When Andrea Bartz’s agent sent out the manuscript for 2019’s The Lost Night, one editorial response was a suggestion she take out the murders, the blood, the corpses. The Lost Night’s story of a questionable suicide could be revisited as a poignant tale of a Brooklyn professional’s gaze backward at her unmoored youth.
It was a fair suggestion to avoid the thriller elements, and to approach her stories on their crime-free merits. Bartz’s second book, 2020’s The Herd, examines an all-woman creative space. Her new novel, We Were Never Here, presents a friendship gone awry. Nobody needed to die. None of her characters needed to be shot, stabbed, burned, poisoned, frozen, buried, bludgeoned, or thrown over a cliff.
Bartz heard that suggestion, that “this writer is very talented and could write a very impressive coming-of-age novel. But I don’t want to write that,” Bartz told The Daily Beast. “Don’t take my dead bodies away from me. I want the dead bodies, and I want the study of the human condition.”
The late Elmore Leonard became the preeminent thriller writer because he wrote even his lowliest goons as fully human goons, with all the faults and desperation we see in ourselves. Bartz’s scheming, conniving, insecure characters accomplish that same thirsty fun from the woman’s perspective. It’s not fair to compare anyone to Leonard, but with three books in three years and a fourth coming in 2023, she’s as prolific as he was at the same age.
And just as Leonard crafted his reliable vivid Detroit streets, an Andrea Bartz novel will feature sharply drawn upscale young women in liberal arts-themed professions trying to find suitable men to date, while avoiding being murdered by those they trusted.
Bartz’s latest, We Were Never Here, is the story of two friends, Emily and Kristen, sharing overseas vacations to Cambodia and Chile, backpacking, hooking up with strange, attractive men, and then murdering them before returning physically unscathed to their normal lives. The killings are excusable; in both cases the men apparently attack the women first, turning consensual activity into life-threatening assaults. Written without the creepiness of the male gaze, the violence against women does not feel exploitative, and in any event it gets turned on the men fairly quickly. But as they say, the cover-up is worse than the crime.
Since there are only two survivors, it is no spoiler to reveal that Kristen’s agenda will become suspicious, grasping, and violent. Emily deals with guilt, confusion, and, too late, realizations of who her friend has always been. It’s not a who-dun-it, but a why-they-did.
We Were Never Here arrives at the right time to show the murderous frontier of toxic friendship. In this pandemic era, after all, friendships can be literally toxic. Are your friends careful? Do you trust them? Should they trust you? You might not stab your old college pal in the eye, but if you didn’t get vaccinated, maybe you’re closer to that side than you think you are.
When we consider friendships through that cynical lens, they are all noir mysteries waiting to happen, grim revelations hiding behind familiar faces. We never quite see the bad twist coming. Each of Bartz’s books tells a noirish tale of how trusted relationships can unravel, teaching us what we didn’t want to know.
Bartz’s first-person style immerses the reader in her protagonist’s thoughts and observations as they stumble into uncomfortable situations caused by their own bad decisions. There is no question this creates “unlikable female characters.” It’s hard for a short passage to give context to how Bartz pulls the reader along. It’s not so much sentence-level, but in each chapter’s revelations that tension builds with an episodic construction.
Emily, the narrator of We Were Never Here, cascades through a variety of poor choices—she’s difficult for a reader to “like” as she tries to cover up murders, and navigate her friend Kristen’s manipulative nature through, for instance, vapid, overly-enthusiastic text messages.
“I spent awhile rewording my text, trying to get it right. Finally: ‘Got it. I hope that doesn’t make you feel weird—I’m extremely careful about your/our privacy. But of course you come up, you are my best friend! Smile emoji!” Bartz writes Emily texting Kristen after getting caught out for seeing a therapist, perhaps confessing the duo’s crimes.
Disingenuous, pleading, and pathetic, but that’s the point—think of any friend who gave you a bad taste for whatever reason, hopefully not that they were planning your murder, but something negative. How did you think about approaching the situation? Confrontation? Avoidance? Backstabbing them to other friends? Ghost them or be upfront? That internal dialogue—full of pettiness and spite in the sound of your own voice—was probably not for public consumption.
Bartz writes how we think, man or woman, desperate and craven in times of crisis.
“If someone published a transcript of your thoughts, you might not look too good either,” Bartz said.
“A reader is in the minds of these characters. For there to be intimacy, she’s going to have thoughts that aren’t socially acceptable, with dark motivations, and secrets, and desires,” Bartz said. “She can’t follow the proscribed path of the perfect woman, and that will mean people think they’re unlikable.”
It’s funny that “unlikable” is seen as a negative. With television shows like Unreal, or Gossip Girl, or any of the Real Housewives series, women of all ages appear in a scheming, self-involved light and it provides consistent entertainment. “Unlikable female characters” are an expectation, and not a downside. The sexist edge, however, is that women’s problems are often considered emotional, self-involved, and self-indulgent, lacking a man’s sober reflection on humanity’s precarious state—never mind that Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day is the definitive rendering of male ennui, and yet men write of their angst again and again and again. This environment that privileges men’s observations means Bartz’s stories can be marginalized as “women’s fiction,” instead of a knife-pointed narration of human behavior in extreme situations.
Her characters, while overacting with a thriller’s melodrama, show how any of us might behave during a disaster of our own making. A reflection on the precarious human state, indeed.
“We’re all looking out for Number One,” Bartz said. “Show me a single person who is not self-involved.”
At a Zoom book club during pandemic, one of the first questions—from a woman—was why Bartz’s characters were “unlovable.”
“I burst out laughing. If you think this woman who is going through this horrible thing is not worthy of love, what does that say about you? Maybe you’re the mean one.”
A theory about war literature is that if the author isn’t thinking about death in every word choice, then they aren’t writing about war but something else. With thrillers, it’s the same idea—every line of dialogue, every plot point, each writerly turn of phrase, needs to unveil a threat. It doesn’t mean the threat is always overt, but each word should get the reader just a little bit closer to the reveal. Bartz succeeds at that fun, methodical job of building the suspense through Emily’s unhinged behavior in the face of Kristen’s implacable malice:
“And Paolo had a family. A sister. Jesus. Now they weren’t shadowy stand-ins in my imagination; they had names, voices, lives. Suddenly all I wanted was to Google the sister, learn everything I could about this poor sibling-less Elena, jam my thumb into the bruise.
“‘Christ. It’s a lot, right?’
“‘It’s not ideal.’
“‘Not ideal? He’s American, Kristen, the freaking American consulate is involved.’
“‘I know. I can’t believe he didn’t mention that.’”
Bartz’s journalism background helps her capture dialogue’s rhythms, learned from conversations with sources—but also provided the journalist’s predatory gaze, listening and waiting for moments they can use, or exploit, if one prefers.
“When I interview a source for an article, I categorize them in my head, what’s the quote, what’s the way they use words that hits the point I need for a reader. I try to isolate those words that work really hard. I think that informs how I write dialogue,” Bartz said.
“I’ve been accused of being dialogue-heavy, but I also believe that relationships are the most important parts of my books, so it makes sense that the story will hinge on what they say to each other and how they interact,” Bartz said. “If you care about the relationships, and how they swell, and shrink, and bristle, and soften, that’s what is engaging about a character-driven psychological thriller.”
Attention to detail helps journalists, thriller writers, and serial killers be successful—to do a good job, they can’t trip up on incorrect facts, plot inconsistencies, or careless fingerprints. By often giving her characters some of her own background, Bartz draws on her experiences, so the storylines make sense. The narrator in The Lost Night is a researcher, so Bartz’s background of fact-checking and editing help it become a believable trait. In We Were Never Here, the characters travel overseas to places Bartz visited herself, giving the scenes a lived authenticity.
A stereotype of women’s fiction is that of course it draws from real events—and plenty of anecdotal moments in Bartz’s books feel like real life. The meet-cute interactions and city life, but also simple but dark ideas, as from The Lost Night’s narrator Lindsay:
“As I rode north toward Morningside Heights, an odd neighborhood near Manhattan’s knobby tip, one where old row houses unfold down both sides of the street, my brain kept sifting: mentally, I stepped over the people I’d talked to like bodies scattered across the ground. I peered out the window where rain coated the street, and my mind wandered over to last year’s horrific accident in the Bronx, the one where a bus collided with a big rig, veered into a pole, and had its top sliced off by a sign. Fourteen people dead after rolling around like popcorn inside. I imagined it for a moment, screaming and limbs. The bus was frigid and I wrapped my arms around me.”
It’s not a moment important to the story, but it describes a real accident and probably a real thought Bartz once had, beset by her own real evening ennui. But, any instinct to diminish “women’s fiction” as nothing more than exaggerated real-life is to forget that Stephen King’s Carrie was drawn from real classmates, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree is semi-autobiographical, and Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty was built off the experiences of a real-life loan shark’s muscle man. Even the most outlandish melodramas arise from a believable reality.
Bartz’s editor kept her from falling a little too deep into that real-life trap. Her follow-up to The Lost Night was originally set in her own background of a conservative parochial church and school in Wisconsin, and she said the manuscript “worked through my anger and indignation about the experience growing up in this Lutheran environment, where girls needed to modify what we wore, and the boys got away with snapping bras and being terrible,” she said, where the administration “wielded sin to keep us in line, and humble and under control.”
After the editor steered her away from the premise, Bartz realized, “a thinly-veiled memoir plus a dead body is not the way I want to go.” As for whether Book Five can tackle that experience as a straightforward memoir, “I don’t know if I’m interested in living in that world. The last few years were about kissing it goodbye.”
While the narrator of The Lost Night was from Bartz’s Wisconsin, it took place in the hipster lofts of Brooklyn, and The Herd in a Manhattan office club. For We Were Never Here, Bartz goes back to her home region of the Milwaukee suburbs. It’s not a love letter to Milwaukee or the region, but it captures the regional sensibilities as the main character navigates her suburb life while dealing with the murders she’s involved in.
“I wanted to show that character’s journey—this very sweet Midwestern girl. I don’t think New Yorkers are more likely to kill someone on their travels, but I wanted to watch her go back to her daily life in Milwaukee, and she loves animals, and she’s dating someone new, and it’s a great contrast,” to her other activities as a murderer and conspirator, Bartz said.
“It’s a woman living her little life in Wisconsin and finds herself in a bad situation with the walls closing in,” she said. “In Milwaukee, people are so nice to each other, no one showing anger, walking around smiling. Not to isolate Milwaukee, but there’s a seedy underbelly of places we think are wholesome.”
From outside appearances, Bartz epitomizes wholesome Midwestern values. She was one of those girls who gets her smiling picture in the newspaper as a top graduating senior of her high school—heading off to the east coast’s big city to make her way.
“My friends make fun of me that I can spin anything into a thriller. I can’t help the fact that I think about these dark possibilities,” she said. “A lot of it comes from that Midwestern stiff upper lip; smile, keep your mouth shut. There’s a lot of darkness behind those masks.”
Her process of discovery can be from tiny things, like a line from a Wall Street Journal article her mother sent about COVID: “public grieving rituals,” it said. The phrasing had a Shirley Jackson vibe, she said, and it went into the document saving all the “cockleburs that snag on my consciousness.”
Like, for example, Bartz’s real-life trip to Chile, where like her characters Emily and Kristen in We Were Never Here, Bartz and a friend befriended a male backpacker from Australia, and like Emily and Kristen and the ill-fated Paolo, they enjoyed a night of wine and hanging out.
That’s where, presumably, any similarities with the book conclude.
“He was so not scary, and fun and easy to get along with. We kept joking about how his whole scheme was to kill us and take our wallets and run. The stereotype is that women always need to be alert and taking precautions; the default is the women need to be worried,” she said.
“One of our last nights, we were hanging out, and I said to him, you’ve only known us for a few days. You didn’t see me open this wine, what I could have done to it. What makes you convinced we aren’t a threat to you? There was a long silence.” She laughed at her anecdote. I laughed. We both laughed.
Readers sometimes make a mistake with first-person books, assuming the narrator is meant to be the author’s wish-fulfillment alter ego. Sometimes the narrator is the mouse and the author is the cat.
“I had the pitch for We Were Never Here worked out by the end of that trip,” Bartz said. “There were feelings I wanted to investigate.”