Lie to Me: I, Claudia Author Mary McCoy on the Irresistible Appeal of Unreliable Narrators

Mary McCoy’s I, Claudia is out today, a high school–set, YA riff on Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, a beloved masterwork of political fiction featuring a retiring historian who becomes the emperor of Rome. In McCoy’s novel, Claudius becomes Claudia, a high school student who, despite her reluctance, is pulled into student government. Once there, she’s determined to use her position for good. But enemies are thick on the ground, and the worst of them all may be the corrupting influence of her newfound power.

To celebrate the book’s release, McCoy shared a list of her own favorite unreliable narrators.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until the second time I read I, Claudius, Robert Graves’s classic novel, narrated by a historian who only reluctantly, unwillingly, and under great duress becomes the emperor of Rome, that I realized I was being lied to.

It’s brilliant. I mean, the narrator is a historian. He spends all this time telling you how much he cares about an accurate historical record. It’s the perfect cover for his ambition. My new novel, I, Claudia, is loosely based on Claudius, and though a contemporary American high school isn’t quite as bloody as ancient Rome, the politics are cutthroat, and the narrator is just as slippery.

And, of course, rewriting history to suit your own ends, like Claudia and Claudius do, is just one possible motivation. These are some of my other favorite unreliable narrators, all of whom have so many good reasons to be less than forthcoming. Or so they say.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
Captured by the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied France, the young pilot knows she will be interrogated, tortured, and killed. There’s nothing she has control over except the narrative she spins for her captors, but in the telling of that story, she holds all the power.

One of Us Is Lying, by Karen McManus
Four students are suspects in the death of the school gossip blogger. All had access to him, all had motive, all have a story to tell about what really happened—but of course, one of them is lying. Nuanced characterization and a genuinely surprising twist ending make this a book to tear through.

Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson
At the age of nine, Mary is convicted of killing a three-month-old baby and sent to juvenile detention until the age of sixteen, when she’s sent to a group home. Mary has been through hell. She’s been abused and isolated, her whole childhood has been taken away from her, but the one thing that still isn’t clear is: did she do it? Through news articles, court transcripts, interviews, and Mary’s words, Tiffany D. Jackson teases out the truth.

I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, by Nadja Spiegelman
How can you possibly write a memoir about your family when your sources are unreliable and none of their stories add up? Spiegelman, daughter of Maus creator Art Spiegelman and New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly, somehow finds a way to make sense of it, and in the process crafts a fascinating narrative about complicated, imperfect mothers and the lies they tell to protect themselves and their daughters.

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Emil Ferris
Karen is ten, and it’s not that she’s lying exactly. She’s making sense of the incredibly adult situations in her life as a ten-year-old would, and the result is a somewhat gauzy reality, the harshest parts transformed into the pulp magazine and monster movie characters that fill her sketchbook. When Karen turns detective to prove that her upstairs neighbor’s death was murder, not suicide, the stories she tells to protect herself are no match for the truth.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
The narrator of Tim O’Brien’s collection of connected short stories wants to tell the truth about what happened during his time as a soldier in the Vietnam War; however, his sense of guilt and complicity keep him circling around it, coming at the most accurate version of the story from numerous angles. Every single one of them will split your heart in half.

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