Kate Murray-Browne’s brilliantly suspenseful first novel The Upstairs Room has been described as a ‘property horror story’. Eleanor and Richard, an editor and lawyer respectively, move into a large four-bedroom house in East London with their two small daughters. The house is at the upper limit of what they can afford and Eleanor feels uneasy about it from the start. They take in a lodger, in the form of 27-year-old Zoe, the temp receptionist from Richard’s office, to help pay for the house, but Eleanor soon begins to feel the house is making her ill. She feels it is “rejecting her, like an unwelcome transplant.” There is also the small matter of the previous owners and the upstairs room where Eleanor finds the name ‘Emily’ has been written hundreds of times.

APT: Where did the idea for this kind of cursed house come from?

KMB: A colleague I worked with told me that she and her family had had to move out of their house because it was making them ill, and I was completely fascinated by it. I thought it was the most interesting story I’d ever heard and just asked loads of questions about it. They never found out what it was and they did think about supernatural causes. They thought about everything and they tried everything, but the effects of it were obviously so strong that they had to move out before they’d sold the house. I just thought it was such an extraordinary thing, and it was around the time we were buying our first house so I was quite nervy about that and I guess thinking a lot about the way we react unconsciously to homes and how as a family or a unit we bring quite a lot to the space and it’s hard to know what’s coming from the space and what’s coming from you – not that I thought that about my colleague!

You tread that line quite carefully, don’t you? The reader never really knows what’s caused these problems.

Yes, and that was quite hard to get right – I don’t know if I got that right! It was the effect I wanted, but it was hard work trying to leave some ambiguity but also not make it unsatisfying. I definitely wanted to leave room for people’s own interpretations.

Did you feel that Eleanor and Zoe echo each other, in spite of their apparent differences?

I was originally worried about how the two storylines would fit together. I did conceive of them as people who made different choices so things panned out very differently for them. The reason I persevered with keeping the two stories together is that I suppose a lot of what is troubling Eleanor is to do with the claustrophobia of security and I wanted to explore what happened if you don’t have that security – does it necessarily make it any easier? What’s it like if you don’t have some of those typical notions of security – a steady job, a permanent home, a permanent relationship?

I tried to subvert gender stereotypes from the beginning. I wanted to show men and women interacting in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily expect but is still quite convincing.”

And do you think there is a feminist angle to the book?

Definitely, but it wasn’t totally conscious. It wasn’t as though “this is going to be my feminist novel and my next one is going to be my Marxist novel!” but it became clear when I was writing it that I was thinking that way and I did try and encourage it rather than stamp it out. I guess there were little feminist experiments that I wanted to try as well, so I guess it’s really important to me that it’s a book about women who are quite ambivalent about marriage and security, and about men who are very interested in it and are very interested in the home. I kind of liked that subversion. I tried to subvert gender stereotypes from the beginning when Eleanor is anticipating Zoe coming and actually feeling that she’s not really jealous of her… because that’s what you’d expect, that an older woman would feel jealous of a younger woman. I wanted to show men and women interacting in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily expect but is still quite convincing.

That does seem quite subversive!

Yes, and another thing that maybe isn’t too big a part of it but that was important to me is that Eleanor is not an attractive woman. In books, so often, the heroine is really beautiful but doesn’t know it. I don’t know how often that really happens? How often is someone really hot but has no concept of it? The idea that female beauty is a virtue is so ingrained that it does feel as though you are being quite mean to a character to not describe her as being attractive. I really had to sit on my hands to not write a scene where Eleanor puts on a nice dress and comes down the stairs and have everyone say oh my god, she’s beautiful! And I thought, no she’s not beautiful but she’s kind of interesting, and she’s kind and stoical and clever and is just fine. It doesn’t ruin her life.

Yes, people are worthy of attention for other reasons! And by the law of averages, how can so many people be beautiful?

Exactly. I really like the David Nicholls novel One Day in all other respects, but while everyone’s always going on about how beautiful Emma is, there’s never a moment where she actually just looks in the mirror and thinks, “Oh I am quite hot.” I know she’s not very confident, but everyone remarks on it!

Zoe thinks of being attractive as almost play-acting, doesn’t she? Am I right that she’s quite happy to give that up?

Yes, and that’s partly because I wanted to subvert the idea that you could be attractive and not know it. I think one of the nice things about getting older is not caring so much. I just thought whether you were attractive or not was such a key question when I was a teenager!

Well I guess it sort of is quite important, you’re made to feel it is! On another note, you’ve used quite explicit language when writing about sex, was that conscious?

Yes, I found it really embarrassing, particularly when I was editing, but I did obviously decide that it felt really important to have it there. I think how women write about their sex lives so often becomes politicised and there’s a lot of I really really like sex, or this old trope of women not really liking sex and just doing it to please men, so I kind of wanted to write about women having OK sex. There’s still room for lots of voices and accounts of it, because although just recently I do think people like Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham have made a huge difference, when I was a teenager I just don’t think there was that much… Caitlin Moran has a line about being a teenager and trying to find descriptions about menstruation or female masturbation and there not being any, and she was saying, “These are the two most important things in my life right now, why aren’t they in books?!” And although things have definitely changed since then, I just think there’s still room for different accounts and different voices.

When I put the second draft out, that was when I first had the feeling that I was getting close, and part of that was because people responded differently.”

Back to the suspense in the novel, was it difficult to achieve?

It’s really difficult when you’re trying evoke a quite specific response like fear, or trying to make people laugh. It’s very hard to make yourself feel scared, or make yourself laugh with the same material when you’ve read it so many times. I was really pleased that when people read it they said they found it really scary! I wanted it to be realistic and I wanted that to make it scarier, to make it feel like it could happen to you. I really didn’t want to have a faraway Gothic setting, I wanted it to feel very real, but then I did worry if you’re talking about Amazon packages and Tupperware, you might implode all that sense of suspense. I was reliant on other people to tell me if that worked or not.

I had quite a lot of early readers when I was writing it, partly because I didn’t want to get too hooked on one person’s opinion because I thought that could be quite dangerous. I put the first draft, which was quite unformed, out to quite lot of people and they all said the same thing, but when I put the second draft out, that was when I first had the feeling that I was excited, that I was getting close, and part of that was because people responded differently. I felt that if there was something quite obviously wrong, people would all pick up on it, but if people were responding quite differently it might mean I was getting somewhere. People having their own interpretations made me feel like it was quite a rounded piece of work.

The Upstairs Room crosses various genres, did you have models you were trying to emulate?

I re-read M.R. James and classic ghost stories, but also things that are a bit more ambiguous and unsettling. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters was a huge influence and so was We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I love that book, it’s a real mix of comedy and horror. It’s not really a ghost story, it’s more about a house where a big family tragedy has occurred and a dynamic has developed. It helped in terms of using place in quite a creepy and unsettling way – I just love the atmosphere of it. And The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which is a novella about a woman who has what would now be called post-natal depression and the cure for it is this really barbaric thing where she has to lie in a room and not be stimulated, so she’s not allowed to write or read or speak to people – or be with the baby! There’s yellow wallpaper in the room, and it starts to take on these weird forms and she starts to see things in it and the wallpaper starts to become evil, in a way. It’s the idea of a room or an inanimate object taking on a kind of animism because of someone’s state of mind. I did consciously try to echo the dynamic from it in the relationship between Richard and Eleanor when he keeps telling her she needs to rest.

The Upstairs Room is about quite middle-class concerns, did that bother you?

Yes, it really did. I think there was a bit of a hangover of me feeling I didn’t have the legitimacy to write about experiences wildly differently from my own, so I didn’t. I wrote about an area of London and a class of people that I knew very intimately, and a world that I was from, and I guess that you always hope people will find something universal in it. But that’s just a hope, I can’t guarantee it!

 

Kate_Murray-Browne_290Kate Murray-Browne was born and lives in London. She worked in publishing for ten years, previously at Faber & Faber, before becoming a freelance editor. She is also a visual artist and has exhibited work in a number of different galleries. The Upstairs Room is published in hardback, eBook and downloadable audio by Picador.
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Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and 1843 magazine.
@AlexPeakeTom

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