Your characters are very well-written. Did you find it challenging to write from a female point of view?
My two lead characters are women, but they’re middle-class, educated women – in other words, pretty similar to me in almost every way except for their gender. I’d say it was probably harder to think myself into the mind of someone in their twenties, as Emma is, than it is to think as a female narrator. One of my favourite writers, Daphne du Maurier, wrote several books from a male perspective and back then no one blinked an eye – we’ve become much more conscious of gender today, I think.
What was your writing process like?
I started this book over fifteen years ago, but for one reason and another I just couldn’t make it work. So I put it aside and wrote another book instead. That book led to another, and another – but each time I finished a book, I’d come back and have another go at this one. I knew the central idea was too good to discard, but the plotting – and the narrative structure I’d chosen – was so daunting I kept abandoning it. It was only in 2015 that I decided I’d have another, more determined go. So I ditched around 40,000 words – half a book, in other words – and that was the key to unlocking the rest of it.
Why did you decide to write under a pseudonym for this book?
My previous books were very different, and there’s a feeling amongst publishers that it would confuse readers of those books if they pick this up expecting that kind of thing and find it’s not what they expected. I’ve previously written a trilogy of thrillers under the name Jonathan Holt, and although they were similar in that they have two contrasting female protagonists, they’re more mystery-based and less psychological.
The book focuses on a how a space can transform your life. Can you tell us about your homes (particularly your childhood home) and how they might have transformed you?
I don’t recall much about my childhood home. Although I love writing about houses, One Folgate Street isn’t necessarily a house I’d like – I’m not like Daphne du Maurier, who glimpsed Menabilly in Cornwall, fell in love with it, and used it as a setting for her books until she was eventually able to lease it. My own house, a converted barn, is full of clutter and books and animals and people – the exact opposite of the beautiful, sparse but ultimately sterile minimalism of One Folgate Street.
One Folgate Street sounds very trendy and minimalist. Did you have to research the style for the book?
I did a lot of research when I first started writing fifteen years ago, and probably got a bit carried away delving into the lives and work of architects like Luis Barragan and Claudio Silvestrin. I removed a lot of technical stuff from the book as I rewrote it – I decided the reader didn’t really need to know how a minimalist look is achieved; I just focused on a few key details like the floating staircase and the invisible kitchen appliances.
Did you know what was going happen at the end of the book before you put pen to paper?
I like to have a destination, but I usually change it as I go along. I’m quite obsessive in my process – not unlike my architect, Edward Monkford, in that respect! I wrote eighteen different endings for The Girl Before, before eventually going back to ending number nine. I wanted something that tapped back into my characters’ psychology, but that the reader couldn’t see coming.. Hopefully it’s shocking and unexpected but also satisfying. I want the reader to think back over the story and decide that this surprise ending was the inevitable one all along – but that’s the hardest thing of all to achieve.
Do you have a favourite character from the book?
It was strange, writing the book, how my affection veered between Emma and Jane. Emma’s a bit chaotic, a bit impulsive, quite dramatic in her approach to life. Jane’s more thoughtful, calmer, but more determined. Edward, of course, is a real alpha male – he knows he’s obsessive and unyielding and doesn’t care. Simon, Emma’s boyfriend, seems a bit feeble and wet compared to him – but he tries to make up for it by being a nice guy. I can relate to all of them in different ways. But what’s great about writing psychological suspense (or ‘domestic noir’ as I’ve heard this genre called) is that you’re allowed to make characters complex and a little bit dark. No one reveals the truth about themselves straight away – which makes writing the book a fascinating process for the author, too.