Book Talk: Doughty - "I throw a grenade at people like us"

LONDON, July 10 Wed Jul 9, 2014 7:01pm EDT

LONDON, July 10 (Reuters) - "Apple Tree Yard" is a fast-paced psychological thriller that explores a disturbing idea: what if a woman who has been indulging in risky sex finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong man?

Add to this the fact that the woman is a 50-something mother and you begin to understand the torsion that author Louise Doughty applies, forcing us to question our value judgments and moral perspective while gripped by the unfolding drama.

Commercial and highly readable, "Apple Tree Yard" poses the question of a woman's integrity in a courtroom setting.

"It's the idea that if you tell a small lie, that can completely undermine your reliability when it comes to telling a larger truth," Doughty says. "That is the emotional heart of the book - to what extent does society judge a woman like Yvonne and therefore she can't get justice."

It all stems from a brief encounter that Yvonne Carmichael, who is a geneticist, has in Britain's House of Commons when she is called to testify before a committee there. She is later called as an accessory to a murder in a court trial where everything may be revealed - putting her and her family at risk.

"Apple Tree Yard" is being adapted for screen. Doughty, author of seven novels, radio broadcaster and Booker Prize judge, talks to Reuters.

Q: Is this the first psychological thriller you've written?

A: I didn't set out to. I just like taking people who are like us, and throwing a grenade at them, and seeing what happens. With Yvonne, it is partly self-inflicted because she has an affair and that makes her life unravel. I want the reader to address how they would behave. What if...

Q: What sparked the idea?

A: I had a very strong image of a woman in the witness stand in the Old Bailey (courts). I didn't know what she had been charged with, who she was, or why she was there, but I did know that she was about to be caught out in a very damaging lie.

Q: The risky sex seems almost to be a misdirection for the reader.

A: Yes. We are concerned about Yvonne's consensual adventure, when actually, statistically, the vast majority of sexual assaults come from work colleagues, family members, people we think are friends. Not a stranger in an alleyway.

Q: What was your intention as a writer?

A: I am interested in how women's morality is judged through the prism of their sexual morality. If a woman steps out of line, particularly in terms of sexual misbehaviour, it is easier to discredit her using that information.

Q: What was your purpose in choosing a 50-something woman?

A: There appears to be this massive lacuna in fiction. Where are the heroines in their 40s, 50s, 60s? It's odd that fiction hasn't caught up with popular culture, where there has been more acceptance of older women as attractive and sexy, whether its "Desperate Housewives", Madonna or Emma Thompson.

Q: Do you see commercial fiction as a good way to introduce difficult subject matter?

A: Absolutely. I think it's essential really. I don't think there's anything about writing a narrative-driven book that means you can't also tackle serious subjects.

Q: It's been called a brave book. Why?

A: It's funny because people say that kind of thing about "Apple Tree Yard," but they didn't say it about "Fires in the Dark", a large chunk of which is set in a concentration camp, they didn't say it about "Stone Cradle", which is a gritty tale about poverty.

Q: Well, you've raised the gorgon of 50-year-old women and sex ...

A: Yes. And suddenly everyone is telling me how brave I am. There is a way that women get described as brave in a way that I don't think men do. Does anyone say to Ian McEwan, "It's very dark"? There's still an assumption that it's hard for us tender, sensitive females to go there.

Q: This is your seventh novel - how have you progressed as a writer?

A: I think my technical skill has increased immeasurably, particularly in terms of plotting. I take it as a huge compliment when people tell me that "Apple Tree Yard" is well- structured. It's an underrated skill, the ability to have an even pace, to have revelations without being cheap. I do love the freedom in novel writing. As long as you know how to ride the horse, you're on a really good horse. (Editing by Michael Roddy and Larry King)

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