Julia Crouch, Queen of Domestic Noir

Julia Crouch is the author of several internationally published crime novels. Reckoning that the term ‘psychological thriller’ didn’t do her work justice, she coined the phrase ‘domestic noir’, now in general usage, which is an amazing achievement in itself – to coin something so popular and well-known. A fine example of career adaptation and survival in order to raise children, she came to fiction through a series of callings that took in theatre directing, playwriting, screenwriting, double-entry bookkeeping, teaching, graphic and website design, and children’s book writing and illustration.

This is her conversation with Kat Latham, Tamsin Mackay, Rebecca Barrow, and Asun Álvarez.

KL: It’s lovely to have you here. And I wanted to start off by asking: with all those different hats that you wore in the past, and the different creative activities that you’ve done in the past – as well as double-entry bookkeeping –

JC: That was pretty creative at times!

KL: And also parenthood – you have three children who are all grown now – what made you think ‘You know what, what I want to do one day is write a novel’? What led you to that?

JC: I’ve always liked a challenge. And you know that thing people say, everybody’s got a book in them. And I always kind of thought that perhaps I did. But I’d gone through most of my life up to the age of 44 thinking I was pictures, not words.

First of all, like most people who end up working theatre, what I really wanted to do was be an actor. And I was the best actor in my school. And then I was the worst actor in my drama course.  So then I thought I’d go for a different career – theatre directing and playwriting. I always thought I approached that very visually – I started with images and worked to text from images. And then various jobs to earn money in order to survive came up. Then I stepped into graphic design because I got a commission to write a play and I spent it all on a laptop, which is the kind of illustration that shows how little you get paid to write a play, but also how much laptops cost back then in the early 90s.

And I kept having these dreams about worlds expanding. And that was related to what I was discovering through using a computer. I went to try and get on a course to learn more about the computer, and I ended up signing up for a Visual Communications High National Diploma.  Which then got me into graphic design. So then I was a graphic designer, which actually, if you think about it, is a narrative form, because you are using text and images to tell a story visually. So, OK, still visual, the words are somebody else’s, and I’ll do all the typesetting.  

And then, when my youngest child started nursery full time at a State-paid nursery here, I was getting fed up with chasing clients for bills and things. I thought, ‘Right, what I’m going to do is an MA.’ So I did an MA in Sequential Illustration, where I continued that narrative drive through images. And then I found when I was there that my very visually literate peers would be dashing off the pictures and then agonising over the essence. And I was completely the other way round.

I mean, pictures are so difficult! You have to make decisions about line, about texture, about colour, about character, about story. And if you mess it up, you end up having to redo the whole thing! Whereas, with words, you can just cross it out and write something different. And I realised that was the thing that came easiest to me. After that I was interested in finding out a bit more about writing. So I went on to do Open University creative writing courses, because I believe that a lot of the art of writing is actually a craft and can be learnt. And good writing can be learnt, you can learn about telling stories, you can learn about writing well and effectively within your own style.

I learnt all that doing these Open University courses, which were great, and I’d never realised that before – I thought that you could either write or you couldn’t. So I learnt to write. And with me, it comes out, it spills out. And now it has spilled out in over seven novels in the last decade. Seven? No, eight, eight! One’s still not yet out.

So yes, it came to me far more easily than any pictures. I still work with pictures, but they’re all in my head, I don’t have to use any media to get them out into the world.

Then I was writing short stories and poems at the Open University, and my tutor said: ‘Have you ever thought about writing a novel?’ And I said: ‘No, not really.’ And he said: ‘We should try this thing called NaNoWriMo,’ which is National Novel Writing Month where you write a novel in 30 days. And  I thought: ‘Noooo.’ But I gave it a go, and the first year I wrote something that I’m still tinkering with. It’s kind of an international thriller, very not my sort of thing. It’s very high-concept, and I really like the high concept, and I think I should finish it before someone else in the world gets the same concept. (Notice I’m not mentioning what the concept is!)

The second year I did a novel, Cuckoo, and after 30 days I had 50,000 words. It took me another year to get it up to 140K and down to 110K. This is the really annoying part of the story – I sent it off, got an agent, got a three-book deal.

KL: Oh my Lord.

JC: I was very, very lucky. Because there’s a load of really wonderful writers who don’t get published. And the reason they don’t get published is just they’re not the right thing at the right moment. Editors all say they’re looking for good writing – they’re looking for good writing that they can sell. Because ultimately publishing is about product, shifting units. So if you come with a unit that looks particularly sexy for the market as it is at the moment…

In my case, they were looking for the new Sophie Hannah. Because Sophie Hannah had had a remarkable success with Little Face, her early psychological thriller. She does more Agatha Christie sort of puzzles now, kind of mysteries. So they were looking for that sort of thing.

So there I was, kind of the new Sophie Hannah. Indeed, I went to an event in Brighton Library which was publishers introducing debut authors to librarians, which is the kind of wonderful gig you go on. You meet so many amazing people when you are first published. The only other person I can remember being there that I am still in touch with was S.J. Watson, and we were both introduced as ‘the new Sophie Hannah’. His book did somewhat better than my book Cuckoo, because it was made into a massive movie with Nicole Kidman and it was an international multi-million bestseller. I did OK, but not that well! (Laughs)

KL: That’s phenomenal. So when you first started writing a novel, it was really more the challenge of it than thinking ‘I really want to get this published’?

JC: Yes, it was like when you start on a run and you keep going and thinking ‘How far can I go before I die?’ It’s a bit like that. (Laughs)

The other thing that’s worth noting is that until I did the Open University course, the last time I had writing a short story was when I was at school before my A levels, and I hadn’t actually written a story since then. And when you realise that these worlds are accessible to one as a writer – that was a really, really exciting moment.

But then, having written about 12 or 13 short stories, the idea of sustaining it over longform – you have to find whether you have that in you. Actually, now, if somebody asked me to write a short story, which they occasionally do, I go ‘Oh, no!’ Because, again, going back to running, a short story is a sprint, and I’m much more of a marathon runner. Sprints are exhausting, you have to pour everything into it, and I find them an enormous challenge, short stories. I have massive respect for people who write short stories.

KL: You coined the term ‘domestic noir’. So I wondered whether you could tell us a little about what distinguishes the writing that you do and the stories that you write from the traditional psychological thriller.

JC: I think the main thrust is that it’s about relationships. I always say it’s about the terrible things we do to one another in the name of love. It tends to be female-centred – I know that there are a few people, like Jim Malone, who has written some domestic noir from a more male point of view. But it tends to be women writers writing a female world.  And I think that’s quite important. And the reason I use the word domestic for me was quite political.

I’ve had feedback from people saying ‘Oh, that’s not very feminist, that this female-centred fiction has ‘domestic’ applied to it, because women are out in the world.’ Women are out in the world, but women also have child rearing responsibilities and there’s an uneven distribution of labour in the home. We generally tend to shoulder that burden. And then the way in which we are organised as a society into these little units called families, generally in a heterosexual format, can be disastrous for women. If you go to the Women’s Aid website, you can see the statistics of how disastrous this can be for women.

I was interested in all of that. But what I have ended up writing about is mostly women behaving appallingly. Because I love that. I love transgressive women. I’m actually quite well behaved as a person, but I wish I could behave like some of my characters: not doing what you’re supposed to do, not being neat and tidy, not sitting with your legs crossed, not washing. All of those things. I wish sometimes I didn’t comply like that – as I get older, I am more in danger of going that way! (Laughs). I don’t think that it will stretch to murder yet, though.

Although I do believe that we are all capable of that, given the right circumstances. That’s what we, as crime writers, are interested in: what pushes a person to do that. My old house in Bristol had a stain on the wall that I never washed off which is where I threw a full glass of wine at my husband’s head. (Laughs). That’s me refusing to take my share of domestic labour by actually cleaning it off.

The other political thing is that it’s important that drama isn’t just seen as happening in the world of work. That the important stuff happens in the home as well, if not more so. That’s what interests me.  I’m also interested in why rather than who.

AA: Could we talk a bit about your novel, The New Mother?

JC:  I’d like to have called it  #Authentic, which much more reflects the content. Every other chapter is an Instagram post, which tell their own stories. It’s about an Instagram hashtag pregnant hashtag influencer who employs her possibly biggest, most ardent follower to come in work as a live-in mother’s helper, helping her prepare for the baby and then look after the baby when it’s born. What could possibly go wrong?

Just to give you a hint of what could possibly go wrong: one of my favourite books ever is Stephen King’s Misery. It’s Misery meets Single White Female meets Yoga with Adriene.

AA: One thing I thought you did particularly in the book – which amuses me immensely – is how snarky you are about social media and the Internet and the culture of authenticity. You tied this in so well to our preconceptions of motherhood and what being a mother is like and what women should behave like and look like, as mothers. Did you decide to write a book about social media and the Internet, or did it arise spontaneously during the pandemic?

JC: I am a bit obsessed with social media. Partly because it’s a great way of wasting time, but partly because I really like the idea that people curate their lives, and I’m quite  interested in that as a nosy writer. I was thinking today, we can all look perfect, but you can’t smell the shit. And I literally got that with the house in the book. When Abby arrives at the farm, it all looks lovely, but then there’s the smell of the pig farm next door, which you don’t get on social media.  So I’m very interested in that, but it also gave me a legitimate excuse to spend quite a lot of time on social media. All research!

And yes, I’m a pretty snarky person.  And I thought it would be quite fun to play with perfection. Particularly with perfection when you monetize that. When you start believing your own bullshit. Because – what is left of your identity, after it’s all out there like that? Who are you? With the Abby character, I wanted to look into the person who really bought into that – into the person whose life was given meaning through Rachael, the influencer. And I think that really happens, because you get that really intense relation, one-to-one, between influencer and follower.

And also, you can command enormous sums per post, if you have the right sort of following, and you don’t have to have a massive following if you are what is called as micro-influencer. You have those followers because you have targeted your audience, like if you are all about electric camper vans, which is a particular obsession of mine at the moment. That’s like my dirty porn habit. (Laughs)

So you don’t have to have a massive following. But it can take over your life. And there are a few people who open up about how difficult it is. I was following Chrissy Teigen – she had a stillborn baby, and it was all over her feed. That was heartrending, and good in a way, I suppose, but also I thought: ‘Where is your privacy? Where is your space to really process this grief?’

So that’s the starting point for the story. That kind of obsessive worship and obsessive fandom, and the obsession with perfection.

AA: What does your writing day look like?

JC: I’m definitely a morning person rather than an evening person. If it’s not my turn to walk the dog, I’ll usually start at about six and write through, have breakfast and write through, have a snack and write through, have lunch.  And then, if I’m doing a draft, hopefully I’ll write over 2000 words a day. Some of them are really rubbish words. Sometimes I’ll just type: ‘I’m just typing this so I can get to the end of my daily wordcount.’

Then I’ll stop in the afternoon and possibly do admin-y things or gardening or get up and move around or go for a walk if I didn’t go in the morning.

If it’s a dog-walking day, I’ll probably start at around nine and work to about three. But I do fart around a lot! I’ve got a very top-secret Facebook group with other crime writers, and I’ll pop in and out during the day, and WhatsApp groups with colleagues. Otherwise, I’d go mad, sitting there in my room. I also think it’s important to connect with the outside world, even if it’s just to go out for a coffee with another writer to moan about writing. (Laughs).

RB: Are you one of these people who feels that checking their emails or WhatsApp or whatever before you start writing pollutes your creative muse? Or do you start the day with your phone in your hand?

JC: I would love to be the sort of person who sits down and writes with absolute discipline, but my process requires a warm-up. And that requires checking my emails, checking my social media, making three cups of coffee. And then I go and write. And then I do have Mac Freedom, which is the height of decadence: you pay for your Internet service, and then you buy your software to stop your Internet service. So I can actually get on with some bloody work.

I’ll set myself two-hour chunks, and then I’ll allow myself a little 15-minute break. I’m so not disciplined.

RB: So for you it’s not a case of having to transition straight from the dreamworld of sleep to the dreamworld of writing and to take that freedom with you. Life definitely intrudes.

JC: Yes, it definitely intrudes. I think though that dreamworld thing is really important. All of us have different ways of doing it. I do walk or run – I don’t listen to anything. I just have the dog and the countryside or the sea, and allow things to happen. Every time I go out I’ll get ideas, and then I’ll speak them into my phone.

TM: So. Editing. So yesterday I sat down at half past eight. And I got back up at half past four. Except for a brief detour for coke (not the drug). The question is: I only did seven chapters. What the hell?? Is this vortex of alien abduction normal?

JC: That sounds pretty good to me. For me, it’s quantity when you’re writing the first draft, and then when you’re editing it’s about quality. So if it takes you two hours to do a paragraph but you make that paragraph so much better, then it’s time well spent. So long as no more than fifty percent of that time is spent farting around, you’re doing good work.

AA: So, in the eternal dilemma of the universe – cat person or dog person? Pantser or planner? What are you?

JC:  This is interesting, because both questions are more or less the same. I always thought I was a cat person until I got a dog. I always thought I was a pantser – flying by the seat of my pants as I wrote – until I started planning.

I was definitely a pantser – and Stephen King, as you probably know from reading On Writing, is a pantser. He starts with a situation. And I’ll always start with a place, a person, a smell, and a ‘what if’. And that’s quite a good starting point for coming up with an idea. I’ll also think ‘What’s the worst thing I can possibly imagine ever happening to me?’ If you’re stuck for an idea, that’s quite a good starting point. I’m a catastrophist, so I’ve got a good long list.

RB: It all comes down to the fact that as writers we’re all acting out our own psychodramas.

JC: That’s exactly it. Psychodramas, yes. One of the theories about there are so many women crime writers is that we constantly play out that ‘what if’ in our heads – you know, walking down a street at night, what if we’re attacked? We do that imaginative exercise all the time, much more than men.

So those are my recommendations to be a writer: catastrophise, and act out your psychodramas. And now I’m going back to my line edits. After taking the dog for a walk!

Julia Crouch’s website is http://juliacrouch.co.uk/, and she can be found tweeting at @thatjuliacrouch.

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