Your publishers describe your book as being in the same genre as Girl and Before I Go to Sleep. Were you influenced by either?
I didn’t actually read Gone Girl or Before I Go to Sleep until after I’d finished The Book of You but it’s an honour to have my book mentioned in the same breath at those two. I would say that all of these novels are about sexual relationships and passionate love that has gone horrify- ingly wrong; that has really twisted and become dangerous in all ways for the main characters. What both Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep achieve so brilliantly is the almost unbearable renewal of tension at every turn, combined with an intensely personal story and voice. That’s what I tried for with The Book of You. All of them also use variants of the journal form, which is such an intimate form, and a form that novelists can do so much with. I love how it ensures that the ticking clock, the forward direction, is really felt by the reader and they are drawn into sharing the characters’ worlds so closely.
The novel is intensely claustrophobic; full of obsession, fear, and control. Was it difficult to write? Did it scare you, sometimes?
I should say that I really fell in love with Clarissa – I felt that her story mattered so much, and that it might matter to other people too. I just couldn’t let anything divert me from telling it. The actual act of writing helps to stop you becom- ing paralysed by distress, because there is just so much to think about technically – the process of crafting a novel is really fascinating and immersive. But to write The Book of You I had to learn some fright- ening facts about stalking and sexual violence and the judicial system. And I’m worried I’m going to sound heart- less, but the truth is that while I was actually writing I felt detached. Looking back at it now, I think this was because if I hadn’t maintained a high degree of dispassion about these upsetting things I wouldn’t have been able to write at all. It would have become too painful and difficult to put myself in Clarissa’s skin, and it’s the novelist’s job to do this for her characters. It was important that there be an obsessive, feverish qual- ity to Clarissa’s voice. But that voice still seemed beautiful to me, with its rhythms, with the way I tried to get her body to come through into her voice. So I actually loved inhabiting that voice – it’s full of life and energy, despite the entrapment that is so central to the story. Also, while writing, I wanted to know what would happen next just as I’d hoped readers would – that need to find out kept pushing me on. Once The Book of You was truly finished, though, it was as if all my nerves had been exposed. I was profoundly exhausted in every way – physically, mentally, emotionally. I came down with a very big crash, then, and I had a strong reaction to what I’d been dealing with. And I felt, I still feel, extremely protec- tive of Clarissa.
Clarissa has a bad time not just with her stalker Rafe, but with men generally. Does this reflect your own views of men’s atti- tudes to women?
No. It doesn’t at all. Man or woman, there is such a complex range of human attitudes and beliefs and behaviours – from good to bad and everything in between. I think some of the minor characters we see in the court scenes really illustrate this. There is Alex Wyerley, previous- ly a drug addict, who refuses to answer a defence barrister’s question about his sexual relationship with an alleged rape victim. He wants to protect Lottie’s privacy and he is outraged that she should be treated in court as if she were the one on trial. Another witness, Charlie Barton, is in prison, and giving evidence could put him in danger. But Charlie goes into the witness box because he is horrified by what happened to Lottie and wants to help her. Although Robert is a flawed hero, and I think he must be flawed, he is still so admirable in so many ways. To my think- ing, the qualities that Clarissa loves in Robert are worthy of that love. Those qualities don’t disappear even when she learns the thing about him that will disappoint her so deeply. As Robert himself says, ‘People can’t always help who they fall in love with.’ And I was deliberate in making sure that Clarissa is not perfect either.
The ending is ambivalent.Do you think Clarissa will ever be happy?
The ending couldn’t be unequivocally happy. For someone to go through what Clarissa does and not be scarred, for her just to pop up unscathed, well, I just couldn’t do that. It would have been so dishonest and fake, such a betrayal of every- thing the book is about. I left Clarissa at the only moment, in the only place, that felt right to me. It’s a moment in time when the events of the story still need to resonate. What she has been through changes her voice. It has to. Clarissa is a character who is full of interests and pas- sions and pleasures, but when we see her in The Book of You these gifts have shrunk – plus her ability to express them is considerably reduced. But she is lucky to have people who care for her deeply, and she is stronger at the novel’s end than she is at its beginning. When we leave her, there are seeds of things that are likely to bring her joy, and I like to think that in a few years she will be stronger still, getting back more of herself but also developing further. Some of the answers as to what will happen are rooted in Clarissa’s character, and in Robert’s. So yes, I think she will be happy someday, with a complex life. But I’m only another reader when I say this. Your own opinion may be different, and it’s just as valid.