The best kinds of thrillers strike a delicate balance: They’re lightning-paced and deliciously twisty of course, but they also have something to say. That’s why I so enjoyed Andrea Bartz’s The Herd, a deftly constructed mystery that’s so much more than a page-turner. At its heart, The Herd is an ambitious novel about the complex dynamics of an elite all-female coworking space—empowering yet cutthroat, open yet exclusive.
The workspace known as the Herd (emphasis on the H-E-R) feels chic and aspirational, a feminist utopia—and it’s upended when Eleanor, its enigmatic founder, disappears the night of a major announcement. The book is told from the alternating perspective of two of Eleanor’s closest friends, who are also sisters: the company’s pragmatic, competent publicist, and an outspoken journalist who secretly hopes she’s found her next book subject in Eleanor. The two narrators have very different world views, but they both have ambition in spades—not to mention their own agendas. Filled with insights and biting social commentary about the commoditization of feminism, The Herd stayed with me long after its chilling final pages.
As both a fan and a friend, I was excited to speak with Andi about her sophomore novel, writing twists that truly shock, how she puts her books together so quickly, and the sense of competition women feel in a society that demands perfection from them.
The Rumpus: At the heart of The Herd is its fascinating and unique setting: an exclusive all-female coworking space. What inspired it? Did the setting come first, or the story?
Andrea Bartz: I’m not a member of any coworking spaces, but I’ve been a guest at several of them—including The Wing, a women-focused workspace that started in New York City. I noticed that whenever I met a friend in one of their elegant, light-filled locations, I dressed in a cute outfit, put effort into my hair and makeup, and did my best to seem charming and smart—I wanted to fit in amongst all the intimidatingly spectacular women inside. Which is a little ironic, right? It’s a space free from the male gaze, where women can really let their hair down, but thanks to internalized misogyny and these deep impressions I have about girl-on-girl competition and female judgment, I felt a need to impress the club’s members. You know this as well as I do: tension is a thriller writer’s sweet spot, and I found myself wanting to explore my and society’s feelings about high-achieving women working together through a fast-moving narrative.
I’m a pantser, not a plotter, so I had no idea where the story would go—but I love setting my books in close-knit, closed-door communities with their own social cache and complex interpersonal relationships. With The Lost Night, I focused on the hard-partying twenty-somethings in hipster Brooklyn circa 2009, and I realized a bougie all-female coworking space could be an equally fascinating social milieu. I thought of THE HERD’s logo, with the H-E-R in another color, and I took it from there.
Rumpus: Yes, that weird, ironic dynamic of the girl-on-girl competition! It should be empowering, but it can be so cutthroat. There’s so much great social commentary about the commoditization of female ambition and the complexities of female relationships. Either in the initial draft or in revisions, did you try to emphasize those themes or did they just arise out of the story naturally?
Bartz: I always knew I wanted to explore how eager we collectively are to see career-focused women—especially those in the public eye—fail. I wasn’t sure how the theme would play out or exactly what I wanted to say, but I have strong feelings around the impossible standards we have for women: be competent but not bossy, ambitious but not power-hungry, easygoing but not a doormat, authoritative but never intimidating… the list goes on and on. Personally, I’ve been called “intimidating” more times than I can count, and I think I’m awfully nice!
We also expect women in power to somehow turn a profit and be badass and, you know, act like powerful men… while still being feminine and agreeable and warm and likable. You think Steve Jobs cared if anybody liked him? An anonymous (female) former employee of The Wing complained to the New York Times Magazine, “It’s just like any other company that wants to make their money.” Well, yes. Can you imagine a male CEO being criticized for trying to succeed in this admittedly patriarchal capitalist system?
But I fall prey to it, too; like other women, I’ve internalized these messages about how professional women may and may not behave. So I came up with a cast of female characters who all have very different approaches to being palatable, likable—even lovable. There’s Katie, the quick-witted Guys’ Girl; Hana, the in-control, put-together, buttoned-up PR pro; Mikki, the hipster artist; and, of course, Eleanor, the do-it-all wunderkind and Herd founder. It was a lot of fun to explore how they interact and even envy one another’s facade, mistaking it for their true self—like, “I’m an impostor, but of course so-and-so really does have it all together.” And as those masks fall away, we get down to the shame and envy underneath. It cracks me up when people finish the book and say, “It’s not at all feminist—the women are mean to each other!” I was trying to critique a culture that teaches women to pull the ladder up behind them.
Rumpus: What’s great about your novels is how you channel some of the toxic tension into great plot twists and red herrings for us. Is that something you outline and plan out before you start writing?
Bartz: Not at all. I figure out the plot, my characters, their backstories, the themes and stakes—pretty much everything—by writing the first draft. So, while I’m drafting the first half or so, I’m tossing out random details like loaded mouse traps I might use later, and I’m introducing mini-mysteries at a breakneck pace. For example, I didn’t know until I started writing Chapter 1 who’d broken into the Herd and splattered that awful graffiti along the wall in the Gleam Room, and I had no idea what had happened to Katie in Michigan that was preventing her from writing the nonfiction book people kept asking her about. Red herrings crop up organically when you genuinely don’t know whodunit. Like the reader, I see everyone as a suspect and keep changing my theories about who did what and why.
It’s great fun for me until I get to the midpoint or so and need to start landing all the planes—suddenly, I’m like, “Wait, who the heck spray painted the Gleam Room? And what on earth happened to Katie last year? And how the hell do these smaller mysteries feed into the central mystery of what happened to Eleanor, the vanishing CEO?!” It makes me laugh when a reader says, “I saw XYZ twist coming from the first page.” I myself had no idea!
Rumpus: I do that, too. I had no idea of the who, how, or why behind the central mystery in Miracle Creek until a good year and a half into writing my first draft! But that meant so much work in the revisions that followed, figuring out the outline, the structure, color-coding everything, doing timelines and chronologies. Was it similar for you? How long did it take you to draft the first shitty draft, versus revising and polishing?
Bartz: I had no idea you hadn’t planned everything out in Miracle Creek! It fits together like an intricate puzzle. You know, with my debut, The Lost Night, my process was similarly zigzaggy: I finished a first draft in six months, but it was another eighteen months before the manuscript was sensical enough for me to begin querying agents. The final version has remarkably little in common with that first shitty draft, other than the hook, the setting, and the ultimate whodunit, although even that played out very differently back then. (By the way, I always called the “shitty first draft” the “vomit draft” until someone told me they use “discovery draft”—much gentler!)
For The Herd, though, time was of the essence—I sold the book based on a pitch and two sample chapters in September 2018, and the manuscript was due in January. I somehow banged out a first draft in three months and spent a month desperately revising to reflect everything I’d figured out at the eleventh hour, and then I turned it in. My editor had me do a big global revision that involved cutting a main character (Eleanor’s Herd cofounder) and re-plotting the ending, among other things, and then there was more finessing in the line edits and copy-editing stages.
All told, though, it was a super-quick process: I got the book contract in September and it went to production in June. I never want to do a mad sprint like that again, but it did force me to really live in the story and not overthink anything or second-guess myself.
Rumpus: Aside from the super-compressed writing process, what did you think of writing your second book? Was it different from writing your first book? I know a lot of writers say that they put a lot more of themselves into the first book and that the second required more research. Was that true for you as well? As someone who’s trying to work on the second novel now, I’m being selfish and using this as an opportunity to get some much-needed advice on how to write the second novel. Any tips?
Bartz: I feel you, Angie—the sophomore novel is hard. When I’d turned in the final draft of The Lost Night, I pitched an entirely different Book 2, with a sample and treatment and everything, to my editor and she didn’t like it. I tried again with another idea, and she passed again. The Herd was the third attempt. I wasn’t pleased at the time, but my editor really forced me to identify and articulate what made my debut special and appealed to readers, so that I could entice those same fans with a fresh, new story. In my case, I knew I wanted to continue exploring complex friendships (vs. focusing on a primary romantic relationship, like most female-driven suspense) and flawed protagonists bumping up against sexism—systemic, explicit, and internalized. I think that’s a big part of pulling together Book 2: asking yourself what your novels do uniquely well, and how your follow-up can play to those same strengths.
I also kept reminding myself that I’d done this before’ I’d proven I could finish a book, and odds were I was better at it than years earlier: the same way you’ll get better at playing tennis or making omelets with practice, you’ll improve at book-writing with all those man-hours under your belt. Finally, in terms of actually getting the dang words on the page, I used pacemaker.co to set a daily word count goal (and adjust it if I fell behind—no need to panic!), and then I used the Pomodoro technique to stay productive: twenty minutes of writing followed by a five-minute break. I tossed my phone in another room and opened a tab to tomato-timer.com. It’s amazing how much you can get done in a few concentrated writing sprints.
Rumpus: Smart advice! So, what are you working on these days? Is Book 3 underway for you? How has the writing process changed with the pandemic? I know the promotion for The Herd wasn’t as intense due to everything being canceled. Did that give you more time to write?
Bartz: I hope my advice helps! It’s all so much easier to say than to do. Producing in a pandemic is hard, so please be kind to yourself. Speaking of COVID-19, it’s been a very strange year to promote a book and finish the next one. I canceled my April book tour for The Herd, which was a huge bummer—it’s my favorite part of the process, meeting booksellers and readers and celebrating with loved ones. But my Book 3 manuscript was due that same month, so I threw myself into the manuscript.
The thriller, titled We Were Never Here, is about two globe-trotting best friends who kill a backpacker in self-defense on a trip through Chile—and things only go downhill from there. Their friendship is tested to the limits as the walls close in on them, and like The Lost Night and The Herd, the book takes a close look at complicated female friendships and our expectations of women—in this case, the casual violence inflicted on them with such ferocity, they’re not “allowed” to cause physical harm themselves. It’s also a bit of a love letter to world travel (I’m a travel writer in normal times), so it was bittersweet to write about far-flung, exotic locales from the confines of my four-hundred-square-foot studio apartment.
While the pandemic gave me more time to write, it certainly hasn’t given me more inspiration. I rely on travel to jog ideas and jolt my brain in new directions, and the lack of trips this year has made the blank page and blinking cursor all the more intimidating. Still, I keep coming back to my Pomodoro method and just putting in the time. We Were Never Here will come out summer 2021, and I’m working on a proposal for Book 4, so I’m sure I’ll keep busy in the months to come.
Photograph of Andrea Bartz by Kate Lord.