The result, Emma in the Night, is mind-boggling, disturbing and completely unpredictable. The plot centres around the dysfunctional relationship between a mother, Judy Martin (formerly Tanner) and her two daughters, Emma and Cassandra (Cass). The novel opens with Cassandra’s return to her mother’s home, after being missing for three years. She had disappeared the same night her older sister Emma had also vanished.
Cass is welcomed back with nothing short of shock and surprised reactions from her mother Judy, her devoted father, her chilly step-father,the rest of the associated family, and the forensic psychologist who had been in charge of the case, Dr. Abby Winter.
A happy time for the family. Cass is seemingly unharmed, and Judy melts with motherly love at having her younger daughter alive and home again. All is well now, right?
Wrong. Cass’s return soon brings more questions than answers, the primary ones being: Where is Emma? Why does Cass cryptically tell us in the opening line that “we believe what we need to believe?” Is she lying to us? Is she lying to her family? Which part of her story is real?
As Walker takes us deeper into the narrative, we realize something is markedly wrong with this family. At first, Judy just appears conceited and shallow. Later we learn her obvious lack of empathy and caring stems from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which Dr. Winter is quick to identify as her mother suffered from the same affliction. Seeing the signs all too clearly, and battling with demons of a past that still haunt her, Abby can’t help but wonder if Cass has inherited her mother’s NPD, and if so, is she dangerous?
Walker is nothing if not brilliant in delivering the ultimate bombshell in the end, an unraveling that probably most readers won’t expect. Emma’s whereabouts and why she disappeared, along with Cass’s half-truths and manipulations make for a stunning conclusion.
During a phone interview, Wendy Walker spoke with me about her fascination with narcissism, narcissists and the many challenges she faced while writing Emma in the Night.
In your previous novels, the narrators aren’t completely reliable. What is it about the “untruthful” narrator that appeals to you?
I used to write women’s fiction, which was pretty straightforward and usually written in the third person. My agent encouraged me to switch genres and dive into this unfamiliar realm, so I had to educate myself and determine what was different about this type of novel. I realized that the Gone Girl break though is useful in adding another element of suspense, especially when you sense that the narrator is either lying to you, lying to themselves or lying to other people and withholding information from you.
Cass for example, never really lies to the reader. She tells you what she’s told the police, bits and pieces of the truth but she never reveals everything until the end. Having these unreliable narrators, adds to the suspense. This why they’re psychological thrillers: because you must determine what is going on inside the narrator’s head.
It’s not just figuring out “whodunit” or where the missing girl is. It’s having to read between the lines and consider every word the narrator uses, the cadence of the language, the tone, all those things are meaningful. They’re pieces of the puzzle that you have to put together.
And it isn’t just that Cass hides the truth, but she also often manipulates the other characters too. Would you say this is true? Does she learn this from watching her mother or does it exist innately in her?
I wanted to raise the question of the cycle of narcissism and how it’s primarily passed on from the caregiver to her children. That was the question in the novel and Cass often asks herself, is she really this way? The manipulations, being able to control certain people leave a bit of an open question. Everything Cass does is with the purpose of finding her sister and to have closure. Most people who have this disorder, aren’t interested in things like closure. It’s usually all about them.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a central topic in the novel. Judy and Abby’s mother suffered from it, possibly Cass and Emma. Why did you choose to portray this particular malady and not another?
The thing about narcissists with children (this is set up in the first chapter of the novel) is that when they’re little, it’s easy for the narcissist to use them to support their alter-ego because small children will repeat anything you say. If you tell them you’re the most beautiful person in the world, they’ll truly believe it. As they get older, that starts to change, and in the case of a narcissistic mother with daughters, it becomes a deadly combination because they can’t stand the competition regarding their beauty.
It also served a purpose to the story. Considering the axis of disorders, I wanted one that would be easy to hide. Narcissists make sure that their children are attractive and high performers because it reflects back on them. It also worked well to give Cass a reason for lying. There is this very vulnerable person that can really crumble, but her lies are meant to achieve a purpose. So, it was the only one that fit all the criteria, and I found it personally fascinating. We tend to think of narcissists as just superficial people but it’s so much more than that.
The mother-daughter relationship is not the only explored, but also the one between siblings and power plays between men and women. How difficult was it to cover all these issues?
I always find that these issues come up as you’re writing. Because a female narcissist often uses men to achieve their means, they tend to be whatever a powerful man wants them to be, and for them it’s even better if they can take the man away from another woman. The people on that spectrum have a depleted or diminished sense of empathy. As healthy human beings we try to read people to know what they’re feeling, and we adjust our conversation so people will fell comfortable with us.
However, the person who doesn’t have that skill knows they need it but they don’t innately know how, so they study it by watching other people. Eventually they become very good at it, and they study people like you would study for a chemistry test. When narcissistic women want to entice a man, they figure out what this particular man wants and they become that. It’s what Judy calls her “sex-power” in the novel.
With the sibling relationship, I set it up for the reader to wonder if Emma is truly like her mother. There’s usually one sibling that gets the brunt of the narcissist’s attention and attachments, and in the novel that person was Emma. The other siblings, in this case Cass, tend to be more ignored so they seek out the faulty attention from other people, which is why Cass is mothered by Emma in substitution of Judy.
Which of the characters presented the most challenge for you?
I knew who Abby Winter was, but it was sometimes hard to strike the right tone with her and to really figure her out. I’ve had people come up to me and say that they see Abby as an alcoholic, someone made that comment to me at a book reading. And I thought, “Well if I made her go home every night and pour herself a glass of sherry or something more feminine while she’s going over the case files, then probably they wouldn’t think she was an alcoholic.” But because she has a scotch so she can sleep, many people get the impression that I wrote her as an alcoholic. So, I was trying to get across what was going on inside her with this case plus her issues with insomnia, and it ended up being misinterpreted. It was a challenge getting her character across to readers.
Was it hard to keep readers in the dark about the novel’s final plot twist?
This went through many different rewrites, and I had to go back and forth, read it through. The main thing is to drop enough clues so that the reader doesn’t feel deceived at the end, but not have them guess the truth right away. You can always go back and add more depth to the characters if they need it, but the plot twist at the end to me is the biggest part of the book.
Do you have a favorite chapter?
It’s definitely the one when you finally find out where Emma is, and the alternating narratives in it. I wouldn’t let myself write it until I got through everything else, and I was so eager to do it because I got to see and feel how it would play out and have all these alternating voices come together. That was the most satisfying chapter to write for me.
What can you tell me about your future projects? Are you working on a new novel?
I am! It’s a little twist on the Menendez murder case. The book is about a couple, who have a very volatile marriage, and are found dead in the first chapter. The teenage daughter is home in the other end of the house when it happens. Her twin brother who is away at boarding school is missing at the time of the murders, and he ends up becoming the main suspect. The book tries to uncover who killed this couple and why, but it also dissects this marriage and we find profound psychological defects in both parents and the many people who actually wanted them dead. I’m working hard on it, but there isn’t a publication date yet.