Liane Moriarty: The literary powerhouse who’s reinvented TV

Author Liane Moriarty’s observations of suburban life have sold 20 million books – now her hits Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers have handed Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon the most talked-about roles of their careers. Not bad for a woman who only started writing for a bet.

Liane Moriarty
Nic Walker/Headpress/Eyevine

You might assume that a person who’s written eight internationally bestselling novels, two of which have been made into hit TV shows starring Nicole Kidman, would have more lofty concerns than the rest of us, or perhaps be inured to them entirely. So it’s grounding to note that when it comes to Zooming, Liane Moriarty feels exactly like everyone else. ‘Oh, look at me,’ she says, upon seeing herself on camera. ‘I need a haircut.’

Not all Zoom interviews are created equal. It can be hard to establish a rapport. Even though we are 10,500 miles apart and in different time zones – she is speaking from her home in Sydney – such is 54-year-old Liane’s warmth and attentiveness that it feels like I’m talking to a good friend. A good friend whose books have sold over 20 million copies and has Reese Witherspoon on speed dial.

It’s hard to categorise Liane as a writer, though many have tried. Some say she writes ‘commercial’ fiction rather than ‘literary’, as though success was a dirty word. Others have pigeonholed her books as ‘women’s fiction’, presumably because they’re read mainly by women, even though the topics they deal with – love, murder, infidelity, depression, domestic abuse, drug use – are universal. While every novel is full of intrigue, she doesn’t think of herself as a thriller writer. ‘I don’t like that idea of every book having to be suspenseful,’ she says. ‘I think my strength is more in character development than in plot.’ Her biggest strength is surely her characters’ relatability. It’s impossible to read one of her books without swearing blind she’s somehow taken up occupancy inside your own head.

Nicole Kidman
Nicole Kidman as Masha in Nine Perfect Strangers. Image: Vince Valitutti/Hulu

Of all Liane’s books, it’s Big Little Lies, published in 2014, that has become the most famous, thanks to Reese snapping up the film and television rights and making it into a critically acclaimed two-series smash that won multiple Emmys. Starring Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, Laura Dern and Reese herself, the TV series was one of the most talked-about shows of recent years, described by one newspaper as ‘the deluxe drama that changed TV for ever’.

Meanwhile, her 2018 novel Nine Perfect Strangers is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, with another stellar cast that includes Melissa McCarthy, Luke Evans and, yet again, Nicole Kidman. I suggest to Liane that Nicole Kidman is obsessed with her, and she laughs. ‘There is a connection in that we’re both the same age, and both grew up in Sydney,’ she concedes. ‘But she has obviously led a very different, more glamorous life than I have. Before I met Nicole, and also Reese, I had in my mind that as movie stars they might be a little bit more jaded about the industry. But they were so warm. I loved that they had such passion for their work: it was inspiring.’

Warmth is not a quality one would attribute to Masha, the character Nicole plays in Nine Perfect Strangers. As the enigmatic owner of Tranquillum, a wellness resort with a mysterious secret, she is as icily composed as Celeste, the abused wife she played in Big Little Lies. TV adaptations of novels frequently leave both the reader and the writer disappointed, but Liane was delighted with hers. ‘I know other authors haven’t had this experience, but Big Little Lies was a pleasure from start to finish. Filming took place on the other side of the world [the series was set in Monterey, California] but I got to visit the set and meet the cast. I was made to feel so welcome, and without me having to do anything! It was such good fun. Having handed over the book, I knew I had no control over the outcome. Other novelists would say I just got very lucky.’

big little lies
The cast of megahit series Big Little Lies. Image: HBO

She is equally pleased with the adaptation of Nine Perfect Strangers, which has its season finale on 24 September. ‘It looks gorgeous. The cinematography is beautiful, and I couldn’t ask for more from the cast. I think people who love the book will love the series. But people who don’t love the book will also love the series, because they’ve brought in some twists and turns that weren’t in the book.’

With the show still airing, there will be no spoilers here, although it isn’t spoiling anything to discuss whether one of the show’s characters, the author Frances (played brilliantly by Melissa McCarthy), is based on Liane herself. ‘When my husband read the book, he said, “You do realise that she’s the same age as you, and she’s a novelist, so everybody’s going to think that it’s you.” And I said, “I know: that’s why I made her as charming as possible,”’ Liane laughs.

She had no interest in being involved in writing the screenplays for any of her TV adaptations. ‘I wouldn’t say no to perhaps writing an original screenplay one day, but I can’t even explain how bored it makes me feel, the thought of adapting my own book. The reason for that is because when I write, I don’t plan, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. That, for me, is part of the pleasure.’ Although when Witherspoon wanted to make a second season of Big Little Lies, Liane obligingly, if trepidatiously, wrote a 50,000-word novella for it to be based upon. ‘That was fun,’ she admits. She wrote one of the characters specifically for Meryl Streep, calling her Louise in tribute to Streep’s middle name. ‘I can clearly remember saying to the producers that I’d written this character for Meryl, but not really believing my own audacity,’ she smiles. ‘And then it happened. Apparently, Meryl didn’t even look at the script before saying “yes” because she’d loved the first season.’

I wonder what is lost and what is gained when her books are adapted for TV. ‘Oh, that’s a really interesting question,’ she smiles. ‘I wouldn’t say anything’s lost. The reason I love writing books is because it’s really personal. It’s between me and the reader. When readers say, “I hope they don’t change your book”, I always say that they can’t change my book, because your experience of reading it is something nobody can take away from you. Each reader brings their own imagination.’

Liane Moriarty and Nicole Kidman
Liane with Nicole Kidman last year

Liane’s ninth novel is arguably her best yet, a gripping family saga that sees her tackle female rage, ageism, mental health, sibling rivalry and the frailties of technology with incisive wit and verve. Apples Never Fall tells the story of Joy and Stan Delaney, newly retired and happily settled in suburbia until Joy inexplicably vanishes, prompting their four grown-up children to question whether they ever knew their parents at all. It’s quintessential Moriarty: suspenseful and funny, full of twists and as binge-worthy as the finest box set that will surely be its destiny, even if Liane says firmly that she never writes with that end goal in mind. ‘I did love the process of writing this book, which I think is because I took a bit more time with it. I asked for an extra year. Normally I’ve been putting out a book every two years, but this took three, and I think it’s a better book as a result.’ Her decision to have what she calls ‘a year of joy’ (thus inspiring the name of her lead character) was taken in 2019. ‘Fortunately, it wasn’t 2020,’ she laughs. ‘It was good, because it clarified for me that I do actually really like my job. I thought I might just write for pleasure, but I started writing a new novel instead.’

While she started writing it long before the pandemic hit, many of its themes couldn’t be more relevant to lockdown, not least the evocation of claustrophobia that even loving families sometimes experience. Joy hates cooking: like many women, Liane also came to hate cooking over lockdown. Through Joy, the book forensically examines repressed female rage, and is particularly poignant on empty-nest syndrome, and the strange, oxymoronic piquancy of wishing you’d been more present for your children while also wishing you’d had more time to yourself. ‘Surely Joy’s clever granddaughter would know how to have it all without actually doing it all’ is probably my favourite line in the book.

Liane gamely answers the ‘how does she write?’ questions she’s no doubt been asked a million times before. No, she has never dreamt the next bit of a plot. No, she has never used a fan’s idea for a plot, though ‘there will always be at least one reader in the signing queue who says they’ve got an amazing story’. No, she doesn’t have a particular routine, though she tends to write in three-hour shifts. Yes, this pragmatic approach could well have been shaped by her father who, when they were children, offered her and her four sisters – Fiona, Kati, Nicola and Jaclyn, the latter two are also authors – $1 (around 60p) if they could fill an exercise book with words. ‘I remember the feeling of validation,’ she muses. ‘It felt very serious and important.’

liane Moriarty and sisters
Liane with her four sisters, two of whom are writers

She tragically lost her father, Bernie, in March last year, a few weeks before Covid restrictions began in Sydney. ‘We were lucky because we got a funeral. Literally a week later, we wouldn’t have been able to have the funeral that we had. Which really made me aware of all the people who couldn’t have funerals during the pandemic, and who couldn’t get to see dying parents. When you lose somebody you want the world to stop, and it [lockdown] felt like the world did stop, in a way. But it was very hard, not being able to see my mother – as it was for every person.’

Liane was recently treated for breast cancer, adding that it was caught early, in a routine mammogram, ‘so my prognosis has always been good’. Not a social media lover, the experience prompted her to post more than usual on her Facebook page. ‘I put a little video of myself ringing the bell on the last day of treatment, and the comments were so lovely, both from people describing their own experiences from many years ago, and people who had recently been diagnosed themselves. I felt good in that maybe I was giving some comfort to them.’

By now, it’s 7pm in Sydney. Dare I ask what cooking-averse Liane is off to prepare? Maybe her husband Adam, a former farmer, or her 13- and 11-year-old children have done the honours tonight? ‘Dinner’s in the oven,’ she smiles. ‘The good thing about breast cancer treatment was that friends sent me some of those pre-made dinners. So I’ve started getting more of those.’ Very wise. The less time spent cooking, the more time freed up to write books for her adoring fans.

Liane’s latest novel Apples Never Fall will be published by Michael Joseph on 14 September, price £20. To order a copy for £17 until 26 September, go to or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

Interview: Laura Craik