Debbie Howells & Rebecca Whitney on Why Domestic Noir Makes Readers Uncomfortable

Debbie Howells & Rebecca Whitney on Why Domestic Noir Makes Readers Uncomfortable

Interviewer: Hi both. So let’s begin by talking about domestic noir. What do you think it is that makes it so disturbing?

Rebecca: I think it’s a situation that is far worse at the end, because you almost get used to it.

Debbie: It becomes normalised

Debbie: It is interesting; it’s a horrible and insidious thing where it affects relationships. That’s the thing about it, the people involved don’t actually recognise it for what it is because it is slowly drip-fed and it’s their normal. Which adds to the shock factor.

Interviewer: The shock seems to be emphasised by the use of unexpected characters; people who seem to have their lives together but are completely different behind closed doors. People aren’t always comfortable reading about that subject.

Debbie: And a lot of people aren’t, are they.

Rebecca: No

Debbie: But both our books are of that kind of view. It’s the people who don’t understand the subject who are the people who actually say that they’re not comfortable.

Interviewer: Do you think there needs to be more stories like this in fiction to help make people comfortable?

Both: Yes

Rebecca: Well obviously everyone is aware of domestic violence now, and I think it’s becoming more out in the open now. There’s a horrifying statistic, I think it’s that 2 women are murdered every week by their partner or ex-partner. And that’s still happening now. And a lot of the people in their lives would say “oh I never realised that those two didn’t have a great relationship”. So their loved ones may not be aware, and they’re not protected because the police don’t believe them or there’s funding being taken away from refuges because they’re not considered valued enough for government money – and all those things play a part. So it is something that exists, very much so, and always has done. So it’s good that it’s being talked about now, there’s a particular zeitgeist for that to be an important thing, especially for women’s fiction – men do talk about it as well obviously – but it’s particularly important for women’s fiction.

Debbie: My book is more about emotional abuse, which is invisible. And particularly for children growing up surrounded by it, they have no idea that it isn’t perfectly normal. And that has recently been criminalised, or is in the process of becoming an offence, and I think the profile of it is growing. I read a statistic that 2 children in every class of 30 have been emotionally abused at home. And I just thought, that’s 2 children in each of my children’s classes – it’s a horrific statistic.

Interviewer: Which makes it all the more shocking that people are uncomfortable to read about it, they’d rather shut it away.

Rebecca: Or just not believe it.

Debbie: Yes!

Rebecca: Some readers just don’t believe that it’s possible. So maybe part of that I have to take on the chin, perhaps part of that is down to my skill as a writer – whether I’m able to convey that or not – but thankfully the majority of people have believed it. But there are still people who just refuse to acknowledge that that would happen. And Debbie’s right, when you’re talking about the emotional side of things, how do you prove that?

Debbie: And as a child, how do you speak up about how your parents behaved. There are no marks, no bruises, they’re all inside.

Interviewers: What’s next for you both? Will you be working on more domestic stories?

Debbie: I’m working on another psychological thriller, another standalone book. It’s about a washed-up lawyer, who discovers that the girl who was once the love of his life is now on life support and accused of murder. But he absolutely knows that she’s innocent, so he sets out to prove it. There are a lot of twists and I’m told it is complex… I’m editing it now [laughs] it’s about how we judge people, what we base our assumptions on, how often we get that right. And how there really are some very dysfunctional people who hide it very well.

Rebecca: Mine is another psychological thriller, like Debbie’s… another standalone, and it’s about a woman who has a child, who does everything you’re not meant to do when you have a child, she moves away from her friends and her family, buys a house in a part of London where she’s a stranger, isolates herself, and consequently loses her sanity a little. Because of this she’s very much under the watch of her doctor and husband. She’s having to really toe the line to keep it all together when she thinks she witnesses a serious crime. As she’s unwell, she doesn’t fully trust what she’s seen, but knows if it’s true that people are in danger and she needs to raise the alarm. Her decision is between alerting the authorities to what she thinks is going on, thereby risking even more personal intervention if she’s wrong, or battening down the hatches to get on with the job of mothering.