After five years waiting for this moment, watching you for the first time still catches me off guard. I recognize you from your book jacket, but the reality of you — a three-dimensional object moving through space, flesh and blood and golden hair— makes my pulse race. You don’t know me — not yet — but nothing spikes my pulse. I am ice.
— Jody Gehrman, Watch Me
Looking for a chilling read? Look no further than Jody Gehrman’s latest novel, Watch Me. It’s Jody’s first foray into psychological suspense, and she kills it.
So to speak.
I talk to Jody about how this book plays in a deep way with many of the themes she’s explored in her other work. She has written women’s fiction and paranormal YA, but in every genre she’s fascinated by our complexity as humans and in particular our relationships.
Jody gives a shout out to some of her favorite authors: Megan Abbott, Ruth Ware, Tana French, Donna Tartt and Caroline Kepnes. We also talk about daring to be seen for who you really are, and the courage involved in that, so I can’t help but give a shout out to Brené Brown. Rather than recommending a book, however, I offer you instead one of her awesome TEDx talks.
I myself have to put in a plug for anyone with a teen (or who is a teen-at-heart) to check out her Audrey’s Guide… young adult series. They have everything I like in a book — magic, depth, a touch of romance, and a kick-ass heroine.
As always, if you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below. Enjoy!
Laura Brennan: An award-winning playwright, my guest Jody Gehrman is the author of nearly a dozen novels from the paranormal to young adult to romance. Her first psychological thriller, Watch Me, has just been released by St. Martin’s Press.
Jody, thank you for joining me.
Jody Gehrman: Thank you for having me.
LB: So, before we start talking about your novels, let’s talk a little bit about you. Watch Me is not your first rodeo.
JG: Right. It’s definitely my first foray into suspense, though, and thrillers. It’s a whole new genre for me, which is exciting.
LB: When did you start writing professionally?
JG: Well, I went to school for a long time, for way too long, like most writers I suppose. I did a Masters in English and then a Masters in Professional Writing. And so of course I was writing and developing a writing practice during those years, and my first novel was published in 2004. Before that, I had written a lot of plays and experienced the collaboration of working in theater, which I feel like is still my home. I still go home to playwriting pretty frequently.
LB: Playwriting, I think, is one of the best ways to learn how to write because you get immediate feedback, first from the actors and then from the audience. It works or it doesn’t.
JG: It’s so true! It’s one of the things that is absolutely thrilling about writing for the theater, and it is also so demoralizing. Because one night — like, Friday night, the audience loves it and you feel like you’ve written the most amazing play ever. And Saturday night, you go home thinking that you should just throw it all in and you’re a terrible writer and never make anyone experience your work ever again. Right? So it’s definitely a roller coaster ride, but it is, like you said, immediate feedback.
LB: So do you feel that that helped you when you then turn to writing novels?
JG: I think it helps to counteract the inherent loneliness of writing novels. I mean, I’ve worked with some amazing editors and agents and publicists, and I love having them on my team, but when I’m actually writing, I’m alone. And so working in the theater, there’s something very immediate about the collaboration, where you’re meeting with the director every night and watching the cast work and thinking about their creative process and how it intercepts your own. It’s kind of the antidote to the loneliness of writing fiction.
LB: That’s really interesting because loneliness is a theme that comes out very strongly in Watch Me. And also, weirdly, collaboration. Because their relationship is almost a collaboration in — well, I don’t want to give anything away. But it’s a really interesting dynamic.
I want to get to it but I also want to talk about your other books first. So let’s put a pin in loneliness and come back to it. Right now I want to talk about — you write romance, too.
JG: I do, although, you know, it’s been an interesting journey because my first novel, it sold to an imprint of Harlequin, Red Dress, Inc. And I really didn’t think that I was writing romance. I thought I was writing a touching coming-of-age novel about a twenty-something young woman dealing with her father’s suicide. Romance honestly never entered into the picture. And I don’t say that because I dislike romance or am in any way ashamed to be associated with that label, it just, I didn’t think that’s what I was doing. But one of the things that’s really interesting about the industry is that because romance sells well, if there are elements, if there are romantic elements, and the professionals feel that they can put it into that box then it’ll go in that box. So I never think of myself as writing traditional romance, but I definitely am fascinated with the dynamics between men and women and the relationships, you know, all of that. So that always enters into my fiction.
LB: It’s not just men and women, it’s people who are going to become men and women. Right? You also do really interesting YA novels.
JG: Yes. So my first three books were contemporary women’s fiction, romance, and then my next three books were young adult. I really loved making that switch, actually. I found it refreshing going back into my own high school experience, but also kind of making it better than it was. I think the trick with writing YA is to make the voice convincingly young and at the same time self-aware enough, right? So that — I mean, of course like any teenager, I wrote copious journals and analyzed myself endlessly, but in writing young adult it gave me a chance to use some of those insights but also to make it a little faster and funnier and a little more, well, structured really. So that was a great experience, writing YA.
LB: And your paranormal series is the Audrey’s Guide.
LB: So Audrey is a witch. A teenage witch. But she’s not Sabrina the teenage witch by any stretch of the imagination. But I liked it. It’s a little darker than you would necessarily expect in that particular subgenre.
JG: Right. Well, and you know, I think that was part of what drew me into YA was that, in the last 20 years we’ve really seen the genre explode. I mean, what is available to young people today reading wise is so much vaster and more varied than what was available to me growing up. So I thought that was really exciting, the kind of young adult Renaissance and the way doors were opening. I just, it seemed like there wasn’t anything that was entirely off the table. Which I think surprises a lot of people who don’t necessarily read a lot of YA. They assume an innocence that is there in some ways but certainly not in all.
LB: Now this takes us beautifully to Watch Me, because it seems to me that in this novel, you’ve taken a lot of the things that you have played with over many of your novels — relationships between men and women, the classroom, and I think the inherent loneliness of being a person. You know, we are all locked into our own heads to some extent. And then you’ve explored them kind of on the razor’s edge here in Watch Me.
So tell us a little bit about the book for someone who hasn’t picked it up yet.
JG: Sure. So the basic log line is, it’s the story of a creative writing professor at a small college in Ohio who becomes drawn into this very unhealthy mutual obsession with her very charming but also psychotic star student. So, yes, it’s a story between writers which is something I really hadn’t explored. It never occurred to me until recently, but my main characters are often creative in some way, but I have never written directly about writers. So that was really interesting for me.
LB: They’re not just writers, they’re both writers who are willing to open a vein on the page, you know?
LB: That’s one of the things they each admire about the other.
JG: Right. Yes, definitely.
LB: Did you have to open a vein to write this?
JG: [Laughter.] Well, you know, yes. I guess I did in a way. I mean, it was one of those books that the idea came to me and even though I’m often a little bit leery about this, I often don’t explain my premises to people until I really developed them, but I was having a conversation with my husband and I told him the basic premise for it. And it just had a certain energy to it, I think, more energy than anything I had worked on in a long time. And he said to me, “Whatever you’re doing right now, you have to drop it and you have to write this book.”
I wrote the first draft in just a few months, which doesn’t always happen. And I thought that the voice of Kate, the writing professor, would dominate the book and I would just kind of scatter Sam, her unhinged student, here and there. But nobody was more surprised than me when Sam’s voice just kind of exploded. I didn’t know that I had this voice in me, this kind of crazy sociopath, but apparently I do. Surprise. And I was surprised at how pleasurable it was to write a person that was very foreign to me.
So, yes, writing the book had a lot of — I felt a strong drive to finish the draft and then to revise it. And I was kind of at a turning point in my career. I was seeking a new agent, and so I really wanted this manuscript to represent where I want to go from here. And I think I’d like to live in the psychological suspense world for quite a while, because to me it feels like a really good fit.
LB: Who do you like who writes in that genre?
JG: Well, I love Megan Abbott. I just think she’s amazing. Dare Me is one of my favorite books. I really like Ruth Ware. I just finished The Lying Game and I loved her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood. I am a huge fan of Tana French, I’ve read everything that she’s written, and Donna Tartt is also a favorite. And Caroline Kepnes, with You and Hidden Bodies, I just adore her use of the second person and just the way she explores the psychology of a stalker.
LB: So this is where you live for fun?
JG: [Laughter.] You know, it’s funny because I feel like I’m delving into a different side of my personality. I’ve definitely consumed books and movies that tend toward the lighter side. My husband has been a big horror and thriller fan all of his life and he’s just kind of looking at me like, who are you? When did you turn to the dark side?
But I feel like it’s this vast, open territory that I can really explore and spend the next couple of decades getting to know and really understanding.
LB: I want to hear what you have planned next, but before we get to that, I just want to say, the opening — not the opening line of the book, but the blurb of the book, you know, the little write-up description has this wonderful opening sentence where it’s, “Kate Youngblood is disappearing.” And that spoke to me so viscerally, because I think that that is something that happens as we get older, and especially if there has been early success. Where you feel like you’re no longer being seen.
JG: Yes! Exactly. I’m so glad that you brought that up. That was definitely the core of what I wanted to express in this book, is that feeling that I think so many women, especially — I’m sure men experience it but maybe in a different way. This feeling that after a certain number of birthdays, and it’s maybe a different number for different people, but after we reach a certain age, we turn this corner and feel less visible. And especially I think for women when you’ve kind of cruised through your twenties and thirties and you are always being looked at. Whether that’s professionally or sexually or however you interpret that, you know, you feel very relevant. So relevant that you stop noticing that that’s what’s happening until it goes away. Right? Until you suddenly walk into a room and you don’t feel those eyes on you anymore in the same way.
So, yes, that’s very much what Kate is experiencing and it is part of what makes her so extremely vulnerable to someone who is pathologically obsessed with her. Right? Because he’s incredibly dangerous, but he sees her. Which is something that is incredibly seductive when you start to feel like you’re not being seen by the world.
LB: Oh, I think that’s very true. I think that the risks we will take to be visible to someone, to anyone, can be very dangerous. Yes, absolutely.
JG: Yes. I mean, I suppose that it’s part of our obsession with fame. You know, for people who feel that need on a larger scale to do just about anything to be known and to be famous within the larger picture, but also on a personal level. It’s very easy to feel like one is disappearing, so whatever we can do to fight that feeling, even if it’s unhealthy.
LB: Right. We give over, we can give over a lot of power to someone who makes us feel that way.
JG: Absolutely. Yes. I was talking to a friend about this, we’re planning the launch party for Watch Me and I have this wonderful group of women performers who are going to be singing and I’m really pushing for all my women friends to be there. And we were talking about like, we should really put the call out, wear what makes you feel sexy. Wear what makes you feel seen. Because I think in some ways, visibility is a state of mind. Like once you start to feel that way, it’s easy to fall into that. So I think the antidote to Kate’s dilemma is — at least I’m experimenting with this — is to feel relevant within your own psyche and to try to express that in the world.
LB: Actually, I also think it takes an awful lot of courage to be willing to be seen for who you actually are.
LB: I think Brene Brown has really touched people, the idea that being vulnerable is an act of tremendous courage but a moral imperative.
JG: Right. Yes. I mean, if you feel like you’ve been seen but you’ve been faking it the whole time, I mean that’s not very satisfying either. I do — back to your original question about opening a vein — I do feel like, I feel like this is my best book and I feel like it is my scariest book. Because, well, I mean, for one, one aspect of that is I’m a professor and I’m writing about a professor in a very unhealthy attraction with her student, right? Which is pretty taboo. So it’s definitely frightening, but I also feel like it’s exploring something that we all know is there, we just don’t really talk about a lot.
LB: What is next for you?
JG: So I’m working on another psychological suspense novel that takes place within academia. It’s called Dark Ivy; I actually just sent the new draft to my agent yesterday. So that’s the working title right now. I’m really bad at log lines as I’m working on something but I’ll just say that it’s similar to Watch Me in that it explores taboo relationships on a campus setting.
LB: Well, that sounds amazing. So we’re staying in psychological suspense for a while?
JG: I hope so. Yes. If you all will have me, I want to live here for a long time.
LB: Where can people find you online? I will of course link to your website in the show notes, but not everybody goes to the show notes. So for those listening, how can they find you?
JG: My website is JodyGehrman.com, and I do have a Facebook page and a Twitter account, so you can look for me there. I’m on Goodreads as well.
LB: Fantastic. Jody, thank you so much for joining me today.
JG: Thank you. It was lovely talking to you.