The Stopped Heart is Julie Myerson’s ninth novel (she has also written one novella and four works of non-fiction). It may just be her best book yet as it manages to be both a page-turning thriller and a serious exploration of how abuse works. If that sounds off-putting, it shouldn’t be – whilst her subject matter is child abduction and murder both now and in the Victorian era, she is at pains not to titillate her readers. The Stopped Heart is riveting enough to appeal to fans of Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train as well as Myerson’s existing audience. We go for coffee on the Southbank and I ask her how she feels about this.
“It’s had almost all really good reviews but the thing I’m finding difficult is that it’s been received as a kind of horror thriller and I don’t see it that way. I’m very torn actually because I think my publishers wanted to package it in a quite commercial way and it’s had a really good reader response. But I felt I was writing quite a serious book about the nature of evil and grief and really violent loss and about what it might really feel like to have your children murdered. It feels like it fits into my body of work.”
I’m not sure about this – Myerson has always felt for me like an author that pretty much improves, and certainly pushes herself further, with each novel.
She says, “I was thinking about this the other day. People get so much attention for their first novels. And I got that in my time. I got huge attention for Sleepwalking but every novel I’ve written after that novel has been better than that one, I’m glad to say. But I feel like the more novels you write and the better you get, the less interested people are which is inevitable I guess because you’re not the new hot young thing any longer. If you don’t win the Booker Prize, no one ever really points out ‘Look, this person has come on so far from that first novel.’”
As a writer you are trying to convince the reader that something exists when it doesn’t and I think you can do that with a short, stylish, limited book as well as you can with a more confident, bigger book.”
But people always improve as novelists, don’t they? I mean, unless you only write one novel!
“I’m not sure that’s quite true, I can think of instances where people haven’t improved. I was going to name some names but I won’t… Sleepwalking is very short and the reason it’s short is that I knew how to disguise its shortcomings. Every scene ends rather abruptly and very stylishly and the reason it ends is because I didn’t know what to do next, what they would say next or how to take it any further. I knew the writing was good and that the words on the page were working. This is what I think about fiction, that you as a writer are trying to spin a magic spell, you are trying to convince the reader that something exists when it doesn’t and I think you can do that with a short, stylish, limited book as well as you can with a more confident, bigger book. You’ve still got to convince the reader. I knew that… I find this exciting!”
And The Stopped Heart?
“This book came originally from a dream – which is a bit embarrassing because I would never usually take notice of a dream – about this red-haired man and this young girl, and she was throwing him across the room. I wrote it down in the middle of the night because it was so powerful. Most dreams when you look at them in the morning are not very interesting but actually it stayed with me. It was that image: she was literally throwing this man across the room, out of the house, and it was set in that kind of time like those paintings by… [it transpires she’s thinking of Andrew Wyeth]. You know those paintings set in the American Prairies, there’s one of a girl in a field. Anyway, I don’t plan it all, I didn’t know it was going to be so long and I slightly worry that with the dual narratives, it’s two novels wrapped around each other. I did have worries that they didn’t coincide enough.”
She needn’t be concerned: the present-day narrative and the Victorian narrative echo each other with startling deftness. I ask her about the three men, one contemporary, one offstage and one who appears in the historical narrative, who – to differing degrees – exploit vulnerable women and girls.
“It’s always difficult to get a novelist to explain their characters because what you put on the page is everything you want to say. But there are three types of users in this novel, it’s about three sorts of men who are capable of three different kinds of abuse.”
I’d say James is amoral in the sense that whatever he decides he wants to do, he could convince himself that it’s the only possibility, it’s his only choice.”
In the historical strand, James Dix is an enigmatic stranger who enchants a rural family. I don’t want to say much more about him because it really will spoil the considerable pleasure of the plot. In the contemporary narrative, Eddie is an unnerving creep.
“James is charismatic,” says Myerson. “I’d say James is amoral in the sense that whatever he decides he wants to do, he could convince himself that it’s the only possibility, it’s his only choice. We know that there’s a sense in which murderers and abusers are able to say themselves that they had no choice, ‘you screamed so hard that I had to hit you,’ that kind of thing. And I think to a small extent Eddie isn’t violent, but he does the same thing. He says he couldn’t help himself. He serially falls in love and convinces himself he’s in love. He’s a baddie but he shouldn’t come over as an obvious baddie because there are people who behave like that and get away with it and stay in society.”
We talk about James Dix’s sexuality which seems, well, incontinent, and Myerson says, “I did quite a lot of reading about rural communities at the time and there was a lot of this going on, a lot of people having sex with each other and also having sex with girls who were underage, it just happened, so I think this feels fairly convincing.”
It’s quite a sex-soaked book isn’t it?
“Yes. Nobody’s mentioned the sex in the reviews and I think it’s got loads of sex in it! I’m really proud of the bit where Eliza loses her virginity. I really worked hard on that.”
The interesting thing is that Eliza has sex with James at his instigation and decides that she really rather likes it, much to his horror. He says to her, “Whoa. I mean it. You ain’t supposed to like it that much.” It’s quite a subversive scene – she’s 13 and is essentially being abused so we don’t expect her to react in the way she does.
“I wanted to show a kind of sexual awakening. I love things that are morally… grey. I love writing about that. James is clearly abusing Eliza, and as a fifty-five-year-old woman living now I clearly think that, but I was trying to write it as different from that because Eliza is enjoying a lot of it and I wanted to write that. He wants the power.”
Now we’d say he’s grooming her.
“Yes, and he’s also… slightly grooming her younger sisters. I leave it very inexplicit as to what he has done and you are not supposed to think he has really done anything, but what he has done is make Jazzy [who is 10] talk about herself in a pre-sexualised way. In other words, he’s given her a sense of herself that she just shouldn’t have.”
I’d already started the book but then there was this little girl on a train that got on with her mother… she was Lottie, basically. I started writing down what she was saying.”
It’s interesting that he’s picked this family to ingratiate himself with though isn’t it, because even Lottie, who is four, has a real valency for weirdness.
“Yes, she does. Did I tell you about the little girl on the train? I’d already started the book but then there was this little girl on a train that got on with her mother… she was Lottie, basically. She was one of those children, really rare, who just does not stop. She was looking round the carriage and said to her mother ‘I used to be a dog, didn’t I?’ Her mother wasn’t very interested though, she just wanted to have her headphones on. It just sent a shiver down my spine so I started writing down what she was saying, and that speech pattern and that type of child and the way she looked all became Lottie. I love writing about children.”
Do you know why that is?
“I like to write about children as much more startling beings than people sometimes do. There are some people who write well about children but there are lots who don’t. There was a little girl who got on the bus the other day and she was with her dad, interestingly, and she said. ‘I’ve got my tights on, they’re covering my bottom.’ I didn’t write it down but it was so sweet, the way this announcement was important to her.”
All this talk of writing about children reminds me of a quote she gave to the Guardian in 2005 about the themes of novels written by women: “You can write about a kitchen sink in a way that unsettles and challenges. You can write about war and politics in a way that feels obvious and dull. Emotional truth and electric prose are what counts. All writers really want to do, surely, is get great rafts of human experience down on the page in such a seductively honest way that the reader sighs or squeaks with recognition?” She had forgotten the piece but, in response, mentions how often men like Philip Roth and John Updike write about domestic themes and how a writer like Lionel Shriver has written about the healthcare system and, most recently, about money. “Do I feel she would be praised more if she were a man?” she says of Shriver, who is a friend. “No I don’t.”
But does she think the reception of women’s novels is sexist?
“No, I don’t. I do have a bee in my bonnet though when there’s a round-up of books of the year, men always choose men whereas I think women choose men and women. I would always choose some books by men… that last James Salter novel is one of the best things I’ve ever read. I don’t know if the men who are the tastemakers are reading women in that way. I’m not sure this tangent is helpful though.”
I start to agree with her but she then says, “I wrote my first novel when I had just had my second baby. Literally, I started it weeks after I’d given birth to her and then I became pregnant with the third soon afterwards. For me writing novels and the domestic was always going to be intertwined. And for me, it was almost as though once I’d had children, I felt grown-up enough to write things. I think before that, I was a very unformed person. Having children was huge for me, it was a huge part of the woman I became. That’s why I like writing about children. And also children are like ghosts – you can write about subtext via children.”
How do you mean?
“Well, the New York Times review said that this book was uncanny and… I’m only interested in ghosts as a manifestation of people’s state of mind. Children, like ghosts – can say things that you want in the text, they can say them implicitly rather than you having to spell them out. I think that’s what I’m trying to do with Lottie – she has a presence through the book, she’s more than the sum of her parts. “
She’s utterly haunting, I say.
“Yes, she should be. I can’t totally explain Lottie. Lots of people ask me questions about her but I can’t totally explain her. Everything she says and does just feels right to me.”
“Well for me in this novel past, present and future aren’t even cyclical, they co-exist so there is a sense in which Lottie knows what’s going to happen, definitely.”
You were obviously very careful not to make the violence in the book titillating.
“Yes, I never want that, that’s why the murder in Something Might Happen occurs at the very beginning. I’m not interested in that kind of suspense where you’re wondering who’s going to get murdered.”
There is another death later on it that earlier novel, though, isn’t there, and that’s unexpected. We don’t know that’s going to happen.
“No, and I didn’t know it was going to happen either because… I think we all also make deals with ourselves. You think the worst thing imaginable has happened so therefore, in a funny kind of way, we’re now safe. Except that in real life, you’re not and you know that you’re not. Also, I’m not claiming I don’t make decisions in order to create suspense because I do.”
Was it painful to write The Stopped Heart?
“I don’t find things painful to write because I’m in control and I’m making them up. I can’t pretend that I really feel moved, its more that… it’s funny, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that before, it’s more that when you’re writing a scene about laying out a child’s body in their bedroom, you work so hard that you can imagine it happening, so you rise to it. I’ve always known I write my novels about things that frighten me… so writing about these things is a way of keeping us safe. By daring myself to stare head-on at something… I almost find that the things that scare me, I have to contemplate them. I write about the things that scare me which is why I write so much about death.”
There are quite a lot of dead children in your books!
“Yes, one friend calls them my ‘Dead Babies Books!’
And then Julie Myerson gives me an exclusive: “At the moment, no one dies in the book I’m writing. Nobody dies! But we shall see… More seriously, if I have this need for people to die in my books, it’s quite interesting to try and resist that, so I am trying to do that. You should to some extent follow your obsessions because you have to be true to yourself to write well, and to some extent you have to resist that because it creates a tension and makes you a more interesting writer. I think all writers perhaps, certainly me, are struggling with that little conundrum. Every book I write, I think I’m writing something completely new and different, and every book I write, the reviews say ‘this is just the same as all her others!’
“It was quite funny, when I was writing Something Might Happen, a review of Laura Blundy came out in America and it said “all Myerson’s dark preoccupations are here” and it listed them and I suddenly realised that all the things I thought were new and really interesting that I was writing about in Something Might Happen were there!”
Those preoccupations of yours are really interesting though.
“I think so! People say ‘Why do you write so much about love? Why do you write so much about death?’ and I think… what else is there?! I’m always surprised by those people who manage to write books where nobody dies.”
Myerson is an unguarded talker and she also bothers to shoot down those questions of mine which aren’t up to scratch, which is refreshing. I ask her if there is a feminist perspective on The Stopped Heart and her furious response ultimately delights me.
“How could anyone not be a feminist? I don’t see how… I mean, what would the feminist perspective be? I suppose it goes without saying that it’s feminist. Everything I ever do or say or write is feminist in my view. What would the book be like if it wasn’t feminist? I guess that’s the question. It goes without saying that my approach is feminist… can we think of any women writers who don’t write feminist books? I mean women writing now. A feminist novel to me would mean, well, are there strong female characters who have a life of the mind and are believable? Well, yes, I would hope so.”
I turn off my tape and we carry on chatting and I leave the Southbank feeling that she’s one of those writers that can’t dim the lights – she approaches every conversation, even coffee with me, with the same rigorous truth-seeking attitude.
Julie Myerson is the author of Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House and nine novels including the best-selling Something Might Happen, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize. The Stopped Heart is published by Jonathan Cape and Vintage Digital in hardback and eBook. Read more.
Author portrait © Barney Jones
Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph.