Claire Kendal, author of The Book of You, on tour April/May 2014

Posted By on April 17, 2014

The Book of YouAbout The Book of You

• Hardcover: 368 pages
• Publisher: Harper (May 6, 2014)

A mesmerizing tale of psychological suspense about a woman who must fight to escape an expert manipulator determined to possess her, Claire Kendal’s debut novel is a sophisticated and disturbing portrait of compulsion, control, and terror that will appeal to fans of Before I Go to Sleep, The Silent Wife, and Into the Darkest Corner.

His name is Rafe, and he is everywhere Clarissa turns. At the university where she works. Her favorite sewing shop. The train station. Outside her apartment. His messages choke her voice mail; his gifts litter her mailbox. Since that one regrettable night, his obsession with her has grown, becoming more terrifying with each passing day. And as Rafe has made clear, he will never let her go.

Clarissa’s only escape from this harrowing nightmare is inside a courtroom—where she is a juror on a trial involving a victim whose experiences eerily parallel her own. There she finds some peace and even makes new friends, including an attractive widower named Robert, whose caring attentions make her feel desired and safe. But as a disturbingly violent crime unfolds in the courtroom, Clarissa realizes that to survive she must expose Rafe herself. Conceiving a plan, she begins collecting the evidence of Rafe’s madness to use against him—a record of terror that will force her to relive every excruciating moment she desperately wants to forget. Proof that will reveal the twisted, macabre fairy tale that Rafe has spun around them . . . with an ending more horrifying than her darkest fears.

Masterfully constructed, filled with exquisite tension and a pervasive sense of menace, The Book of You explores the lines between love and compulsion, fantasy and reality, and offers a heart-stopping portrait of a woman determined to survive. Claire Kendal’s extraordinary debut will haunt readers long after it reaches its terrifying, breathtaking conclusion.

Claire KendalAbout Claire Kendal

Claire Kendal lives in England, where she lectures in English Literature and Creative Writing. The Book of You is her first novel, and will be translated into over a dozen languages.

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A conversation with Claire Kendal

Q.: What inspired you to write this novel? 

I wanted to explore what it feels like to be the object of unwanted attention. I think it’s something that a lot of people will identify with, and that can happen so unexpectedly, and get out of control so quickly.

In reality, this usually occurs in a much milder version than my heroine, Clarissa, experiences. It could take the form of a direct confession of admiration from someone you don’t think of that way. Or maybe it’s just a hug that lasts a tiny bit too long. It could be a colleague you’ve hardly noticed before, or the partner of a friend. But somehow, a relationship you’ve barely given a thought to, has suddenly become unsettling.

In most cases the problem goes away when you say the attention isn’t welcome. But I couldn’t help but wonder, what if it doesn’t go away? What would that feel like? What would the story be then? The Book of You is one possible – and extreme – answer to this.

Q.: Have you ever been stalked yourself?

I’m extremely glad to be able to say that I haven’t. The first real readership I ever had was comprised of editors, and I talked to quite a few of them in the immediate days after my agent sent The Book of You out on submission. I was a little surprised that so many of them asked me this. Then I remembered that my agent had too, the first day we ever met, and I recalled how relieved he’d looked when I told him that the answer was no.

To my mind, Clarissa, and what happens to her, is so intensely the product of fiction that it never occurred to me that readers that would think her experiences were based on my own. Stalking is a deeply disturbing and upsetting and scary thing, and it really can take over the life of a victim. The options that somebody has in this situation are starkly limited. Clarissa does everything in her power to fight back, taking seriously any morsel of advice she can find. Readers may be frustrated by how narrow her options are – she certainly is. To be true to such subject matter, you can’t avoid writing a novel that is unnerving.

Q.: Tell us a little bit about your fascination with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and how your novel compares as far as plot and emphasis.

In England we have a radio programme called Desert Island Discs, where somebody famous chooses not just the pieces of music that matter most to them, but the one book they’d take with them if they were to be marooned. Clarissa is without a doubt the choice I’d make. This isn’t just because it would keep me busy for a long time – it’s one of the longest novels in the English language. Imagine all seven Harry Potter novels bound together as one, and you are on your way towards grasping Clarissa’s size. And the Harry Potter comparison is pretty apt, because Clarissa was a phenomenon in its time. Richardson’s readers were waiting eagerly for each of the seven volumes to be published. They were writing fan letters to the author about his characters’ fates and what they hoped would happen, trying to influence what the writer did next.

Richardson’s Clarissa is an exploration of erotic obsession and violence, the social and legal challenges human beings face in resisting it, and the cultural forces that produce it. More than anything, Clarissa is an entirely gripping story about issues that remain important and relevant. Its plot concerns the heroine’s pursuit by a man who is fixated upon her and will not let her go, however much she struggles to free herself from him; her escape routes are so severely restricted. And I think that probably describes the plot of The Book of You, too.

I would go so far as to call Clarissa a precursor to the modern thriller. The heroine is in peril. Her life is put at risk in an extreme situation. And something bigger than any individual is at stake; multiple families are affected, as well as the larger society in which they are embedded. The laws and customs do not protect Richardson’s heroine from sexual violence, and they provide her with no effective recourse after it occurs. I wondered: could that still happen today? And if so, how would a 21st century writer tell Clarissa’s story?

If The Book of You’s foundations lie in Richardson, though, I am glad that they seem to be so thoroughly embedded that few readers have noticed them. I didn’t want The Book of You to wear its origins heavily, or advertise them in any way that interferes with the story I’m telling, which is at root a contemporary psychological or literary thriller. But I hope that anyone who has read Clarissa might glimpse elements of some of Richardson’s characters in mine.

My own Clarissa is filled with light and enchantment, despite the darkness pressing upon her as she tells her tale and fights for her life. I hope readers will fall under her spell as I have. Even now, her voice still haunts me, and I think it probably always will. Finding it was one of my most special and thrilling moments as a novelist. Richardson’s epistolary novel, told in the second person and famously stressing the idea of ‘writing to the moment,’ helped me to do so.

Q.: What fairy tales or folk tales inspire The Book of You?

Every night of my childhood, my father told me stories. It was a ritual of his, that whenever he came to the moment that Snow White took the poisoned apple from the queen, he’d say, ‘Snow White wasn’t very bright, was she? You wouldn’t open the door to a stranger, or take food from a stranger, would you?’ Years later, when I read Anne Sexton’s revisionary collection of fairy tales, Transformations, and she calls Snow White a ‘dumb bunny’, I thought, Oh, she stole that idea from my father!

So The Book of You is also born out of my love for fairytales. I’m far from alone in my wish to explore their darkness and persistent influence on culture and literature. This, I hope, is in the tradition of more recent writers than Richardson.    I had Anne Sexton in mind, but also Margaret Atwood, who calls one of her short story collections Bluebeard’s Egg and one of her novels The Robber Bride. I was also thinking of Angela Carter’s extraordinary stories, in The Bloody Chamber.

My novel’s chapter titles directly invoke fairy tales. The first one is called ‘The Spinning Girl’. This girl is Clarissa herself, because her world is literally throwing her off balance, but also because it was inevitable that I should make her a seamstress. So many fairy tale heroines take up their needles! As a novelist, I wanted to play out the fairy tale themes that have always haunted me. One concerns those impossible models of beauty that permeate our culture, and the lasting damage they cause to the human beings who fall short of them. The central template for this is ‘Snow White’, and in The Book of You there is a character called Rowena who is especially damaged by it.

The Book of You also picks up on the latent sexual violence of the fairy tales; and how easily the socially acceptable face of a hero who unwaveringly pursues the object of his affections becomes something far more dangerous. I’ve always been perplexed that people don’t talk more often about the fact that so many young women go missing in the fairy tales. The key story for this is ‘Bluebeard.’ My wise and protective father would never read that one to me, so of course I snuck off and read it myself. And I was disturbed and surprised to find that so many of those tales were about sexual serial killers, like ‘Fitcher’s Bird’ and ‘The Robber Bridegroom.’  I wanted The Book of You to tell a story about the underside of Romantic notions of love – requited and unrequited – in which the gestures of chivalry and unwavering devotion can blur into dangerous obsession. ‘The Steadfast Lover’ is another of my chapter titles, and while little girls may fantasise about such committed adoration, the reality isn’t always very beautiful.

Clarissa’s story is also a modern version of the fairy tale yearning to become pregnant and have a child; a yearning that for some women can be overwhelming. In the fairy tales, it often means death. Think about how Snow White’s mother dies soon after her baby is born. But even in stories where the mother doesn’t die, there is some other terrible price to pay for the fulfillment of her wish. Usually it’s the child who pays it, though her parents suffer and grieve too. Sleeping Beauty has to sleep for one hundred years. Rapunzel gets locked in a tower for a long time.

Q.: Which writers have influenced your writing?

There’ve been so many. A really special one is Charles Dickens, especially Bleak House. On the one hand Dickens gives us Esther’s first person, past tense, incredibly immediate and confiding story. On the other, he gives us the third person, present tense narrative describing the law courts and Lady Deadlock. Bleak House beautifully weaves these strands together, and the reader is increasingly drawn in by the question of what these two seemingly different worlds can have to do with each other. It’s a technique that made a huge impression on me.

Most of my favourite novels manage to be both commercial and literary at the same time. I’m drawn to stories that escalate with each page. Justin Cronin’s The Passage and Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf fuse the melodramatic and unreal elements of the horror genre with serious narratives of real human problems. So does Stephen King’s 11.22.63. King manages to make the Groundhog Day scenario of a character who lives through the same moments over and over again into a thoughtful treatment of an important piece of political history. Michael Connelly’s The Concrete Blonde is a work of art in its blending of crime fiction and courtroom drama. There’s a dystopian novel by Ninni Holmqvist called The Unit, about a society where childless women over fifty are harvested for their organs. I read it in one sitting and nearly short-circuited my kindle from weeping – that for me is a brilliant book. It’s rather in the manner of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, another story about reproduction that really got under my skin.

A lot of the novels I love have voices that are both intimate and compelling. In terms of psychological thrillers, I think Rosamund Lupton has had the most direct influence on me. Sister is written in the second person, and helped me to think about how I could adapt what Samuel Richardson does with ‘you.’ I admire Gillian Flynn and S.J. Watson very much, though I didn’t actually read Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep until I’d finished writing The Book of You.

Q.: What makes your novel relevant to readers?

I hope that The Book of You lets readers put themselves in the shoes of someone in a complex and difficult situation, and that the story touches on experiences and issues that will strike a chord. The plot encompasses stalking and the treatment of victims within the criminal justice system. Sexual violence and sadism seemed to me to be connected to these things. Fertility, pregnancy, body image, female beauty, drug abuse and self-medication are also involved.

At its heart, I’ve tried to write an atmospheric psychological thriller that will make readers want to keep turning the pages, and I’ve tried to create a heroine that people will care about and identify with. But I think the theme of stalking is of huge interest and importance, and will divide opinions. Since writing the book, I’ve been shocked by how many people – both male and female – have told me that this has happened to them. The statistics vary. One study says 1 in 12 women. Another says 1 in 6. Still another says 1 in 4. For men the figures range from 5% to 7%.

Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa is a story about sexual sadism and cruelty. So is The Book of You, which is topical given the recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey. But my own novel portrays sexual sadism in a rather different and I think more realistic light.

Someone asked me what my wishes are for The Book of You. I have far more than the requisite fairytale three, but the most important one is that readers will enjoy the novel. Another is that it will spark conversation.

Claire’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, April 29th: From the TBR Pile

Wednesday, April 30th: Sara’s Organized Chaos

Thursday, May 1st: BoundbyWords

Monday, May 5th: Kritters Ramblings

Tuesday, May 6th: Excellent Library

Wednesday, May 7th: Jenn’s Bookshelves

Thursday, May 8th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Monday, May 12th: Book Hooked Blog

Wednesday, May 14th: A Bookworm’s World

Tuesday, May 20th: Anita Loves Books

Tuesday, May 20th: Drey’s Library

Thursday, May 22nd: Literary Feline

Monday, May 26th: Booksie’s Blog

Tuesday, May 27th: Kahakai Kitchen


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