Obviously, last year was extremely hard for everyone for all sorts of different reasons, and there was something that was so great about going to my office every day — I was a person that loved to write in coffee shops or with friends. I would book hotel weekends to write, and I just couldn't do any of that for this one. So, I put a desk in my guest room, and I got to go to this amazing location in my head every day, which was a real gift. And even though it's a murder island, at that point, you're happy to go to even a murder island.
Can you tease the book in three words?
Murder on Yacht. Or Below Deck with murder, that's four.
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