Long before Cape Cod-raised Caroline Kepnes became a best-selling novelist, she wrote a spec script for an episode of the 1990s/2000s feel-good family show “7th Heaven.”
Kepnes had long been fascinated with the series about a minister and his family because it was so pure. Too pure.
“I was always obsessed with it because it’s so clean that it’s creepy,” Kepnes said. “There’s a line in my first book, ‘You’re so clean, you’re dirty.’ That’s how I always felt about ‘7th Heaven.’ ”
Kepnes — who was working as an entertainment reporter when she wrote the script — sent her draft to an executive on the show; it was accepted and aired in 2006. The episode was shiny and in line with the rest of the series, but to Kepnes, that made it dark.
That bright and creepy tone has evolved into what’s become Kepnes’s trademark and has earned her storytelling an international fandom.
It also earned her attention from some of the most prolific producers in television, who are bringing her first novel, the 2014 thriller “YOU,” to television next week. The show premieres on Lifetime Sept. 9.
“YOU” follows a charming and seemingly lovely bookstore employee, Joe, who becomes obsessed with a customer, Beck. He begins to stalk her around New York City until he’s controlling her life.
The book was a hit and wound up being printed in 19 languages. Stephen King tweeted that “YOU” was “hypnotic and scary. A little Ira Levin, a little Patricia Highsmith, and plenty of serious snark. Cool stuff.”
Kepnes continued the tale of Joe with 2016’s “Hidden Bodies.”
In June, she released “Providence,” a genre-blending story that follows two friends in the aftermath of a kidnapping. It takes place around New England and was the first novel published under Lenny, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s imprint at Random House.
While Kepnes was finishing “Providence,” Lifetime was moving forward with the adaptation of “YOU.” It stars Penn Badgley as Joe, Elizabeth Lail as Beck, and a supporting cast that includes “Pretty Little Liars” actress Shay Mitchell and Kathryn Gallagher, who appeared in the American Repertory Theater’s “Jagged Little Pill.”
The series blends elements of “Gone Girl,” “Gossip Girl,” and “The Fall,” and was created by Sera Gamble (“The Magicians” and “Supernatural”) and Greg Berlanti (“Supergirl,” “The Flash,” and “Riverdale”). The show has already been picked up for a second season.
For Kepnes, 41, the success has been a dream. It also means that she gets to keep writing.
“To me, it is a miracle that my main job, my primary job every day, is writing books. That blows my mind.”
After graduating from Barnstable High, Kepnes went to Brown University, where she had “the most Brown major,” she said. “American Civilization, which they call ‘AmCiv,’ and then everyone jokingly calls it ‘AmBiv.’ You literally design your own [focus]. Mine was called ‘Notions of Normalcy in American Culture.’ ”
Kepnes took a risk after graduation by rejecting a job at a law firm and moving to New York, where she and found a temp position in the mammalogy department at the Museum of Natural History. She was also writing on the side, short stories and whatever she could.
Then she saw the ad in The New York Times that began her paid writing career. It asked: “Do you like boy bands?”
“It was for Tiger Beat,” Kepnes explained. “So I responded to that ad, that yes, I liked boy bands. At the same time there was a job at Condé Nast. I got offers for both jobs, and everyone I knew was like, ‘It’s Condé Nast.’ I was like, ‘I t’s the Backstreet Boys.’ I was obsessed with the song, ‘I Want It That Way,’ so I went to Tiger Beat.”
In that job, she watched pop culture trends, and it was a first look at an industry that was squeaky clean, yet kind of creepy.
“My favorite thing in the world was the reader mail, because this was before the Internet had taken over, so we had a section in the magazine called ‘Tiger Talk.’ It’s unthinkable now, where a 12-year-old writes in, ‘I’m Mindy. I’m in San Diego. I love this, I love that. Here’s my home address and a picture.’ In a more innocent time, this is how the kids would find each other and be pen pals.”
After leaving that job, Kepnes became a permanent background extra on a short-lived show called “The $treet” that featured Tom Everett Scott and Jennifer Connelly. The gig had her walking back and forth a lot, pretending to be an office worker. “I would sit at a desk and then have my cue to walk across and get coffee. It’s that New York thing where you end up doing strange things to pay the rent.”
Her next job was writing for Entertainment Weekly, and then, after a year at home writing a biography of author and poet Stephen Crane for a children’s publisher, she moved to Los Angeles where she landed a job at E!.
“I was working for this gossip column, [Ted Casablanca’s] ‘The Awful Truth.’ That was an ideal Hollywood job, going to premieres and red carpets and writing a lot.”
Kepnes said it was another job that had her thinking about what lies beneath.
“I feel like, especially when I was writing in Hollywood for ‘The Awful Truth,’ I was writing really dark, really weird short stories [on the side]. I wrote one story with a Hollywood theme, but there would be a lot of dark weirdness. Just strange things that were not going to be turned into anything.”
The job eventually resulted in her own column — she became the “Reel Girl,” and covered movies and TV.
It wasn’t until she moved home that she began to focus on her first novel, “YOU.” It started with a series of tragedies.
“My dad got very sick, and I moved home. I just kind of left LA.”
Kepnes’s father died in 2013, and then, months later, she had her own health problems. She needed emergency throat surgery. It took a while for her to be able to speak again. Then there were issues with insurance. She found out she was the victim of identity theft.
“When they talk about the spheres of your life, every sphere of my life was a disaster, and that’s why I started writing my first novel, because it was like that fire was lit of, ‘I cannot listen to myself just bitch and cry. I have to put this into something.’”
What came out, after Kepnes was back in Los Angeles freelancing for Yahoo! TV, was a very dark tale of a man who seems perfect on the outside but is a terror on the inside. It was alive in her brain, so much so that her character Joe Goldberg began to seem real.
“It was a little embarrassing at times because I thought, ‘This is a little dark, and sick, and mean.’ I would start talking about Joe like he was a real person to friends who were like, ‘OK.’ It was my security blanket, and I was very excited about it, but you never know if anyone else is going to get it. You don’t know if you’re going to get a referral to a therapist — or a book deal.”
“YOU” showrunner Gamble said the tale works because its horror is universal.
“Part of being a woman in this world is feeling that the worst-case scenario is that there are things that are unsafe,” she said, adding that Kepnes was in the writers’ room for “YOU” and is credited with writing one episode. “She essentially X-rayed this character who is the worst scenario of the kind of nice guy you meet in a bookstore. I can understand the attraction to writing a secretly dangerous man.”
Gamble adds, of working with Kepnes, “Actually, Caroline fits a profile. She’s a very sunny, engaged, positive person. She really gets the demons out on the page.”
Kepnes’s next projects include a pilot she’s writing for Warner Bros. and another book.
She can only say it takes place in scenic, sweet Concord — and that it will be just creepy enough.
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.