What if you recognized yourself in the pages of a novel that exposed your darkest secret? A secret known to one other soul—and he died 20 years ago. This is the chilling premise of Renée Knight’s debut thriller Disclaimer, hitting shelves in the U.S. today.
Disclaimer, which has already garnered comparisons to domestic noir darling Gone Girl, opens with documentarian Catherine Ravenscroft’s discovery of a mysterious novel on her nightstand. Titled The Perfect Stranger, the novel chronicles a horrific event Catherine has tried to forget for two decades.
Widower Stephen Brigstocke masterminded The Perfect Stranger’s publication, and he’s out for blood. Prepared to expose Catherine in a terrifying game of cat-and-mouse, he’ll go to any lengths to serve his own twisted form of justice.
Paste caught up with Knight to discuss the real-life inspiration for Disclaimer, writing from the perspectives of “the hunter” and “the hunted” and what to expect from her next project.
Paste: What sparked your imagination to write Disclaimer?
Renée Knight: The idea came when I was nearing the end of writing my first novel. There were elements in that first book which related loosely to real events and to a friendship of mine. It was when I began to seriously think about the idea of publication that I thought how terrible it would be for my friend to read the book without me having shown it to her first. So I sent it for her approval, and it was while I was waiting to hear back, feeling rather anxious and nervous, that the idea for Disclaimer took hold. As it turned out, my friend gave me her blessing and nobody wanted to publish that first book anyway.
Paste: The novel switches back and forth between events in 1993 and events in 2013. While writing your first draft, how did you keep track of the timeline?
Knight: And between 2011, too. There are three timelines in the early part of the novel. I worked out each character’s timeline and pinned it up on the wall next to where I was writing, so it was always there to refer to. It is complicated though, and there were times when I was editing that a copyeditor would come back to me and say, “Hang on a minute, if this happened then, wouldn’t it make that character thirteen when they got married?” So I’d have to go back and rethink things. But, to be honest, more often than not, my timeline did stand up.
Paste: What prompted your decision to alternate writing in first- and third-person throughout the book?
Knight: I always knew I wanted to give Catherine and Stephen alternate chapters and thought about doing them both in first-person or both in third, and I did play around with that when I first started writing. I settled on first-person for Stephen, because, for me, it felt more threatening. He is the hunter, [Catherine] is the prey, so that’s what decided it for me. It was very much down, in the end, to what felt right—writing it down, reading it out loud and so on.
Paste: Which scene was the most challenging for you to write?
Knight: I found the scenes with [Catherine’s son] Nicholas the most difficult to write. He is central to the story, and yet he is on the periphery. He is not given much page-time, because the narrative is primarily driven by Stephen and Catherine. So I had to work very hard to make his scenes count without him feeling like a cipher. My U.S., British and Canadian editors were really helpful with this, and they came up with an idea which helped shape him (I can’t tell you what it was, I’m afraid, without giving too much away).
Paste: Can you give us the scoop on your next writing project?
Knight: I’m nervous about saying too much, because I worry that if I blab about it too much I’ll talk myself out of it. What I will say is that I have the two characters strongly in my head; that it is a particular relationship, not a familial one, and that it is about loyalty and delusion, and that I will be digging around in the unhealthy side of this relationship. So, it will not be a pretty picture.