It’s sadly not uncommon for someone to angrily tell another person, “This is all your fault.” But in Maria Dong’s psychological suspense novel Liar, Dreamer, Thief (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), a man named Kurt goes one step further by telling his coworker Katrina that it’s all her fault, and then he jumps off a bridge. And that’s how this story starts. In the following email interview, Dong discusses what inspired and influenced this obviously intense thriller.
Photo Credit: Brea Oakes Photography
To start, what is Liar, Dreamer, Thief about, and when and where does it take place?
Liar, Dreamer, Thief is a psychological suspense novel set in the imaginary city of Grand Station, Illinois. It centers on Katrina Kim, a 24-year old Korean-American disaster lesbian who utilizes a number of unique coping mechanisms to manage her anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions, like slipping into a fantasy world from a children’s book and fixating on her coworker, Kurt…until the night she witnesses him jump off a bridge. Right before he jumps, he slams her with a devastating accusation — that his death is her fault — and she launches her own (poorly funded) investigation into figuring out what he meant by that.
Where did you get the idea for the plot of Liar, Dreamer, Thief?
I’m a discovery drafter, which means I generally don’t know what’s going to happen in a book before I write the first draft. I remember just being arrested by the image of a woman watching a man jump off a bridge, but I didn’t have any context for it — who she was, their relationship to each other, the circumstances that led up to that moment. So writing the novel was really the process of grabbing that thread and being willing to follow it down the rabbit hole.
Is there a reason why you have a woman stalking a man as opposed to a man stalking a woman or a woman stalking a woman or a man stalking a man?
I think that stalking narratives are normally portrayed in literature as extensions of sexual or romantic desire. There really aren’t that many examples of platonic obsession, and that was something that was interesting to me, particularly in the framework of the character’s ongoing state of mental health crisis.
Additionally, I wanted to make it clear that although Katrina is watching Kurt. If she presents danger to anybody, it’s really to herself. Part of establishing that with the reader is being mindful of potential power differentials (which isn’t to say that an AFAB person [assigned female at birth] can’t present a clear physical danger or threat to an AMAB individual [assigned male at birth] by any means — but I wanted to take advantage of some of the assumptions readers might make right out of the gate.
If asked, Katrina would probably state that her obsession with Kurt stems from the feeling that the two of them share a unique and singular experience — and one that’s a secret.
And in a similar vein, should we read anything into the fact that you went full Kardashian when naming the characters: Katrina…Kurt…
I’ll be honest…I am woefully under-versed in most of the touchstones of pop culture and have no idea what it means to go “full Kardashian.”
I picked the name Katrina because it’s a rare sort of name for a Korean-American immigrant to have — it’s somewhat difficult to pronounce for a native Korean speaker due to the placement of the “r” sound, especially. I think on a subconscious level, it probably highlights a certain fish-out-of-water sensation I felt when I was her age and trying to conceptualize my place in the American cultural fabric.
Kurt (or Curtis) is one of those names that’s perennially popular, but during the years in which Kurt would’ve most likely been born, it cracked the top #100 baby names for boys in the United States, before then again starting to drop back down. It’s a name that had its moment in the sun and peaked, though it could come back at any time. I like the undertones of that — somehow both wholesome and insidious, something that once was an “everyman” sort of name, but is starting to stick out more among younger generations.
As you said earlier, Liar, Dreamer, Thief is a psychological suspense novel. Are there other genres at work in this story?
Though I’m usually conscious of genre touchstones, I don’t let them dictate what I write, I just follow the story where it’s going, and try to make that into a cohesive whole. This book definitely sits in a genre-blending space: you’ve got thriller elements, family saga, a mental-health journey, some fantastical pieces — and the writing style overall tends toward the surreal.
You can tell that the book is diving into all these different spaces by the kind of media coverage it’s received. It was reviewed by Lightspeed, a major sci-fi / fantasy magazine, as a speculative mystery, but by CrimeReads as a crime novel and Novel Suspects as a psychological thriller. The Chicago Review of Books called it “a fascinating hybrid between coming of age novel, workplace novel, and literary thriller,” which was echoed by a lot of venues, like Stateside (NPR/Michigan Radio), Electric Literature, LitHub, GoodReads, etc. Psychological thriller probably fits best overall.
Honestly, if I had to assign the closest match in my head, it’s actually a form of Korean drama. Korean media tends to be fairly forgiving about blending genres together — you get family saga mixed in with murder, procedural mixed in with magical elements. And though there are a lot of reviews commenting on the “darkness” that comes from the mental health elements, those elements are just part of my life, so I didn’t see it that way. I actually thought the book was kind of cozy (which at least a few reviewers agree with!)
Liar, Dreamer, Thief is your first novel, though you’ve had stories in such magazines as Nightmare, Apex, and Lightspeed, to name a few. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Liar but not on anything else you’ve written?
I think a lot of my work, both this novel and my short fiction, is influenced by modern-day Surrealists like Carmen Maria Machado, Kelly Link, and Jeff VanderMeer. But my short fiction tends to be more strictly science fiction, fantasy, and horror, whereas this novel is pushing more into that contemporary thriller space, so some of its influences are my favorites in those genres. I love Ashley Winstead, Julie Clark, Riley Sager, Amy Gentry, and Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks (who write as a duo). I think there’s probably also a dash of Moshfegh in there, if I’m being totally honest.
As for Katrina’s inner fantasy world, I’m sure that was mostly inspired by the His Dark Materials series and the Redwall novels.
How about non-literary influences; was Liar, Dreamer, Thief influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I think probably again, Korean dramas and Korean movies / TV overall. They really gave me the freedom to just write whatever I wanted, because I knew that even if these elements weren’t normally combined in the American suspense / thriller space, that there were ways to do them that just worked for me personally, like in When The Camellia Blooms (family saga meets romance meets…serial killer?).
Now, it sounds like Liar, Dreamer, Thief is a stand-alone story. But you never know. So I’ll ask: Is it a stand-alone novel, or the first book in a series?
It’s a stand-alone. I never actually considered there could be a sequel for it until I started getting reader reviews in. There are quite a few mentioning that they’d be excited to read a sequel, which I found really surprising — like at the time, I didn’t think there was more story to tell, here. Now, I’m not so sure. Ask me again how I feel in a year or two?
A moment ago I asked if Liar, Dreamer, Thief had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around, if I may, and ask if you think Liar, Dreamer, Thief could work as a movie, show, or game?
This is so interesting to me, because I don’t usually think about stuff like that. So much of my writing delves so closely into like, non-visual markers of inner psychology, or is focused around things like the flow of sounds in sentences, etc., so I always just assume that it wouldn’t work as anything else.
I was really, really surprised when my agent called to let me know that we’d had interest from film and TV agents, and even more surprised when I got on a call from Orly Greenberg and Addison Duffy at United Talent Agency, and they told me that they adored the book and that they’d love to represent it for film and TV. And kind of in answer to your question, they wanted to know if I saw it more as a TV series or a movie, and I honestly couldn’t answer. I don’t have that kind of vision, you know?
I was actually a bit behind in turning this interview in, specifically because of this question. I just got really stuck and couldn’t figure out how to answer it, especially with all the madness around debut, so I kind of mentally shelved it to come back to later.
And then my husband and I were driving yesterday in the car. He doesn’t usually read my work ahead of time (bad things happening to imaginary people, like, really stresses him out), but he’d felt safe enough from the various descriptions and summaries that he thought he could handle this one. He was about half-way through, and he wanted to tell me that he really liked it and it really reminded him of the video game Disco Elysium, particularly in the way the main character navigates the world and how he comes by information. So I guess, maybe it would be best as a game?
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Liar, Dreamer, Thief?
Some important plot points in the book center around the character’s relationship with music. If you’re interested in what the music sounds like, all of the songs mentioned in the book have been added to a Spotify playlist — with the exception of the band 14 Dogs, who are imaginary.
That said, 14 Dogs are just the now-defunct 19 Wheels (and more specifically, their Sugareen album), who was my favorite local indie band when I was just a bit younger than Katrina.
Finally, if someone enjoys Liar, Dreamer, Thief, what similar kind of novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for you to decide if you’re going to write a sequel called Kortney, Kim, Khloe, Kendall, Kylie?
I think it depends why you like it. If you’re really into the trippiness of it, the delving into mental health and the emotional complexity, I think you’d probably like Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House or Machado’s short story collection Her Body And Other Parties. If the psychological suspense aspects are your favorite part, maybe Riley Sager’s Survive The Night?