By Mary Sollosi
July 30, 2020 at 09:30 AM EDT
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What are you willing to do to be part of the in-crowd? They Wish They Were Us, the debut novel from EW alumna Jessica Goodman, poses that question as a group of high school seniors’ secrets and lies threaten to catch up to them as they approach graduation.

In the propulsive thriller (for which you can check out a chilling trailer, above), Jill Newman is a Long Island teenager balancing a packed party schedule, college applications — and the lingering mystery of her best friend’s murder. At the heart of all three is her elite prep school’s exclusive secret society, which positions its members to not only be the ultimate popular kids but to achieve not-always-honest academic success as well. As she and her friends, the senior members of the ‘Players,’ step up as the new leaders of the clique that has shaped their high school existence, they must choose whether to maintain the group’s fraught legacy or contend with its past sins and build something new.

Ahead of the release of the timely tale — Goodman was “deep in edits” when the college admissions scandal broke — the author breaks down her own novel of varsity blues.

Twitter; Penguin Random House

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’m guessing these weren’t the circumstances under which you’d expected to release a novel! How has that been?

JESSICA GOODMAN: You know, you’re right, it’s definitely not the circumstances I always dreamed about when I first got a book deal — I was so excited to meet readers in person and go to bookstores and whatnot. But I’ve been really inspired by the way that a lot of authors have been handing it so far, authors who have done really incredible digital interviews and have found ways to engage with readers, so I’m hoping to kind of follow in their footsteps and make this launch the best it can be. And I’m just hoping that I’ll be able to at least go into my local indie with a mask and gloves and see the book there!

What was the initial inspiration for the novel?

I actually started writing the book when I was in college, and it was always about a somewhat secret society in an elite private school. I grew up in Long Island, and I knew I always wanted to write a book about my home and the really interesting setting I think it is — it’s so close to the city, it’s kind of always in the shadow of the city, and it’s also a really somewhat complicated place because there is so much wealth in some areas, but then other areas are not as wealthy, and there’s a really stark difference there. [And] I love thrillers so much, and I always wanted to write one, especially one that is so much about female friendships.

Always such a rich topic! What did you want to explore there?

I think that there’s something so potent about the way that young women interact with each other. There’s so much love and fervor and desire in a way that it just feels so raw in so many ways, and it’s complicated. Like, ‘Do I want to be your best friend and like, hang out with you 24/7, or do I want to, like, have your life?’ It’s kind of this strange push-and-pull. So I wanted my characters to go on a really authentic journey with their friendships, have real trials and tribulations, and find their way back to each other while still holding each other accountable for the damage that they’ve caused.

It also becomes evident that the Players’ initiation is worse for the girls than it is for the boys. Why was that inequality something you wanted to bring to this?

I think I’d always just found that in all of my friendship dynamics, and other friendship dynamics that I’d observed throughout my life, it always seemed that the men or the boys in the group are the ones who always had the power. And as a young girl, I never felt like I could see that power. I always felt like I had to laugh along with the jokes that I didn’t find funny or do what they told me to, and now I know that that was a completely unhealthy dynamic. But I think it was reinforced by a lot of the things in society that I took in, whether it was movies or TV shows or politics or just the way that things had always been. So I wanted to write a story where the girls were able to find their own power and take it back.

How did your vision for the Players, who have so many rules and so much history, come together into being the kind of engine for the story?

I wanted the stakes to be really high and wanted readers to feel like if you got tapped for this group, you had no other options, you had to join it. And the way that [I] did that was putting academic files [to facilitate cheating] in there. Because being a teenager is so stressful. They’re put under so much pressure to succeed and be the absolute best and pay for college somehow… But also I think there’s just an added element of when you’re a teenager — and beyond, honestly — you want to fit in. You want to be part of the in-crowd. I wanted to make the group something so potent that you felt like you couldn’t say no.

I was so horrified by their hazing! How did you come up with those forms of torture?!

I mean, just from the terrible tortured brain of mine! There was some research, or stories that I had heard at college, or stories I had heard from other people. There’s a road rally scene, basically, where they have to do a scavenger hunt, and I took that from like a friend of mine who had done one in his high school, so I asked him if he had the original and he found it and sent it to me. It’s not the exact same, but it’s loosely inspired.

Were there any semi-sociopathic pop culture cliques that inspired the Players?

The Craft, which is one of my favorite movies — I feel like their witches’ coven really inspired me and was something that I came back to. Have you seen that movie? It’s the best. It’s psychotic.

They Wish They Were Us goes on sale Aug. 4. Check out the book’s trailer above.

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