Robyn Walton, national co-convenor of Sisters in Crime Australia, talks to Megan Goldin about her debut novel, The Girl in Kellers Way (Penguin Viking).
Hello and thanks for giving us your time.
Thank you so much Robyn. I love your questions.
First, will you tell us about this Kellers Way? What does it look like and where is it?
In my mind, I know the exact layout of Kellers Way and the unnamed college town where my story is set. Kellers Way is a narrow mountainous road through a forest on the edge of a college town. The location is fictional but it is perhaps loosely based on the college town in North Carolina where my aunt lives and which was my home base when I lived in the U.S.A. many years ago. The deer sometimes creep into people’s gardens. Large houses back out onto forests and in the late spring cicadas hatch and there is a constant, pulsating buzz.
Now for the girl in Kellers Way. She’s a cadaver?
I actually see each of the women in my book as a ‘girl in Kellers Way’. Each one has been influenced by Kellers Way in her own way. There’s Laura, whose tragic death is permanently connected to Kellers Way. There’s Julie, who goes running in Kellers Way to break out of the confines of her stifled domestic life. There’s Emily, who experiences the darkness of Kellers Way. And Melanie, the detective, whose career is haunted by her handling of a homicide case in Kellers Way. To me, Kellers Way is the thread that connects all the women in the novel.
Julie, one of your protagonists, is the second wife of Matthew West; his first wife was the highly admired Laura. You’ve acknowledged the influence of the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. For those of us who are not familiar with Rebecca, can you tell us about its similarities to your book?
My starting point for writing The Girl In Kellers Way was Rebecca. It is one of my favourite books and I consider it the godmother of domestic noir. My interpretation of Rebecca has changed from the time I first read it as a teenager. As a teenager, I saw it as a gothic romance. As a woman, I see it as a dark, deeply disturbing story of a woman writing about an event that has haunted her marriage.
While Rebecca was my starting point when I decided to write a domestic noir psychological thriller, I quickly realised that Rebecca could never be written today. Most of the suspense in the book is about the second wife wondering about her husband’s first wife, Rebecca, of whom she knows almost nothing. In the digital age, there would be little need to wonder because, from the moment the unnamed second woman first met her future husband Maxim in Monte Carlo, she would have snuck off to the ladies’ room to Google him. Within two minutes, she’d have read his Wikipedia entry, seen a stack of articles about Rebecca’s death, and even checked out Rebecca’s Instagram account. The book would have finished in the second chapter!
So, for me, Rebecca was more about giving The Girl in Kellers Way a mood. It’s a dark, wintery, slightly gothic mood. There are certain motifs such as the lake house and the boat that are perhaps an ‘ode to Rebecca’. And of course, there’s the jealousy of a first wife, Julie, whose marriage is overshadowed by the memory and tragedy of her predecessor, Laura. She wonders what place she holds in her husband’s heart and knows that she wouldn’t be married to him in the first place if his beloved first wife hadn’t died.
Did you consider developing an antagonistic female character like the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca?
Mrs. Danvers is one of the most beautifully written, nastiest characters in literature. How could I even try! The Girl in Kellers Way is quite different from Rebecca in many ways. One of those ways is that it’s told in the present tense through Julie’s eyes. That gives the book pace and allows for suspense as nobody knows what’s about to happen given that it’s in the present. But it’s also limiting because the reader is in Julie’s head. And Julie is not a very sympathetic character. Probably if one had to listen to the internal workings of most peoples’ minds then they wouldn’t come across as sympathetic people either. I had enough dealing with being in Julie’s head and her complexities without adding a Mrs. Danvers to the mix!
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an even earlier novel with a second-wife storyline. It was a pioneer in the field of first-person, psychologically compelling narration. Did you plan from the outset to use Julie’s first-person narration?
Yes, I did. The first-person narration seems to have become part-and-parcel of the structure of domestic noir fiction. Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train and others are all told in first person. It works well in this genre because these stories are very character-driven and it creates a natural tension. I particularly like the storytelling nature of first person. The Catcher in the Rye is one of my favourite books and that, too, is told in first person.
From the opening chapter Julie suspects her attractive husband of having an affair with one of his students, Emily, who resembles Laura. And, in an interview, you mentioned the scandal back in 2015 when the Ashley Madison dating service for married people was hacked. Jealousy and infidelity are significant?
Jealousy, infidelity and trust are themes that run through The Girl in Kellers Way. We learn in The Girl in Kellers Way that Julie has good reason not to trust her husband Matthew. And that’s quite interesting in terms of creating tension between the characters because marriage requires enormous trust. What if you can’t trust the person closest to you? It immediately creates an enormous chasm in your relationship. Beyond that, there’s the jealousy of Julie, a second wife, who feels that her position is precarious. It’s her constant doubt in her husband’s ability to be faithful that sends Julie on a perilous emotional journey.
We hear Matthew’s voice when he lectures at the university and when he speaks to Julie. Did you experiment with telling any of the narrative in his voice, from his point of view?
I didn’t consider telling the story from Matthew’s point-of-view. I find that if there are too many characters in a novel with too many points-of-view, then it gets confusing and hard to get into any depth. I thought the lecture scenes were an interesting way of telling the story from Matthew’s perspective without me actually writing chapters from his perspective. I also tried to pull together fragments of Julie’s story and experiences with Melanie the detective’s narration so that the story line moves ahead from each other’s perspective without having to rehash the same scene twice.
There have been some popular films based on Rebecca and Jane Eyre. Who would you cast as Julie, Matthew, Laura and Emily if you were filming your novel?
I would like to think that if Alfred Hitchcock was around today then he’d make The Girl in Kellers Way into a movie and would of course cast Grace Kelly as Julie. But if it was made today then perhaps Naomi Watts as Julie. Jake Gyllenhaal as Matthew. For Melanie, the detective, maybe Natalie Portman. And Emily, the student, would be Jennifer Lawrence though I’m not sure if she’d take a supporting role! As for Laura, the first wife, I’m open to suggestions.
Your second narrator, police detective Melanie Carter: what can you tell us about creating her character?
Melanie is a grounded, gutsy woman who has a strong moral compass and an overwhelming drive to get to the truth. She’s been through terrible tragedy and is battling to be a good mother while being true to herself. I think she embodies the conflict that many, perhaps all mothers feel, in doing right for our kids and doing right for ourselves, not to mention multi-tasking and being torn in a dozen different directions every day. Being a homicide detective is in Melanie’s DNA. It’s almost a compulsion for her and she feels guilty about it because it takes a toll on her relationship with her sons. She is haunted by a crime that she didn’t solve and the guilt keeps her up at night. It’s her narration that I interweave with Julie’s less reliable narration.
Julie’s mental clarity is badly affected by medications — but should we trust Melanie’s judgement in every situation?
Every single person, no matter how honest, does not have a fully reliable perspective. People always see things from different perspectives. I learned that over many years of journalism. People remember things differently and their memories change over time. They interpret things differently as well so that two people might be telling the truth (as they see it) about the event and yet their accounts will contradict. So, no, I wouldn’t say that even Melanie’s judgement is perfectly reliable. Added to that, she is remembering things from the past. Memory is an area of great fascination to me and I researched it extensively for the novel.
Also, Julie’s mental clarity is impaired by her confused and/or false memories. What can you tell us about this kind of affliction? And what about the ethical obligations of a person capable of manipulating another’s memories?
When I researched the issue of memory for the novel, I read about the ‘Lost in the Mall’ experiment on memory. It was a study in which subjects were given a false story about them being lost in a mall as a child. A significant number of subjects later believed this implanted story and came up with elaborate stories about what happened when they were lost. I too remember being lost as a child in a department store, and as time goes on and the veil of memory becomes foggier I wonder how much was true and how much was fantasy. Memory is such a fascinating subject because our memories define the essence of our being. Yet memory is not very concrete.
The false memory issue can be quite controversial and I tried to skip around the controversy by focusing on the work of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, who is considered a world expert in memory implantation. She has studied extensively about how memory can be manipulated, and also she has posited theories on how moulding memory could help people suffering trauma. For example, a soldier coming back from war with PTSD after a particular trauma might be able to have that memory almost replaced with something less traumatic. It’s such a difficult ethical issue because our memories go beyond the physical, to the core of who we are as people, and tampering with that seems, well, almost evil.
Children feature in the lives of both Julie and detective Melanie. Is this simply art imitating life, or did you have specific reasons for including children in the storyline?
In the case of Julie, being a mother and loving her daughter is an important part of what ties her to her husband and their marriage. In the case of Melanie, it creates a constant tug-of-war in her life between being the best mother she can possibly be to her fatherless sons and the best detective. Children certainly make things interesting and I felt it was important to have them in this particularly domestic setting with a subtext about women, the roles we play and the conflicts that we feel.
Are there other things you’d like to say about creating The Girl in Kellers Way?
Only that readers in Australia have been amazingly supportive and that’s what fires me up to keep writing. Writing books isn’t glamorous at all. It’s probably akin to sweating blood, at least for the first draft. The subsequent drafts are a lot more fun. Writing 90,000 words or so takes a long time and is a huge commitment in time and focus.
And what have your experiences been like since your novel was published? Have you enjoyed attending writers’ festivals, communicating with readers, etc.?
It’s been fantastic attending writers’ festivals and meeting with readers and booksellers as well as talking about the book with journalists. It’s a long, very lonely process to write a book. I liken it to a marathon. It’s such a pleasure to be out in the world again talking to people and hearing their very kind feedback.
It’s the support and wonderful reception for The Girl In Kellers Way that has allowed me to power through writing my next novel. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their support from the team at Penguin, to Sisters in Crime Australia, to readers, reviewers, librarians and booksellers.
I have been asked whether I would write a sequel to The Girl in Kellers Way. It is certainly a possibility if enough readers wanted to read a sequel. I have some ideas for the plot. At the same time, there are at least half a dozen other novels that I want to write. Writing a novel is a long, laborious and very draining process so I’d need to be assured that enough people want to read a sequel before I devote 18 months or so towards writing one! My hope is that I can write novels on all the ideas that I have and when I’m done, have a half-dozen new ideas for more books.
Thank you, Megan.