About seven years ago, Catherine McKenzie showed up to meet her readers in person for one of the first times. A book club in her home city of Montreal had invited her to come discuss her debut novel, Spin.
McKenzie had intended Spin to be “a comedy set in rehab,” as in a rehab facility, and reviewers did seem to find the book funny. But in creating her flighty, underachieving 30-year-old main character, McKenzie had also tried to bring to life the grisly details of alcoholism. She wasn’t sure yet how people were taking it.
The author, in her mid-30s at the time, arrived early: The only person already at the book-club meeting was the host, who offered her a glass of wine. But before McKenzie could accept, the other woman suddenly turned red and pulled back.
She said, “‘Oh, I’m sorry, do you not drink?’” McKenzie remembered. “And I was like, ‘Huh?’ And then I was like, ‘Oooh – you think I’ve been to rehab! Oh my God. Uh-oh.’ ”
So began authorial life for the sort of writer who specializes in mining people’s inner darkness, particularly the inner darkness of women living superficially happy lives.
“Imagine if Bridget Jones fell into a million little pieces [and] flew over the cuckoo’s nest,” said one early blurb for her novel Spin.
Since then, McKenzie has only continued to cultivate the art of building disturbing undercurrents. Many would call her eighth and most recent novel, The Good Liar, a thriller. And while it starts that way, ostensibly about secrets revealed in the aftermath of a disaster similar to 9/11, it ends feeling like a horror movie – the secrets are worse than most people want to picture. McKenzie’s books coolly imagine what it’s like to doubt your own memories, to be written off as dead, or to watch your own neglected child become a monster.
All this has made for continuing book-club awkwardness for McKenzie. The only one of her novels that hasn’t elicited blunt personal questions was “the one about [extramarital] affairs,” she said, laughing. People tactfully skirted that one instead. She just tells people that her life isn’t what they think.
But the truth of that statement has only become glaringly obvious in recent months, at least for people in Quebec. Last fall, the normally low-profile author suddenly began appearing on local prime-time TV.
It had nothing to do with her books. Instead, McKenzie’s Montreal fans learned that the novelist is a lawyer on the side. Or rather that, on the side of her 18-year legal career, which has taken her to the Supreme Court of Canada five times, she writes novels.
Last year, McKenzie took on one of the best-known current Charter cases in Canada. She became the lead lawyer challenging Bill 62, the Quebec government’s law that forces women to show their faces in order to receive public services. Her legal team won a temporary stay of the law in December, successfully arguing that the restrictions were creating daily dangers for women who normally wear a niqab.
It was novel-like timing. After years of flying largely under the radar in her own city – the rarest of species these days, an English-language author in Montreal – McKenzie was pushed into the local spotlight not long before the release earlier this month of The Good Liar, which happened to be the first book she had decided to set near home.
McKenzie has had bona fide bestseller status for years (her 2013 novel Hidden was a No. 1 Amazon bestseller in the United States), so it’s sort of odd that she still has experiences like one at a recent literary event in Gatineau: People kept asking if she was American, even as they heard her speaking fluent French.
After this year, with the help of both halves of her double career, maybe it will finally sink in just how homegrown she is.
The two sides of that career have more in common than it first appears. At the beginning, becoming a writer took McKenzie herself by surprise, sometime around 2005.
“I just kind of had an idea in my head,” she said. “When writers talk about their writing, we always sound crazy, but it just wouldn’t leave me alone.” It was a story, somewhat based on real events, that she could imagine as a movie or told some other way.
“One day, it was over the Christmas holidays, I was like, ‘I’m just going to start writing this down because maybe that will get it out of my head,’” she remembered. “I had no idea what I was doing.”
Although McKenzie had sometimes written for fun – poetry, for example, when she was younger – she had always wanted to be a lawyer. “I just never felt like a very creative person,” she said. “I felt like an A-type, rational-thinking person, I guess.”
But what happened in the subsequent years followed a familiar pattern.
McKenzie had no friends who were writers or who worked in creative fields, and didn’t know how the publishing industry worked. But in 2005, the actress Amy Jo Johnson – one of the original Power Rangers – moved to Montreal, wanting a fresh start. Johnson met McKenzie at a party. But she wasn’t sure at first why McKenzie started trying to make plans to get together.
“I’ve never been friends with a lawyer,” she remembers thinking. “And then she came over that first time and she was like, ‘I have this manuscript. Will you read it?’ ” Johnson was also writing at the time, and the two started trading pages.
McKenzie put that first draft away, unpublished – probably because it was based on true events, Johnson thinks. “She’s quite a private person,” Johnson said.
But that dogged pursuit of a writing partner was the first in a series of very type-A moves. McKenzie wrote a new manuscript and started cold-calling agents – American ones, bypassing the Canadian publishing industry. “It’s … the hubris of lawyers, right?” she said. “I researched what you had to do.”
As her books have evolved, so has the genre McKenzie writes within, or at least how it’s perceived.
In 2005, books about hidden affairs and disturbing secrets were usually called chick-lit, seen as fun page-turners or guilty pleasures.
But since then there’s been a surge of interest in re-examining an older family of authors – masters, many of them women, at building creepiness into familiar domestic scenes. Think of the growing terror in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Patricia Highsmith’s grotesquely twisted characters, or, more recently, the unexpected reveals in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
An anthology published in 2013 celebrated neglected authors in this genre, which is now generally called “domestic suspense.” Calling it Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, editor Sarah Weinman wanted “violence among the most intimate,” she said in an interview with Salon. “Private detective fiction, frankly, became too narrow. It’s starting to widen again, and I think women writers are going to help that.”
McKenzie, a lifelong detective-novel buff, says she disliked the term “chick-lit,” finding it dismissive, but she never felt compelled to write traditional thrillers or whodunits.
“I think [domestic mystery] is scarier in the way of it actually being more plausible, right?” she said. “Most people are not going to come up against a Russian secret-service agent … but people are confronted with surprises about people, and secrets.
“If you just dropped dead today, what would people find out about you?” she asked. “Those can get revealed in moments of crisis, and what people will do to protect those things – I think people surprise themselves.”
One theme she frequently explores is the idea of fleeing – running away or even faking a death. Her characters often see cities as interchangeable, just places to disappear.
McKenzie’s own attachment to Montreal seems the opposite: She was born in Westmount, where she still lives. Her husband is the editor of the neighbourhood’s weekly paper, and her parents live nearby.
Her legal work this year grew out of that connection. Sent to multicultural public schools as a child, McKenzie had closely followed the province’s debate four years ago over a proposed so-called Charter of Values, which also inspired Islamophobic violence.
After law school, when many of her classmates left in an “exodus” to Toronto, McKenzie stayed. But the Charter of Values debate “for the first time … had me thinking about leaving Quebec,” she says.
Interviewing niqab-wearing women about Bill 62, and the harassment they had faced starting around 2007, motivated her to jump into the cultural debates, she said.
Normally “cautious” in her approach to her day job, and rarely asked to speak publicly about her work, she obliged when asked to be a champion of the case.
Though she’s used to assuming her readers are speculating about her inner demons, she doesn’t worry about that in the courtroom, she said. Many of her legal colleagues attend her book launches. And lawyers, while being professional, also “should exhibit personality,” she said. “Because when you plead … that is part of how you convince somebody.”
Montrealers will recognize the landmarks where The Good Liar’s scenes are set: the city’s old Greyhound station, for example, or Westmount Park, which is a few blocks from McKenzie’s home. The book can be casually withering about the wealthy neighbourhood, where one of McKenzie’s main characters becomes a nanny.
But McKenzie also painted these spots, and Quebec as a whole, as a world apart, where someone could easily wander unrecognized.
“I do think it’s plausible as a place where it would be easier to disappear,” she said.