Erin Kelly’s latest book He Said/ She Said isn’t your ordinary psychological thriller. Not only does it broach deeper social and legal subjects, including faults in the justice system and serious issues such as sexual violence and crime, but also plays with the implications of uncertainty. This mind puzzle carries the book and makes it a gripping, insightful read. And of course it helps that Erin is an incredible wordsmith, too. Better Reading caught up with Erin Kelly to figure out what inspired and motivated her new book:
I always write to create the effect my favourite books have on me: well-written, gripping stories that you remember and want to discuss with your friends.
Since the book isn’t your average psychological thriller, how would you describe it to new readers?
It’s about Kit and Laura, a young, loved-up couple who witness a sexual assault at a festival; the fall-out from the trial haunts and threatens them for twenty years. The book has all the suspense and twists you’d expect but it feels bigger, somehow. It’s set in the eclipse-chasing community, which is a movement of people who travel the world in the hope of viewing total solar eclipses. They’re fascinating, passionate people; some of them just want to go where the parties are, others are obsessed with using tech to track the phenomenon to the nearest degree. But what it all comes down to is standing on the earth, watching the planets move above your head, watching darkness fall in the daytime. I’ve never seen it myself! Eclipses give the book its structure and take the story out of the familiar, domestic setting we’re used to in psychological thrillers.
Could you talk us through the writing process? Did you have to undertake any interesting research?
I had to research two subjects almost from scratch. The first was eclipses themselves, how they work and how they’re viewed, when they occur and what it feels like to observe one. The mid-section of the book is a courtroom drama, the rape trial itself. That was a steep learning curve too; I sat through trials, used a legal consultant and read up on the justice system.
Tell us about how you came to realise that He Said/She Said needed to confront serious issues, such as sexual violence and crime.
The theme was contained in the original idea. All my books come to me in the form of tiny scenes, five-second films that play over and over in my head. This time, it was the sudden, daytime darkness of an eclipse followed by a scream. As I developed the story, I realised the scream had to go: not just because I wanted to keep the outcome of the trial ambiguous but because I learned that the most common reaction to rape is not fightback but freeze. The question of whether this rape really happened, and whether Laura did the right thing as a witness at the trial, is the driving force of this book. When we talk about crime fiction we usually mean murder but I took this just as seriously – more so, in fact, as sexual assault is part of all our lives. We all know someone who’s been sexually assaulted, even if they haven’t told us: even if they’ve never told anyone. I talked to two survivors of rape and interviewed a man who’d been through the ordeal of false accusation. The media report false accusations of rape as though they’re incredibly common, an everyday occurrence from spiteful women. In fact, convictions for it are vanishingly rare, but they do happen, and I had to understand it from both sides.
In the book you examine another crucial theme: the failure of legal systems to enact justice. Could you explain to us what you learnt by thinking about and investigating this breakdown?
I knew the odds were stacked against victims of sexual violence but didn’t know quite how uneven the system was. In the UK, only something like 6% of reported rapes end in a conviction. And that doesn’t take into account all the women who were scared, or shamed, or bullied into not reporting their attack. One phrase came up time and again from the women who had taken their rapists to court: ‘It was just like being raped all over again.’
Was the justice system something you felt passionately about before you began the book, or did your interest grow organically during the writing process?
I spend a lot of time on social media and my timeline has long been full of people calling out rape culture; highlighting the way some judges focus more on damage to the rapist’s career prospects than the victim’s life sentence. I was already deep into the book when the Brock Turner case hit the headlines but Jamie, the man who is accused of rape in my novel, is cut from the same cloth. Do you remember how Brock Turner’s lawyers circulated not his mugshot but his high school yearbook photo? Jamie’s family do something similar in their media campaign.
Throughout the story, the total eclipse of the sun appears as an evocative motif–could you talk us through the significance of the solar eclipse for you and the story itself?
The eclipse thing began as a plot device: an atmospheric opening to a novel and a way to make the book global, get this young couple travelling the world to experience a phenomenon that now carries great threat as well as beauty. The book is structured like an eclipse, the different acts named after the different phases of the moon’s path across the sun. I’d love to pretend that was part of the concept but it only occurred to me halfway through writing it. It fit so beautifully I couldn’t resist, and now I can’t imagine the book having a conventional structure.
What are some of your most recommended or gifted books?
In 2016 loved Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner and Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant. I gave The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry to three different people for Christmas. Lots of my friends are still having babies and I always buy them an essay called The Firstborn by Laurie Lee. This year, I can’t wait to read the new Phillip Pullman.
What can we look forward to from you in the future? Any exciting plans for 2017?
All I can think about right now is finishing my work-in-progress. It’s about a fictional Victorian asylum in rural England, and two women whose lives it destroys in very different ways. It starts in 2018 when it’s been converted into luxury flats, goes back in time to the 1980s when the building was abandoned and finishes when it was a working mental hospital in the 1950s. Each of my novels seems to take more research than the last, and I was in the library for six months before I wrote a word. I could probably write you a thesis now about the historical treatment of women in the mental health system, but don’t worry, I’ll write you a thriller instead.