Bestselling author Mary Kubica says her second novel, Pretty Baby, came to her with the sudden “pop” of an image: “I saw Willow, standing on that Chicago ‘L’ platform with this baby in her arms. I didn’t know who she was or what her story was—I had no idea what the pieces were going to be.” Kubica then “disappeared into a quiet corner of the house” to write what would become the novel’s opening scene, a fateful encounter between middle-class wife and mother Heidi Woods and homeless teen Willow. From there, Kubica says, “things took off, and one page led to another.”
The suspenseful Pretty Baby weaves together three points of view: Heidi, husband Chris, and Willow take turns narrating the unfolding events that occur after nurturing Heidi impulsively brings Willow and the four-month-old infant into her family’s condo; Heidi’s kind-hearted action catalyzes a series of surprising twists and turns that Kirkus, in a starred review, calls “almost hypnotic and anything but predictable.”
Kubica is good at keeping secrets, not just in her stories but in her life as well. In fact, her close friends and family had no inkling that she had been quietly writing for years. Not until after she had acquired an agent and landed a contract for her first novel, the psychological thriller The Good Girl, did she call her parents for the big reveal. “I said, ‘I have something to tell you—I’m not pregnant!’ I had to say that quickly, because I knew that would be the first thing they’d think. Then I told them about The Good Girl being published. It was so out of left field! They didn’t see it coming at all,” she laughs, recalling their surprise and the two-hour phone call in which she filled them in on her long history of clandestine writing. “In retrospect,” she adds, “my family could have had hard feelings. But luckily no one did.”
Her life as a writer exposed, Kubica found writing Pretty Baby under contract a different experience. “When I was writing The Good Girl—I had no idea that I was going to sell the book, so I had no deadline, no expectations, no external pressures—I was just writing the book for me. And if I only had 15 or 30 minutes to work on it —that was fine. There was no rush or pressure to get this done, I was really just enjoying the process because I didn’t owe it to anyone.”
Readers who enjoy Kubica’s intricate plots may be surprised to learn that she resists mapping out her stories in advance. “I have an idea of where I want to start the novel, but I don’t know who the characters will be, I don’t know their stories yet,” she says. “With suspense, there is a natural flow; that is something very innate to the mystery element. If I overthink it, I take away from the natural flow of the story. So I may be working on one chapter and get a vague idea of the next chapter but I take it one page at a time. Little by little the ideas come to be, as the characters tell the story to me. If I try to plan too far ahead, it detracts from the overall flow. I have to remind myself not to worry…that it will eventually come to me.”
Her goal is to engage readers not just with suspenseful plot lines, but with absorbing characters whose unfolding stories, taken together, reveal the whole truth. She enjoys imagining characters, like Heidi and Willow, who “swap places—creating these people who do an about-face on you. That’s important in this genre, that what you see in the beginning is not what you get in the end. I want to keep readers on the edge of their seats, drawn in not just by plot but by each character as well.”
This sense of untangling puzzles and unearthing secrets as she writes is deeply satisfying to Kubica. “It’s so fun and exciting when I discover what that twist will be—I find a lot of pleasure in that buildup,” she says. “People ask me whether I plan to stick with suspense and I think, ‘Yes, this is what I’ll always want to write. Creating a twist, and being able to lay these clues; that’s what really entices me about the suspense genre. I had never really found my niche before but then something clicked. Maybe this is what I had been missing.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She has co-authored two books and several essays on intercultural subjects and reviews art, books, and audiobooks for a variety of publications. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.