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Wednesday 3 June 2020

Julia Crouch talks with Radmila May


Julia Crouch grew up in Cambridge and studied Drama at Bristol University.
She spent ten years working as a theatre director and playwright, then, after a spell of teaching, she somehow became a successful graphic and website designer, a career shefollowed for another decade while raising her three children.
An MA in sequential illustration reawakened her love of narrative and a couple of Open University creative writing courses brought it to the fore. She works in a shed at the bottom of the Brighton house she shares with her husband, the actor and playwright Tim Crouch, their three children, two cats called Keith and Sandra, and about twelve guitars.

Radmila: You are known as The Queen of Domestic Noir. Could you define the term and what inspired your choice of title?
Julia: The title was actually bestowed on me by others, but I did coin the phrase Domestic Noir, because I wanted to find a category for my particular branch of crime fiction. I was initially being sold by my publisher as a psychological thriller writer, but that thriller word can set up expectations that are not necessarily met by my work – there are very few car chases, guns, outright murders, for example, and the story takes more time to unwind.

Radmila: How do you think Domestic Noir fits into the psychological suspense genre? Is it a specific strand within the psychological suspense genre or is it quite separate? And the category ‘grip-lit’ – where does that stand?
Julia: I’d agree that it fits in as a sub-category of psychological suspense. What sets it apart is that it is largely about the terrible things that we do to one another in the name of love, and the main driver is the
relationships between the characters, rather than the things that happen – the
why rather than the what. It also tends to centre more on the female experience.
My theory about grip-lit is that it was coined by people who don’t like the ‘domestic’ part of Domestic Noir – they feel that it aligns the female experience too much to the home, and that it is somehow anti-feminist. My comeback on that one is that – as we feminists used to say endlessly back in the 1980s – the personal is political, and the domestic has been sidelined as a respectable subject for crime fiction precisely because it is traditionally the female realm.  Besides, who’s to say that the stakes in the home and in family relationships can’t be as high as those found in the world of work, policing, espionage, international spy rings, the mafia and the like? Ford Madox Ford puts it well in The Good Soldier (a fine bit of proto Domestic Noir) when he has his narrator Dowell say:
Someone has said that the death of a mouse from cancer is the whole sack of Rome by the Goths, and I swear to you that the breaking up of our little four-square coterie was such another unthinkable event.
And let’s not forget that, when he sat down to write the Sopranos, David Chase’s first impulse was to write a story about a man who had a difficult relationship with his mother.

Radmila: You did a degree in Drama at Bristol University and then went into live theatre. How did you progress from there to crime writing and, in particular, to the sort of stories you write?
Julia: Gosh. I never planned to be a novelist, let alone a crime writer. I ducked and dived through several decades of child-rearing (I have three, aged 30, 28 and 20), working to earn money to live – my partner is an actor/playwright and, although work has treated him kindly for the last ten years, that has not always been the case. I retrained and worked as a graphic designer for many years after theatre, but I guess the storytelling urge never leaves you. I did a Masters in Illustration, for which I wrote and illustrated two children’s books. These were deemed ‘too dark for publication’ by a couple of editors, so I guess the noir has always drawn my interest. I realised doing my MA that the words were the part I enjoyed most of the whole process, so I did a few online creative writing courses before trying out novel writing with NaNoWriMo (where you write a 50,000 word novel in a month).

Radmila: Before you started writing, did you read crime fiction? From what age? And which authors?
Julia: Although always a voracious reader, I was a bit of a literary snob and only read crime novels if I found them in holiday cottages (for read, read fell on them and ate them up). I was actually initially disappointed when my agent told me that Cuckoo, my first novel was, in fact, crime fiction. I have since learned a lot more about how fantastic the genre is and the breadth and quality of much of the writing and it’s what I read most now.
That said, I have recently been thinking about the books I read as a child and, in among the usual classics, like Black Beauty, The Secret Garden and Heidi, I had the whole set of the Pan Book of Horror and endless ghost story collections, and I had read all of my dad’s Harold Robbins’s and James Bond books by the time I was 12 (maybe not advisable, really).

Radmila:           How much has your training and experience in drama influenced your writing? Are there any rules from one which can be imported into the other?
Julia:                 I know a lot about what works with dialogue. I was a devising director/playwright, so in rehearsal I paid a lot of attention to the words and transactions between the improvising actors. It also served as a great apprenticeship in structure as I worked with the material I generated in the rehearsal room to make a coherent whole. The most important thing I learned, however, is about status – about how people relate to one another in terms of pecking orders. This can be connected to their economic or social status, but it usually operates on a more subtle, interpersonal level. There’s also the notion of Actioning, which Max Stafford Clark explains in his book, Letters to George. The actor has to work out what they are doing with the words they are saying – what is the subtext, what are they trying to achieve? And this may well be entirely unrelated to the actual text. I use both of these ideas in my own writing and also when I’m teaching, to help my students make their writing more layered.

Radmila: Psychological suspense is now a leading genre (perhaps the leading genre) within crime fiction? How do you account for this?
Julia: We no longer believe in the absolutes of good and evil, and we don’t find stories that hinge on those concepts all that satisfying. We are also no longer interested in the gods. We want to explore what makes ordinary people do bad things.

Radmila: Before the phenomenal success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, would you say there were precursors? Who were they?
Julia: Yes! Going backwards: Sophie Hannah’s early books, Patricia Highsmith, Rebecca. And, randomly, Notes on a Scandal, The Collector, anything by Barbara Vine… I think Gone Girl (which I really love, by the way) was such a hit, such a moment, because it crystallised a lot of what had gone before, and said to the world ‘this is what this is’. I do think, however, GG has cursed us with The Twist – it seems impossible to conceive of a Domestic Noir novel today that doesn’t hinge on a twist and there are some pretty ropey, unearned examples out there.

Radmila: Do you plan your novels in advance or just jump right in? Or a bit of both? Where do your ideas come from (corny question, I know!)?
Julia: A bit of both – I like to write a fairly quick and dirty first draft, then either at the end, or part way through, once I understand the characters and what they want, I sit down with the Post-Its and index cards to make sense of it. The ideas come usually from a ‘what if’ type question, which develops into a situation to kick things off, and from that come the characters and plot.

Radmila: Reading your novels I would say that character and atmosphere are for you particularly important and plot does not dominate as it sometimes does in thrillers. Do you agree? What about location?
Julia: I do agree, and I am glad that you think that. For me, drama is about putting characters into difficult situations and seeing what they do. And then you make things even harder for them. The plot originates with character and their actions, rather than the other way round. As my first draft develops, I begin to get a very clear picture of my characters – I cast them, and know what they look and sound like. Without wishing to sound batshit, they are very real to me.
Location is so important for me. I really have to know the place I am writing about, and often take a real place as a starting point. It often involves going somewhere and spending some time, just soaking up detail.
But, at some point, plot has to be considered – you have to organise what you have, look at your dynamics and timings, decide where your turning points are. It’s a fun part of the process and I use all sorts of diagrams and spreadsheets to help me.

Radmila: Do you have any idea how many of your novels, or indeed psychological suspense novels generally, are read by men? Talking with male crime writers and readers, and indeed one or two well-known male experts in the field of crime fiction, I get the impression that very few do although women are mostly quite happy to read crime novels by writers of either sex? Do you find this to be so? How do you think that a Domestic Noir novel by a male writer would go down? With men?
Julia: It just takes a quick look around at Harrogate to see that at least 80% of the audience is women. Count out the dragged-along partners, the writers, publishers and agents, and the figure is even higher. Similarly, I think the only men who read my books do so professionally or because they are my friends. Without wishing to make massive generalisations along binary gender lines, I think women readers tend to be more interested in empathy, identification and subjectivity, whereas men go more towards admiration/thrills and objectification.
Of course, there are a few very successful male Domestic Noir writers. SJ Watson and AJ Finn, for example (interesting about the initials, though!). I don’t know if their books have had more male readers.

Radmila: Psychological suspense novels are, almost by definition, one-offs. Yet I have been told that agents and editors are only interested in series. My suspicion is that they hope that a series with a series detective (almost always male) will be taken up by television for long runs, notably Midsummer Murders. However, after the recent adaptation for TV of Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard, there have been a number of one run series which are either adaptations of novels or original conceptions. Currently we now have The Nest and Liar which could be described as psychological suspense. What do you think about this apparent change of tack?
Julia:                 It's good for me! I’m currently adapting Cuckoo for TV, although I can’t give any more details at this point. There is a massive hunger for these books, and it makes absolute sense that TV is responding to that. Also, there are way more women working in TV now, so they will be commissioning work that interests them, with more women on the production and creative sides. We have for too long been cast as the decoration, victim or honorary ball-breaking man in crime fiction and TV. Speaking as a viewer as well as a writer, this trend towards more female-centred stories is massively welcome.

Radmila: You are a member of the Killer Women Collective (sadly their 2020 Day had to be cancelled due to Coronavirus). Can you describe the Collective briefly?
Julia: I’m honoured to be part of Killer Women. We’re a collective of twenty professional women crime writers, who meet, network and help each other out, as well as providing opportunities to help other writers develop their craft, and promoting crime writing in general. Writing can be a lonely business, and it’s great to know you have friends who have your back.

Radmila: You were due to talk at the Bristol Crimefest about crime writing but sadly Crimefest has also had to be postponed. And I see from your website that you teach and mentor as well as various other activities. Does your teaching experience affect how you approach you writing?
Julia: I’m Visiting Fellow on the UEA Crime Writing MA as well as being an online teacher for the National Centre for Writing, Faber Academy and Professional Writing Academy. I love teaching, and there is nothing more satisfying than helping a student realise their potential. I am also a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Brighton University, which means I work with students of all disciplines to help them with essay and dissertation writing. All of this keeps a foot in the outside world – I firmly believe that a writer who stays in all week is not really feeding her beast – and it also makes me more aware of the technical challenges of my own work. This is generally a good thing, but on a bad day, having your inner critics go at you with an ‘I teach creative writing at MA level don’t-you-know’ attitude can be a bit wearing.

Radmila: When it comes to future writing I see you’re off to Puglia and Los Angeles (post-Corona lockdown!) to research future titles. Sounds promising!
Julia: Ah, I should update my website. I’ve been to Puglia, and am just putting the finishing touches to the fourth draft of that novel. LA will have to wait, I fear (or I can draw on my journal from when I was actually there), and, as my next novel is set in Hanover, the Brighton neighbourhood where I live, my research will take me no further afield than my daily permitted exercise walk.

Books by Julia

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing. 

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