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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for You Love Me.]
Author Caroline Kepnes knows her character Joe Goldberg’s love is quite possessive.
“With women, he’s putting them on a pedestal [and] asking them to be perfect in a way that is impossible. He’s asking them to sort of be his mother and his girlfriend and his angel. It gets too much,” the author tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Across the span of two books — which also inspired the first two seasons of the Netflix show You, which stars Penn Badgley as Joe — readers and viewers have watched Joe fall in love with women and attempt to swoon them because he’s convinced they’re his true love. Though on the surface his behavior could appear rom-com-esque, Joe also obsessively stalks and murders anyone capable of ruining his happily ever after. Readers were first introduced to the bookseller in 2014’s You, where he fell in love with aspiring writer and student Guinevere Beck in New York City. Joe eventually kills her, locking her in an underground cage after she tries to leave him. To escape his past, Joe ventures to Los Angeles in the second book, Hidden Bodies, only to find himself falling for the wealthy Love Quinn. After another murder, Joe goes to jail and leaves behind a pregnant Love.
Now in Kepnes’ new third book in the series, You Love Me (Random House), released Tuesday, Joe finds his true love once again — but not without some twisted dark turns. After he receives a payoff from Love Quinn’s family to leave L.A. — they even pay for his new home — Joe attempts to turn over a new leaf and live the small-town life. Though he continues to pine for the son he’ll never get to meet, Joe’s old habits don’t die as he finds a new love interest in Mary Kay, a mother to a teenage daughter and wife to a famous rock singer. “I wanted him to go up against someone with a functioning life,” Kepnes tells The Hollywood Reporter of the new dynamic in store. Soon Joe is back to his obsessive ways, stalking, meeting Mary Kay’s inner circle and even making sure he has a whisper room in his new home. “He has to have this secret place to put someone just in case,” the author says, laughing.
With the release of a third book and a third season of the Netflix series on the way, Kepnes teases that she offered the show’s team an early draft of her new book and, though there will be similarities (“You’re going to see Joe living in a place similar to where he lived in the book,” she says), she reiterates that, like any adaptation, there will be differences (the last season of the Netflix series, for instance, departed from the original book’s ending). “The minute that Love in the show became a killer, I think that also changes things a lot,” Kepnes tells THR, also revealing that she’s considered a spin-off centered on the character Love. Even though the third book is now published, Kepnes has already been hard at work on a fourth book. She teases her first draft features “a lot of pandemic in it.”
Ahead of You Love Me‘s release, Kepnes chatted with THR about writing the third book, finding inspiration from Debbie Macomber Cedar Cove books, whether she sees an end in sight for the series and why everyone roots for the dark protagonist.
When you were first preparing to write this third installment, what did you envision for this story and for Joe?
I really wanted him to tangle with a woman who’s a little more settled in her life than the women in his past. So right off the bat, I knew this man is not going to get the dream family that he thinks he’s going to get at the end of Hidden Bodies. I like to always take things away from him (laughs). I wanted to put him in a place where he has this idealism about small-town life, that it will be less about social media and more about real life. It was a great way to play with his clinic denial that every person alive has their own story and their own little personal private network of people. I loved this idea of him meeting this woman and immediately she’s following him, he’s following her and they’re two adults and then the rest begins.
With each book, readers have been able to travel to different locations with Joe. You began in New York, then Los Angeles and now readers are taken to a cozy island in the Pacific Northwest. Why this location for Joe’s next chapter?
A few years ago, I read Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove books, and I became obsessed with the show. There’s this line in the first chapter of the very first book where someone asks about Judge Olivia Lockhart: “Is she good?” And the answer is, “she’s fair.” I’ve loved the idea of Joe contending with this injustice in America and thinking about the difference between what is fair and what is good. That just struck a nerve with me. I was like, he is going to move to Cedar Cove and he is going to think of himself as right up there with Judge Olivia Lockhart, even though in reality, he is not.
It definitely seems like in this location, Joe can be a fish out of water.
Yeah, and a lot of that, too, was I wanted him to have this chance to breathe and reinvent himself. I loved writing the scene of him redesigning his life story, his dating past to Mary Kay when they’re having their first big sit-down. He sort of believes his own narrative above the truth. I think that that dance in his head is always compelling.
It’s not surprising that love continues to be an underlying desire for Joe in all of these stories. Each book has had a different female protagonist whom Joe has become infatuated with and fallen in love with. This time his love interest is a mother with a teenage daughter. Why decide that for his next leading lady?
It came from him being denied the life that he thought that he had and that he deserved with Love Quinn and his child. So immediately it adds so much attraction for him. He doesn’t really want a baby. He likes the idea of the child about to leave [Mary Kay’s daughter is about to leave for college]. I liked the idea of him being in this conundrum where part of what he admires about her, her being a librarian, an attentive good mother, a civic-minded person and someone with her own strong roots is also part of what he sort of despises because she has this life that works in a way that predates him. I wanted him to go up against someone with a functioning life. Then, of course, he’s Joe so he finds out that it’s not as functioning as it seems, but what businesses is it of his, you know?
It’s clear each leading lady Joe has become infatuated and in love with are all different. When writing the ideal person for Joe to set his eyes on, who exactly is the kind of person you write that you know Joe will find himself always drawn to and why?
Well, I think a lot about a lot about the character of this woman, like what her life was before him. In the case of Beck, I wanted someone who was struggling and had been dealing with issues that he relates to, kind of being someone from a working background, who’s at a school with all of these people that have a lot more wealth than her, a lot more connections. So I always liked them to have some nugget that he relates to. Then with Love, I liked the idea of kind of switching up that fairytale, that the boy moves to L.A. and meets an amazing rich woman to take care of him. Then with Mary Kay, someone who in theory on paper is absolutely perfect for him — if you took away all the things that he doesn’t think that society would understand about him and someone who sort of decided that she wouldn’t have this great love in her life. I always think about the end of Prince of Tides and Barbara Streisand — I’m going to get the quote wrong — but when she’s like, “I love you because, of course, you’re going to go back to your wife.” I love that kind of drama tragedy. I want to put Joe in something like that, where it would be damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.
I think it could be up for debate as to whether Joe really does love someone given his twisted way of expressing that and the fate of some of these women. In your opinion, what is love to Joe and is he capable of real love?
I think love, for him, involves too much possession. I always think of him being young and Mr. Mooney putting him in that cage and Joe missing out. I feel like he can’t live in the world and that was my goal with the book. He’s always living in his head and so that does make him a little bit incapable of love because as much as he would like to and believes he can be on equal ground with someone, with women he’s putting them on a pedestal [and] asking them to be perfect in a way that is impossible. He’s asking them to sort of be his mother and his girlfriend and his angel. It gets too much.
Then one simple mistake they make, he’s quick to think they’re messing up and he’s done.
Exactly. That was why it really clicked for me with Judge Olivia Lockhart, being that she puts on that robe and she’s kind of a superhuman. I think that’s sort of how he sees himself, but his robe isn’t visible.
Speaking of love, the person Love is still in the picture in this book and makes a return. Without giving away too much, it’s clear there is still a dark journey in store for them. When revisiting Love and Joe for this book, what were you hoping to explore with their dynamic? Was it always thought of to bring her in the picture?
For me, in Hidden Bodies, part of the reason she was drawn to Joe is that she was kind of unaware of her identity as an enabler. She’s born with this brother and she’s perpetually in this position of loving him in spite of what he did of covering up his mistakes. So she’s attracted to Joe before she even knows what he’s up to. I like those kinds of things where you don’t necessarily know why you’re drawn to someone. Then once she becomes a mother, I was really excited to show the ways in which that changes her allegiance. She’s sort of very married to her family and in this permanent kind of mode as daughter and sister, and it’s hard for her to think of a family that she created and I wanted to explore that and what that means for her and what that means for Joe. Then on that basic level, I was excited to have him be absolutely tortured by his phone, by the idea of going into this phone to see your own child.
Were there any challenges when writing this book in comparison to the previous two?
Yeah, it was [challenging] especially in that space of being in a small town. I wrote the first draft and I read so much about Bainbridge. I read books that take place in that area, watched so many YouTube videos and I found random people on Twitter who were talking about it. Then it was like, “I got to go up there and I got to walk around and get the feel for it” because I just felt like I needed to walk where he’s going to walk. I was having a tough time picturing his house at first and his street. So I contacted this realtor and I went to see a house (laughs), it had kind of an outdoor cage and she did say it had a basement. I was upfront with her. I had been telling her about how much basements matter to me. It was an interesting day! (laughs) So that was a challenge because I lived in L.A. for almost 17 years. I lived in New York when I was in my twenties. So this was my first time really tackling this character who is so detail-oriented. I wanted to go there and get the taste of the coffee.
The glass cage has almost become this staple when people think of Joe and even with this new house he has in this book, he still manages to find a way to still have some kind of glass cage in his way.
Yes, that goes back to a part of your question about whether or not he’s capable of love, because he has to have this secret place to put someone just in case (laughs).
In this book, Joe is determined to be better, but it seems his way of thinking he’s better is if he just isn’t killing anyone. Yet he still always falls back on his stalking ways.
A big part of what I always want each book to be its own little beast. In Hidden Bodies, we saw the sunshine of wealth and Hollywood power just glow on him and give him access to things and we saw the ways in which it was not very pleasant. Then in this book, I wanted to see what happens to him when that’s stripped away. When he’s now in the cold, alone and, at the same time, very well-funded but not free. Hopefully, the reader feels like they’re on his side in some ways because it wouldn’t work, for me, writing if he didn’t have some good intentions and also that he’s not trying to be good, in quotes, because he feels guilty but [rather] because this is his reality. Now he’s like you and me. He doesn’t have access to this family that can pay off lawyers and judges.
Yet he’s living in a house that was paid for by them.
That’s why I love his hypocrisy! I mean, that was a big drive for me going in. I just wanted to get inside that mental gymnasium because how do some people get away with things? How and why and how did they kind of convince themselves that they’re in the right?
Now with three books in and a fourth one being worked on, how do you reinvent the character of Joe with each story while still staying true to the character and giving readers what they expect?
I think so much about the two-way street and the way that we adapt. I feel like part of his issue with social media is that he sees people presenting themselves and yet this is what he’s doing in life and that’s another one of his hypocrisy. I want the reader to feel like [because] we’re somewhere new with him, we don’t quite know what to expect. We know what he’s capable of but we also know his long-term goal and we know that he’s smart enough to understand the boundaries. In this book, it creeped me out because there are so many stories where someone goes to a small town and works their way into it. I loved this guy going in and being like poison and people knowing it, but not knowing it, and what that would be like for Mary Kay — the way someone can be slowly just scratching at the door and ruining things and you don’t know it.
It’s clear throughout the series there’s been a body count of characters. Was there a certain character that you killed off that you wish you kept alive or that you miss writing?
I mean, truly each book, all of them! In You, I was like, “Oh, Peach. No!” That was so fun to write that dialogue and get her voice down and that was sad for me. In Hidden Bodies, my God, Henderson. I hated him, but I loved writing him. And in this book, Phil. It was just so fun to explore this guy who would be everything that annoys Joe encapsulated in one person.
In your writing, how do you go about romanticizing Joe and making him kind of likable and to be rooted for when at the core he’s probably not someone in real life who we should be rooting for and loving?
I used to work in a bookstore and we didn’t have a cash register so we had to write down every sale and the name of every book in an old-fashioned notebook. So it made it for these awkward silences and my brain would just go to the weird places cause most of the time the shop was empty [and] I was like, “Who is this person? What is going on?” I go back to that, like the way that you don’t necessarily always know who you’re dealing with. I always want to play up his vulnerability and his sensitivity because, for me, the way in is the dark side of the sensitivity. What if you didn’t love the guy holding the boom box? What then? We’ve all been taught that spirit of, “I can’t live without you” is part of romance and I like toying with that a lot. He’s doing, in theory, what we all kind of are used to thinking is good. He’s giving and he’s paying attention at a time when we see people swiping and distracted. He’s got that focus and that focus is very dangerous, but that focus can also come across as very beautiful.
With the television series, Penn Badgley is now the visual representation of Joe. When writing now, do you ever envision him as Joe or is Joe still an imaginary figure in your mind?
When I was writing the first book, I would go to the coffee shop and be like, “You’re Joe!” Then I turn on the TV and see this one and go, “You’re Joe!” A long time ago Penn [Badgley] was like, “My mom just said that you pictured me while you were writing the book.” I’m like, “No, no, no. I pictured a lot of people don’t worry!” I’m channeling this vibe, this aura, the chemistry that you feel when you’re with someone who’s got that spark about them. So any guy that had any kind of spark about him, it was Joe. It’s very bizarre to spend a day in the book, lift my head up, go online and I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s right! Holy shit, he’s in the world!” (laughs)
I know that even Penn has emphasized that Joe is not someone to necessarily be in love with like many fans are. But what is it about Joe that you think draws readers and audiences? Why can’t we hate him or be scared of him?
Back in 2014 when early copies were going out, I had this diehard, still, to this day, group of readers that love Joe and they’re coming to events with T-shirts… there’s so much passion. I think that the reading experience of any book and then this book is that you’re having this intimacy. You’re in his head. So it’s different fundamentally than watching someone do things. There was this really funny moment when we were doing an event for the first season and we’re all backstage and I’m a nervous wreck and they’re all such pros. We go out there and a bunch of readers were in the audience and they just start screaming wildly and John Stamos just looks at me like, “What the hell?” And I’m like, “Yeah, book people!” And Penn [Badgley] started saying something about how Joe is awful and three of my readers stood up like, “No, he’s not!” I get where everyone’s coming from. Penn is standing there on a set, hours a day with fake blood on his hands. He’s inside his [Joe’s] head in one way and the readers are inside Joe’s head in another way. I love seeing those things come together.
With this third book releasing and a third season on the way, what can you tease about season three? Will the series follow this book or venture off?
At the end of Hidden Bodies and the end of season two, things are pretty different. At some point, I went into the room and talked to them about the [third] book and gave an early draft. There are going to be similarities like you’re going to see Joe living in a place similar to where he lived in the book. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but there are going to be differences just because the minute that Love in the show became a killer, I think that also changes things a lot.
I’ve read that you are writing the fourth book in the series. Can you tease anything further on it?
It’s so hard [because] it’s so early. I wrote a draft this year, with a lot of pandemic in it. So now I’m going back into it, cause I’m setting it a little later, I’m pretty sure. He’s [Joe] going to a new place and a dream that he didn’t allow himself to have, he’s going to get to experience it.
Now with four books in, when do you see yourself feeling like it’s the end of the You series? Do you have an overall ending in mind for Joe and has that ever changed at all since the adaptation?
I’m going with my gut because when I was writing You halfway through, I was like, “Oh my God, I want to do another and another” and I had that fever. So now that I’m writing the next one and, by nature, the end of it makes me want to keep going. So I’m going with that feeling, as long as it feels alive to me, as long as publishers want to publish it and readers want more. For me, he’s got a lot of living to do, unfortunately, and fortunately (laughter).
You Love Me is available now.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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