"Underneath" is Anne's breakthrough into writing thrillers and psychological chillers for those who like to genrify books (I think I just invented that term) and Anne has kindly written this article about changing genres, I hope you'll find it as fascinating as I did.
Over to you Anne:
My second novel began with an image of an unhappy little boy, seated at the bottom of a carpeted staircase, who popped into my head at the end of the country walk. At the time, I was struggling with what was to become my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, but this little boy had no place there. So I pushed him out of my mind, until he reappeared as the child version of the narrator of what has now become my second novel, Underneath.
Poor Steve. Just as I couldn’t make space for him when he first arrived, neither was his mother able to give him her full attention as a baby. She was still grieving for her husband – his father – who’d died before he was born. No wonder he was sad.
In my work as a clinical psychologist, and in reflecting on my own beginnings, I’d been curious about the impact and experience of early emotional neglect. I wondered if there was a way of describing it from the baby’s perspective: the terror of total dependence on someone who doesn’t seem to have one’s needs in mind. Fortunately or unfortunately, I recognised quickly I wasn’t equipped to write something readable from the point of view of a baby. But perhaps there’d be a parallel situation that I could evoke in words.
Then along came the gruesome real-life stories of women kidnapped and locked up in sealed-off rooms. Might that soul-destroying experience might be akin to that of the neglected baby who cries and no-one comes? But I had reservations about appropriating someone else’s horror story, and woman imprisoned in cellar didn’t strike me as my kind of book.
But I couldn’t stop wondering. Would it be my kind of book if I shifted the focus from the captive to the criminal? Could I write convincingly from the point of view of the unhappy little boy who grows up to be a jailer? Might he, even though he holds the keys, feel as helpless as his prisoner, the way a depressed mother feels trapped by her baby’s demands?
I didn’t set out to write a thriller, and I still don’t think I have. But a book must have a genre, something to signify what readers can expect. So ...
Underneath gets classed as a literary thriller, or psychological suspense novel; with qualifying adjectives that for some readers might make it more than the traditional thriller while for others it might seem less. Literary thriller writer Sanjida Kay, author of Bone by Bone and The Stolen Child, described it as “A dark and disturbing tale of a man who appears ordinary on the surface, but is deeply damaged.” I’m fine with that.
As my debut was not a thriller, have I switched genre? While Underneath has more jeopardy, and a more troubling protagonist, than Sugar and Snails, they do have some overlapping themes. Whereas Diana, in Sugar and Snails, strives to keep her past identity a secret, Steve must safeguard the secret of the woman in the cellar. Whereas Diana hides her vulnerability behind an aloof personality and professional persona, Steve denies his completely until it’s too late. Both have felt misunderstood as children, with emotionally or physically absent fathers; both face the threat of relationship breakup as adults. Both characters have significant blind-spots that could be their undoing. Both my novels address social issues, although this is less direct in Underneath than in Sugar and Snails. Both have an element of mystery, surprise and suspense.
One of the many advantages of being published by small independent press is that there is little pressure to remain within an allotted pigeonhole. And, although genre matters, it doesn’t indicate what I care about most as a reader, which is that of book should be well-written with psychological depth. But, until the book world approves “what came out of Anne’s head” as a legitimate literary classification, I accept the charge of genre hopping. At least until I find out what the majority of readers think of what I have produced.