Why Summer is key to Wendy Heard’s California-set thriller, ‘You Can Trust Me’

Why Summer is key to Wendy Heard’s California-set thriller, ‘You Can Trust Me’

Sometimes characters in books take on lives of their own – so much so that they end up steering the plot or demand to be placed in a different book altogether.

That’s what happened with Wendy Heard’s most recent book, “You Can Trust Me,” out June 13 from Bantam.

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A writer of what she calls “dark little stories” for adults and young adults, Heard says her main character, Summer, had nearly appeared in two of her earlier books before Heard found the story that was right for her. The key, Heard says, was finding the right companion.

In Heard’s new thriller set along the highways and coastlines of California, Summer and Leo are two young women living out of their car. The two friends survive by scamming, grifting and pickpocketing the wealthy. But while targeting an eccentric billionaire, Leo goes with him to his private island – and vanishes. It’s up to Summer, using her wits and her skills picked up over years of living on the edge, to get to the island, find Leo and escape.

“You Can Trust Me” is both an examination of relationships with chosen family and a love letter to California from Heard. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q. How did the idea for this book come about? 

It happened because of Summer. She’s a character I know really well; I’ve tried to write her into two other books, but she didn’t work out in them. Usually, I’m learning the plot and the characters together as I go, but in the end, I had to find the plot that would suit her best.  

I really wanted to give her a companion; I had tried in a previous book, but it just wasn’t right. And so I started thinking, what is it like when someone who has floated through the world so untethered finds that one person that they feel is their home? How close can that bond be when people are traveling together, and when they don’t have a million other people and jobs and other things they’re beholden to? 

The relationship between Summer and Leo was the heart of the book, I felt. After that, it was just about finding the right adventure for them to go on.

Q. Besides Leo, California is Summer’s only other tether – “its freeways and roads my arteries and veins,” she says. How did California inspire the story?

Most of my books take place in California, especially southern California. And I think it’s clear from reading my books that I’m from here; these books are written by someone who is a hometown Californian. It takes years to really understand those layers of what it’s like to live here, and sometimes it takes a lifetime. 

I was inspired to set most of my books here because of my parents and our travels up and down the state. My dad is in the East Bay now, but when I was growing up, he lived in San Francisco proper. And I lived down in LA with my mom, and then we also lived in San Diego for a minute. So I do feel like I have worn a groove up and down the state, going back and forth, up and down. I wanted to incorporate that.

Q. What research did you do when building Summer and Leo’s skills, i.e. Summer’s pickpocketing ability?

I did a lot of research on pickpocketing – not just how to pickpocket, but how it feels to be pickpocketed. The interesting thing about Summer is that she has developed this very deep, instinctive understanding of the people around her and how they’re feeling. From the outside, she can see how people are internally experiencing the world, and that informs how she picks pockets. It’s about empathy and really understanding what it’s like to be in someone’s skin. 

I also did research into how magicians operate. I feel like Summer operates with a lot of the same principles of misdirection and distraction. I really wanted to play into that idea of what magicians do to control the attention and to control what the audience is perceiving. 

Q. What draws you to writing suspense? 

I had always known I wanted to write books, but I thought I would write literary fiction. Turns out that a lifetime of reading dark stuff, like Anne Rice and Stephen King and Dean Koontz, had influenced me more than I realized. So I would set out to write these very literary books and what I would end up writing would be suspense and thrillers. It became apparent that this was going to be my accidental genre. I’d start writing a book about sisterhood and end up writing about a murder – just kind of happens every single time. 

I embrace it now since it seems to be where I naturally go. At some point, you just have to know yourself and do what you’re best at.

Q. What are some books that inspired your love of suspense and mystery?

I started reading Stephen King at around nine or 10 –I know that’s a little young! There were kids in his book, so yeah, I wanted to read them even though they were scary. Then I got really into Christopher Pike. I have a little collection of Christopher Pike paperbacks that I’ve held on to over the years.

When I was a kid, my dad would drink wine at a place with a used bookstore next door. He’d give me like $2 and tell me to go find books, which he knew would keep me busy for hours. I could get five paperbacks for $1 and come away with all these noir mysteries and cheap ‘70s thrillers. And of course, I’d clear the young adult section out of any used Christopher Pike. Then there was my Anne Rice phase, which I think was pretty painful for everyone around me; I spent, like, three years of my young teenage life dreaming of being a vampire. 

Q. It says on your website that you love vintage things. Can you talk about that?

I started loving vintage things through my grandparents. I really appreciated certain things about them that were very generational. They didn’t waste things. They didn’t overspend. They didn’t dispose of broken things, they fixed them. 

I grew up on a low income. In the ‘90s and aughts, I remember feeling like buying things vintage was a way of having beautiful things that were not expensive but meaningful, with a real story behind them. And because of that, you wouldn’t be penalized for being poor.

Q. If one wanted to explore vintage LA, where are some cool places to go?

I am sure everybody knows about the big flea market at the Rose Bowl. That’s kind of the motherland if you’re interested in vintage clothing, furniture, electronics, dishware, kitchenware. The thing that people don’t know about the Rose Bowl is that you can pay $20 bucks or something and get in before they open. So you can get first dibs on the stuff that’s in there. All the vintage dealers and resellers, that’s what they do. 

I also go often to the Melrose Trading Post at Fairfax High School. That’s where you’re going to get funky stuff, you know what I mean? Like a funky necklace from the 1970s. They also have a lot of really cool craftspeople who make and reclaim things. 

Q. Ultimately, what would you like your readers to leave with after finishing this book?

For Summer, home is a person, not a house. I really wanted people to look at things from the point of view of someone who doesn’t own things, and who kind of floats outside of our society.

I wanted to also highlight the deep platonic loving relationship between two women. I’m a queer writer, and I’m aware of the extent that queer women get sexualized. Anytime I write about women being close to each other, there’s a resounding chorus of, you know, are they going to hook up? 

Summer is bisexual. In the book, she has a couple of flippant remarks where she mentions it, but it’s not in the text much. I wanted to let the queer main character just have a deep friendship with another woman that was more of a sisterhood. I can’t speak for everybody, but I have personally experienced really close female friendships where we were both queer and yet our relationship was platonic, a very close friendship. It was very meaningful for me to give my characters that.

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