Andrea Bartz’s latest thriller is personal. Bartz, the New York Times best-selling author of We Were Never Here, wrote The Spare Room in early 2020 when the quiet of pandemic isolation allowed her subconscious to work overtime. Bartz’s real life ended up bleeding into her pandemic plot more than she had anticipated when first pitching The Spare Room to her editor.
The twisty, behind-locked-doors murder mystery follows Kelly, who quarantines in a gated gothic mansion with married couple Nathan and Sabrina, and she ends up falling for them both. But when Kelly discovers that the last woman invited into their relationship mysteriously went missing, she starts to panic. When Bartz started writing The Spare Room (which reads like a Hitchcock film — the moodiness and madness of total isolation taking on a life of its own), she thought she was straight. While several details of Kelly’s life mirrored her own (like the character Kelly, Bartz left her home, with her kitty in tow, to form a pandemic pod with a family near D.C.), she had no idea that both she and Kelly would simultaneously discover their bisexuality.
Though Bartz and Kelly deviate when it comes to the throuple in The Spare Room, being away from her home in New York, in a new town where no one really knew her, gave Bartz the courage to come out via dating apps. She held her breath and, for the first time ever, selected that she’s interested in both men and women. It was transformative. “Because lockdown made me hit pause, I suddenly had the quiet to actually listen to my inner wisdom and look at my life and realize it doesn’t need to be what I thought it was,” she says. Her risk paid off. “I went on exactly one first date in D.C., and it was with this amazing woman named Julia, who now is my partner of almost three years.”
Bartz talked to Shondaland about how her own queerness informed The Spare Room’s plot, how she realized the horror of isolation would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery, and why the theme of never really knowing whom you’re living with is perhaps more terrifying than a plague.
BRIJANA PROOKER: Your protagonist, Kelly, whose fiancé has just called off their wedding, rekindles a friendship with her old childhood friend Sabrina and ends up forming a pandemic pod with her and her husband, Nathan. In the process, she discovers that she’s bisexual and comes out as queer. Tell me how your own journey — and officially coming out as bisexual in the earlier portion of the pandemic — coincided with Kelly’s path to discovering her sexuality.
ANDREA BARTZ: I was living in a studio apartment in Williamsburg with my cat. My building was jackhammering our balconies — ripping them down to reconstruct them. So, I’m trapped in this apartment with the walls literally shaking, and I was just going nuts. I’d rekindled a friendship with somebody I’d gone to high school with, who invited me to stay with her and her family outside D.C. So, l got my cat. I put on two masks. And I braved the Amtrak and showed up with a suitcase. At the same time, I’d started to see my therapist over Zoom. I was crying to her one week because I was feeling ready for a relationship, and then the pandemic happened. I didn’t think I was going to have to put my mate-seeking on hold when I was 34 years old. It was summer 2020, and [my therapist mentioned that] you could see people outside; you could do outdoor dining. So, I reinstalled some of the apps. And the first thing they ask when you set up a profile is “I’m interested in … men, women, or both.” I hadn’t seen my parents in over a year, I hadn’t seen most of my friends in a long time, I felt cut off from my old life anyway. So, I said, “Screw it.” And I selected both.
BP: It seems so rare that you decide to add women to your dating preferences, then go on one date with one woman — and you’re still with her three years later! Did going out with Julia immediately feel different than your dates with men? Did you have any idea on your first date that Julia might end up being your person?
AB: I can’t say that I knew on the first date with Julia, but I immediately felt really comfortable with her. What distinguishes it from most other dating experiences was that it kept getting better. It was identity-shifting and strange for me to be dating a woman and to recognize this is not something I seriously saw for myself, and what does this mean for my future? I was temporarily living in Maryland, not near this very heteronormative Christian conservative life that I grew up with in Wisconsin. Being removed from that meant I didn’t need to run away from the questions, anxieties, and fear that came with something that felt different, but felt great and right.
BP: Why do you think the lockdown helped you discover your queerness? What was it like to emerge from your pandemic bubble after moving back to New York? Did you have an official coming out?
AB: Instead of coming out as being bi, I came out as dating Julia. I’ve curated a really wonderful group of friends that are my New York family. They all were really happy to hear that I was happy. The public coming out was not an announcement. I just posted selfies with Julia where we looked pretty intimate. Then I purposely didn’t look at my phone. I got a text from my mom a few hours later, and she asked, “Who’s your friend in the photos?” I said, “Oh, we’re actually dating; her name is Julia.” And she said, “I suspected as much — you look very happy.” It was really, really nice. It was easy, quiet. We’re Midwestern; we don’t do a lot of talking about feelings or uncomfortable things. It felt tacit and a not too in-your-face way for her to be kind and accepting.
It took a lot longer for my dad, who is more conservative, and Christian, and needed more time to adjust. I appreciated that [because of pandemic isolation] there was time and space for him to get used to the idea on his own schedule. We still had many months before we were able to see each other in person. The pandemic was awful in many, many ways, but I think it did give a lot of people that safe cocoon where they could be their most authentic selves.
BP: Tell me how you realized that the horror of the pandemic lockdown would be the ideal backdrop for a murder mystery. And how Kelly becoming intimate with both Sabrina and Nathan — without ever really knowing them or having any real reason to trust them — adds to the terror of being trapped behind closed doors with people who are, in essence, strangers.
AB: I didn’t actually pitch putting it in the pandemic. Back in 2020, everybody was saying, “Oh, my God, I never want to read a book about the pandemic.” [But my editor suggested] the backdrop of the pandemic because Covid-19 cinched the drawstrings of everybody’s lives and cut people off from one another. And created this stranger danger that was quite literal. It’s an interesting question: What was going on behind closed doors everywhere? What if we focus on this one supposedly safe harbor that’s a mansion surrounded by a gate? I realized I could play with how safe it could make you feel from the outside, but how [being] locked inside is its own kind of terror. Kelly has a lot of reasons to be suspicious of Sabrina and Nathan. But she literally has nowhere else to go. So, she’s really motivated to believe them and trust them even when her gut is telling her not to. It’s a perfect [metaphor] for extending too much trust in people you feel like you know because you love them, even though Kelly doesn’t actually know them at all.
BP: Tell us about the sex and love in this book.
AB: Sex was obviously one part of it, but I wanted it to be clear that it’s about so much more than sex for Kelly; she falls in love with these people. There are sex scenes throughout, but in terms of front-story sex scenes where you see the sex happening, there’s really not a ton. There’s a fair amount of fade to black or scenes beginning with cuddling in bed. I guess the impression of all that sex feels notable. I can’t help wondering if we are just more open to and accepting of straight sex existing in thrillers than what is in my book — sex between two women, and threesomes, and Kelly coming out as bi. She’s having good sex. There’s a focus on her pleasure, and it’s not from the male perspective or about male pleasure.
BP: Can you chat about why queer stories in all forms are needed now more than ever?
AB: I’m nervous to be a mouthpiece for queer voices, because I am relatively new to it. There are people who have been clearing the path before me for their whole lives and for generations before me. And I still have so much privilege: I’m cisgendered, I’m straight-passing, I’m white. I fully acknowledge that I don’t experience many of the forms of discrimination that other people in the queer community do. That said, the attempt to ban books with queer storytelling, shut down queer studies, and tell school districts they can’t even discuss sexuality — which means they can’t discuss non-straight sexuality — is horrifying. Not talking about it doesn’t make anybody less queer. It makes them unable to talk about it and makes them feel more alone.
BP: Can you share your thoughts on whether books like yours are perhaps dangerous to those who believe in patriarchal “traditional values”?
AB: At the beginning of the book, Kelly is devastated that her fiancé called off their wedding because, since she was young, she’s known that she wanted the husband and the minivan and the 2.5 kids. By the end of the book, she recognizes that she is bi and can love more than one person at once. She’s not sure if she wants kids or the minivan, or anything else that she was picturing. Those things are certainly true of myself. I’m not poly — but I too went from assuming that I was going to have a husband and kids to realizing my future doesn’t need to be that way just because I have seen all of the Disney movies and read all the books that put a premium on straight, traditional relationships. Books like mine that show women subverting or rejecting the roles that we want to put them in are dangerous to the patriarchy and heteronormativity. They’re dangerous to systems we operate under that keep women in subjugated roles. By writing this book, where a character liberates herself from those expectations, I didn’t play by the rules. I did something very threatening to the status quo. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s going to be pushback and that some people are going to retaliate and respond by telling me to shut up.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Brijana Prooker is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist and mama to two peanut butter-colored rescue girls (a pit bull named Ivy and a kitty named Doosis). In addition to Shondaland, her byline has appeared in Elle, The Washington Post’s The Lily, Good Housekeeping, Newsday, Bitch Media, and Observer. Find her on Twitter @BriProoker.
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