The author and the Zeitgeist: chasing the shadow

What happens when you miss the Fashion in Fiction because you arrive too early? A guest post from author and director, Claire Seeber. (see fuller bio below. Claire’s book, The Stepmother, is available now.)

Once upon a time, I started doing something in fiction that wasn’t yet a thing – domestic noir – and now it’s very much a thing, I’m feeling a little battle-weary!  Whilst I can’t claim crystal ball powers for writing in a genre since become HUGE, I am left with an odd feeling about it all.

First published by Harper Collins in 2007, all five (nearly six) of my novels fit into the now very fashionable genre of Gone Girl, Girl On a Train et al.

The real question isn’t why these other, later books have smashed it and mine haven’t, ahem, quite hit those heights, more pertinent is why have they done so well now?  What kick-started the massive surge I’d homed in on – too early, perhaps?

When I wrote my first book LULLABY, about a young mother searching for her baby, in 2004, ‘domestic noir’ didn’t exist.  In fact, the first agency interested in LULLABY were worried I fell between two stools – those of crime & women’s fiction!  Even Harper Collins weren’t quite sure how to place me after they started publishing me – around the publication of my 3rd book NEVER TELL they actually held a branding meeting, pie-charts and all, as they tried to work out who the readership ought to be.  NEVER TELL subsequently hovered just outside the Sunday Times Bestseller List for weeks…but still, it was nowhere near the sales of Paula Hawkins’s Girl on a Train.

Today, it’s easy to feel bruised from having fallen between those stools!  As for missing the zeitgeist – well, being ahead of the wave is necessarily helpful.  Publishers want to break ‘debuts’, not push mid-list established authors as the ‘next big thing’.   To be that, you need to at least pretend to be new (as Hawkins herself did, publishing under a different name than she used for her first four novels).

Is it ever easy, then, to guess what’s coming in literary fashion in time to catch the wave?

Mega literary agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown recently did a TED talk on ‘How to Write a Bestseller’.  I can’t pass his tips on because – surprise – there doesn’t seem to be an actual formula.  If there were, all writers would be millionaires.

Writerly success boils down to not a formula but an equation – and this is how I think it (might) work:

Talent (though, sadly, not always required for success) v. Luck v. Timing.

All three bleed into each other, no doubt; one will probably take precedence at unexpected times.  Topics become fashionable – such as, er, dementia has recently; it might just be serendipity that you’ve just spent a year writing about that topic.  You might write something entirely new and prescient and be published at exactly the right time (or the wrong time.  Novelist Chris Cleave famously wrote a book called Incendiary about terrorism – it was published on 9/11.  Good timing or TERRIBLE luck?  You decide!)

On luck v. timing: well, for me, the zeitgeist known as ‘Domestic Noir’ didn’t so much as clutch me in its watery embrace and hurl me to the shores of success, as allow me to surf a wave for a long time, until suddenly I was flattened by domestic noir writers on its crest!

So maybe I need to face facts: it could be as simple as these recent books being better than mine.

Claire Seeber

Or maybe – just maybe – I preceded the marketing curve that’s thrown them into the stratosphere.  I’d glimpsed something, a market that was pretty empty and I set upon writing for it – and then so did everyone else.  Having entered a marketplace I noticed as almost empty, it wasn’t long before everyone else followed suit.

In art and culture, very often, something timely seeps into the atmosphere and a movement evolves.  But where you are in the movement isn’t always the comfortable place.

My own motivations to write what I do lie in early inspirations: all plot-driven books with female characters at their heart, often with a mystery or a twist.  As a kid, having devoured Secret Seven/ Famous Five et al, I read Agatha Christie obsessively, preferring Marple to Poirot; later, I read into the night – Du Maurier’s Rebecca, MM Kaye’s ‘Death in …’ series; Mary Stewart’s brilliant classics like ‘This Rough Magic’, whose blurbs mention ‘tensions (that) become terrors’; Elaine Dundy’s comic thriller The Dud Avocado; Jilly Cooper’s funny romances too.

A little older, I read Minette Walters and Barbara Vine whilst studying classics that sometimes I loved – such as Dickens.  And he’s master of plot and twist: just see Bleak House or Great Expectations.

Having become a documentary director, as well as a feature-writing print journalist, primarily, I loved telling stories.  And could these genres all be mixed up, I wondered, years later, fiddling with my quill?  Comedy/ intrigue / love / thrills…what a potent mix.

I wrote a few pages, but work always got in the way.

Then, a few years on, first baby in tow, I joined an evening class and wrote two very different opening chapters for a competition.  One: high falutin’ and historical.  The other – the opening chapter to my first novel LULLABY, in which a young mum Jessica loses both husband and baby on a daytrip to the Tate.  The husband is found beaten & unconscious; the child has vanished.  Jessica is already struggling with family demons, has suffered PND – and feels ‘less than’ in her marriage.  But by God Jess loves her baby.

She spends fourteen days hunting for her son, both repelled and attracted to the policeman helping her, DI Joe Silver.

The ‘feeling’ of the book was absolutely domestic noir: informed by my own new circumstances, and the terror of loving another human sooo very much. It was also inspired in part by the infertility that loomed at one point, making me wonder how desperate someone might become.

It was, as my first editor said, a ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ story that many could relate to: losing a child; feeling crap in a marriage.

Urged on by classmates, galvanised by both the escapism of writing and desperation to be with my son, I pondered the unthinkable.  Could I – maybe – make a living from books, and stay home with him? It seems audacious now – but it kept me going.

So I wrote my first psychological ‘domestic noir’ thriller because:

  1. I loved plot / intrigue in a book myself.
  2. I was trying to work out age-old female emotions and crises.
  3. I knew crime was the biggest-selling genre, and I had an eye on the book’s commercial value – I needed to sell it. Women make up 70% of crime readers – though I didn’t know that then – but I think they were getting bored of all the bestsellers featuring male detectives.

It was time for something new.  Or not new, exactly; but something that spoke directly to the female sensibility.

Wanting to sell Lullaby, I contacted five agents (the first reaction is above!).  Another of these took me on, and I soon got my first deal.  I’m one of the lucky ones – I do know that.

But those words haunt me sometimes: about being a mix of two things, not sitting comfortably.  The genre was only named in the decade after I was first published – and yet it’s done me few favours to have been a front-runner.

It’s taken huge efforts not to feel galled as the domestic noir steam train hurtled past.  SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep was huge just after my fourth FRAGILE MINDS came out in 2011 – both featuring women on the edge who’ve lost their memories through trauma.  Then came the real big-hitter: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, with its great twist, published in 2012. The media went into meltdown: a book about a toxic marriage!  All new!  (Just as, er, most of my books had been about.)  Next came Girl on a Train (still at the top over a year later).

Every publisher in town snapped up domestic noir; novels about (generally) strong women and their complex emotional lives.

I’d be disingenuous not to admit there were, also, other writers starting to do a similar thing as the same time as me: Sophie Hannah, to name one. The marvellous Nicci French published stand-alone psychological thrillers; the first, The Memory Game, in 1997.  To give Gillian Flynn credit, her first novel Sharp Objects was published the same year as LULLABY; although it wasn’t really domestic noir.  And of course, my own writing heroines, named earlier on, did something similar – only not so mired in modern domestic issues.

My real frustration lies in it constantly being heralded as new when it isn’t.  It might have been prescient but the genre’s now so successful, publishers have pushed it to saturation point.

When my last agent wanted to move me from Avon after four books, traditional publishers, bursting at the seams with the genre, wanted debuts to wow with.  I was old hat!  My fifth book 24 HOURS, about an abusive marriage (written BEFORE Gone Girl was even published!) interested various publishers – who largely suggested changes to make it more like Gone Girl.  My agent rued not having sent it out under a new name, so a publisher could claim to have discovered me.

In the end, my editor from Harper Collins took me with her to Bookoutre. 24 HOURS has done well.  My sixth novel is about to come out, THE STEPMOTHER; another psychological thriller, but more quirky, a twist on Snow White.

Except now, I’m a little – jaded.  I see readers commenting on a full market place, and even this week authors Ruth Ware & Sabine Durrant spoke on Woman’s Hour about why exactly women are now all reading this type of book on the beach.  Because there are so many of these books out there now, I’d hazard a guess?!

I yearn to try something new.  I love writing my books but I’m looking for the new zeitgeist…or to precede it.  So, what hasn’t been done yet, eh?  Sci-fi concept thrillers are huge; YA is very big, apparently – but there must be something utterly new…

I’ll let you know when I find it (first?!).

Claire Seeber is a Londoner who started professional life as a (bad) actress and became a documentary maker, a journalist and a writer of, so far, psychological thrillers. The Observer said of her first novel: ‘a disturbing debut’ whilst The Guardian called it ‘powerful’…she keeps writing whilst also studying psychology and (trying to) to manage a home of slightly feral kids and animals. You can get The Stepmother right here right now.

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