When Karen McManus ’91 published her first book in May 2017, she realized a dream deferred. An aspiring author since childhood, she experienced the thrill of watching her first novel catapult onto The New York Times’ best-seller list and remain there for 73 weeks.
“I was 8 when I first started writing books, and I wrote all through elementary and junior high,” she explains. “I always wanted to be an author, but when I reached high school, I suddenly found myself unable to finish anything, so I put the pursuit aside.”
In 2014, McManus, a veteran of a 20-year career in marketing and communications, picked up a copy of the young adult (YA) best-seller “The Hunger Games” and experienced an epiphany. “I loved the voice, and it hit me that it was my voice,” she says. Her passion for writing was rekindled.
“YA literature is an incredibly interesting and dynamic category — these books address topics in boundary-pushing ways that both teens and adults can relate to,” she says. While the genre is “officially” geared toward readers ages 12 to 18, it’s estimated that more than half of YA readers are over 18. McManus adds that writing for the YA audience gives her a way to connect with people at a point in their lives when their world view is still being shaped, which is very gratifying to her as the mother of a 12-year-old.
Sparked by Suzanne Collins’ hit, McManus wasted little time in getting back in the game. She initially penned what she describes as a “very bad ‘Hunger Games’-style book.” Then, on the way to work one morning, McManus heard Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” best known from the soundtrack to the 1985 John Hughes movie “The Breakfast Club,” and was struck by an idea for a murder mystery that begins with five teenagers in detention.
That kernel of an idea became “One of Us is Lying,” a murder mystery that quickly landed on The New York Times’ best-seller list and earned plaudits such as an EW.com Best YA Book of the Year selection, Buzzfeed Best YA Book of the Year selection, New York Public Library’s Best Book for Teens selection and more. The book is currently in development as a TV series with Universal Cable Productions. The months since have been exciting and transformational, McManus admits, and have elicited memories of a lesson she first learned at Holy Cross: It’s never too late to pursue your dreams.
As a sophomore at Holy Cross, McManus considered studying abroad, then waffled on the decision and missed the application deadline. Bitterly disappointed, she shared her sadness with the late Maurizio Vannicelli, professor of political science, who encouraged her to apply anyway and helped shepherd her through the process. “Professor Vannicelli went to bat for me, and I was ultimately allowed to participate in the program,” she recalls. “It was a transformative experience for me and also taught me an invaluable lesson: It’s never too late to go after what you want.”
That said, McManus admits it was grueling to write and publish a book as a single mother with a full-time job. “I wrote most nights from 9 p.m. to midnight, after my son went to bed,” she recalls. “I also wrote as much as I could on weekends. Sometimes I’d bring my laptop to my son’s baseball games and write in the stands. I gave up things like television and reading for pleasure; I don’t think I watched a single show in 2015! Nobody who’s juggling career and family responsibilities has time to write, so you have to fit it in around the margins of everything else you’re doing.”
In April 2018, almost a year after “One of Us is Lying” was published by Delacorte Press, McManus left her day job. In January 2019, she released her second YA thriller, “Two Can Keep a Secret,” which immediately debuted on The New York Times’ best-seller list. She has two more books in the queue with Delacorte: a sequel to “One of Us is Lying” arriving in January 2020 and a stand-alone mystery slated for release in 2021. To date, her work has been translated into 39 languages.
The books that follow a best-seller are much harder to write, McManus concedes, but she’s learned a lot about her own process in the past 18 months and notes she is confident in her writing, thanks in no small part to her time at Holy Cross.
“I had really good experiences as an English major at Holy Cross and got lots of positive feedback on my writing,” she says. “Holy Cross is a great school for fostering critical thinking and personal growth. Like many of my peers, I was figuring out who I was and my place in the world during my four years at the College. My professors really pushed me to get outside my comfort zone and read widely. It was a wonderful experience.”
Both books by McManus landed on the New York Times best-seller list.
What’s the coolest thing about being on the New York Times’ best-seller list?
I get to put it in my obituary! Seriously, the recognition has given me a wonderful boost in visibility and has made my books more discoverable to a wider audience of readers.
“One of Us is Lying” has been optioned by E! Network as a potential television series. If you were on TV, who would you want to play you?
This isn’t particularly age-appropriate, but I absolutely love Kristen Bell. She could play a younger version of me.
You’ve penned a best-selling murder mystery — what’s your favorite whodunit?
“And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie.
As a writer, how would you like to be described?
As someone who writes twisty thrillers with heart.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
For many years, I was a marketing professional. I enjoyed it, and I like to think I was good at it, but I just didn’t have the same passion for it that I do for writing.
Written by Lori Ferguson for the Spring 2019 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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