Warning! This feature contains spoilers for Netflix's You.
A very disconcerting thing happened while I was reading You by Caroline Kepnes, an arresting thriller recently turned into an equally arresting TV drama: I began thinking like Joe Goldberg. Joe is a reader of the world. From small details, like his obsession Beck's cracked phone in a yellow case, Joe discerns significant personality patterns: "That means you only take care of yourself when you're beyond redemption," he thinks of Beck. The correctness of his conclusions doesn't matter, because people are just characters in Joe's twisted story. Indulge your own cynical judgments too much, and you might become a Joe.
Kepnes calls these "Joe thoughts," and once they begin, they're insidious. Kepnes dismantled my anxiety about having any affection for Joe, murderous charmer that he is. "We relate to them because we all get that way. We all feel like the world is against us. Unlike Joe, we don’t act on it," Kepnes told Refinery29.
You, the Lifetime and Netflix show starring Penn Badgley as Joe and Elizabeth Lail as Beck, the object of Joe's affection (and stalking), captures the narrative technique that makes You (the book) so disturbing and impossible to put down. With his gravelly voice, Badgley reels us into Joe's worldview. And the worst part? You might just find yourself nodding along. We spoke to Kepnes about creating the character.
Refinery29: In the book’s acknowledgements, you thank Joe for demanding to be heard. How did Joe manifest himself inside your brain?
Caroline Kepnes: “I’d gone through a very terrible year. I lost my father after a two-year terrible cancer battle; my mom was sick; I was sick and hadn’t worked. I was in this really dark place, feeling what I think of now as ‘Joe thoughts.’ One day, I was in Starbucks. There was nowhere to sit. Everyone was on their computer, but most people were screwing around on social media. Finally, I got a chair and I sat down. And what did I do? I went on Facebook. I felt someone over my shoulder, and it was a guy standing there glaring at me. Oh god, I thought — how easily we become the asshole.
“The voice clicked for me in that moment. I was obsessing about social media, and I had wanted to write something like this. But it was in that moment that I really got it. Joe is someone who is always the one looking and judging. He’s very at ease with that in himself. That’s where I found this great outlet for my little frustrations.”
There’s this incredible moment in the show when Joe’s hiding in Beck’s shower, and he says something cheeky like, "You’ve probably seen this before in a rom-com."
“What I loved about that scene so much was, let’s say Beck had opened the curtain and found him. She would’ve freaked out. Then, she would’ve then gone out with her friends and told them the story. By then, it would already have been worked over in her mind: ‘Oh, well, look: I’m so special that this guy snuck in my house to try and see me.’ It would start to feel like, ‘He didn't hurt me. He was completely apologetic. He was totally regretful and aware of what he did, which is the opposite of what we think of as a 'stalker.’ I can imagine a world where a few days later Beck still walks back into that bookstore."
There’s a real specificity to Joe’s literary taste. Can you speak to — especially when it comes to dating — how people often substitute taste for character, and make a lot of character judgments based on what people read and what they see?
“I remember being on Facebook for the first time, doing that thing when you click the books you liked. Suddenly, that feeling of seeing it all put out there in the universe in this way that anyone could see it and dismiss, make reflections and judgements or form attractions was really strange to me.
“It’s a fantasy that just because someone has good taste they have good character. It’s so possible for two people to read the same book and come away with really different takes on it. Joe having read the books that made me want to write and made me want to read — but he came away with this feeling that you can go around killing people. I see Joe as the ultimate reader. He’s treating the world like it’s a book. We’re seeing everything from his perspective.”
At some point in the show, he sees Beck talking about dating other guys casually and says, ‘How did I read this so completely wrong?’ We’re always reading situations. You is almost a prolonged experiment in people reading other people the wrong way.
“Exactly. Now we’re living in this world where we have the unreliable narrator that is social media. We’re making ourselves crazy. We’re all reading this book. Everyone has a different version of it, but everyone has this book that never stops. There’s no mandatory day of the week where Twitter closes down and Facebook isn’t available. It’s on you to choose your relationship to it, which is more work. The burden of it all is fascinating to me. We won’t understand it until 50 years from now. This whole responsibility that didn’t exist before.”
Burning question: How is Peach Salinger related to J.D. Salinger?
“I thought of her as a third cousin, maybe a fourth cousin. To me, she has all the wealth and security, but she would be a different person if it had been a maternal relation and it wasn’t a name. You know when you’re in middle school and everyone starts to read Catcher in the Rye? It becomes this thing. I thought, imagine Peach being young and realizing she has this name.”
How did you name her Peach?
“I wanted her to have a name that would be kind of annoying. I also thought peaches were perfect because they’re ripe and delicious, and then they’re spoiled, poison, they attract flies, they can make you sick.”
Mr. Mooney, the owner of the bookstore, orbits the book. He’s an enigmatic presence, but you know he has a real role in shaping who Joe is. What role did he play in your mind?
“Joe is a neglected child. We all love to say it takes a village, but it can be awful territory when you look at who’s in that village. What’s Joe going to do? His parents aren’t there for him. Here’s Mr. Mooney, this person who’s going to offer discipline, give him a job. It’s really all he has. He turns him into a reader. Mr. Mooney locking up Joe and keeping him in the cage during 9/11 was this really warped protective denial. It only added to Joe’s sense of isolation."