Q: What inspired you to write Tell Us No Secrets, and how did you create your cast of characters?
A: The genesis of Tell Us No Secrets was when I had an argument with a friend which affected me hugely. My feelings were hurt to such a degree, were so painfully out of proportion, that I wondered why I was having such a reaction. Until I realized it had taken me right back to my boarding school days, when fallings out between friends were devastating.
Female friendship is always powerful, but when teenage girls are cooped up with each other 24/7, those friendships can wreak havoc in the psyche. Reflecting on the intensity of those feelings, the feelings I had had as a teenager, inspired me to write the book.
The characters are based on fragments of some of the girls I knew at school — but they took on their own personalities quickly. Cassidy is probably the closest to a real person because there was a very beautiful, wildly popular girl in my school — as there often is — but the other three main characters grew out of the situations I placed them in, the jockeying for position and friendships.
Q: The novel is told from multiple characters’ perspectives, and over different time periods, 1969-70 and 2018. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you focus on one character or time period before turning to the others?
A: I started writing it from the 1960s perspective first, but around halfway through, I began to think about these girls as older women: what their lives would be like and how they would deal with their pasts.
That opened up a new perspective for me, as well as a new twist to the plot line, and it also gave me more insight into their characters as teenagers. So I went back and started to weave the 2018 parts with the past.
Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book calls it “a slow-burn psychological thriller filled with well-developed characters that builds to a satisfying, if unsettling, conclusion,” adding, “Sterling is a writer to watch.” What do you think of that description, and (without giving anything away!) did you know how the story would end before you started writing it?
A: I was thrilled to read the Publishers Weekly review. Being described as a writer to watch is wonderful and exciting. I've always been curious about the term slow-burn, because I'm not sure what a fast burn is when it comes to a psychological thriller. But I'm very happy to be a slow-burner.
And an unsettling ending is exactly what I was aiming for. Before I started writing it, I knew vaguely how I wanted it to end. I knew that someone would end up dead, but it took a while developing the characters before I decided who was going to do what to whom.
After that became clear, I knew that the very end, the “twist” was there somewhere, lurking, and I remember the moment I discovered it: shampooing my hair on a Sunday morning.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: Tell Us No Secrets is a title that makes me think of teenagers, of the secrets teenage girls, especially, share, and the secrets female friends share. Having a secret implies having something to hide, telling a secret implies trust — and also potential betrayal.
I think of those conversations with friends that begin “Promise you won’t tell anyone else about this...” and of how many times that promise isn’t kept. Secrets have so many explosive elements, and living with a secret is a big part of my book, so the title seemed like the absolutely right one.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Now I'm working on another psychological thriller. The characters are in their late 20s/early 30s and the plot revolves around a woman falling in love, then being faced with the ex-girlfriend showing up — the ex-girlfriend who is one of those women who is charismatic, stunning, enchanting and frighteningly manipulative.
There will be — at least I hope there will be — an unsettling ending to this as well.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The only other thing I want to say is that as awful as it was at the time, that argument with my friend was something I'll always be grateful for.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb