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Books, Guest Authors

Guest Author – Beth Miller, the Accidental Psychological Thriller Writer

Beth Miller 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.

The Good Neighbour coverOn 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.

*POSTSCRIPT*

Next week I’ll be hosting a Writers on Location post on Toronto, setting of André Alexis’ wonderfully original Fifteen Dogs.

 

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About Isabel Costello

Novelist and short story writer based in London. Debut novel PARIS MON AMOUR now out in digital and audio, paperback on 22 May 2017. Host of the Literary Sofa blog.

Discussion

13 thoughts on “Guest Author – Beth Miller, the Accidental Psychological Thriller Writer

  1. I am with Beth Miller on this one. I battled against How To Make A Friend being shelved under Psycholcogical (can’t even spell it!) Thriller and still don’t think it fits that bracket. To me it’s more in the line of a Lovely Bones or Time Traveller’s Wife. As I said to one uncomprehending agent, ‘it’s just a story!’. I have given up arguing now and if anyone asks, that’s what it is. And yet it so isn’t! On the other hand I need to sell books and I’ve realised since HTMAF was published that it has a hard to concept to explain, and that can be a problem. I tie myself in knots. However, the story got me published despite its tricksiness and I’ve learned some interesting lessons along the way.

    Posted by theprimewriter | November 11, 2015, 15:08
    • It seems to me that we all find this frustrating and yet as you say, there has to be some way to describe a book or we would be even less likely to find books we love amongst the millions out there. The main thing is, yours got published! I often like books that aren’t quite one thing or another.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 12, 2015, 10:01
    • I think, Fleur, that perhaps you and I (and thousands of others) fall under the genre of ‘Other’… a large and interesting category that subsumes ‘Misc’ and ‘Maggie O’Farrell.’

      Beth/Qwerty

      Posted by Qwerty | November 12, 2015, 11:09
  2. What a brilliant and engaging author post – loved it especially as I get very confused about genres and sub-genres!

    Posted by cleopatralovesbooks | November 11, 2015, 17:57
  3. Thanks both for this engaging and thought-provoking post.
    “Psychological thrillers often demand a suspension of disbelief that I’m just not very good at” – Isabel, you are such a diplomat! Linking back to Fleur’s comment about her own novel, I’m probably the same: I have no problem believing in an imaginary friend grown-up but struggle with the protagonist’s risky decisions (who wouldn’t venture alone into that spooky house on the wrong side of town without their mobile phone?)
    But novels need a genre – or a plug to sell them – and Beth’s experience speaks to me especially as I’m currently describing my next novel as a literary thriller, although, while definitely dark, it doesn’t really follow the conventions of the thriller. I was advised against psychological thriller (by an editor, not a publisher) on the grounds that any novel about character will be psychological. Interesting that your research throws up the idea that the psychological thriller “emphasises the psychology of its characters and their unstable emotional states” – I can see how that fits The Girl on the Train, but is it so radically different to the flaws we are advised to add to all our characters? And wouldn’t most of us become unstable in the right circumstances?
    I like your cover, Beth, but my soul must be black as pitch, as it suggests sparkly to me more than dark! And as a fellow psychologist, I’m intrigued as to whether you’re using your doctorate outside your writing, as I run a blog series showcasing chartered psychologists who have published a novel, and would love to feature you.
    I’m expecting this post to generate a lot of debate around the sofa!

    Posted by Annecdotist | November 12, 2015, 09:30
    • Thanks for your thoughts, Anne. One of the reasons I’m so perplexed by genre labels is that even when some kind of semi-official definition exists (as Beth gave re psychological thrillers), that is then open to all kinds of different interpretations! I thought you made an excellent point about characterisation across the board. To complicate matters further, some labels provoke a strong unintended reaction or assumptions that may be completely wrong. I won’t use the most obvious example but, picking up on yours, I’m aware that to some people putting the word ‘literary’ in front of another label – or indeed using it alone – has connotations of superiority. Personally I think I know what you mean by ‘literary thriller’ (‘literary crime’ is another one) and it doesn’t bother me at all. I do however have MUCH higher expectations of the writing in anything described as such – it tells me to set my critical radar to full power!!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 12, 2015, 10:12
    • I agree, Anne – I think that the definition of a psycho-thriller isn’t noticeably different from the definition of a novel! Really glad you think the cover is sparkly. I must try and toughen up – I am too easily spooked! I’m not a chartered psychologist, I’m afraid. I taught psychology at a university for seven years but then moved into education, though a lot of that work was psychology-based.

      Beth (aka Qwerty)

      Posted by Qwerty | November 12, 2015, 11:07
    • A friend sent me this link, for which I am grateful. I too have – and have always had – difficulties assigning my novels to a particular genre. Perhaps it has something to do with being a psychologist! I am now retired from being a chartered psychologist, and the original founding editor of The Psychologist, and have turned to writing fiction. My first novel, The Amazon’s Girdle – now out and available on amazon (where else?) – began in my mind as ‘literary fiction’, but is now apparently seen as both a murder mystery and a ‘quiet psychological novel’. Not noir, even though it does feature a stalker… Since it gets only 5 star reviews, it presumably hits the spot somehow, but this labelling of books is almost as difficult as pigeon-holing people.

      Posted by Elizabeth Mapstone | November 15, 2015, 10:18
  4. This could run and run. Just to add to the mix: I described my psychological non-thriller as ‘accessible literary fiction/women’s’ (though I hate ‘women’s’ it does reflect the readership of books to do with relationships). My publishers are going along with this, I think.
    I love Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, but not as Ruth Rendell. Psycho-thrillers rather than who-dun-it’s?
    Whatever! Beth’s novel is on my Kindle, next in queue after Elena Ferrante’s trilogy – long and literary so will take some time.

    Posted by barbarahudson2012 | November 14, 2015, 17:29
    • You might be surprised how quickly you get through the Ferrante – I read the first in two days and the next two back to back in under a week (there are actually four! Saving the last for Christmas). Thanks for your comment – Similar tags get applied to my writing. I hate the label ‘women’s fiction’ on principle, but my new manuscript explores the sexuality of the female first person narrator in intimate detail so no avoiding it. Interestingly, several of the readers who’ve responded most positively to it have been men!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 14, 2015, 21:16

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