People Like Her, by husband-and-wife team Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos writing as Ellery Lloyd, is a razor-sharp psychological thriller that picks at the dark edges of our obsession with social media and the peculiar world of online influencers. Emmy Jackson is an Instagram sensation as @the_mamabare, telling the world all about her trials and mishaps as a modern mum – and scooping up valuable freebies and lucrative sponsorships with her every stage-managed post. Husband Dan is a novelist labouring under writer’s block, wilting at his lack of earning power, and frustrated by Emmy constantly “sharing our shit with the entire world” via “a wild farrago of inventions and elisions and fabrications and half-truths.” Emmy cultivates her millions of followers with her surface posturing of studiedly disorderly, just-about-managing parenthood, shrugging off or wilfully ignoring the haters and trolls – until a singular detractor sets out to track her down and do her and her family harm. Told in three voices – Emmy, Dan and the increasingly bitter and angry stalker – it is a brilliant, scary and hilarious examination of the magnetism and snares of the daily online rituals that have come to define modern living.

Mark: The title can be read with different emphases (People Like Her, People Like Her), as well as signifying a collective grouping of everyone who is transfixed by social media. How quickly did it come to you as a title, and what made you settle on it?

Collette: It took a while and a lot of heads to come up with it actually, and we love it. But it was originally called These Little Squares as that is how influencers sometimes refer to their Instagram grid of photos. But general consensus was that made it sound like a maths textbook, so…

Have you previously written together, or as a try-out for this book?

Collette: Nope, first time lucky (although we’d talked about it for ages and actually, the book we are currently writing now was initially the one we were going to try first… but we’d just had a baby and thought the subject matter for People Like Her was one better written when we were dealing with nappies and sleep training!).

Paul: The funny thing is, we had always talked about book ideas, and Collette has always had such great ideas for characters and plots and settings, and we’ve always talked about how you might fit them together, but it never occurred to us that you might actually sit down and plot something out and divide it up and work together on it.

What we found helpful, when we were writing the first draft especially, was that if you have a novel in different voices the different ways you write becomes an advantage.”

It’s easy to imagine that you started out with Collette writing Emmy and Paul writing Dan, then shared out the subsequent redrafts. Was it anything like that? And how did you share the task of writing the stalker character who wants to destroy all that the_mamabare stands for?

Collette: Good guess! Yes, I wrote Emmy and Paul wrote Dan – and he took on most of the stalker too. But by the second draft, when we had started working in the miracle that is Google Docs, we both edited everything. And with Google Docs, you can see when someone is in there cutting or rewriting, so often an “Oi, I liked that bit!” would echo up or down the stairs from one of us.

Paul: I think what we found helpful, when we were writing the first draft especially, was that if you have a novel in different voices the different ways you write becomes an advantage, because it helps individuate the strands of the novel, rather than something you are constantly worrying about and trying to flatten out. Which is something all writers have to consider: how do you work with the grain of your talent? How do you make the best use of the combination you’ve been given of things you are good at and enjoy writing?

Had you worked out the full story arc and each character’s traits and backstory before you began writing? What significant changes did you make along the way?

Collette: We had a vague idea at the start but it had changed quite drastically by the final version. We actually got halfway through the first draft and put it down for a while to mull it over as it wasn’t quite fitting together – the stalker character had not come into focus. Dan and Emmy we’ve always had a very clear picture of, and they had strong voices from the start, but the third voice and her motivations, and also how she planned to extract her revenge, changed over time. When we came back to it with the plot fully worked out – I had a lightning bolt moment – we realised that we needed to write a very detailed synopsis and chapter plan to work from, so it didn’t end up like a game of literary Consequences.

Paul: I think the main thing is to plough on as far as you can with a first draft and anything good you can pick out of that or which occurs to you during the writing of it is a bonus.

There are red herrings and possible suspects aplenty as the stalker’s motives and identity are gradually revealed. Did you toy with making different characters the antagonist, or did you always have this particular person in mind?

Paul: See previous answer. This is also how Agatha Christie did it – to withhold deciding, until a certain point, perhaps halfway through, who actually did it, so that various options remain open, and the reader is in as much suspense as the author was at that point. To which, with our book, People Like Her, you would add that you don’t actually know what kind of horrible thing is going to happen, or to whom, as well as not knowing who is going to do it.

Collette: That said, a third, unnamed voice was always our antagonist – it was important, given the faceless nature of Instagram followers, that it unfolded that way.

Emmy is (per one blurb) “chillingly brilliant at monetising the intimate details of their family life.” How do we prevent Instagram and other social media platforms from making monsters of us all?

Collette: Poor Emmy – monster seems a bit harsh. Whatever you think of her she is only doing what she knows works. She is does what any brand – and big influencers are one-man brands – looking to break into a market does: she surveys the competition, cherry-picks what works, discards what doesn’t. Social media makes that easy. As for the rest of us? Hmm… I only used Instagram heavily when our daughter was very little, as I was so often stuck under her on the sofa or trying to get her back to sleep at 3am. I couldn’t balance holding her and a book and it didn’t occur to me to buy a Kindle or listen to a podcast for some weird reason. It felt like bingeing on junk food, enjoyable at the time but icky afterwards. I see the word ‘community’ used a lot by those professionally invested in Instagram especially, and I think it must be lovely if you do find that but my experience, and those of my friends in general, is far more geared towards passive consumption. Other people broadcast and we just scroll. I rarely posted, didn’t comment on anyone else’s – was actually a bit scared of doing so as it felt quite cliquey – so I just mindlessly watched. The human brain is not wired for that – it destroys the attention span, makes us feel insecure, makes us less resilient, more narcissistic. If there is a monster here, it’s social media itself.

Paul: Also, it’s not just Instagram! It’s posting pictures of your kid on a regular basis for a family WhatsApp and trying to make sure you have a nice smiling one and you suddenly wonder what impact this is having on you. And your child, and the way you interact. And the anxiety that no moment go undocumented.

How does the concept of ressentiment help us understand Emmy, her followers’ and her detractors’ behaviours?

Paul: So ressentiment – which was a big idea for nineteenth-century philosophers like Kierkegaard (who identified it) and Nietzsche (who developed and elaborated the concept), is basically what happens when you envy or feel hostile to someone but you also feel compelled to suppress that rather than articulate it directly. What is helpful about that for understanding our relationship to celebrity is that it allows us to conceptualise both the ambiguity of fandom but more importantly to unpack what might drive you to post online about your obsessive hatred of a celebrity – what is it about this person you have never met that personally aggrieves you, especially as you are making such a point of not wanting to be famous or that kind of famous yourself? Why are you so proud of being the first to post under a Daily Mail article about a young female celebrity that you have never heard of them? What do you think those sorts of public gestures say about you?

For it to feel fresh, Emmy’s public persona (warm, fallible, just-muddling-through-like-you) had to be in direct contrast to her private one (driven, calculating, caustic).”

Did you set out to write unlikeable characters, or to depict a generally agreeable couple who are in denial about their most blatant flaws?

Collette: Personally, I think they’d both be quite fun in the pub (although at the moment I would go to the pub with literally anyone were it allowed). I do find the idea of an unlikeable character an odd one though. I’m not sure anyone, if you had unfiltered access to their thoughts 24/7 – as you do in People Like Her, written as it is in first person – would be entirely likeable. It also makes me a bit uncomfortable that unlikeable is almost always used as a descriptor for female characters – and in early reviews it’s certainly levelled way more at Emmy than Dan. Perhaps extreme is a better word? In which case, yes we wanted to write them as extreme characters. They clearly love their children, but for the novel to work, for it to feel fresh, Emmy’s public persona (warm, fallible, just-muddling-through-like-you) had to be in direct contrast to her private one (driven, calculating, caustic). There have been a number of great novels where the plot hinges on a messy real life lived underneath a polished social media shell. We wanted to flip that on its head.

Paul: I guess something to bear in mind is that there are three levels to quite a lot of the characters in the novel. There is the personality they present to others, the people they meet and know. There is the public persona they use on social media to construct and burnish and broadcast. And then there is the private voice, for Dan and Emmy and their antagonist, that only we as readers get to hear. And my sense is that if you could hear the unguarded thoughts of most people, they would come across as quite basic, quite spiky. The point is that the way we present ourselves on social media massively amplifies and complicates all this – something we wanted to creatively reckon and engage with in depth in the book.

Without giving too much away, there is a power shift within the marriage – and a continuing external threat – that could pave the way for an equally dramatic and twisty sequel. Any plans?

Collette: We have certainly talked about what happens next, whether we will commit it to print is another thing entirely. Perhaps they buy a smallholding on an island off the Scottish Coast and become tech refuseniks. Seems unlikely though…

Paul: Every couple of weeks we return to this topic. I think the short answer is that we would love to do it but are still waiting for the idea that would allow us to do it in an interesting way…

What other books were touchstones for you in setting about writing this novel? Are you both avid thriller/suspense readers?

Collette: It’s an obvious answer, but Gone Girl is such an incredible portrait of a marriage gone sour. The Devil Wears Prada deserves an honourable mention too – in a similar way, what we wanted to do was peel back the curtain on a profession that probably seems glamorous and exciting to an outsider (but, as I realised on starting my career in fashion magazines, à la Prada, most of the time it wasn’t – I shouldn’t tell you this but we regularly had mice dancing on the desk at Elle, nibbling #gifted cupcake crumbs, and this devil wore Zara…).

Paul: Collette is the one with her eye on what is happening in the thriller world (although I also love Gone Girl and I think Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and The Devil and the Dark Water and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer are really inventive and fresh-feeling). I tend to read older stuff – thrilling and non-thrilling – because I feel like when you come across a device or an idea in an older novel it is a bit more creatively stimulating. You think – does this still work, this motivation, say, as a plot device, in terms of technology, in terms of social mores? How might it need updating, how might that produce a new kind of plot? And if you look at older suspense writers that is obviously what they are doing too. Patricia Highsmith, say, in The Talented Mr Ripley is updating the plot of Henry James’ The Ambassadors and seeing if it works as a thriller. Which of course it does! Amazingly!

I didn’t think the world needed a lighthearted Bridget-Jones-Does-Influencing. I hope the book makes people laugh, but for it to be compelling it needed to be dark and it needed to have bite.”

Paul’s Welcome to the Working Week and Every Day Is Like Sunday are pure comic novels. What fuelled the shift into thriller territory?

Collette: Me! Plot-driven suspense and thriller are very much my bag – it’s a running joke with our friends that all of the books I take on holiday have ‘dead’ in the title. But actually, I also didn’t think the world needed a lighthearted Bridget-Jones-Does-Influencing – don’t get me wrong, I hope the book makes people laugh, but for it to be compelling, to say something interesting about the world we live in now that hadn’t already been said, it needed to be dark and it needed to have bite.

Paul: I think our different tastes are the reason we work as a team. My instincts are towards leisurely social observation – and Collette’s towards momentum and tension and drama. What is great about writing together, I think, is that we come up with books neither of us would have or could have written on our own.

TV adaptation rights were optioned early by US producer Parkes + MacDonald. What is the latest on that front? Has a screenwriter been attached, and do you know whether they plan to shift the setting from the UK to America? (And if so, would the path still be open to make a UK-based series or film?)

Collette: Covid has slowed things slightly but they’re talking to writers – and one of the reasons that we loved Laurie Macdonald and with a few offers on the table chose to work with them is that she is open to it being set in the UK or the USA, and film or TV. So watch this space.

As a husband-and-wife writing team, how prepared are you to put your private lives in the public domain?

Collette: I worked in magazines and newspapers for two decades, so one of the things that was always available to me was the option of writing first-person pieces about myself and my life – and by extension, after we married and had a child, our lives. I never did. Having just written a cautionary tale about sharing your life with strangers, it would be a bit weird to start now.

At one point you have Emmy reflect that “In a parallel universe I’m editing Vogue and married to a Booker Prize winner.” Is this a self-deprecating gag, or a glimpse into your bitter, twisted, insatiable souls?

Paul: Both.

Collette: *Sigh* You got us.

Finally, what would be your No.1 #parentingtip?

Collette: Oh I know this one! Those frills that go around the leg holes of nappies? They go on the outside. We literally spent the first three months of our daughter’s life covered in shit because nobody thought to tell us. I am not joking.

 

Ellery Lloyd is the pseudonym for London-based husband-and-wife writing team Collette Lyons and Paul Vlitos. Collette is a journalist and editor, the former features editor at Stylist, content director of Elle and editorial director at Soho House. She has written for the GuardianThe Telegraph and The Sunday Times as well as two travel books. Paul is the author of two previous novels, Welcome to the Working Week and Every Day is Like Sunday. He is the programme director for English Literature with Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. People Like Her, their first novel, is published in hardback, eBook and audio download by Mantle.
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Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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