Q&A with Elle Marr, author of Strangers We Know

In Elle Marr's chilling novel Strangers We Know the search for a serial killer leads a woman into the twisted tangle of her own family tree. John Valeri interviews Elle and the two discuss topics such as struggles with identity, storytelling techniques, the impact of place on plot, the reality of victimization, and more. Read on for the full interview!

Elle Marr made an impressive splash with her debut suspense novel, 2020’s bestselling The Missing Sister, which was followed by last year’s critically acclaimed Lies We Bury. This May, she returns with her third standalone thriller, Strangers We Know—which, though fiction, takes its inspiration from real-life events. Marr, who graduated from UC San Diego before moving to France and earning a master’s degree from the Sorbonne University in Paris, is a first-generation Chinese-American; her books proudly celebrate mixed-race representation.

The author—a native of Sacramento who now makes her home in Oregon—recently took time away from her writing to discuss Strangers We Know. Topics included the book’s origin story, her protagonist’s struggle with identity, Marr’s handling of dual timelines and telling details, the use of multiple perspectives, place’s impact on plot, and how she endeavors to balance entertainment value with the realities of crime and victimization.

John Valeri: Strangers We Know has its roots in two real-life inspirations: your mom’s adoption story and the eventual capture of the Golden State Killer based on ancestral DNA. Tell us how you drew on these two disparate events to develop the general premise of this book.

Elle Marr: The inspiration was a combination of true crime revelations fueled by DNA testing—similar to the Golden State Killer’s conclusion—as well as my own personal experiences, as the child of an adoptee. I grew up in Sacramento, the stomping grounds for the GSK, and was shocked to learn later as an adult that the East Area Rapist, as he was then known, had never been caught. Years passed, then the GSK was arrested and identified in part thanks to genetic testing. When that happened, I began piecing together a story with that situation at its heart, knowing it’s an idea that many people have considered themselves: what revelation might I learn through submitting my genetics test? When I submitted my own spit sample to a genetics testing company, desiring more information about my family’s medical history, I nervously waited for the results, both curious and concerned about what they might be. Ivy Hon, the protagonist of Strangers We Know, has that same experience, and I drew on my own thoughts for her mindset. In writing this book, I tried to capture the excitement that people feel upon mailing in their DNA, and also capitalize on the fear of what might lie in store ahead.

Valeri: Your protagonist, Ivy Hon, is both adopted and of Chinese-American descent—two factors that play into her sense of identity (or lack thereof). In what ways does this background play into Ivy’s actions and motivations as she sets out not only to clarify her medical history but to define herself more broadly?

Elle Marr: Ivy’s sense of self drives the narrative of Strangers We Know. Although she is adopted, she is deeply rooted in her love of her adoptive family; they are the only family she has ever known and she truly wouldn’t ask for anything more. Likewise, she is Chinese-American and was raised in a melting pot environment—the Bay Area—which provided her with the confidence to venture into the unknown, to immerse herself in a new setting: the Pacific Northwest. Ivy’s pursuit of her medical history is further grounded in the loss of her adoptive parents. Her fear that the sickness she is battling might be something more than an ongoing vitamin deficiency, and the fear that she too might abandon her brother as their parents did when they died, reinforces her determination for answers. In exploring her background as a woman of mixed-race, Ivy faces questions head-on that many of us never ask ourselves: what cultural conflicts led me to become the person I am? What influence does my family’s past continue to hold over me? Am I allowing inter-generational trauma to guide my actions?

Valeri: The events of the book alternate between present-day and the past (the 1980s). How did you go about capturing the telling details that would render each true to their time—and what was your planning/plotting process like to account for the intricacies of this narrative structure? 

Elle Marr: Happily, I was born in the eighties and have some pretty distinct memories of big hair and leggings. Later on as an adult, I was struck by the fascination with cults that also appeared during that decade, and did a lot of research into that sub-culture. I’ve naturally retained the information and I tried to incorporate much of it into Strangers We Know—that longing for community that young cult members initially sought out. When I first began plotting this story, I knew I wanted to tell it in multiple timelines. While I expected it to be an ambitious task, I ended up with a multi-tabbed Excel spreadsheet to help me keep each timeline’s distinct details in order. Unfortunately for me, my writing process requires that I sit with my characters and plotlines in order to discover what truly works for a narrative—to find all the parallels and themes that really make a story come alive, I can’t shortcut the number of hours needed to deeply understand why my characters make their (questionable) choices. Because I decided Strangers We Know would be told through three different perspectives, that reflection time was tripled.

Valeri: To expand on that: The narrative is also told through multiple points of view, each of which contributes to the readers’—and Ivy’s—(eventual) understanding of what’s transpired. How do you come to embody these characters so that each has a dynamic presence on the page—and in what ways does the use of multiple perspectives underscore the themes you set out to explore?

Elle Marr: I’m so glad that came across. In choosing three different main characters, I aimed to take readers on an exciting and, at times, tense journey toward the story’s conclusion. The most interesting stories to me are the ones that approach the same narrative from multiple points of view, allowing me to form my own suspicions before the author reveals what they had planned. I rely a lot on my understanding of psychology to fully flesh out my characters’ perspectives, to uncover what might drive them to make the decisions they do. Each of my main characters grapples with some kind of unresolved trauma. By exploring my story through those tangible, respective lenses, I often discover the themes as I’m writing. I rarely know exactly where a plot will take me when I begin a new book idea. 

Valeri: You often draw on places of intimate familiarity for the settings of your book (Paris, Oregon)—and Strangers We Know expands that canvas to include both San Francisco and Rock Island, Washington. How do you see place as enhancing plot—and what does the Pacific Northwest add to this book’s atmosphere specifically?

Elle Marr: This is a favorite topic of mine. Each time I read a book or begin to write a new story, I am struck by the importance of setting—both in how an environment may affect a character’s actions and in how instrumental setting is for the reader’s immersion into a fictionalized or fictitious world. San Francisco was, to me, an obvious foil to the Pacific Northwest, where my main character Ivy later travels. I chose the chrome cityscape of the Bay Area as her starting point to more starkly contrast the world she would enter in seeking out her biological family. As I was mapping out Strangers We Know, Washington was an obvious choice for its beautiful summers and its naturally verdant horizons. The scenic forest landscapes that compose parts of the state added to Ivy’s sense of being a foreigner. My hope is that this setting creates a sense of wonder in the reader, as it does the city-dwelling Ivy, while also suggesting that some terrible truth could be hiding beneath the shadowy treetops.

Valeri: Criminals and criminality are often glorified, or sensationalized, in our culture. In what ways did you endeavor to balance entertainment value with sensitivity to the realities of victimization and violence in the making of this story? 

Elle Marr: This is a great question and its answer is a delicate one. In writing crime fiction, I attempt to bring understanding to horrifying acts of human nature—but that’s not to say I diminish the gravity of those acts in fictionalizing them; to the contrary, I think crime fiction is such a popular genre because readers and authors are seeking to understand the incomprehensible. It’s a task that will never truly find success, but as long as we find parallels between crime fiction and our realities, I think we’ll be compelled to continue reading. In Strangers We Know, I targeted this balance between entertainment and sensitivity to real violence by exploring crime from both the victims’ families and the perpetrator’s family. My hope is that, instead of sensationalizing criminality, this story highlights the far-reaching effects of it on families, and how trauma can be inter-generational.

About Strangers We Know by Elle Marr:

Adopted when she was only days old, Ivy Hon knows little about her lineage. But when she’s stricken with a mystery illness, the results of a genetic test to identify the cause attract the FBI. According to Ivy’s DNA, she’s related to the Full Moon Killer, who has terrorized the Pacific Northwest for decades. Ivy is the FBI’s hope to stop the enigmatic predator from killing again.

When an online search connects Ivy with her younger cousin, she heads to rural Rock Island, Washington, to meet the woman. Motivated by a secret desire to unmask a murderous relative, Ivy reaches out to what’s left of a family of strangers.

Discovering her mother’s tragic fate and her father’s disappearance is just the beginning. As Ivy ventures into a serial killer’s home territory, she realizes that she may be the next victim of poisonous blood ties.

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