Lauren Nossett is the real deal. I say this not only because she is an award-winning writer, but also because she is an award-winning human. Since the publication of her debut novel, The Resemblance, which won the International Thriller Writers Thriller Award for Best First Novel, she’s become a pillar in the Thriller community. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren one year ago before the book launch, and now, one year later, her highly anticipated next book, The Professor (Macmillan, 2023) is about to hit the shelves.
But despite the formidable success, Lauren remains ever hardworking and humble. Lauren was the first friend to bring me an oat milk latte after my baby was born. She started a book club and a local writing group. She supports her friends and is always positive and enthusiastic about the future. I can sit across from her at a table at 8th and Roast while we talk shop and not feel intimidated, but inspired.
In The Professor, we find Marlitt Kaplan back on UGA’s campus investigating another murder. But this time, she’s not on the clock, but on her own time and of her own accord. After her mother reaches out on behalf of her colleague’s ongoing investigation, Marlitt makes the difficult choice to help. Without her badge, she must confront the challenges of going the case on her own and beware of the consequences of getting too close to all the dangerous figures at play. Who is innocent? Who is guilty? Who is lying to cover up a crime? It seems that anything goes in the name of love, and with Marlitt back on the pursuit, readers will be holding their breath through every twist and turn on the road to finding out the truth.
It was an honor to catch up with Lauren about what it was like writing Book #2, to pick her brain about all things plot, and do some investigating of my own into her writing and life obsessions. Read on, and don’t worryno spoilers here!
Brittany Ackerman: You truly are the Queen of plot twists! As someone who doesn’t write plot, like, at all, I’m so interested in how you create these major revelations throughout the course of a novel. Do you know how a turn will…turn out before you write it? Or are you just as shocked when you get to that grand moment of surprise?
Lauren Nossett: Ah, thank you! I’m quite proud of the twist in this one! I will say, I had a much stronger outline for The Professor than I had for The Resemblance, which I think allowed for more red herrings and a better twist. At the same time, I think there’s always room for surprise, especially in a thriller. In fact, one character does something at the very end, which I was not expecting, but once I wrote it down, I thought—of course, she has to be the one to do this!
BA: All of your characters are so complex in this story. Something I really loved in The Professor is this concept that we all have the intrigue and nature for danger inside of us. I also found it wild how far Marlitt is willing to go in search of justice. I wonder what your reaction is to Marlitt now as opposed to when you began writing her character? Has anything changed in your mind as she’s continued to evolve on the page?
LN:The Professor is a standalone in terms of the mystery at its center, but a sequel in that we have the recurring character of Marlitt. In many ways, she’s dealing with the fallout of her actions from the previous book. She has to learn from her mistakes and make amends, and yet she remains very much a woman who’s driven by her own understanding of justice and a fundamental desire for the truth.
When I began writing the second book, I had this sense that Marlitt needed to be punished for some of her more extreme actions in the first book, especially in regards to how she treated her former partner, Teddy. I viewed her as selfish and immature. And she certainly can be these things, but now I understand her behavior a bit differently. It may be strange to say this about a character you’ve created, but after experiencing my own personal loss, I view Marlitt with more sympathy and see her actions as those of a person still very much reckoning with her own complicated grief.
BA: We’ve talked before about our feelings on genre fiction and literary fiction. You said in our last interview, “I’m also a firm believer that mysteries and thrillers can deal with complex contemporary social issues the same way literary fiction can.” I 100% agree, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on genre in general. Do you think it’s important that we categorize writing, especially fiction?
LN: I think categorizations are helpful in terms of bookstore organization and readers searching for books in a specific genre, but I find their larger literary use to be quite reductive and limiting. So many books now cross genres anyway, it feels like we’re making them up as we go. A friend recently told me she was reading a paranormal romance set in space with a relationship between an alien spider and a human woman. How do we even categorize that?!
Often, you’ll hear people say that the biggest difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is that literary fiction is character-driven and genre fiction is plot-driven, but this seems to create a binary between plot and character that rarely exists. In mysteries and thrillers, for example, a character’s development and thereby their motivations are often key to the plot. In a romance, the relationships between characters drive the story, but you could say that for many works of literary fiction as well. Novels with dystopian, fantasy, or science fiction elements often hold a mirror up to a current world and highlight the complexities of the human condition—a hallmark many attribute to literary fiction.
If genre fiction offers complex character development and examines social themes, then what is literary fiction? Is its designation simply a byproduct of its long title, as Edan Lepucki argues a bit tongue-in-cheek in an article for The Millions (citing examples like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz and Billy Lynn’s Long halftime Walk by Ben Fountain)? Or is it the absence of a traditional plot structure like Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad? Is it a focus on style and substance at the sentence level? And if so, what do we make of the sweeping language of authors like Tana French, whose prose reads like poetry, but whose plots contain murder and suspense?
The problem with the literary-fiction-versus-genre-fiction debate is that it’s misleading in its simplicity: we’re choosing one word to describe novels of ninety or a hundred thousand.
BA: Deep, dark question here, but are any of your characters ever based on real people? Or are you trying to create a framework for dealing with various social issues through the pure invention of these personas?
LN: No! At least never entirely. I give characters quirks of people I know. In The Resemblance, Marlitt’s partner Teddy is a lovely human being, but his eyes turn red when he’s hungry so she packs snacks for every occasion—I borrowed this funny little trait from my mother. Teddy’s preference for bike riding and bright running shoes belongs to one of my high school friends.
In terms of social issues, in The Professor, some of the interactions between the students and their professors are fictionalized versions of my own experiences while teaching. In these instances, I wanted to bring to light the mental health crisis on college campuses and the many ways both students and faculty members struggle with the pressures of our depersonalized institutions of learning.
BA: You mentioned to me recently that the third book in the installment has taken a completely different shape, and that you’ve needed to rethink a lot of the work you’ve done. It’s such a hard realization to have (been there!), but at the same time, it’s a huge sign of mastery of craft. It’s almost like in The Matrix when Neo realizes he’s The One and is able to see the world for what it truly is—bits and pieces of code each designed for a purpose. I digress. But how do you keep going at that stage and what keeps you going?
LN: Oh gosh, I remember that conversation, and The Matrix comparison is so accurate! And you’re right—l was completely overwhelmed! Now that I’ve started revising though, I feel energized by the process. Essentially, I’m taking what I had imagined (and written) as a third book in the Marlitt series to be a complete standalone—meaning a new narrator, new setting, and new tone. The premise: A controversial musician is shot on stage, her ambulance disappears en route to the hospital, and both public and police are unsure whether her shooting and disappearance is a murder or a media stunt. Initially, I had set the story in Athens like my first two novels, but it makes so much more sense for the events to happen in Nashville, since I’m currently living here and the music scene is such a large part of the cultural fabric of the city.
Instead of Marlitt being the lead investigator on the case, I now have a private investigator who only takes female clients, who loves Dolly Parton, and would rather woo witnesses with freshly-baked cookies than threaten them into compliance. As you can probably tell, I’m having fun playing up their differences. And it’s invigorating to be living in the same city as my setting. I also have a Dolly Parton playlist to keep me going!
LAUREN NOSSETT is a professor turned novelist with a Ph.D. in German literature. Her debut, The Resemblance, won the ITW Thriller Award for Best First Novel. Her new novel, The Professor, is out November 2023. She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.