In conversation with Liz Alterman



Liz Alterman is a writer and author of the young adult novel, He’ll Be Waiting. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, and other leading publications. 

I connected with Liz a few months ago over email when she told me about her forthcoming thriller, The Perfect Neighborhood. Those who know me, know that I'm particular when it comes to reading and reviewing suspense. It was also late on a Friday night, and I was completely worn out. 

Alterman's new book, however, releasing July 12th, piqued my interest. Penguin Random House Canada sent me an advanced copy and I dived right in. 

Set in the picturesque town of Oak Hill, and with a riveting plot line and brilliant cast of characters, I was immersed from cover to cover. 

Liz and I continued to talk, bonding over our love of coffee, synonyms, writing, and theme parks — Liz loves them, I'm on the fence. It made perfect sense to have her join me on here to talk about the inspiration for The Perfect Neighborhood, the formula for a great suspense novel, how she spends her days, and what family means to her.

Liz by Gracemarie Photography

Your new novel, The Perfect Neighborhood, is set in an idyllic community called Oak Hill. Where did you draw the inspiration for the locale? 

I was raised in a town that started out fairly quiet and bucolic, but over the years it became much more built-up and, in some people's eyes, more desirable. It was interesting to watch the area change as new residents settled in and tried to outdo one another with their landscaping and home improvements. I drew on that as well as the town where I currently live for inspiration for Oak Hill. These places present themselves as picture-perfect but, of course, who knows what's really going on behind closed doors? That concept has always fascinated me.

What are the ingredients for a riveting suspenseful thriller?

I think suspense is a given, but I'd argue that more importantly there need to be characters that readers can relate to and root for. They don't necessarily need to be likeable, but I think the reader should be able to understand their motivations. When I read The House of Sand & Fog by Andre Dubus III (about 20 years ago), that was the first time I found myself engrossed in a novel while thinking, "Wow, I really don't like these characters, but I'm riveted, and I understand what's driving them." That was really eye-opening for me as a reader and a writer. 

I also think that it's important to have a satisfying ending. Twists are great and exciting, but if they come out of left field, the reader often feels cheated. Even if you'd never have guessed the ending, it's good to be able to go back and discover hints and clues that were sprinkled throughout the story. That way you're not left holding a book, saying, "What just happened?" and wishing you hadn't spent hours trying to figure out an outcome that feels too abrupt or just flat-out impossible.

As a full time writer, how do you spend your days?

I wish I could say my days are filled with reading, writing and head-clearing walks, but, in reality, I spend a lot of time foraging for snacks and taking pictures of my cats. But, that said, I do try to start the day early with coffee and some writing and editing. Then I'll attempt to work on something new, be it a chapter or an essay or a humor piece. I always end the day reading. I love novels but I also enjoy non-fiction too. I just finished Courtney Maum's Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer's Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book, which I loved and would recommend for writers at all stages. It reads like a fun conversation with a friend.

When you’re not raising pulses by publishing suspense novels, what books are you reading? Do you have any favourite authors?

I recently read The Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein and Permission by Jo Bloom, which were both excellent. A.M. Homes is one of my favorite authors and I just learned she has a novel coming out this fall, so I can't wait to read that.

I read your theme park article for The New York Times, and loved it. What does family mean to you?

Thank you so much! Family is everything to me. I was blessed to have parents who encouraged me (and my two brothers) to pursue our interests. I'm trying to instill that in my children—that belief that if you work hard, try your best, and shelve your fear of rejection or failure, you can accomplish more than you ever imagined. My dad passed away last May and losing him really brought home just precious family is. Fortunately, he and I were close, so I can still hear his voice in my head, which has been a gift. 

The Perfect Neighborhood by Liz Alterman is available for order in hardcover edition from Indigo or e-book format from Kobo. Check Penguin Random House Canada for additional retailers.