It’s Hank, and I’m coming out from behind the Career Authors curtain to say: Whoo hoo! We are so delighted to break out the champagne and rose petals for our own fabulous Jessica Strawser, whose newest novel The Last Caretaker is all the buzz! If you’re a fan of Jessica Strawser’s book club novels, you know each one is wildly different, tackling ripped-from-the-headlines moral dilemmas and big story questions that leave you thinking about what you would do.
Her latest, The Last Caretaker, is rich in domestic suspense, perfect for fans of her Book of the Month bestseller Not That I Could Tell. It’s currently a November Amazon First Reads selection (available as a free ebook for Prime members through the end of the month) and goes widely on sale in all formats, wherever books are sold on December 1.
You should know, dear readers, that Jess is the real deal. Not only is she a stalwart and generous member of the writing community, teaching classes and seminars and giving guidance and advice, she also is constantly striving to make each novel more deeply realized than the last. This one is a knockout—deeply felt and instantly immersive. Look at the first line, below. It’s irresistible, and this powerful book will not let you go. (Plus, Jess is hilarious, wry, and authentically wonderful … if you get a chance to meet her in person, don’t miss it.)
In this Career Authors exclusive interview, she takes us behind the pages.
- What’s the title of your book—and was that always the title?
The Last Caretaker—and yes, it was!
- Who’s the main character of your book-and was that always their name?
Katie is the new caretaker: She’s kind of an everywoman stepping into this job with no idea what she’s getting herself into, and Katie always seemed like the right name for her.
- At the start of the book, what’s the character’s goal?
Katie is fresh off a divorce: Leaving her failing marriage meant walking away from the business she co-founded with her ex-husband and giving up her half of everything else, from their house to their mutual friends. She wants nothing more than a fresh start—ideally a total do-over.
So when her old college friend, Bess, pulls some strings to get Katie a resident caretaker job at the nature center where Bess works out of state, complete with a fully furnished farmhouse, Katie is determined not to let Bess down—even though she isn’t exactly “a nature person.” But she’s truly not sure if she has what it takes to be happy living at this remote location all alone.
- What was the core idea for this novel–a plot point? A theme?—and where did it come from?
A few years ago, I wrote a suspense novel called Not That I Could Tell that featured a woman who vanished from her small town after a late-night fire pit with her neighbors… and her husband may or may not have been the reason why.
In the years since, I’ve been flooded with moving and humbling messages from readers: Survivors, loved ones, and friends of domestic violence victims who responded generously and openly to my story by sharing their own. I visited book clubs and women’s groups, and there was so much strength in our conversations that I couldn’t help but think about the power of raising our voices and banding together. I wondered if I could honor that collective spirit and courage in a new novel of my own.
But I only wanted to do it if I could hit on a story idea that would be empowering and satisfying to write and to read. I wanted to flip the script, and I was giving a lot of thought to how a novel could offer a sensitive, thoughtful take on the subject, read as a suspenseful page-turner, and somehow still be (this might sound odd, but it’s true) fun. (Cue Wonder Woman power stance.)
To clear my head one chilly November day, I went for a brainstorming hike at a remote property owned by my local nature center: I went there often because (idea bell sounds!) I tended to feel safer there as a woman by myself (ding!), since only members could get access by car through the gate (ding ding!). I literally didn’t see another soul the whole time I was there that day, but I did glimpse the caretaker’s house through the trees and wondered, as I often did, what it might be like to live there… or somewhere like it (ding ding ding ding ding!).
Something clicked, and I finished the hike racing back to my keyboard, fully formed novel idea in mind.
- At what point did you come up with the final version of the first line?
Believe it or not, I think the first line has stayed the same since I wrote it. It references Bess, Katie’s friend who has roped her into taking the caretaker gig sight unseen. It begins:
Bess had neglected to mention the guard shack. Imagine that.
- Did you know the ending of the book when you started?
I did know the ending, but not how I would get there.
- What’s something in this book that you’ve never done before?
I love a good fish-out-of-water story, but I think this is the first time I’ve really embraced writing one of my own.
- What part of your launch events are you most excited about?
Because this is my first launch with Lake Union, having moved there after five books with St. Martin’s Press, it’s been an amazing gift to have been a part of the Amazon First Reads program. For all of November, Prime members can access Kindle editions of the book for free or a low cost ahead of its December 1 release, and I’m grateful to reach a broader audience of readers through that program who might not have discovered my work otherwise.
- Who in your #writingcommunity deserves a special shout-out for supporting you in writing this story?
When I was second-guessing myself at the last minute before my deadline, my friend Sharon Short agreed to beta read the manuscript on short notice, for which I’ll be forever grateful.
- How do you want readers to feel when they close the book?
Like they need a friend to read it immediately, so they can talk about it together.
- What did YOU learn from this book?
Not to doubt my own voice.