Author Shari Lapena on the challenges and benefits of a successful novel

After finding limited success in another genre, the Canadian author decided to try her luck at penning a thriller

Shari Lapena, author, speaking about her new novel 'The Couple Next Door' on July 21st, 2016, at the Deansgate branch of Waterstone's in Manchester, England. (Photo by Jonathan Nicholson/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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It is a sweet problem to have. Canadian novelist Shari Lapena's appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature will chiefly focus on her latest work, A Stranger in the House, but most fans in attendance will have another book on their minds.

Published in 2016, predecessor The Couple Next Door was an immediate success, having landed on British and North American bestsellers lists for more than six months, in addition to having its translation rights sold to more than 30 countries.

In the midst of all the international festival appearances that came as a result, Lapena penned her follow-up thriller, and she acknowledges that its release was nearly swallowed up by the enduring success of The Couple Next Door.

“I have been warned about that,” she says. “Other writers have told me that if you have a first book that is very successful, the second will always feel and be less successful. It’s hard to top that and people don’t give it the same attention as the first book. I don’t know why that is. But, I am happy with the new book, it has sold well and people do seem to enjoy it.”

That isn't surprising. A Stranger in the House is another domestic noir playing on real fears: this time around, it is about a happy couple in upstate New York. One day, the husband, Tom, comes home to find his wife, Karen, has vanished, leaving behind her purse with phone and ID.

Karen survives a car accident with a concussion that erases the memory of her former life, and returns home, where something isn't quite right.

“I never really had a plan for the book,” Lapena says.

“This one was quite difficult to write, because the first book I essentially wrote it for myself. With this one, there was a deadline and a lot of different input from people, so it did take me a while to get started.”

It is interesting to note that Lapena refers to The Couple Next Door as her "first book" considering she already published two literary novels before that; 2008's Things Go Flying and 2012's Happiness Economics.

While they were critically acclaimed, they didn't sell enough for publishers to greenlight a third novel.

Discouraged, Lapena decided to ditch any expectations and try her luck at penning a thriller – a genre that she always loved.

“I was a bit bummed out by the situation and I just felt like writing again for the love of it,” she recalls.

“What I remember was that it was so much fun. I wasn’t worried about things like literary value, it was just me writing away and seeing where these characters can take me.”

The immediacy of her writing and deft plot planning was enough for literary agent Helen Heller to email Lapena back a mere 14 hours after the manuscript was sent; within 10 days, she had landed herself a multi-book deal with publishing house Pamela Dorman Books.

Lapena says she is enjoying her full transition to popular fiction.

“The thing with genre fiction is you are thinking about the reader more and there is a concern about giving the people what they want,” she says.

"While sometimes with literary fiction it can get a bit self-indulgent. I mean now I am amazed by how much mail I get. Just today, I got great one where she said – without giving anything of The Couple Next Door story away – that it is such a 'cleaver book'. She was supposed to say clever. I just loved that."

Shari Lapena will appear at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature as part of the Thriller Night panel on March 2 at 6pm and as one of three authors featured in Richard & Judy’s Festival Book Club session on Saturday at 10am


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