Bethesda Interview: Sarah Pekkanen
The Chevy Chase resident and best-selling novelist talks about plot twists, scaling mountains and selling the movie rights to her latest book
Photo by Liz Lynch
Name: Sarah Pekkanen
What she does: Novelist and short-story writer
Lives in: Chevy Chase
When Sarah Pekkanen was a young girl, she sent stories to book publishers on three-ring binder paper. She was pursuing her dream to be a novelist. “One was a mystery, à la Nancy Drew,” she says. While her early submissions weren’t picked up, she received “one very nice letter from an editor in New York who told me to keep going and that I’d have a book published one day,” Pekkanen recalls. She was 10 years old. “It meant a lot that she would take the time to write it.”
Forty years later, Pekkanen is an internationally best-selling author who has published seven books in seven years, including The Perfect Neighbors, which People magazine called “a delicious beach read.” Pekkanen’s novels focus on the important relationships in a woman’s life, she says: sisters, spouses, new and old friends. All of her books have gone into multiple printings, and her best-sellers have sold a couple hundred thousand copies worldwide.
Pekkanen co-authored her eighth and latest novel, The Wife Between Us, with her former editor, Greer Hendricks, and the two recently received the news that many novelists hope for: Their psychological thriller was optioned for a movie by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners, an arm of DreamWorks. The book, due out Jan. 9, has pre-sold in 30 countries. The Hollywood Reporter compared it to Paula Hawkins’ novel The Girl on the Train, and Pekkanen already has thought about who she’d love to see star in the movie. “Naomi Watts and Scarlett Johansson would be a dream,” she says. “And for [the character] Richard, Leonardo DiCaprio could be an intriguing choice.”
Pekkanen, who has three sons—ages 9, 16 and 18—was born in New York City and moved to Bethesda with her family when she was 4. After graduating from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1985, she attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison before transferring to the University of Maryland, College Park, where she studied journalism. Following graduation, she worked at Gannett News Service/USA Today and The Baltimore Sun. She got away from fiction writing for a while, covering politics on Capitol Hill, and writing feature stories for The Sun, where she reported on everything from the National Aquarium’s rehabilitation of a baby porpoise to the Columbine, Colorado, shootings. “I’d really delve into a particular story and spend a lot of time with it, even a month, and then write it in a narrative form,” says Pekkanen, whose father, John, is a medical writer. “That was kind of the building block for getting back into fiction.”
After her first two children were born, Pekkanen left daily reporting and worked as a freelance writer. “I just wasn’t able to do the type of stuff I had done for The Sun, where you might have to stay late at night or catch a plane with three hours’ notice,” says Pekkanen, who has also published two short stories and a novella. She continued to take assignments for The Sun, as well as Washingtonian, and started writing a column for Bethesda Magazine. She also returned to her first love: fiction. “When I took the column, I think I had started to write a book, but it took a while [to finish it] because I only had about three hours a day when the kids were in preschool,” she says. She’d write in coffee shops, on the sidelines of soccer fields, even at Chuck E. Cheese’s. “I was never really tethered to one space.”
Bethesda Magazine interviewed Pekkanen in October at Quartermaine Coffee Roasters, one of the many places where she’s worked on her novels over the years.
What, or who, inspired you to write when you were a kid?
My father definitely influenced me, and I definitely remember certain teachers encouraging me to write. I found one of them on Facebook recently and thanked her for reading aloud one of my creative essays to my English class at B-CC.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve done in pursuit of a story?
I spent a night in a haunted house while on assignment for The Baltimore Sun. It was just like something out of the movie Poltergeist. A developer near Ocean City built homes on a former graveyard. The tombstones were removed, but the graves were not. One family had inexplicable things happen during the years they lived at the house—items being moved, inexplicable noises, electronics flickering off and on, along with other strange occurrences. Their young son often talked about the old man who would come into his room at night and want to tell stories about his life, and the wife once caught a glimpse of a strange face in a mirror. I traveled there to meet a medium who tried to communicate with the spirits. Spending the night in that house was definitely a creepy experience.
Having gone from the deadline-driven world of journalism to fiction writing, where you need to create your own deadlines, how did you make writing your first novel a priority?
It was just something I had to do. I didn’t give myself a certain deadline, like 2,000 words a week or anything like that. It was just never really in question. Whenever I had a free moment I would turn to the manuscript, and I was thinking about it all the time. I had notebooks in my car, and in my purse and nightstand drawer. I’d scribble down a few lines here and there, so it was kind of more of a compulsion.
Have you learned any tricks along the way, in terms of immersing yourself in your characters’ lives?
The backstory is so important, knowing your characters well enough to know [that] if you were asked what kind of car they drive, or how they take their coffee, even if you hadn’t thought about it before, you would have an answer. That’s super important, so spending a lot of time building their psychological profile, understanding them and understanding how they’d react in certain situations, I think makes the writing much more authentic. I think about it more than write it down. Long walks with music are great for coming up with characters and plot points.
How has the job of novelist evolved over the years, and how is it different from what you thought it would be?
A big piece of it that was surprising to me is the business side. You have to be really involved with things like social media, emails to weigh in on certain things, building websites, and contracts, so the business and housekeeping take up 50 percent of my time, which I enjoy, but it is part of the job. Right now I’m doing two books a year. I’m writing a book with my former editor [Greer Hendricks], which will be out in January. And then I’m still writing solo novels with my old publisher, Atria/Simon & Schuster, and I’ll have one out in June, and then the same thing the following year. It’s definitely a pretty intense pace right now.
How did that partnership with Hendricks come about, and what was it like to go from writing alone to working with a collaborator?
I don’t know if I could have collaborated with anyone else. We worked together on the seven solo novels and hit it off. We became really close friends and we have this weird number of things in common that are very specific. We’re the exact same age, both played field hockey in high school, both studied journalism and psychology in college, and we’re really close to our brothers, who are both named Robert. We just had an unusual relationship in that we were author and editor, but we became close friends. When she left Simon & Schuster after 20 years, she mentioned to me privately, ‘I’m thinking about writing a book.’ I said, ‘I just finished writing a solo novel, why don’t we write one together?’ And that’s how it happened, kind of a very impulsive thought, a very instinctive thought. I love writing with her. We are on the phone every day for probably five, six hours talking about characters, writing together, and we’re emailing, texting and calling in between with little snippets like, here’s a magazine article to read, or this podcast, and how about this song to use as a ringtone [for a character’s phone].
How do you structure the work together in terms of who writes what?
She’s in New York, I’m in D.C. Most other writing duos, they each write a chapter and send them back and forth, or each takes a character, but we didn’t want to do that, so we did Google Hangouts and Google Docs, where you can phone each other through the computer and have a shared document where you see the other person’s cursor. So we’re on the phone and we’re both typing things in and saying, ‘not that’ or ‘yes, that word,’ and then one would go in suggested mode and edit what the other was writing, and then vice versa. If you point to 100 different lines in the book, I could not tell you who wrote what because most of them are a collaboration.
What’s a typical day like?
I’m up by 5:30 or 6, check email and make coffee, walk the dog, make lunches and get the kids off to school, race to the gym (I go to a place called Balanced Athlete in D.C. for small classes), then I get on the phone with Greer and we work straight through until it’s time to pick up the kids from school or sports practice. I spend time with the kids after school. Then at night, and in little found pockets during the day, I answer emails or review the day’s writing and make notes of things to discuss with Greer.
Where do your story ideas come from?
It varies every time. Sometimes, for Greer and I, we talk and talk and talk before we come up with the idea, which is constantly refined. I’ve never really had a lightning bolt moment in which an idea comes fully formed in my head. It’s usually much slower and more gradual—and usually around an action, and then the characters come into play. I would love [to be able to say] what J.K. Rowling said [about how] she was riding on a subway and the idea came to her and she wrote it on a napkin, but that has never happened to me.
Is any of your life in your novels?
I never write anything autobiographical, deliberately, partly because I’d run out of material and partly because I’d never want my kids to think I’m writing about them, so I’ve always had that little bit of a fire wall up. I would be very worried if I was writing about a mom with three boys who were the same ages, and they thought they’d recognize themselves in that. I think that would be a little bit of a betrayal to them. That is probably the one thing I’m super careful about.
Is there a character in one of your books who has stuck with you longer than the others?
It’s always the most recent one that’s more in my head. All of them do, in some ways. I feel a little bit protective toward them all, as though they’re all old friends; college friends you were really close with but lost touch with. I think Julia in my second book, Skipping a Beat, was special to me. That was an emotional book. I was pregnant when I wrote it, and I remember just feeling that book really intensely.
What was it about Julia?
I think she was somebody who was trapped in this world, in this life, and kind of didn’t know how she ended up in this very enviable life, but she wasn’t being who she was meant to be, and that was very interesting, and I think it plays into a bit [of] what we see on social media. We think everybody is living this beautiful, picture-perfect, Instagram life, and yet people are struggling deep down. So she was kind of special. And then there was a character named Tina in The Best of Us who was a very overwhelmed mother who got away on a vacation, and she was special, too. With three boys, I’m always drowning in soccer balls and laundry and [giving them] rides everywhere, so I like throwing a bit in with my characters sometimes.
Are there glamorous parts of your work?
Our publisher [for The Wife Between Us], St. Martin’s Press, just sent us on a six-city pre-tour—New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, D.C.—and hosted intimate parties to introduce us to booksellers in each market. The events were held at gorgeous restaurants and featured specialty drinks that tied into different themes of The Wife Between Us. The actual writing part isn’t so fancy. I’m in Lululemon sweats with a mug of tea by my side and a snoring black Lab at my feet.
What’s your life like now that you’re on a promotional tour?
Tours are always [a] whirlwind. You usually do one city a day, so the pace is hectic and the days start early. But you never know what’ll happen. Once, I stepped onto an elevator and discovered Gavin Rossdale, the lead singer of Bush and ex of Gwen Stefani, who was also on tour. He was charming, and we had a nice chat. I’ve done a number of tours solo, and it’s so different with my co-author, Greer. Having a good friend along, someone to go running with in a new city, and to eat dinner with, transforms what can be an occasionally lonely experience.
I hear you’ve taken up mountain climbing and recently completed a major climb. What inspired you?
I just love the idea of doing something kind of extreme. I was out in Colorado [in the summer of 2015] climbing up mountains with my boys and realized how much I love the mountains, so I began to look for other adventures and I found out I could climb Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, and I thought, oh, that looks like fun. You can climb it in January and it’s really extreme. A lot of people do it to train for Everest because of the conditions. The wind is just crazy, 50 mph and a wind chill close to negative 30 or 35 degrees when I tried it in January. The first day was bad. If you took off your glove to touch your iPhone, it wouldn’t read your finger. I split my gloves with my ice ax a few times, and I came down and my feet were so swollen.
You have to know what you’re doing, so I hired a private guide who is very experienced with avalanches and all that. We didn’t make it to the top—the wind was too intense. We made it two-thirds [of the way], but then I went back in March, when the winds were closer to 36 mph, and I did make it to the top. It’s definitely something I’m getting a little obsessed with. I’m going to do Mount Washington again because it’s a different mountain every time you climb it. I like the winter—[there’s] hurricane-force wind every three days and you’re in it with crampons [traction devices that strap to your feet] and ice axes, and you’re clawing your way up and it’s such a great release. All you can think about is one foot in front of the other. It’s beautiful. You have to really be very present in a way that’s hard to do these days.
What was the most harrowing part of either climb?
There was one really steep section, and the only way you can get through is if you have the crampons really in. I did slip once, and the guide was screaming ‘arrest, arrest!’ and I remembered, oh, yeah, I know how to stop. You have to put [the ice ax] in and put your weight behind so it holds you, because if you gain some speed while you’re falling it can be bad.
What’s it like to have a guide?
Most of the time you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you don’t talk a lot. He had to teach me how to use crampons and how to cross [certain sections]. We had some really steep sections, and he would have to rope me in and talk me through a lot of technical stuff—foot placement, all of that. You don’t have a ton of energy for finding out each other’s personal stories, but I did meet fascinating people on the mountain.
What were they like?
There was a professional fly fisherman, and a young woman who was in the Coast Guard. You talk to all sorts of different people when you get down to dinner at the lodge—people I wouldn’t come into contact with in the course of my everyday life. The main group I met on the way up was a group of five or six guys who were old friends. They were a very cool group. One was an entrepreneur who founded [Health Warrior], those great little Chia bars you get at Whole Foods, and one was Jesse Itzler [the author of Living with a SEAL], who is married to the founder of Spanx, and one of his buddies was a guy named Mark Brown, an ex-NFL player. I’ve stayed in touch with them on social media.
Any other mountains on your bucket list?
I would love to do Kilimanjaro, and Denali in Alaska, and Rainier. I’m trying to get my [9-year-old] into it because I figure I’ll have a lot of years with him. He’s all for it. He has to get a little bit bigger though.
Will your climbing experiences influence what you write about, or how you write?
Definitely. I’m planning more climbs and dreaming of a way to work that experience into a novel someday. I have tons of climbing books on my shelves, and I’m toying with an idea for my next solo novel that could tie in my new passion.
How did you end up writing a psychological thriller? How many of the plot twists in The Wife Between Us did you have in mind at the start, versus ones that developed later?
Greer and I sat down and talked about the kinds of stories that spoke to us, and we were both drawn to strong female protagonists and novels with psychological elements. There are rules to standard thrillers and mysteries, but since neither of us had written one, we didn’t know what the rules were—or that we were breaking them. I think that worked to our advantage. As for the plot twists, they developed as we talked. And talked. And talked. At this point, we joke that we have ‘one brain’ because we need both of ours to keep track of all of our twists.
The book was more of an abstract psychological pursuit. We wanted to explore how everyone views their life through different lenses depending on experiences—and how people even change their own perceptions of their past events.
What was it like selling the movie rights?
The Gotham Group represents me and Greer, and the process for selling it was crazy. We spent a day on the phone with different producers who all had different takes on the book and what they’d do with it. And then we talked to DreamWorks. We talked to the president [of production] at Amblin [Holly Bario], which is Steven Spielberg’s production company, and she was amazing, so we signed a contract with them.
Will you have input in the screenplay?
I hope so. I would love it. Greer and I understand that they bought the rights and it’s whatever they want to do with the material. That was our agreement with them. But we would love to learn about the process, and we’re thinking of doing some screenwriting on our own at some point.
As you get busier, are you still under contract to write one solo novel per year?
My kids are in three different schools, so it’s kind of crazy right now. I have two [books] due in the next year. After that I’ll just see if I need to take a little breather from one or the other, maybe make it 18 months rather than every year because it has been quite a time crunch, but I’m also so lucky to get to do what I really love to do, it’s what I always wanted to do. If it’s a little more work, or a little bit busier, that’s OK. It’s been a crazy couple of years, but it’s all good.
Christine Koubek, a regular contributor for Bethesda Magazine, writes the Get Away column.