Why Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty is the queen of suburban noir

NIcole Kidman and Liane Moriarty. Picture: Instagram
NIcole Kidman and Liane Moriarty. Picture: Instagram

The night before I'm due to interview Liane Moriarty, Nicole Kidman posts something on Instagram about the television adaption of Moriarty's Nine Perfect Strangers which is currently airing on Amazon Prime.

"Liane Moriarty only had one person in mind when writing the role of Frances Welty and that was Melissa McCarthy," posted Kidman, who stars in and is an executive co-producer of the series.

On the phone from her home on Sydney's upper north shore, Moriarty sets the record straight with a quick answer.

"No, I didn't, she was always just Frances," she says, with a touch of exasperation in her voice.

"I know people think I write with a television adaptation in mind but I absolutely don't. I still write exactly the same way I've always written. In most cases I get to the end of a book and I think I don't see how they could adapt this one."

But adapt they have. The screen rights have been sold for all her books, even the back catalogue. 2017's Big Little Lies, starring Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, won Golden Globes and Emmys. Nine Perfect Strangers, with Kidman, McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale (as well as Australians Asher Keddie and Samara Weaving) has had mixed reviews but is another slick production and extremely watchable. Her latest book Apples Never Fall, the reason we're catching up, has already been optioned by producer David Heyman, who was behind the Harry Potter films.

Melissa McCarthy in Nine Perfect Strangers. Picture: Supplied

Melissa McCarthy in Nine Perfect Strangers. Picture: Supplied

It's hard to ignore this aspect of Moriarty's success. Does she have Kidman's and Witherspoon's numbers in her phone? What are they really like? How funny is McCarthy in real life? How on earth do you choose a dress for the Emmys? (Where she reportedly spent a lot of time holding hands with Keith Urban to calm her nerves.)

But Moriarty never really buys into it.

"It's not really a part of my day-to-day life," she says. "More like exciting little interludes.

"In between all of that there are months and months of just sitting at my desk, writing books."

She's more than happy to talk about her everyday life, how she's been dealing with lockdown by bingeing television and listening to true-crime podcasts, exploring the neighbourhood bike paths with her husband Adam and their two children, George,13, and Anna, 11.

"We're all riding our bikes so much more now, it's been lovely, like a return to my own childhood."

And in the end that's Moriarty's secret to success. She is just like us. Another suburban mother, albeit one with a neat turn of phrase. She goes to school trivia nights, plays a bit of tennis, gets into arguments with her sister and fellow author Jaclyn about poetry.

Meryl Streep and Liane Moriarty. Picture: Supplied

Meryl Streep and Liane Moriarty. Picture: Supplied

"Jaki and I were joking about poetry, I said I've never really enjoyed poetry very much, maybe I didn't have a soul, and she said something on Twitter about my sister's trying to work out if she has a soul, send poetry. People did send some beautiful poems, which I loved, but I prefer fiction."

All this minutiae of life creeps into her books, the detail that entwines itself around the plot, is what sets her apart from other "suburban noir" authors. She has us pegged, for better or for worse.

I'd like to steal a line from Ernest Hemingway for my definition of "suburban noir", apparently he was misquoted along the way, but he spoke of the suburbs as a place of "wide lawns and narrow minds". If we think about the portrayal of suburbia in popular culture, it's full of references to repression, alienation, boredom, banality, dissatisfaction, infidelity. In his 2016 essay Suburbia, Sukhdev Sandu, associate professor of English literature at New York University, says, "Suburbia, for all its manicured lawns and glistening white picket fences, for all its niceness, is represented as a brake on ambition, an injunction against desire, a fetishisation of the nuclear family over vagrant, vivid youth. It's a place where that energy gets sublimated and, all too often, channelled into spy-on-the-neighbour prurience, solitary drinking, hypocritical and hapless affairs. Where is there to go after one has moved to the suburbs?"

But Moriarty wouldn't live, or write about, anywhere else.

"In the end most of us are ordinary suburban people," she says. Sure, in Nine Perfect Strangers she took them out of the suburbs to a wellness retreat in the tropics, "but they were still regular people". Everyday, extraordinary things happen to ordinary people, she says.

Nicole Kidman accepts the AWARD for Big Little Lies in 2017. Picture: Supplied

Nicole Kidman accepts the AWARD for Big Little Lies in 2017. Picture: Supplied

In Apples Never Fall, the ordinary people are the Delaney family. "From the outside, they appear to be an enviably contented family." Former tennis coaches Stan and Joy are still winning tournaments, their four adult children are busy living their own lives after, it could be argued, failing to live up to their parents' expectations, on and off the tennis court. But when the mysterious outsider Savannah turns up on the doorstep asking for help, things start to unravel. Joy goes missing, relationships crack, questions are asked of the whole family.

"I had a good feeling about this house," Savannah says. "It just felt warm and safe." But we all know the suburbs are never really like that.

Joy is central to the story. At 69, she's a tiny, energetic woman who "looks good for her age". She's still got a great serve, thinks of herself as a feminist, an athlete, a successful businesswoman, but she longs for a grandchild "to make her days splutter back to life again".

At 54, Moriarty is happy to talk about aging and how important it is to tell the stories of older women in particular. Joy's longing for something else, something more, her disillusionment with a long marriage, her coming to terms with the idea that she is no longer involved in the hands-on mothering of her children, are often issues not dealt with in popular fiction. In some ways Joy becomes more visible when she disappears.

"My characters are getting older and I'm getting older and sometimes when I'm writing I think, 'Will younger readers not enjoy that?' but why shouldn't they enjoy it, she's still a person with depth and thoughts of her own.

"I remember reading some books by Australian author Liz Bryski who was writing about characters older than me, I was in my 30s and 40s and she was writing about women in their 50s, where I am now, and I remember thinking these women were really interesting characters who still had valuable stories to tell. And the older you get the more secrets you have, people forget that too."

After she'd finished Nine Perfect Strangers she was keen to have some time away from writing. She'd been putting out books every two years for a while - "I don't know how some authors manage a book a year" - and she was ready to have a break.

"So I took a year off. I had this year planned, I was calling it the Year of Joy," she says. (And that's why the main character's name is Joy.) There were plans to listen to music and podcasts, brush up on her tennis, just take a step back.

"But I soon realised doing nothing essentially was never going to bring me joy. I wanted to write," she says.

She thought she would try writing for pleasure, no pressure, and asked Jaclyn for a writing prompt.

"She sent me a couple of lines about a bike lying on the ground with some apples next to it and that little exercise ended up being the novel."

Apples Never Fall, by Liane Moriarty. Pan Macmillan, $32.99.

Apples Never Fall, by Liane Moriarty. Pan Macmillan, $32.99.

It's not to say Moriarty begrudges the fame the "Hollywood connection" has brought her. Her books have sold more than 2 million copies in Australia alone, worth close to $31 million. Big Little Lies alone has sold more than half a million copies, many of them after the television series aired three years after it was published.

She wasn't thinking of Melissa McCarthy when she wrote Frances, but she says she couldn't think of anyone who would have played her better.

"I loved the whole cast, Melissa, Nicole, Samara, Asher ... everyone was fabulous."

She knows people will pick up Apples Never Fall and start their own casting process.

"I certainly don't want readers to do that," she says, "but it's a small price to pay, I can't really complain about that.

"I'd prefer them to read it the way they'd read any book, the way readers use their own imagination, every reader sees it differently and I love that about books."

  • Apples Never Fall, by Liane Moriarty. Pan Macmillan, $32.99.
This story Why Liane Moriarty is the queen of suburban noir first appeared on The Canberra Times.