An Interview about The Girl Before
- What was the origin of the book?
I came across a magazine article many years ago about a beautiful minimalist house in London, and was immediately struck by just how obsessive and perfectionist an architect would have to be to pursue that kind of aesthetic, where even the tiniest detail could ruin the whole effect. I started to visit minimalist houses, even though I didn’t know at that stage whether the idea might become a book. I’ve always been a big fan of books with houses at their core – REBECCA is one that jumps to mind – and I started to think about the possibility of taking that gothic tradition and switching it around so that the house is ultra-modern and sparse instead of old and dark and creepy.
One of the things that most excited me about writing this book was finding an interesting narrative structure. Quite early on I found myself thinking about the well-known idea that sociopathic killers have a ‘pattern’ – they like to repeat the details of previous killings, almost like a writer retelling a story over and over again. I wondered if it was possible to tell the story of two separate murders as one continuous narrative, even though there are two victims. So my narrators’ chapters flow seamlessly into each other as one story, even though three years separates them, and the question for the reader becomes whether the second woman will escape the ending that was written for the first.
- Could this be considered a cautionary tale as well, in terms of our reliance on technology?
I didn’t really think of it in that way – I actually tried to make the book much more about the characters and the visual design of the house, rather than the technology. I wanted to explore how living in a minimalist house, and being forced to be very disciplined about your own lifestyle, might change someone. I saw the house as a kind of crucible, where all the layers of pretence that its inhabitants have muddled along with are gradually stripped away.
- In the acknowledgements, you dedicate the book to your son, and the memory of your other son. Jane goes on a personal journey in terms of dealing with her grief. Was her story something you drew from your own life?
Yes – it took me a long time to work out why I was so determined to write this particular book, and why the characters and their predicaments meant so much to me. Then I realized that it was because I was actually quite repelled by the whole idea of trying to live a more perfect, beautiful life, and that it was connected with my own family story.
My youngest son is autistic, as well as physically disabled, and his older brother died of cot death. I didn’t see it until I came to write the book’s ending, but THE GIRL BEFORE is actually a reflection of that – at its core, the story is all about the things that people think they need to fill the holes in their hearts, and the importance of embracing the muddle and mess of human relationships, however imperfect. As one of my characters, Emma, says, decluttering your house won’t do anything to clear up the mess inside your own head.
- As it turns out in this book we have two very unreliable narrators, whom you can’t totally trust. Why do you think we’ve been so attracted to these types of stories and characters? Was it challenging to keep the characters consistent and believable as people?
I think there are three sorts of unreliable narrator, all fascinating in different ways. There’s the sort who because of illness, amnesia or alcohol doesn’t know everything about the events she’s narrating – like the narrators of The Girl on the Train or Before I Went to Sleep. There’s the narrator who doesn’t admit the whole truth – who for one reason or another wants to keep certain aspects of her (or his) life secret, like the narrators of Gone Girl. And there are narrators like Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day, who doesn’t really understand his own emotions. The most fascinating, perhaps, combine elements of all three. So it’s a very sophisticated, flexible device – a great tool for an author to be able to play with.
I’m convinced one reason unreliable narrators are so popular at the moment is that, on social media, we’ve all become the narrators of own lives – there’s an awareness that everyone lies, at least in small ways, all the time; sometimes without even meaning to. In a ‘post-truth’ age, we’re learning not to take anything – or anyone – at face value.
- Why did you decide to write this book under a pseudonym? Was this a creative decision?
There’s no great mystery about writing under a pen name. I’ve written books before, under a couple of different names, simply because I like to write in several different genres and it gets confusing for readers if they pick up a book expecting one kind of story only for it to be something quite different. I want people to come to this book with no preconceptions other than the title and the cover, so they just focus on the tale that’s being told.
- How does this book differ from your previous titles?
I haven’t written pure psychological suspense before – what some people are now apparently calling ‘domestic noir’ or ‘grip-lit’! I must say, it’s a genre that as a writer I really love. What Gillian Flynn did with GONE GIRL – and thank you so much, Gillian – was to prove beyond all doubt that characters, and particularly female characters, don’t have to be that old cliché ‘likeable and feisty’ for us to empathise with them – they can be complex, nuanced and real.