Liane Moriarty is having fun. The central character of her new book, Nine Perfect Strangers, is Frances: a menopausal romance novelist who describes being accosted by a publisher at a writers’ festival in her heyday.
He told Frances, “his voice hot and hasty in her ear”, how it was his “destiny to publish her”, how he and only he “could and would take her to the next level”.
That’s a little Moriarty joke because “the fact is that Frances as a romance novelist would not be invited to writers’ festivals, just as I was not invited to writers’ festivals for many years”. So, sweet revenge? “Yes, exactly.”
It would be fair to say Moriarty is having the last laugh, and it’s a deep, joyous chuckle. At 51, she is enjoying herself as she publicises her eighth adult novel — and before she had polished the final manuscript, Nicole Kidman’s production company had snapped up the screen rights.
This follows the success of Big Little Lies, a sharp look at female friendships and the secrets they hide even from themselves. An HBO series of the book starring Kidman and Reese Witherspoon won eight Emmy awards in 2017 and critical acclaim , and a second series is in production.
There was some angst that a follow-up series could spoil the ambivalent ending of Big Little Lies, but Moriarty wasn’t fussed. She wrote a 50,000-word novella to take the story forward, although had no interest in writing the screenplay.
Her sister suggested she write a character for her favourite actor, Meryl Streep, and so she did.
“Just for my own fun, I found out what Meryl’s middle name was — that’s when I learned it was Louise.” Streep’s real name is Mary Louise, and that will be her character’s name when she plays the mother-in law of Celeste, the brittle heroine of the first series played by Kidman.
“When I told the producers that I had this role for Meryl Streep, barely believing my own audacity, they said teasing me, ‘You’ve become so Hollywood: Get me Meryl!’”
Moriarty has sold more than 14 million books globally, with Big Little Lies and its successor Truly Madly Guilty topping the New York Times bestseller list in their first week of publication. She was recognised in the US long before she was a household name in Australia, where she lives in Sydney.
Moriarty knows she was once dismissed by the writers’ festival circuit as a “commercial writer” and she still receives some snobbishness because her books are popular and accessible.
Yet there is keen observation in her tales of contemporary middle-class life, with all its insecurities and aspirations. A New York Times 2014 review of Big Little Lies notes that “a seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality”. All the bitchiness of helicopter parenting is there, but so too is the violence behind the respectable doors.
Nine Perfect Strangers has a different setting, but the formula is familiar. Its canvas is a health resort a few hours north of Sydney, Australia, where the middle aged, the fat, the disillusioned and the grieving gather to try to find something to fill the void.
All the cliches are there, sent up with more kindness than venom. The nine are on a “journey to wellness” on their Ten Day Mind and Body Total Transformation Retreat. There’s no alcohol, caffeine, gluten or dairy. There’s tai chi at dawn and restorative hot-stone massages.
Without giving too much away, the retreat is more than they bargained for, with the impeccable owner and wellness evangelist, Masha, holding radical ideas about how they might reach enlightenment.
The idea of a health retreat intrigues Moriarty because she has sympathy for the lure of self-improvement, even if she skewers its excesses.
“We live in paradise. Most of us live such comfortable middle-class lives, and so, is it the desire for suffering? And this desire we all have for transformation. I can never see an article that says, ‘Just change this one thing about your life and you’ll be transformed forever’ — even though you know when you click on it, it won’t work, I find it irresistible.”
There are #MeToo moments in Nine Perfect Strangers. Frances is devastated about a scathing review of her books as “a blight on feminism”. Of course, she had to tie everything up at the end with a “giant bow”, she thinks to herself. Those were the rules of the genre!
Moriarty is a feminist, but avoids preaching. “I hate the idea of having any sort of message that I want to convey.” She always writes contemporary novels, so the preoccupations of the day weave throughout. Hers are mostly stories of the white middle class, predominantly women.
“It’s a tricky time to be a writer,” she says, “because you can be accused of not having enough diversity in your work, but then if you try to have more diversity, you can be accused of cultural appropriation.” She says she would like to see more diversity in the books that are published. “If we don’t see enough diversity in a certain area we should try to work out why and bring it in.”
If there is a downside to success, it is the “pressure of expectations ... the huge awareness that people will read it and they’ll find something to criticise, find something to be offended by. It can almost paralyse you with terror”.
That struck her most when writing Truly Madly Guilty, published after Big Little Lies, and which has also been optioned for the screen. She worried people would not like it as much as her previous book. “And then I thought, it’s not the end of the world, so some people didn’t like it as much, so what?”
Nine Perfect Strangers was more enjoyable to write, she says. The pressure was off.
“I’d reached a different place. I actually had a lot of fun with this book which I think comes through. I had a certain feeling of freedom with it and just enjoyed myself.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd