Julia Crouch grew up in Cambridge and studied Drama at Bristol University. She spent ten years working as a theatre director and playwright, then, after a spell of teaching, she somehow became a successful graphic and website designer, a career she followed for another decade while raising her three children. An MA in sequential illustration reawoke her love of narrative and a couple of Open University creative writing courses brought it to the fore. Cuckoo, her first novel, emerged as a very rough draft during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2008. A year’s editing got it ready for submission to an agent and within a couple of months she had a book deal with Headline and had given up the day job.
Your first book Cuckoo was published in 2011, can you tell me about your journey from wannabe writer to published author?
I’d always rather fancied the idea of being a novelist, but, not knowing anyone who wrote fiction, I thought it was something people like me didn’t do. I started out in theatre as a director and playwright, but in my early thirties, I changed to being a graphic designer, because it was easier to do that and be the kind of parent I wanted to be (I have three kids). However, when the youngest started school, I did an MA in Illustration, where I wrote and illustrated two children’s books (you can see some of the work here: http://juliacollins.co.uk/ill_child_books.html).
This made me realise I loved making words more than pictures. So I signed up for some Open University Creative Writing courses, started writing short stories and reading them at local events, and in the Novembers of 2008 and 2009 I wrote a novel-in-a-month with NaNoWrimo. The second one turned out to be the extremely shitty first draft (http://writershq.co.uk/shitty-first-drafts-by-anne-lamott/) of Cuckoo, which I decided to edit into something I felt I could send out to agents. I spent a year doing that, with the help of the marvellous Jacqui Lofthouse, a literary life coach (http://thewritingcoach.co.uk/). I researched agents, sent it to one I liked the look of. He signed me up, took me through one more set of edits, and got me a three book deal, whereupon I promptly gave up the day job. I was the first published author I knew!
For anyone who hasn’t read your dark and disturbing books yet, starting with Cuckoo can you tell me about each book and the inspiration behind them.
Cuckoo is about a toxic female friendship – Rose invites her old mucker Polly to stay in her house after Polly’s husband is killed in a car crash. Rose discovers over the course of the novel that her generous offer is a big, big, mistake. I set out to write the book I wanted to read, one that included motherhood, dreams of living the rural life, cooking, art, sex and rocknroll. Nick Cave is a constant source of inspiration for me, and his amazing album The Boatman’s Call, which he wrote after he and PJ Harvey spilt up (see the 1990s drug fuelled chemistry here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhW06rqc8rA) got me wondering about what kindled the dark passion behind those songs. What if, I thought, a similar sort of uprising were to happen to your husband, and the inspiration behind it was your best friend…
Every Vow You Break is based on two things: I sort of grew up in the theatre, and my husband is still an actor and playwright. Every other year for a decade, our family spent the summer in Upstate New York, where Tim performed in productions put on by a small summer repertory theatre. Every time, the humid weather provided a backdrop to all sorts of torrid goings-on amongst the actors (not us, I hasten to add). I wanted to write about that so much. I also went for coffee in London once with an old actor friend who, since we first met twenty years earlier, had become something of a household name. I witnessed how impossible it was for him to operate as a normal human being – we were constantly interrupted by fans. I know many actors who can live quite normally, but this guy, through a quirk of fate, had unwittingly given up his freedom to fame. EVYB is also an exploration of what that can do to a person.
Tarnished is about a young woman, Peg, who is trying to find out why she has a big gap in her childhood memories. It was inspired a bit by my Nana – Nan is very like her in word, if not deed. I wanted to look at family dynamics – family members who don’t talk to each other, others who love too much. I visited Whitstable to scatter a friend’s ashes, and fell in love with the place, especially The Street, a mile-long spit of land that you can walk out on for nearly a mile at low tide, but which is invisible at high water. A great visual metaphor for buried secrets. The book starts with a scene on The Street.
The Long Fall started with the question: How do you go on to make a life if, in your youth, you did the worst thing you could do to another human being? It is also based partly on my own experiences when I hitched around Europe on my own at the age of 18. Part of the novel is diary form, and some passages are lifted verbatim from the notebooks I kept at the time.
Her Husband’s Lover started with the idea of fresh starts. My adult children share a flat in Elephant & Castle, which, over the past four years, has been undergoing enormous change. An entire council estate has been razed to the ground, and luxury flats are going up in its place, a fancy food hall has opened, and they are going to tear down the famous, shabby but marvellous shopping centre. The former residents have been dispersed all over London and beyond. It is such a blatant piece of social engineering that I really wanted to deal with it in the book. A London built on the remains of people’s lives, the idea that you can wipe out a civilisation, or an estate of working class people, or a former life, is at the core of the book. Of course, an offshoot of that is adultery and its multiple fallouts – the dead husband’s lover and widow and what goes on between them being one of them.
Congratulations on your latest book, Her Husband’s Lover, as you know I absolutely LOVED it and popped it straight into my TOP 10 reads of 2016 (I received an early publication issue). For those readers who haven’t had the pleasure yet – please can you tell us about it?
Thank you! I was dead chuffed at your response!
Her Husband’s Lover starts with a horrific car crash in which Louisa loses her husband Sam (who is the cause of the accident) and her two young children. She eventually recovers from her terrible injuries then sets about starting a new life, helped only by the fact that her widowhood leaves her very wealthy indeed. The only problem is Sophie – the eponymous husband’s lover – who, pregnant with Sam’s child, is out to get what she believes Louisa owes her. It’s told from three points of view, and switches between two timescales – before and after the crash. The tension grows as the past unfolds alongside the present. It’s a rocky ride, and when I wrote it, I sometimes had to take a break because the stress was too much to bear.
You work in a shed at the bottom of your garden (so do I), do you (like me) sometimes go to work in your pyjamas?
Tracy, sometimes I work naked.
You are off to Puglia and Los Angeles this year to research your next two books. Do you need someone to carry your luggage and if not, can you tell us anything about the new books?
I travel light, I’m afraid, so it’s unlikely the tax man would let me get away with that. The Puglia one is about a group of British people renovating a falling down trullo. (we stayed in one on an early family holiday/research trip: http://www.archirent.it/Trullo_della_Luna/index.html) Local people believe the trullo is haunted – kids won’t even use it to make out or smoke drugs in. Alex, the central character, inherited it when her Italian architect husband died after being knocked off his bike (on the Elephant and Castle roundabout, in fact!) and she is driving the project to turn the building into a yoga retreat, which she plans to run. She ropes in Tommy and Lauren, two old school friends. She also brings along Karen, an older student from her London yoga classes, who is there to look after her two young children. Karen doesn’t exactly fit in. That fact, combined with, jealousies, past battles, and the looming presence of Lauren’s twin Jack, who killed himself when they were all 18, get in the way, until the project comes to a grinding, devastating halt.
The LA project is very different. It’s an international thriller that will come out under another name. I started writing it a long time ago, but put it aside, believing that the sociopathic, narcissistic businessman I had created at the heart of it was just too evil to be credible. However, as I have watched Trump’s ascendance, I have begun to believe the project has legs… It does require that I spend some time on Venice Beach though, sadly.
Do you read much yourself? If so, what have been your favourite books in the past year?
I’m always reading. I’m slower than you are, so my book count is a lot lower, but I get through one or two a week. I get sent a lot of crime fiction proofs and do try to honour them with reading as many as I can, but I occasionally like to wander off-genre. Books I have read this year and really enjoyed are: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly, Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant and Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. Oh. They’re all by women…
As a self-confessed geek what is the geekiest thing you have done that you will admit to in public?
In the past three years, I have twice attended Gadget Show Live. Sometimes I dream in php code. I don’t want to say any more.
Describe your favourite 3 course meal?
Scallops – ideally with chorizo. A really creamy truffle risotto. A sticky, claggy cheesecake.
I know risotto isn’t exactly a main, but that’s what I’d like, please. Not skimping on the truffle, either.
You have over 12 guitars at home – can you play and what’s your favourite style of music?
Since this weekend it’s 13 guitars – Joey went shopping. I can do a very bad Grand old Duke of York. And that’s it.
All the guitars belong to my two sons, both of whom are musicians. Owen, nearly 25, is a sound designer and has a band called Kudu Blue, who are seriously on the up. Check out their Soundcloud https://soundcloud.com/kudublue. He also owns a banjo, a bass, and four keyboards. All the instruments divide their time between London (where he lives and works) and Brighton (where the band practice). Joey, 17, is a jazz fiend, plays guitar, bass and keyboards, and has almost as much kit as his brother. We also have a cello in the house, but that belongs to my daughter, Nel, who really should take it away sometime. Our house is quite small.
Finally, are you superstitious or have any strange habits?
I’d like to say that I’m not, but if I see a lone magpie, I say ‘hello Mr Magpie’ and tell him what I had for breakfast. I also won’t name the Scottish play if I’m in a theatre, but that’s more a camp thing. The magpie stuff, however, is serious.