Whenever she has the time, writer Shari Lapena travels from her home in Toronto to the Victorian farmhouse north of Cobourg, Ont., that she and her husband are restoring. Raccoons had taken up residence in the abandoned house before the couple acquired the 100-acre property, but Lapena loved the pastoral setting. Basically everything needs to be redone, from the mortar and the stone windowsills to the wiring, the roof and the heating. But what Lapena is really excited about is the maid’s quarters, with its back staircase from the kitchen. That’s where her writing office is going to be. “It’s very Agatha Christie-like,” she says. “You can go up the main staircase. You can sneak around the back staircase. It would be a great place to do one of those murder mystery evenings.”
You can imagine it as the setting of Lapena’s next novel (you’d need some dodgy neighbours to complicate matters, though). Lapena rose to literary fame last year when her thriller debut, The Couple Next Door, became the bestselling Canadian novel of 2016 and an international phenomenon. Other writers have heaped praise on Lapena. Sue Grafton called the suspense in Couple “beautifully rendered and unrelenting,” and Linwood Barclay enthused, “I thought the read-it-in-one-sitting thing was a cliché. Not any more.” Lapena’s new novel, A Stranger in the House, is one of this year’s most highly anticipated follow-ups.
Both books fit into the “domestic thriller” category, akin to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, with female protagonists and action that occurs in and around their houses, shaking up “normal” life. The Couple Next Door starts with a dinner party at the titular neighbours’ residence. The guest couple’s babysitter cancels, and the parents leave their six-month-old child alone, sleeping, with the baby monitor on. The little girl is abducted. A Stranger in the House centres on a seemingly happily married wife’s car accident near a crime scene. Why is she there? “In the thriller world, everybody has secrets,” says Lapena. “The deeper you go and the more you scratch off that veneer of civilization, the murkier things get.” Yet the writer insists that she is not at all violent or particularly dark. “People say, ‘How do you come up with the things you publish?’ ”
On the surface, it looks like Lapena, who’s in her mid-50s, is an overnight success. But it’s been a long road to bestsellerdom. She started out in law school because, although she had wanted to be a writer since childhood, she didn’t think that “was a practical career choice.” After a few unfulfilling years in the legal profession, Lapena went back to school to become an English teacher, which she says she was better suited to. When she had her two children, both now teenagers—one is an equestrian, so the family spends “a lot of time driving back and forth to the barn and horse shows”—she stayed home with them. And that’s when she started writing.
Lapena had two novels published before The Couple Next Door, but they were literary comedies, which is why Couple has been promoted as Lapena’s thriller debut. Both earlier books were released by small Canadian presses; the second one, Happiness Economics, was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 2012, so there was a small taste of literary success. “I was very happy with those two books and I learned a lot about writing,” Lapena says. She started on a third literary comedy but ran out of steam—“I was bored with what I was writing.” That’s when she started on what became The Couple Next Door, which she had doubts about because she’s not keen on plotting her books, and she figured thrillers needed outlines. No one—not even her husband, Manuel Lapena, an IT professional—knew what she was writing, which made the process easier. After the smash success of that book, though, everyone knew she was writing a follow-up; she had a contract and a deadline to meet. “There’s a term, ‘the difficult second book,’ and it’s true,” says Lapena. Between the need to produce a new book and travel and promotion for Couple, Lapena’s time was limited. “I had trouble coming up with an idea I liked. I had some false starts. I had a lot of distractions. I had more input than I’m used to. But when push came to shove, I sat down and I wrote it. I’m happy with how it came out.”
While Lapena’s life has certainly changed since Couple, she tries to maintain the discipline that has sustained her for the past 18 years (“Before anyone knew me, I would sit down every day and write for four hours”). She’s surprised by her success, she says, but not by how long it took. “It was years and years of hard work. Writers usually put in an awful lot of time before they’re successful at it.”