There’s an unusual backstory to this week’s post. I met my guest Beth Miller at a party hosted by her publishers and was given an advance copy of her second novel The Good Neighbour. I often get a sense of what people’s writing might be like from talking to them, about anything at all. Sometimes I’m completely wrong but not in this case. I would have predicted that Beth’s writing would be engaging, witty and insightful. It only took me a day to read The Good Neighbour because I was so hooked. No, I haven’t got to the unusual bit yet – keep reading!
When I wrote to Beth I was completely honest with her. I’ve occasionally included a psychological thriller in my selections on the blog; I enjoy them from time to time but it’s not a genre I seek out or understand enough to be able to critique or feature in any detail. My taste is pretty eclectic and I believe we should all unapologetically read whatever we want; but for what it’s worth, psychological thrillers often demand a kind of suspension of disbelief that I am just not very good at. But there’s no doubting the enormous popularity of this genre and its sub-category (if indeed it is – contrary to what Beth says below I am mystified by genre labels) domestic noir, focusing on the dark side of relationships and family life. Beth has a doctorate in psychology which makes her doubly qualified to comment on the appeal of domestic noir, or so I thought. Her reply took me by surprise but fortunately with a bit of friendly arm-twisting, I persuaded her to visit the Sofa regardless…
Sure, I enjoyed Gone Girl. Didn’t everybody enjoy Gone Girl? Though it wasn’t the sort of book I’d usually choose, the hype broke me, and I read it in one sitting on a train to Barcelona. It was great. But it never, not for one minute, occurred to me while I was writing my second novel, that it would be bracketed in the same genre as Gillian Flynn’s sharp, cool, knowing psychodrama.
The genre I write in – or so I thought – is ‘commercial women’s fiction’, with a hint of ‘book-club fiction.’ So when The Good Neighbour came out this September, and I noticed reviewers complaining that it contravened some of the conventions of the psychological thriller, or wasn’t noir enough for domestic noir, I was a tad surprised. But it’s no wonder I broke some rules. That’s because I didn’t – still don’t – know what they are.
I never set out to write a psychological thriller. The story’s about a woman, Cath, who moves to a new area and becomes friends with Minette, a young mum. Sure, it turns out that Cath is more complicated than she initially seems. I have a background in Psychology, and the book explores some mental health issues. But I don’t think it’s particularly dark. (Though I don’t want to put you off if you only like dark books. It’s plenty dark! No refunds!) So: complicated character, a bit dark, mental health. Is that enough for a psychological thriller? *Pops off to do research* So apparently a psycho-thriller emphasises the psychology of its characters and their unstable emotional states. OK, fair enough, I have done that a bit.
The books I prefer to read are gentle stories about relationships. Give me an Anne Tyler or a Nick Hornby any day. My first novel (When We Were Sisters) is, I think, a domestic comedy, though I don’t trust myself on this labelling business any more. It’s a good job I don’t work in a bookshop. I would probably be filing The Girl on the Train in the travel section.
I should have seen this coming, though. When my publishers, Ebury, sent me the cover, I emailed them right back to check whether it was actually meant for someone else’s book. The cover is rather sinister. Get a load of at that scary little house, and that doom-laden strapline (‘Be careful who you let in’). Clearly, the publishers saw the book differently to me, at least in terms of marketing it. And so many readers have commented on how well the cover fits the book, that I now question my own judgement of its contents.
On Amazon’s first page of psychological thrillers, Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go tops a list of books whose subtitles spell out the genre: Kathryn Croft’s The Girl With No Past (subtitled A Gripping Psychological Thriller), Little Girl Gone by Alexandra Burt (A Gripping Twisty Psychological Thriller – just that bit more twisty than Kathryn’s), and winner of the adjective battle, Claire Seeber’s 24 Hours (An Intense, Suspenseful Psychological Thriller). Mine feels like an imposter in this company, despite its cover. Not that it is actually in their company. Amazon, in line with my own views, lists it under ‘Contemporary Fiction,’ rather than ‘Psychological Fiction’ or ‘Mystery, Thriller and Suspense’.
But Amazon and I are on our own. Even the esteemed and lovely Isabel, on whose comfortable sofa I now recline, asked me to talk here about writing domestic noir. She is very widely-read, so she is doubtless right*. I have, it turns out, written a psycho-thriller without meaning to. Books are in the eye of the reader. Once it’s out there, readers can see whatever they want in it. And the different things people take from my books is the best thing about writing. It’s a psychological thriller, you say? Well, OK then!
Anyway, does it matter what genre it is or isn’t, as long as it’s a thumping good read? To which I say, damn tooting! I hope I have at least managed to do that: to write the sort of book I’d like to have with me if I was on a train to Barcelona, and needed something to pass the time.
* No, I’m not!
Thanks very much to Beth for her willingness to tackle the subject after all and in such an entertaining way. I’d be very interested to hear other readers’ and writers’ views about the psychological thriller and domestic noir.
Next week I’ll be hosting a Writers on Location post on Toronto, setting of André Alexis’ wonderfully original Fifteen Dogs.