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Liane Moriarty’s Hollywood angst: it’s complicated
[SYDNEY] Liane Moriarty was still groggy, lying in her young son's bed one morning, staring up at a poster for some Hollywood blockbuster, when her agent and publisher called with important news: "Big Little Lies" would debut at No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list.
"It was a very domestic Liane Moriarty setting," she joked, sitting on the north side of Sydney Harbor near where she lives. "I think my little girl was in the bed with me because there had been some bed hopping, and there were just these excited voices on the line from New York."
Four years later, no other moment in her career brings greater satisfaction. She was the first Australian author to top the fiction list upon publication and the "Big Little Lies" TV series would soon catapult her to stratospheric fame, with a trip to the Emmys and a chance to draft a role for Meryl Streep in the show's upcoming second season.
But now, at home, she describes Hollywood as an almost out of body experience. Fun. Illuminating. Enriching. And maybe not for her?
"It clarified for me that I'm a novelist," she said.
"Nine Perfect Strangers" — her eighth adult novel, released Nov. 6 in the United States — is by no means directly tied up with such questions. But it is about a wellness retreat and a whole bunch of navel-gazers seeking an escape and some personal grounding.
In many ways, the book is a departure. Most of the characters did not know each other before the story begins. A tall talkative man named Napoleon is the tear-jerker not the villain, and the entire plot runs its course far from Moriarty's usual setting of an upper-middle class suburb.
Don't worry, the characters all still exhibit the status hunger, humor and drive that make Moriarty's other books feel so familiar to those who occupy that world. It's just that this time, she's having more fun, with a regimen meant to reshape them physically and mentally.
"I was influenced by this book I read in Hawaii," Moriarty told me. "It's a 1930s book. The sort of book my grandmother used to have — very British — and it was a murder mystery about a novelist who goes to a school for gymnasts. And what I loved about it was that experience of going somewhere new and learning all the procedures, of like what time breakfast is; that's what I really enjoyed about it. I was excited about creating the rules of my place."
Like that old novel, the name of which she cannot recall, "Nine Perfect Strangers" includes an inquisitive author. Her name is Frances Welty and Moriarty initially planned to just tell the story through Frances — a twice-married extrovert and writer of bodice-ripping romances whose mischievous sense of humor resembles Moriarty's.
But then she fell in love with the other strangers, including the rule-maker: Masha Dmitrichenko, a Russian immigrant and former executive whose passion for transforming people's lives is borderline bonkers. Nicole Kidman, who already optioned the book, is expected to seize the role.
Moriarty, 51, a mother of two whose husband is a former farmer, has left the production details to Hollywood. Sitting outside a cafe named Thelma and Louise, wearing black pants and a blue blouse that would blend in wherever rosé and oysters are served, she seemed far more eager to explain that Masha's name comes from the winning bidder at a charity auction for the Starlight Children's Foundation.
Moriarty's friends say these smaller-scale interactions are where Moriarty is most comfortable.
"Liane is a private person," said Ber Carroll, an Irish-Australian novelist who often shares public readings with Moriarty and a third novelist, Dianne Blacklock. "I think that juggling of her private life and public life is difficult for her."
Success has been a something of a simmer. Liane (pronounced Li-ahn) is the oldest of six children, five of them girls, who were encouraged to create by their father, who sometimes paid them to write stories in lieu of an allowance. Her upbringing on Sydney's North Shore was comfortably middle-class, Catholic, and filled with games of storytelling and performance, usually organized by Liane.
She thought she'd be a journalist, and even now she prefers asking questions to answering them. Instead, she ended up in advertising until her sister, Jaclyn, published a novel. Liane finished her own book, "Three Wishes," (2003) shortly after that.
It took a decade and four more novels to reach the best-seller list with "The Husband's Secret."
But interest had been building — at least in America.
"I remember reading my first Liane Moriarty book years ago, ‘What Alice Forgot,' and being hooked almost immediately by how smartly she writes about women's interior lives, and how she somehow manages to be both dark and cheerful," said Anne Lamott, whose work carries its own mix of empowerment and sadness.
"She's very perceptive," said Carroll, whose latest novel is "The Missing Pieces of Sophie McCarthy." "She has this ability to tap into your life."
Talking about her own life is more difficult. And now Moriarty is expected to do more talking than ever.
In September, the book launch for "Nine Perfect Strangers" in Sydney was a major event. Hosted in a sprawling hotel ballroom by Business Chicks, which bill itself as Australia's largest community for women, the scene included large screens flanking the stage and goody bags on every seat.
Hundreds of women — most in business suits, a few pushing strollers — filled the room.
When Natarsha Belling, a local TV host with a TED Talk voice, introduced Moriarty as "a superstar" who "wanted Meryl and got Meryl" for "Big Little Lies," the crowd oohed and aahed.
Moriarty walked slowly onto the stage looking as if she'd expected a library and ended up on Broadway.
"Welcome Liane, how are you feeling?" Belling asked.
"Thank you, I feel, I feel very good," Liane said. Her voice was at least two notches quieter than Belling's. But as the questions rolled on, starting with Hollywood, Moriarty eased into her role.
She delivered a few charming stories I'd read or heard elsewhere — about her "post-traumatic stress" from trying to find an Emmys gown; about her awkward first meeting with Nicole Kidman; about holding tight to Keith Urban, Kidman's husband, as Moriarty climbed the stage when "Big Little Lies" won last year's Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series.
At times, she seemed to be sharing one of her own character's stories. She'd carefully considered the details. She had the pacing just right.
Later, in our interview by Sydney Harbor, she said she sometimes feels haunted by such moments.
"I don't think it's a healthy thing for me as a writer, to keep talking about myself," she said. "Narrating myself, I sort of can't stand it."
She explained that it is an especially Australian trait, to be so uncomfortable discussing accomplishments. The country's insistent egalitarianism often requires self-deprecation and the deflection of praise as a prerequisite for public affection. Hugh Jackman is a master of the craft. Moriarty, the country's high priestess of social expectations, knows the rules too and admits to having internalized them.
But there are also signs that over the past few years, she's become bolder, with a visceral sense of mission around gender equality. Her voice picked up volume and confidence on stage when she started talking about the need for men to be asked how they balance family and career, not just women.
She pointed out what had initially kept her books labeled "chick lit" — all the strong female characters — made "Big Little Lies" such a hit on television.
Now when she is asked if she still suffers from impostor syndrome, she no longer hesitates.
The answer is no.
The reason is tied to that sleepy morning in her son's bedroom: Readers say otherwise.
It's those readers who "have given me the confidence," she said. "There are so many intelligent articulate women from all walks of life that it actually feels like it would be wrong of me to say ‘oh I don't know if it's any good or not' when all these people are telling me what my books have meant to them."
"I'm doing something right, so I should just take some pride in it," she added. "Why call myself an impostor?