Exclusive Interview: “Number One Fan” Author Meg Elison
In Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery, a woman holds her favorite author hostage, and forces him to write what she wants. And at the time, it seemed like a horror story. Now? It’s a cautionary tale. But it’s also one in need of updating, and not just because the author in King’s book was a man. Enter Number One Fan (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), a horror thriller from Meg Elison who, in the following email interview, discusses what inspired and influenced this story, as well as how it’s, in many ways, more miserable than Misery.
Photo Credit: Devin Cooper
To start, what is Number One Fan about, and when and where does it take place?
Bestselling author Eli Grey just woke up in the basement of her number one fan. He seems familiar, but she can’t place him. He wants something, but she can’t figure out what. She decides to fight, and her assistant goes to the FBI when he realizes Eli’s not just off the grid.
So, did you set out to write something about toxic fandom, and this is what you came up with, or did you sit down to write a thriller and then realized adding in the toxicity would make it better?
I’ve experienced this paradigm from both sides now. I’ve been a Trekkie and a fanfic writer and a cultural critic for a long time before I became an author. When I went pro, I crossed over, and I started to deal with the way people make demands and projections on creators. That’s a horror movie premise for sure: people think you have something they not only want but are entitled to. I had the idea for this thriller and I had to think about what animates a villain like this. Parasocial delusion, desperation, and the ability to see other people as a means to an end helped me make my villain feel very lifelike.
Please tell me this wasn’t inspired by something that really happened to you…
This book was inspired by a lot of things. I can’t claim I wasn’t inspired by Misery by Stephen King, but the thing is King was writing about a different planet than the one I live on. Things are always different for women writers, but also a lot has happened to the fan-creator relationship in the last 40 years. King said Misery was partly inspired by the jokey fan-letters he got; someone bound and gagged a teddy bear and sent him a fake ransom note for the next Dark Tower book. That’s cute but unsettling, right? Every woman writer I know has gotten a straight-up death threat for having an opinion, including me. Authors, even bestsellers, have to work on their platform these days. Platinum-selling recording artists have to make videos for TikTok. An author could disappear in 1983, no problem. Being a public person now is a whole different ball game. So I thought about that, and then I got into a Lyft after a long night of drinking and passed out while a stranger drove me home. My driver woke me up on the curb in front of my house, but I could have woken up anywhere. The combination of the way we publicize our location, the way we trust strangers, and the way any stranger might feel like you owe them art or friendship or a way into the business all swirled together and became Number One Fan.
So, is there a reason you made Eli an author as opposed to an actor or a video game developer or someone else who regularly has to deal with toxic fandom? Or was it because you’re an author, too?
I know people in video games and journalism and music and dance and visual art who have had similar experiences, but this is the version of it I know best. I figured I’d stay in my own lane and not try to guess what it’s like to have a stalker because of Bioshock Infinite.
In a similar vein, Eli disappears on her way to a speaking engagement. Which means people will know she’s gone missing. Is that why you had her grabbed then as opposed to some point when she wouldn’t have been missed so quickly?
I liked the idea of an author on tour. Artists are supposed to be temperamental, but authors on tour are creatures of shambling gratitude and absolute discipline. We know how lucky we are to get to be on tour. I’d show up to a tour date with a broken leg, no question. That’s the author at the height of visibility. Perfect opportunity both to go missing and to be found.
It sounds like Number One Fan is a thriller, albeit a scary one as opposed to one that’s tense.
The book is definitely a thriller, but there’s enough torture and body badness for it to be horror, too. I like both descriptors, and I love that there is room in horror for the non-supernatural kind that people can visit upon one another.
Number One Fan is your fifth novel and sixth book overall. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on Fan but not on anything else you’ve written?
There’s a lot of influence on this book from urban fantasy that I’ve enjoyed. It’s not a genre I plan to write myself, but I love the hold it has on its fans. I made Eli Grey an urban fantasy author within the book, because it’s a style I admire and it has so much success in adaptation. I’ve always admired and been influenced by Seanan McGuire, Mishell Baker, Cat Valente, and Neil Gaiman. I can’t be like them, but Eli can.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on Number One Fan? You mentioned Misery earlier…
I thought about the depictions of captivity in a couple of films, including Silence Of The Lambs when I was figuring out what the relationship between Eli and her captor would look like. I was very inspired by songs about obsession: “Barrel Of A Gun” by Guster, “Rid Of Me” by P.J. Harvey. It’s a common motif for songwriters: there’s always the classic “Every Breath You Take” by The Police for this vibe.
The movie version of Misery was over 30 years ago, so it may be time for a modern version of this story. Do you think Number One Fan could work as a movie?
Number One Fan would make a spectacular movie. It’s tight and tense and could mostly be shot in a single location with two actors for two out of three acts. It is absolutely time for a modern version of this story. Fandom is a living, everyday commitment for writers now. We have newsletters and Patreons and Instagram to worry about. Our fans aren’t waiting to hear from us once a year; they want a constant drip of content. Imagine a star author as a trending topic, day after day. Imagine someone stealing a well-known celebrity’s phone and trying to impersonate them, badly. This thing would go off like a bomb, and a movie could show that off to great effect.
So, if someone wanted to adapt Number One Fan into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Eli, the cab driver, and the other characters? Or maybe what kind of people should play them?
This is one of my favorite games.
I want Eli to be played by Clea DuVall [Veep]. She’s incredible, intense, and has so much range. I’d love to see her fight in this. Ideal for the cab driver / antagonist is Jim Parsons [The Big Bang Theory]. He’s so creepy and capable, and I’d like to see him make a heel turn into villain roles. Nella should be played by Rachel True [The Craft], who is so due for a comeback it’s ridiculous. I want [What We Do In The Shadows‘] Harvey Guillen as Joe, Eli’s assistant who basically saves the day.
Also, this is a very gay story, and I’d love to see queer actors really get a piece of it and bring it to life. Not to mention a queer director. That’d be the dream.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Number One Fan?
Number One Fan is one of those books where the action starts right at the top and the big bad hits just keep coming. If you want to be very disquieted until the final fight, this is the one for you.
Finally, if someone enjoys Number One Fan, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?
If you liked Number One Fan, the next one for you is The Book Of The Unnamed Midwife. If you can take the violence and the suspense, if you in fact crave those things, I’ve got more of what you need.