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Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty on how life became stranger than fiction

Liane Moriarty. Photo/Getty Images

When Liane Moriarty was summoned to meet Nicole Kidman in a Sydney cafe, the Hollywood star made it clear she was serious about optioning the book. 

Liane Moriarty has produced a string of internationally successful novels, including the ridiculously popular Big Little Lies. No Australian author before her has had a novel debut at No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The book drew the attention of fellow Australian Nicole Kidman and American actress Reese Witherspoon. From her home in Sydney, which, by the accounts of visiting journalists, is quite flash – tennis court, topiary – Moriarty is happy to tell that story again. You would be, wouldn’t you?

No, she says, Kidman didn’t call. It was her agent. “Her people called my people, as they say. And then I was just told to go to a cafe to meet her.” Moriarty duly presented herself at the Darlinghurst eatery. “She was lovely and warm and charming,” Moriarty chants, before I get a chance to ask. Kidman wanted to get down to brass tacks. She and Witherspoon wanted to option the book. “I remember saying to her, ‘I’ve had books optioned before so I know not to get too excited. It may or may not happen.’ And she said, ‘No, no, if we option it, get excited.’ And it turned out she was right.”

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Witherspoon plays Madeline, the sort of mother you wouldn’t want to cross in the school pick-up queue. Kidman plays Celeste, a disturbing character because of her sexually charged relationship with her violent husband, Perry. Moriarty had just one stipulation that day for Kidman. “I said to her, ‘The only thing that really matters to me is that if you play Celeste, you hit back. I don’t want just a story about knocking around a pretty woman. I want to show that it’s a complex relationship, that she feels complicit, to show all the complexities of it.’ They did that beautifully.”

It was a confronting watch. Celeste is in some denial when it comes to the priorities of her privileged suburban life. “It’s one thing should he kill you,” a therapist tells Celeste, “but God forbid you miss a party.” Moriarty’s books can be waved away as women’s fiction, domestic fiction, chick lit – “Women make up 80% of all fiction readers so I’m not sure how women’s fiction became a sub-category,” she says wearily.

Yet her work has also been attacked for not conforming to the unchallenging norms of those genres. “One review when Big Little Lies first came out said, ‘She should not have written about domestic violence in popular fiction.’ As if that sort of issue should only ever be covered in literary fiction with opaque language. I think of it every single time I have a woman in the signing line who says to me, ‘I got out of a bad relationship because of this’ or ‘I gave this book to my friend to say, “This is me”.’ It just shows it’s absolutely wrong to say that popular fiction shouldn’t cover the issues that matter. That’s a joke.”

Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies. Photo/Supplied

Revenge is a dish best served on HBO. The television series transplanted the drama leading up to a lethal annual trivia night at Pirriwee Public School in a Sydney beach suburb to the moody beachscape of Monterey, California. Having your book optioned can be a frustrating experience. “What Alice Forgot was my first book ever to be optioned and the years went by. I’m still hopeful something might happen one day, but it just seems to be the case that these things take a really long time and often they never happen. So it was extraordinary how quickly they put Big Little Lies together.”

Moriarty visited the set. “I was there on the night that they filmed the school trivia night. Seeing everyone dressed as all the Audrey Hepburns and all the Elvises, that final scene – that was definitely a pinch-me moment.” She had a possibly unusual experience for a writer who has handed over her baby. “Nicole and Reese made me feel part of it without actually having to do anything. For me, the whole thing felt like a great perk of the job.”

How exciting. When the project began, Moriarty didn’t entirely know how extraordinary the project was. She’d never heard of half the stellar cast. So she really said words to the effect of, “Who the heck is Alexander Skarsgård?” “Yes.” Too busy writing, possibly. “That’s right.”

Moriarty’s stories often involve suburban women stirred and/or shaken by events and each other. Her own life has certainly been shaken up by global success. Another “pinch me, I’m from Sydney” situation: the 2017 Emmys. Big Little Lies won eight awards. Moriarty went up on stage. “Nicole’s lovely husband, Keith Urban, offered me his hand. I think it was just a polite gesture.” She grabbed him in a death grip and insisted he help her all the way up. “I was so worried about tripping up those stairs in a long dress and stilettos. I’m sure he thought I’d just give my fingertips.” And float up like some silver-screen goddess? “That’s right. He had to hoist me up.”

The cast collect the 2017 Outstanding Limited Series Emmy. Photo/Alamy

A second season of Big Little Lies has just finished filming when we speak. Moriarty wrote a 50,000-word novella for the production, a different experience. “One of the hardest things for a novelist to do is move your characters from room to room.” She isn’t one for visualising settings. Her interiors tend to be … interior. For this it wasn’t her responsibility to get her characters from A to B. “I just wrote it imagining I was watching it myself.” The novella won’t be published. She misses having a novel in her hands at the end of it. “Though to see Meryl Streep in scenes that I wrote for her – maybe that will be such a thrill I’ll change my mind.”

At least she’d heard of the acting legend who plays the late, abusive Perry’s mother. “Yes, I know who Meryl Streep is.” In fact, Moriarty is responsible for Streep’s involvement. ”I wrote a role especially for her, never believing I would get her. I deliberately gave her the name Mary Louise, knowing that was her real name, as my own little secret hope that they might cast her in the role, and they did.”

She’s been teased about it. “They were saying, ‘You’ve become so Hollywood, picking up the phone and saying, ‘Get me Meryl!’” So this coup turned her into a power-crazed industry player? “It did! It went to my head. I got on the phone and I was saying, ‘Get me Oprah!’ But no. There were obviously limits to my power.”

Maybe. Stand by, Oprah, because Moriarty’s latest novel, Nine Perfect Strangers, has been instantly optioned by Kidman. She wants to play Masha, a formidable Russian who, after a near-death experience, abandons corporate success to run Tranquillum House, a health retreat north of Sydney. The nine perfect strangers of the title go there seeking a promised transformation and find that Masha has, shall we say, a worryingly unorthodox approach to personal growth. She’s a piece of work. “When I was writing the book I was reading about cult leaders, about Jonestown. There are crazy, cartoonish-type charismatic people out there who people choose to follow. I felt that we could easily see someone like Masha in the real world.” Indeed. These days, some of them seem to end up as world leaders. “Exactly.”

Kidman, Moriarty, Witherspoon and producer Bruna Papandrea. Photo/Getty Images

Moriarty has always written – in her past life in advertising and marketing, and even as a child. She was the oldest of six. Her father gave his writing-inclined children their first publishing deal. “He would pay us a dollar for an exercise book filled with words.” Her advances have since got considerably larger.

She didn’t write a novel until 2004, spurred on when a younger sister, Jaclyn, published a young-adult novel in 2000. “That was the little shock I needed. I love her dearly, but I was also filled with envy. She’d gone ahead and achieved our childhood dream and I hadn’t even given it a shot.” Nine Perfect Strangers is the eighth novel in Moriarty’s dream run. Does her sister feel she created a monster? “Ha. I don’t know if she’d call me a monster. She’s much nicer than me. She thinks I would have written without her inspiration but I honestly don’t know if I would have.”

The new novel again digs beneath the surface of apparently ordinary lives to find comedy, absurdity and tragedy as per the human condition. Suicide is addressed. Moriarty admits that going there gave her qualms. ”Probably that review keeps staying in my head – popular fiction about real-life tragedy. How dare I?”

A new book might be a little nerve-racking for other reasons. A triumph such as Big Little Lies casts a long shadow. Moriarty has stared down that particular demon. “Truly Madly Guilty was the first time I did feel the weight of expectation. When it came out, some people said they didn’t like it as much as Big Little Lies and I realised that wasn’t actually the end of the world. It’s just part of my job that some people will love one book more than the other. So I came to this book with a ‘what will be, will be’ approach.”

That liberating fatalism shows up in Nine Perfect Strangers as a certain postmodern playfulness. “Thank you for noticing,” says Moriarty dryly. The main protagonist, Frances, 52, is a successful writer of women’s fiction. “Yes,” she sighs, “my husband said, ‘You do realise you will be exactly the same age as Frances when the book comes out. Everyone’s going to think she’s you.’ I said, ‘That’s why I made her completely charming in every way.’”

There’s a moment where Frances is caught reading a contraband novel. No such escapist treats at Tranquillum House. Frances didn’t think much of the book. “[It was] meant to be another murder mystery but the author had introduced far too many characters too early, and so far everyone was still alive and kicking. The pace had slowed. Come on now. Hurry up and kill someone.” Readers familiar with Moriarty’s fraught ensembles and slow-burning suspense will get the joke at her own expense.

Moriarty. Photo/Getty Images

Frances isn’t entirely her creator. Motherhood doesn’t interest her. “I’ve had so many characters in my books who desperately desire children, which was myself for many years.” After battling infertility, Moriarty now has Anna, 10, and George, eight. “It was a conscious decision to have a character who never wanted children and was perfectly fine with that.” Hmm. It’s not giving away too much to note that Frances ends up in a sort of motherhood situation. “Yeah, maybe. I don’t know if that means I couldn’t resist in the end.”

Like Moriarty, Frances is haunted by a bad review; in her case, vicious: “Formulaic. Trash. Drivel. Trite …” The critic deplores Frances’ fondness for neatly tied-up endings. Frances tries to shrug it off in a Moriarty-like, what-will-be-will-be manner: “Can’t please everyone. Comes with the territory.” Inevitably it gets under her skin. Moriarty allows herself a little revenge when it comes to the fate of this reviewer. “Yes, I did,” she says brightly. “I wasn’t sure whether I should keep that in. I kept deleting it and putting it back. But people seem to take it in the way it was intended and laugh.”

Part of what propels Frances to Tranquillum House is a vertiginous decline in sales of her books. Her latest novel has been – the horror – rejected. Is this some sort of writerly anxiety playing out? “Probably. Yes, definitely. I’m always aware that I’m riding high at the moment but that it could all end at any time. I hope I can keep writing until I retire but I think it just makes sense that you have your moment in the sun. So maybe I’m just aware of that. That I’ll miss the sun when it’s gone.”

No sign of twilight yet, what with options, Emmys and Meryl Streep. Not unlike her latest characters, Moriarty’s life has been transformed. Her degree of celebrity meant she received an invitation to a reception to meet Prince Harry and Meghan when they were in Sydney on their royal tour. The pressures of success – she was on a book tour – meant she couldn’t make it. “I was over in London at the time, ironically, so I was sad. It would have been a real thrill.”

It’s not just about glamour. It took a while for Moriarty to be appreciated at home. “For a while there seemed to be parallel worlds, one in the US, where I was a bestselling author, and one back home, where I definitely had readers but had never reached No 1 on the charts. It’s nice that’s changed now. You do want to be recognised in your own country.”

Indeed. Her life has unreeled like a plot in one of her books, where an ordinary suburban existence takes a somewhat outlandish turn. You wouldn’t read about it. “What’s that common phrase?” she says at one point. “Life is stranger than fiction.”

Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty (Macmillan, $37.99).

This article was first published in the December 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.