For her second novel, Follow Me, Kathleen Barber has written a thriller that is based on a scary but true fact: That with the right technology and software, people can be watched through their computer.
In the book’s introduction Barber explained how she learned of this alarming fact and concludes: “I was so deeply unsettled by the thought of an anonymous ratter lurking around my computer that I did two things: first I covered my laptop’s built-in webcam with a sticker, as Mark Zuckerberg and James Comey both reportedly do, and then I began writing this story.”
Barber’s first novel, Are you Sleeping, received much acclaim. The Apple TV+ series, Truth Be Told, based on Are You Sleeping, starring Octavia Spencer, Lizzy Caplan, and Aaron Paul, premiered December 6, 2019.
Scott Butki: Follow Me is a wild story based on true, scary, sobering facts. Can you tell the story of how you come to discover that some people are able to watch others through cameras on computers and other places including home security cameras?
Kathleen Barber: I was messing around online one afternoon and stumbled across an article entitled “Meet the Men Who Spy on Women through Their Webcams.” It was horrifying, to say the least.
According to the article, it was fairly easy for these guys to remotely install something called a remote administration tool (or “RAT”) on your computer, which would then grant them access to your hard drive and webcam. The men who installed the RATs (nicknamed “ratters”) had different goals. Some had the relatively innocent plan of playing pranks, while some were after credentials and financial information. And then there were the ratters who really terrified me: those who made a game of collecting “slaves” (their name for the women they spied on) and then trading or even selling access to the “slaves” amongst themselves. I was so shocked and disgusted, I had to read it a couple of times just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood—and then I immediately covered the camera on my computer.
SB: Once you got over the shock of that how did you go about turning that information into a novel?
KB: I had such a visceral reaction to the article about the ratters that I instantly knew I wanted to write about it. Moreover, I wanted to explore how it felt to be on both sides of a webcam that had been compromised like that—and so I created both Audrey, the woman who unwittingly downloads the RAT onto her computer, and “Him,” the man who uses it to spy on her. I had also been interested in doing something with oversharing on social media and the accompanying casual disregard for personal safety, and that felt like a natural fit with this story.
SB: This is a pretty mind-blowing topic. Did this ever get too wild and you needed to take a break from it?
K.B. : I wouldn’t say that I ever needed to take a break from it, but I was thoroughly unsettled. It made me think more about what I’m posting online—something that is especially important to me now that I’m a mother and have more than my own personal safety to consider.
SB: How did you go about researching this book?
KB: I used the original Ars Technica article I’d found as my primary source, and then I
continued searching for other information about these RATs and how they could be used. I have to admit, I was a little worried about getting flagged for searching things like “how to spy on women online.” Additionally, I did some research on influencer culture—which was a lot more fun than the research about RATs!
SB: Did you encounter much skepticism as you told people about this story, from folks sure that this must not be a real thing that happens?
KB: I found the opposite, actually! I’ve heard so many stories now about other wifi-enabled devices that can be used to spy on us in our own homes. I find the stories about video baby monitors being hacked particularly frightening!
SB: What do you hope readers will take away from this book, besides that they may want to cover up the camera in their computers?
KB: I hope people will think more carefully about what they post online. I feel that, as social media has become more pervasive and an integral part of our daily lives, we have become more complacent about online safety. Many of us unintentionally give away dozens of tiny details that, when put together, could reveal a starting amount of information about us and our routines. For example, in Follow Me, Audrey often posts from the same coffee shop, which enables her admirer to learn where he can find her.
SB: This is your second novel. What was it like having your first novel, Are You Sleeping, picked up and turned into the Apple TV+ series, Truth Be Told? How involved are you in that production?
KB: It was an absolute dream come true to have my debut novel adapted for the screen! I can’t properly describe what a thrill it was to see my characters reimagined and brought to life onscreen—especially by the incredibly talented cast. Octavia Spencer starred as investigative reporter Poppy Parnell, and I thought she did such an incredible job. Plus, Lizzy Caplan was exactly how I had pictured the Buhrman twins (especially Lanie) and Aaron Paul was my dream casting for Warren Cave. I wasn’t involved in the production, but I did visit the set and watch a couple of days of filming, which was an amazing experience.
SB: You come from a background as a former attorney. How did that background help you write this book?
KB: When I practiced law, I focused on corporate restructuring, so not much of that subject matter makes its way into my fiction. But the communication skills I learned in law school and while working in a law firm have definitely improved my fiction writing. Among other things, they taught me to be very precise and economical with my language—quite a change from the paragraph-long sentences I used to write!
SB: I like to end my interviews with a bonus question: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you? Here is your chance to ask and answer it.
KB: I like talking about other people’s books even more than my own, I always love to be asked what books I recommend. Some of my books that I’ve recently been telling all my friends about are Behind Every Lie by Christina McDonald, Miracle Creek by Angie Kim, Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier, and The Swap by Robyn Harding (which comes out in June 2020).
About the Author: Kathleen Barber’s first novel, Truth Be Told (formerly titled Are You Sleeping), has been adapted for television by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine. Kathleen was raised in Galesburg, Illinois, and is a graduate of the University of Illinois and Northwestern University School of Law. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and son. Follow Me is her second novel.