Sarah Langan, a Columbia MFA graduate with an MS in environmental toxicology, is a three-time recipient of the Bram Stoker Award. One of her previous novels, The Keeper, was a New York Times Editors’ Pick. She grew up on Long Island and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Her latest novel is Good Neighbors and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Good Neighbors?
Hi! I was thinking about the ways crowds work, and the ways ordinary, decent people can turn into violent mobs. This happens especially on social networks—people tend to attack each other over meaningless minutiae in ways they’d never do in real life. So, I wanted to explore and understand that. I looked into studies on mob mentality and the story of Kitty Genovese, which turned out to be false (she did not die alone, and her neighbors absolutely called the police). I researched the Stanford Prison Experiment, which also turned out to be false. The kids involved were students of the professor running the experiment. They knew what he wanted and gave it to him because they wanted his experiment to work. My research told me, again and again, that most people are good. But sometimes, our good instincts, the best things about us, can lead us in the wrong direction. If our children are threatened, or our homes, or our ideas of ourselves, we attack. But sometimes we’re attacking the wrong things.
Are Rhea, Gertie, Arlo, Shelly, Julia, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Rhea’s a classic narcissist, and I did a lot of research on narcissists when I wrote her. I invented her to fit the story, but she feels very real to me. Narcissists erect false, perfect selves as a coping mechanism to survive childhood. That coping mechanism stays with them through middle age. It’s a very lonely existence. What made it worse for Rhea, was her intelligence, and her isolation as a housewife, and her utter lack of support. I think she wants to be a better person, to break away from this false self, and that’s why she seeks Gertie Wilde out.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
Oh, boy. I cut two books out of this book, and so many characters. At one point, every household in the neighborhood had its own chapter. I love ensemble casts and epic novels. I wanted Good Neighbors to be just that, but as I worked, I kept getting stumped. I realized that it was really about a broken relationship between two wounded women, and the ways people take sides, even when they don’t have enough information to do so. Once they declare that side, they dig in.
Also, the book was originally horror. But at the same time that I decided to make it about this fallout between Rhea and Gertie, I cut the supernatural stuff. I didn’t want monsters to distract from the more compelling relationship between two women looking for answers, and the tragedy of the mixed signals between them. I wasn’t specifically thinking about this at the time, but in the novel Little Children by Tom Perrotta, the main character’s marriage breaks down and she’s having an affair in the suburbs. All that is cliché, and it’s intended to be, but the interesting part is the older woman friend she makes, who keeps trying to help her and be a part of her life. But she can’t see that. Through her blindness, she hurts this woman. It’s awful, as a reader. Because that was the solution—they could have been such wonderful friends, and neither would have been lonely anymore.
Why did you choose to set this novel in the near future rather than making it a contemporary novel?
I wanted the harm from global warming to be a little more palpable, and the inevitable shortages of food and resources to be a little more evident. I felt like scarcity would put a strain on even the most resilient of people. They’d be worried about losing their jobs and homes. The streams and radios would be even more alarming. I felt like this would make them more likely to turn on newcomers like the Wilde family.
This isn’t to say I’ve got a gloomy outlook. But I think we’re in the throes of enormous, inevitable change.
Your previous novels seemed to be more traditionally horror (with supernatural elements). Good Neighbors is markedly different. What inspired you to write a book so firmly rooted in dark realities (and it is all the more horrifying as a result)?
I wanted to write this as horror—but I couldn’t make it work! Every time I tried, I couldn’t take it seriously. The characters were so firmly rooted in realism that a monster didn’t fit. But it was hard to change and I was resistant. It took me a while to realize I had to branch out and do this new thing, or I’d never finish the book. Now, my villain is a real person, with whom I have great sympathy. Sure, she’s terrible and she does something unforgivable, but her pain is so palpable, and what she does feel utterly human. That’s the horror.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
So many books! My dad got me the John Adams biography by David McCullough. I like everything else he’s written and I’m an Adams fan, so I’m looking forward to it. With my kids, we just finished Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz, and we’re now on a biography of Dolly Madison. Also on my nightstand is The New York Times, The Economist, and The New Yorker. I tend to read 10% of each of these, then toss them out, disappointed in myself for not having read more.
I just finished Grady Hendrix’s masterpiece, Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. It’s spectacular. Next up are Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Stephen King’s Carrie informed Good Neighbors—I wanted that same, propulsive plot and tight story, and I studied his novel with that in mind. I learned a lot from Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. It’s a psychological puzzle of a story, and I realized I could do something similar in my own work. I came very late to Strangers on a Train, but it’s wild and funny and the psychology is really tight. I wish I’d have met Patricia Highsmith. I think she’d have been saucy. I read Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen in my early 20s and it was a game-changer for me. I learned from Link that I could be playful in my work, that I could have fun and the work could still be serious.
Our Town is my favorite play. Whenever anyone’s doing a production, I go see it. It’s everything I want out of literature. It’s ambitious and generous and asks all the big questions, without pretension.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
As a kid, I loved the Dorrie books by Patricia Coombs, They were about a little girl who was a witch. She came from a coven of witches and was always mucking things up. Her socks never matched and her hair was always messy. I also loved the short story "The Foundling" by Lloyd Alexander everything horror, and in high school, everything Ray Bradbury.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
You’d think, but no. They let me read John Saul when I was ten, so I’d had to have been into some weird stuff to have needed to hide anything.
My dad once caught me watching Howard Stern in high school and was super disappointed. There were these women in bikinis on the show, and Stern was insulting them, and his groupies were laughing, and I remember thinking: Yeah, fair. I’m disappointed in myself, too.
What is a book you've faked reading?
House of Leaves. I’m told it’s brilliant. More than one person has gifted this book to me, telling me I’ll love it. I have not made it past the first page. This is entirely my own flaw.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I can’t! I always turn to page 77 and if I like it, then I’m in.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Ray Bradbury was a great escape for me. I didn’t make sense as a teenager. It would have been better if I’d jumped from twelve to twenty-one. But at least I had Ray Bradbury to get me through. I lived in other worlds when I opened his books. His work is all about hope. Despite the failures in humanity, people persevere and improve, and the future is always a marvel.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
I buy My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris for pretty much everyone I know. It’s a masterpiece. A life’s work.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
Martian Chronicles. It’s an American opera.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
I just finished Grady Hendrix’s Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, and it blew me away. It’s about upper-middle-class housewives in suburbia, and it’s neither condescending nor mawkish. It depicts the ways the culture, their husbands, and even their children, gaslight them. It values the work they do in childrearing and cleaning and cooking and defines this work as necessary. It’s compassionate and painful and honestly, it made me cry, thinking about my own mom and the difficult life she lived, quietly and without complaint, while everyone around her told her how lucky she was.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
I want to leave my house! Any permutation of that would be perfect. But a whole day? Well, I’d get up early and write for a few hours in my garage while the kids and my husband ate breakfast. Then we’d maybe go for a hike and meet all the friends and family we’ve missed for so long. After that, we’d see a matinee in a crowded theater (I miss crowds so much) and at dinner, we’d sit with Thornton Wilder, Patricia Highsmith, Martin Scorsese, and Jane Austen. Jane had a hard life and died young, so if I had the cash I’d put her up at a nice hotel for as long as she wanted. Wouldn’t it be great if Jane Austen came back, and got all those royalties, and never had to worry about poverty again? It might not make for great art, but it would make me so happy.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
It never occurs to me to predict what I might be asked. But I'll tell you that I have a favorite restaurant—Peter Lugar's steakhouse. When the pandemic is over I want to go there. I'll start with a nice tequila, then the wedge "salad" followed by a sirloin steak and baked potato. For dessert, I'll go off-menu, and have a hot fudge brownie sundae with dry walnuts and vanilla ice cream. This is, in fact, what I'll be eating with my family on February 2, home-made, when Good Neighbors is released.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on some film adaptations, and also on my next novel, Mom’s Night Out. It’s Shirley Jackson meets Ira Levin, and I’m really having a lot of fun with it.