The Wife was born of a single observation: when a married man is accused of sexual misconduct, the public gaze inevitably shifts to include his private partner—the wife. No matter how hard she may try to avoid the spotlight, she becomes part of the narrative. Angela Powell is the wife in this particular story. When two women level troubling accusations of sexual misconduct against Angela’s husband, Jason, a renowned economist and public intellectual, she faces an impossible choice. If she stands beside him, she is one of those women who commits the unforgiveable crime of not supporting other women. If she decides to leave him, she risks the implosion of her own carefully curated life.
For me, story ideas are informed by characters, and characters come from watching the world with empathy. I try not to ask myself what I would do in situation X, and instead, watch how people move and act around me. I wonder how they would react in certain situations, how they would speak, and how they became the people they are today. Human beings never stop surprising me, and I suspect that’s why I never stop watching them, thinking about them, and imagining their pasts and futures.
Take Camille Cosby. Back when her husband was known as a sweater-wearing, Jello-pudding-loving Dad, she was seen as a respected supporter and editor of African-American arts and literature. She was perceived by many to be a driving force behind both her husband’s career and the couple’s legendary philanthropy. But these days, the best version of Camille Cosby’s marriage features a husband who maintained a remarkably busy schedule bedding drugged-up women, while his wife raised five kids and earned a doctorate. I can only wonder what it was like to be her the morning of her deposition by the lawyer representing her husband’s accusers. No matter how things may seem, we never really know what goes on inside a marriage. If a wife chooses to believe her husband over his female accuser, or decides to forgive the accused and move forward with a relationship together, does she lose the right to call herself a feminist? She certainly loses the right to a private life as we cast judgments about the kind of woman she must be. But what about in the case of Angela Powell, who has an understandable reason to withhold, massage, or even misremember information?
Those questions are ripe for the creation of three-dimensional characters. The possibility that you’ve been sharing your life with someone who has been keeping dangerous secrets is particularly terrifying. Loving someone makes you vulnerable, and that vulnerability exposes you to the sorts of hypotheticals writers dream to exploit. The Wife’s headline might be Jason’s scandal, but Angela has some secrets of her own.
The Wife by Alafair Burke is published in February by Faber & Faber (£12.99)