The day before our interview over Zoom, Liane Moriarty posts a video of herself ringing the bell at her local Sydney hospital to mark her last day of radiotherapy for breast cancer.
It was at the early stages so everything will be fine,” Moriarty says evenly in her soft Australian accent. “But yes, that’s been my distractions over the last few months. For a while, it was my only responsibility. Because we’re in Sydney and in lockdown, the silver lining was that treatment gave me an excuse to leave the house every day.”
Moriarty had received her diagnosis earlier this year, days after delivering the manuscript for her latest novel, Apples Never Fall (“that’s the sort of well-behaved author I am,” she deadpanned on Facebook).
To say that Apples Never Fall is one of the year’s most anticipated books is an understatement. Readers who love her observant character studies, mordant humour and high-wire plots have been chomping at the bit for a follow-up to 2018’s Nine Perfect Strangers, a shrewd look at the contemporary obsession with wellness and self-improvement. A year previously, Moriarty’s fanbase swelled considerably after her sixth novel, the whodunnit Big Little Lies, was adapted for TV by HBO. The resulting series was a taut and high-gloss number, starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon (who also produced), Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz.
Big Little Lies’ global success on the small screen has meant that many of Moriarty’s other works are now being primed for TV adaptations. Kidman snapped up the rights to Nine Perfect Strangers, and the show, in which she stars with Melissa McCarthy and Michael Shannon, is set to premiere later this year. Kidman and Witherspoon have also optioned the film rights to Moriarty’s 2016 novel Truly Madly Guilty. An adaptation of her fifth novel, The Husband’s Secret, will star Blake Lively, who is also executive producer. In 2019, ABC ordered a pilot based on The Hypnotist’s Love Story, featuring Heather Graham.
Moriarty has been asked to write the screenplays for some of these projects. “I’ve no interest in it,” she says. “Part of the pleasure in writing, to me, is seeing what happens, as I don’t plan my books. So [screenwriting] actually makes me want to cry with boredom, because I already know what’s going to happen.
“People would say to me, ‘Oh, I hope they can’t change your book’, but I always say, ‘Well, they can’t change my books. They’re already there. This is something entirely different’. I don’t think the good adaptations are the ones where they follow the book exactly. I just think it should be its own art form.”
She is happy to watch the page-to-screen process from the sidelines, at one point taking a trip to Monterey, California, to watch the filming of Big Little Lies. “By chance, I arrived on the big school trivia night where everyone is dressed up, and I remember seeing Nicole [Kidman] walking towards me dressed exactly as I had described Celeste in the book, and how she was just stunning and ethereal. It was an incredibly surreal feeling,” Moriarty recalls.
Kidman, a fellow Australian, has “become a friend”. “She’s wonderful, just lovely and warm,” she says. “I never expected to make friends out of this experience.
“There was just the pleasure of getting to visit a film set and to see how it all came together, but in a way that was their own. I really enjoyed watching the series, especially with Big Little Lies, where a lot of the dialogue came straight from the book. I took real pride in that.”
She didn’t enjoy appearing on the red carpet, however: “I’m not good at that part. I can’t put my hand on my hip, basically.”
Still, it’s easy to see why Moriarty’s work is so Hollywood-friendly. She manages to weave suspenseful, contemporary stories around complex, flawed characters, all while asking some pretty big questions. What does domestic violence really look like? How do people manage stifling social pressures? Why do some families look so different from the outside? Can a person reconstruct their life? Is it possible to really know the person you’re in love with?
So it goes with Apples Never Falls, which centres on the Delaneys. At the head of the family are Stan and Joy, who run the local tennis academy and are — cue another Moriarty trademark — popular and well-respected. Yet, after 50 years of a happy marriage, the cracks are starting to show. The façade of their comfortable life is destroyed when Joy goes missing, prompting their four grown-up children — Amy, Troy, Logan and Brooke — to speculate on her whereabouts, and whether Stan has anything to do with her disappearance. The episode prompts the family to exhume old secrets and explore just what Stan might have to hide.
“I started with a premise which was, ‘How would you feel if your father was accused of killing your mother?’,” says Moriarty, “and I liked the idea of having multiple siblings so that factions could form, and they could all have differing responses to the situation.”
The Delaneys are comfortably middle-class and pillars of the community; a pocket of modern-day society where societal pressure is rife, that Moriarty has evidently found is a rich seam to mine.
“I do love the idea when you drive down the street and see normal suburban homes, and they all look the same, but I find in my life every suburban house can have all sorts of drama going on behind closed doors. So I’m very interested in that idea,” she says.
Given that Moriarty is a behemoth of fiction, it’s a pleasant surprise to hear about her own backstory, and what prompted her to write.
Growing up in Australia, Moriarty and her sisters read avidly, and happily wrote their own stories. By way of encouragement, her father paid her $1 for her first series of books written when she was a child, The Mystery of Dead Man’s Island.
‘Rage at myself’
She admits that she spends much of her professional life trying to resurrect her childlike self, who wrote without inhibition.
“Every single time I write, I’m trying to achieve that lack of self-consciousness, to just lose my self of sense, and just to write for the pure pleasure of writing,” she says. “It takes me hours to get into the state of mind that I was able to achieve instantly as a child. And as I got older, I started to think, ‘Well, is any of this any good?’”
As a teenager, writing fell by the wayside, and in adulthood, Moriarty got a business degree and went into freelance advertising copywriting.
It was a call from her younger sister Jaclyn, when Moriarty was in her early 30s, that changed everything.
“She called me with the news that her book, Feeling Sorry For Celia, had been accepted for publication, and I can always remember that feeling of being really happy for her, because I love her, but also really filled with envy,” she admits. “And also, there was a kind of rage at myself that I’d never even tried. She’d achieved our childhood dream. I couldn’t even say I’d tried and failed. I hadn’t even given it a shot. So it was completely her inspiration that got me going.”
Moriarty promptly left copywriting and enrolled in a master’s in creative writing. While there, she finished her debut novel, Three Wishes, which was published in 2004.
Jaclyn and her other sister Nicola are successful authors too, but it is Liane who has had three titles simultaneously on the New York Times bestseller list.
Yet there is no sibling rivalry; in fact, ‘Jaci’ has been known to help out with the occasional writing exercise. She offered Moriarty a description of a bike lying in grass, with apples spilling out of the basket. It resulted in her ninth novel. “I didn’t want to actually start anything new, but I told my sister I just wanted to do some little pieces of writing, so she sent me that writing prompt,” Moriarty smiles. “I’m going to have to ask her for another.”
‘Apples Never Fall’ by Liane Moriarty is out now from Michael Joseph