Is it possible to enjoy a book about a pathological liar in 2017? Or are readers too exhausted by the unending barrage of alternative facts spewing from so many screens to root for someone who treats the truth like something she’s better off without?
Mary is the antiheroine of The Sisters Chase; she is a pathological liar, a cunning and conniving teenage orphan on the run with her four-year-old sister, Hannah, in tow. After their mother dies in a car accident, the two girls bail on the family motel — worth less than they owe in back taxes anyway — to scavenge for a better life. Hannah has no idea where they’re going or why. It’s Mary who has all the control, Mary who has all the answers, Mary who can fabricate a lie on the spot with so little effort it is stunning to behold.
Though author Sarah Healy wrote the book in 2015, it is landing in a charged moment in history for masters of fabrication and deceit. There’s so much to root for in Mary’s relentless pursuit of what she wants — and what she believes she and her sister need to survive. But there’s something deeply unnerving about her too, especially now. Something edgy about someone who is so reckless with what’s real and what’s pretend.
Healy spoke with ThinkProgress by phone about why Mary represents “the idealized teenage badass,” female characters for whom beauty can be a plot device, and why readers are so intrigued by women who lie.
Where did you start? What was the initial idea for the book?
It always starts with character for me. So I kind of get characters in my head that just start to knock around in there and the situations they might find themselves in. With this book, it was really Mary. I knew I wanted to write about a sister relationship, but really, Mary was the propulsive force behind the narrative. She’s who I went to my desk to see every night. I couldn’t wait to see what she would do next. This book was the least plotted of any book I’ve ever written. I got to experience it as a writer like a reader might experience it. All day I would think about what was going to happen next. I felt like I just got to follow her around the pages of the book. I really loved Mary. She’s polarizing. I know that some readers really don’t like her. But I love her.
What did you love about her?
I think what I love about her is that she’s immune to social mores in a way that most of us aren’t. She has a very pure heart. I think she is, in her own way, a very moral person. But she has a different moral compass than the rest of us. If I had encountered Mary as a teen, I would have been mesmerized by her. She’s such a badass. She’s completely fearless, completely powerful, completely fierce. I was none of those things. She’s totally confident. I think she represents that idealized teenage badass. And really, she was also — she’s so complex, she was just endlessly fascinating.
“She turns that nightmare girlfriend idea on its head, because she’s really — she destroys men, but she does it in a really different way.”
Mary is so beautiful — her appearance is such a key component of how her character moves through the world — that, basically, her beauty is a plot device. She’s also hyper-aware of the effect her looks have on other people, especially men.
The thing that’s interesting about Mary is that she doesn’t care that she’s beautiful. It’s almost, to her, it’s the same as being intelligent. It’s just another tool in her tool kit. Another arrow in her quiver. She doesn’t value it differently than any of her other strengths or assets. And I think the reader cares about Mary’s beauty more than Mary does.
Do male readers react differently than female readers do? I ask because I feel like Mary embodies a lot of the stereotypical nightmare traits that straight men associate with women: She’s crazy, she’s manipulative, she’s playing a long game.
I think so. I think that men experience Mary in a different way. At least, straight men. I think they experience her in a more sexual way. And I think that men are always freaked out that women are going to want more from them than they are willing to give. Mary is the opposite of that. Mary has no attachments outside of Hannah. She turns that nightmare girlfriend idea on its head, because she’s really — she destroys men, but she does it in a really different way. They end up much more attached to her than she is to them, and she’s the one who vanishes.
It’s not just Mary’s femininity that is powerful. The fact that Hannah is a girl seems to drive a lot of the story. It influences how people react to them. The world would receive them very differently if Hannah were a little boy.
I think that’s so true. They can present a vulnerability, and Mary uses it. People want to protect them and take care of them. People view them as two little innocent girls on their own. And I think Mary is manipulative enough to understand that.
Mary is so vulnerable in theory — she’s a teenage girl with a little sister, traveling alone, staying in strange motels and campsites— but you don’t take her to a cautionary tale space where men wind up hurting her.
I actually feel like Mary’s too smart. Mary has almost a primal instinct for true danger. It’s almost animalistic, the way she can smell true danger. She smells it on certain men and in certain situations… She’s not that rash. She’s more calculating. She’s more instinctual. She acts almost entirely on instinct. And she really does have an animal sense of danger.
“She’s a liar and a manipulator and she really has no sense of truth. And I think that’s hard for a lot of readers… That impulse is wreaking havoc on our culture. Mary, in some ways, could be described as a little bit of a sociopath.”
Did you worry at any point that Mary’s choices or behavior would lose the reader?
I didn’t, actually. With Mary, I just wanted her to be real. I think in certain areas and genres of publishing there is this preoccupation with likability, with female characters especially. And I really wasn’t concerned with Mary being likable. I wanted her to be fascinating. I think in some ways, I was writing her against that idea, that female characters, in order for you to want to follow them through the pages of the book, that they have to be likable. I didn’t want to have to adhere to that.
I’m not sure when you started writing, but this book happens to be landing in this moment of alternative facts and fake news. And while I was reading, it hit me that Mary is a master of alternative facts: She just tells whatever narrative is most convenient to her, and the truth is one of any number of options. Do you think readers will respond differently to her lies based on that broader political context?
That’s so interesting! I hadn’t thought of that before. I finished writing this book two years ago. So in my mind, the book exists in that time and space. But that’s such an interesting question. Mary is the master of alternative facts in a way. But I think that Mary’s smaller audience somehow makes it a little less dangerous.
I think Mary’s propensity for lies is one of the things — when readers don’t like Mary, it’s that she’s a liar and a manipulator and she really has no sense of truth. And I think that’s hard for a lot of readers. And you probably have put your finger on it, why it might be harder for people reading it now. That impulse is wreaking havoc on our culture. Mary, in some ways, could be described as a little bit of a sociopath. And for her, it plays out on the stage of her and Hannah’s life. We’ve seen when that plays out on a grand scale, and it’s terrifying and really upsetting for a lot of people. So when people do dislike Mary, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It probably has a lot to do with the time and place that we’re living in.
But Mary, for her and Hannah, it’s a microcosm. Mary absolutely had the ability to destroy Hannah’s life. What Hannah needs is the opposite of what Mary needed. Mary had these peripatetic impulses. She was wild, she couldn’t stay in one place, she didn’t have a real sense of truth. Whereas Hannah needed stability, she needed a home. At the end, that’s their big conflict: That Hannah starts to view Mary as a liar. That’s one of the big conflicts that the whole book is moving towards, when Hannah starts to see Mary for what she is. And in a lot of ways, the only way that Hannah can have the life she needs is if Mary is no longer a part of it… That kind of moment when Hannah starts to realize that Mary’s a liar, that’s a devastating and real moment for Hannah.
The book is set in the 1980s, a time in which a lack of technology probably made it easier to be a pathological liar. No one could Google anyone. Was that part of the thinking in picking that setting?
There’s the immediacy of information now. It gave Mary the ability to stay one step ahead of everyone. And I made Hannah my age. Hannah was born the same year that I was born. I think those memories and feelings from childhood are so tied to time and place, it felt like the natural time and place to set it. So you remember, even things like the pay phone and needing dimes. It felt — I really wanted to tie Hannah’s adolescence and trajectory with mine and what I remember of growing up in New Jersey in the ‘80s.
Was it weird to share the book with your sisters, considering Hannah is the character closest to you?
My sisters are always my first readers of any book. And people always want to know how much of novels are true. And it’s all of it. None of it is specific plot points, but you take dynamics that you understand in real life. I talked about having sisters I was kind of mesmerized by, and it’s taking that dynamic and super-sizing it. And making it almost hyperbolic. How far can you push that dynamic? How far can you take this character? How extreme can you make it? It is taking those dynamics that are familiar and making them as loud as they can be without them becoming false and fake.
“She’s totally, totally cognizant that she’s using whatever assets she has and is manipulating men by whatever means she needs to in order to get what she wants.”
My sisters are actually the best first readers because they’re the meanest first readers. I always have to gird my loins before I get on phone calls with them for what they want to tell me about the book. They’re my toughest critics. In a lot of ways, it’s fantastic. You want to be able to hear it from people who love you, even though they’re brutal.
Mary is technically of age for most of the sex scenes in the book, but she’s a lot younger than some of these men she’s interacting with. How did that power dynamic — she has more information, but she’s also barely legal — influence how you wrote those sections?
Mary always is the alpha, whether or not the male she’s with knows it. She was a minor when she met [one character] but she lied to him and said she was older. And with [another], she’s of age, but she always — they don’t know that she’s the alpha until they know, and then it is so painfully clear. The reader always has a sense that Mary is playing everyone. Even the scenes where she’s playing the beta to capture the upper hand.
Mary embodies what I think of as a Kim Kardashian strategy: A woman who is aware that men want certain things from her, so she caters to that desire in order to ultimately win the day and get everything she wants. (As opposed to, say, being a woman who wants to dismantle those structures altogether and so refuses to play that game.) She sees the world for what it is, and she uses that to her advantage.
That’s really interesting. And Mary totally does! She plays the game. Mary has what assets she has and what tools she has, she works them to the most. To me, she does it in a really smart way. She’s really aware that she’s doing it, too. I think that’s a big difference. Sometimes as women we do that, and we’re not even necessarily conscious of it. But she’s totally, totally cognizant that she’s using whatever assets she has and is manipulating men by whatever means she needs to in order to get what she wants. She’s the most clear-headed player in the game.
Thinking about how difficult it is, in real life, to keep track of lies — whether they’re lies you’ve told or have heard from someone else — and truths, was it hard for you to keep all of Mary’s stories straight?
I write quickly. And one thing I can’t ever really do when I’m writing books is stop for long periods of time. So I think it’s that continuity, writing every day. It wasn’t as much to keep track of as some novels that have a really huge cast, like in Big Little Lies. So it’s really this small cast of characters, and the fact that it’s really only Mary’s lies that I’m keeping track of. That facilitated trying to follow the narrative. And it helps the reader, too. It’s really Mary’s lies and Mary’s truths that they’re following. So I think that helps keep the narrative.
Why do you think readers are so intrigued by women who lie? As you say, there’s Big Little Lies, the HBO adaptation of which was hugely popular, and its near-name-twin Pretty Little Liars. Gone Girl was absurdly popular. In fiction, are women who lie more captivating than men who lie?
Yeah, that’s probably true. I think for a long time, there was this preoccupation with girls being good and innocent. And growing up, we kind of allow men — we don’t give them license to lie, but I think we’ve expected girls to be good and innocent and pure and honest and sweet. We just have a different construct for little girls growing up. And for Mary to be able to [lie as she does], and for female characters in general, I think interesting things happen when they start to push against that. When they start to present one self as convenient and then sort of have an alternative self as convenient.