Season two of the breakout serial killer drama YOU streams on Netflix from today, 26 December – and we’ll no doubt struggle to talk about anything else once Penn Badgley and co are back on our screens.
Caroline Kepnes is the author behind YOU, with her second novel Hidden Bodies providing the basis for the second series.
Stylist caught up with Kepnes to talk getting into the mind of serial killer, modern love and our troublesome obsession with Joe.
Was the character of Joe based on anything or anyone?
Joe wasn’t based on any one individual. I had this voice in my head after going through a hellish couple of years. And it was like OK, I’ll listen to this voice and see what it’s about. I realised I was creating the man of my dreams, who was also the man of my nightmares.
As a woman, what was it like writing from the perspective of a male serial killer? What was your inspiration for this?
It’s always a fascinating topic. I wrote for a couple of TV shows where it was a given that women were writing for male characters. That’s the way it should be – I’ve written short stories from the male perspective as well as the female perspective. All writing for me is an exercise about human life, and why we do what we do. I jump into the head of a character to find out how it works in there.
I’ll say this though: If Joe were a woman, do you think men would be grappling with their feelings for her? I’ve always been irked by the unique pressure on women to be sweet, grateful and forgiving. For me, in the back of my mind, it was like this pressure locks us up and kills us. (Spoiler alert: Thus the end of the book). At the time, I had no idea that this many people would ever read my work – a blessing beyond belief – and it’s thrilling to see this large cultural conversation about interpersonal relationships and our response to fictional stories about modern love.
When I was writing, I would always circle back between: “Come on, Beck, you can fix him and you guys could be happy” to “What is wrong with me for wanting him to be fixed when he’s done so many atrocious things?”. That tension was constant. Even though from the first day that I sat down to write, I knew exactly how it would end. And it is an absolute dream come true to see people going through this and talking about it.
I was inspired by the total turnaround in our culture of privacy. When I was growing up, you were encouraged to be a leader, not a follower. Social media altered so many platitudes about life such as “don’t talk to strangers” and “maintain a little mystery”. I was stuck on that word “follower”. The riddle of it, that here we are, following each other around.
By nature, I am a person who scares easily. And the idea of people wanting to be followed, and wanting to follow, in this new realm was fascinating to me. Joe is a follower in the most dangerous way, but there is emotion in him that we recognise as love, or something like it. So where are the boundaries? At what point does love become toxic? The horror of love – from romantic attraction to the desire to connect with others in an age where we connect in so many different ethereal realms – inspires me every day.
How did you get into the mindset to write from Joe’s voice? Was it difficult to switch off?
Oh God yes, I was in a trance. I would see friends and start talking about what Joe did that day and they would be like: “Wait, is Joe a real person? I thought you were writing about a serial killer? This guy sounds nice.”
When you write 800 pages of a character (plus all the pages you cut), that character doesn’t ever quit. So every day, at some point, I hear Joe in my head. In my acknowledgments I thanked all the authors, musicians and filmmakers who inspired me, because I always found Joe through his deep love of art. It was how I got to know him – for example, this is what he takes away from You’ve Got Mail. And this is why he loves Prince. And the conflict is the dissonance between his relatable passion – he loves the way we do, he knows the love songs, the love stories – and his undeniable disregard for human life. He feels entitled to kill and feels like a martyr after he does it. Madness!
What are your thoughts on the divided opinion between Joe being a romantic or a psychopath? Which do you think he is?
When I was in high school I took the Sternberg Triarchic Theory of Intelligence test. I then got to spend a few intense weeks studying psychology at Yale University. That experience altered me. I read case studies of patients the way I had read books since I was a kid. I loved dissecting the evidence and trying to make sense of the behaviour.
I’ve heard from psychologists over the years who’ve shared their thoughts on Joe. I’ve spoken to women who’ve survived toxic relationships and found catharsis in the books. Ultimately, I don’t feel compelled to stamp him one way or the other. I’m just telling his story, from his perspective. And I’m so grateful when people tell me that the story helped them in some way.
Is it strange that people find Joe so attractive? Was this what you had intended in the books?
It’s wild, right? I hoped people would read it and be fired up, the way I was when I was writing it. The mind fuck of it was exciting for me – addictive.
When the book was published in 2014, I met so many readers who were enthralled with him. Obsessed. And it has been a wild ride with these passionate readers. The story is a mishmash of horror and love. Sometimes he’s attentive and swooning and my God – in those moments – I love him too. And then your heart is open to him and there he is bashing someone over the head, locking them in a cage, thus breaking your heart and frustrating the hell out of you.
My ‘hot take’ is that people are attracted to him because he provides this mental playground for us to untangle our own neurological wiring. Our social conditioning. And then of course, it’s also a lot of fun.
You streams on Netflix from today, 26 December. Happy binge-watching.