JULY 13, 2016
FLYNN BERRY STARTED writing her novel Under the Harrow while she was still a graduate student at the Michener Center for Writers in fall 2014. She finished it the following fall and sold it a few weeks after finding an agent. The book started generating buzz almost as soon as it found a publisher, and it came out last month endorsed by the likes of Claire Messud and Jill Alexander Essbaum, with foreign editions slated for Denmark, Romania, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.
The book follows two sisters, Nora and Rachel, who share a difficult past. On holiday from London, adult Nora arrives at Rachel’s house to find Rachel dead in a pool of blood, her dog hanging by its leash from the stairs. Soon, everyone in town is a suspect, including Nora. Berry handles this setup with a deft hand and a poetic touch, her plot careening around corners without ever losing its lyricism. It’s the kind of story you won’t feel guilty consuming all at once even if you have to take the day off work to do it.
Berry and I met more than a decade ago in New York as teenagers. A few years later, we found ourselves studying creative writing at the same university. Earlier this year, I was delighted to see Under the Harrow on the BEA Buzz Books list, a collection of some of the most anticipated fiction of the coming year. I reached out to talk to her about what it was like to write a genre novel in an MFA program, how our early experiences studying writing influenced her work, and how her friendships (and rivalries) with women informed the relationship at the heart of this story.
SARAH LABRIE: MFA programs usually shy away from genre. I’m curious about what the experience of writing this book at the Michener Center was like for you. Was writing mysteries something you went to graduate school wanting to do?
FLYNN BERRY: I didn’t think about the genre while I was working on it. I came up with the initial setup of a woman [Nora] going into a house and what she finds there, and I wanted to explore that. I think the Michener program was great, because they cared a lot about story and pulling the reader along, even though I know MFA programs aren’t necessarily known for that. There definitely wasn’t any sort of snobbishness on their part about my writing a murder story, which was good.
Do you remember what you were reading while you were writing? I thought a lot about Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca — all the dark, twisty foliage and rained-on English countrysides. At one point I think you even have a character quote a line that’s in the film and the book, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
I actually hadn’t read any Daphne du Maurier until I finished the book. After I was done, I read Rebecca, and was completely blown away by it. At the time, I was reading sort of a mix of literary fiction and mystery writing. My favorite writers are usually ones who combine the two, so they give the reader some sense of urgency or dread, but not necessarily an actual body count. There’s a novel by Graham Swift I really like called The Light of Day. He’s a literary writer but he wrote a book about a private investigator. I also really like Tessa Hadley. Her books usually don’t have crimes, but there’s still that sense of propulsion. And then, of course, since I was in graduate school, I read everything one would read in an English program: 19th-century plays, poetry, and short stories. It was kind of fun to mix those in with straight thrillers. There’s this guy, Michael Robotham, who writes really pulpy books, and I was reading those with La Dame aux Camélias and Jean Genet’s The Maids. That was interesting because so many of those books could also be characterized as crime stories too, even though we think of them as classics.
Right. It’s funny how there’s this divide between literary fiction and genre fiction, but literary fiction only works if there’s a mystery at the heart of it.
I also think it’s all about how you approach it. I read Rebecca as a classic and as part of my education, but I was talking to a friend of mine who said they loved it, but who also called it “totally trashy.” And I was like, what do you mean? It’s not trashy! So I think it has so much to do with what the cover looks like and the era in which it’s marketed.
Going back to Manderley and Rebecca, can we talk about the importance of place in this novel? There’s a very rich sense of it, especially at the beginning when you’re tracing the protagonist’s perceptions of London, Cornwall, and Marlow on her train ride to visit her sister.
Place is so important! It’s one of the biggest things I read for, and also one of the best parts about writing. The whole point of reading and writing is to find yourself inside this other world that you can retreat into and explore. It was hugely important for me to find locations I was interested in building or learning about.
I did a research trip the summer before I started writing, and some of that made it into the book. The pub in the first scene was a real place I visited. I rode on a train, and that helped with the opening scene. A lot of the research was also just in having read so many books by British authors. I had a book of landscape photographs from the 1930s of the English countryside that I basically memorized and that helped with the architecture and the landscape.
What made you decide to set the book in England?
It sort of wasn’t a decision. I don’t remember thinking, “Oh, England!” The character came first, and I knew she was English. As I was going along with that, everything about the atmosphere seemed to fit with England as well. I love the history of English mysteries and wanted to sort of pay my respects to them.
I spent about two weeks in England and did a lot of research as I was writing. With Google Street View, you can see every little detail of a street, as if you’re walking down it, so I did a lot of that, and that made the writing process so much more fun. Everything I learned about England was also something I was learning about the world of my book. I could use it. Whether it was learning different terms, types of food, or the names of soccer teams, it was all incredibly satisfying. Writing the book ended up becoming like a puzzle. I wrote it with English spelling and then it was Americanized in copyediting.
It feels that way. I’m not English, so I probably shouldn’t say, but to me, this book didn’t feel like it was written by someone who grew up in the United States at all.
Part of me thinks that’s the whole point of writing. You’re creating something different. With the Elena Ferrante novels, I would love if it turned out the author is a woman in Idaho or something who is obsessed and who researched a lot and wanted to write about what she’d learned.
Why did you decide to make the female protagonists two adult sisters? What were you interested in saying about sisterhood?
I knew I wanted to write a story that had a relationship between women at its heart. I just find those relationships endlessly fascinating — I like the jealousy, the tension, and the admiration, and I feel like those are all feelings I have had with my group of friends. I think my relationships with my friends have been the most important thing to me. It just seems like there’s so much color and drama in those stories that you can use.
Speaking of friendships, do you have other friends from graduate school who have been sending books out? Or who have sold them? What has negotiating those relationships been like?
We’ve had a few people who sold books recently. One of them is Karan Mahajan who wrote The Association of Small Bombs, and that’s super exciting because he was in The New Yorker and his book debuted to glowing reviews. That was interesting, because I’ve had many beers with him and it’s nice to see that happen. And then there’s another woman from my program named Kelly Luce who is writing a book about a Japanese woman who murdered her childhood bully in Japan, and I’m really excited about that. It’s just nice because it’s not a zero-sum game. There are so many editors out there with different tastes. And I didn’t feel like anyone in my program was begrudging of people who have sold things, which is good, because I don’t know if that’s the case everywhere.
I don’t know what your experience of creative writing in college was like, but I always felt like the fiction program at Brown was so weird that it wound up being really freeing. You could more or less do anything you wanted. What was studying writing there like for you?
It was the best, because everyone was so excited. I think my very first story that I was assigned was a Kelly Link story and I remember thinking, “Oh, you can do anything.” That was really, really fascinating. There was a Caryl Churchill play we read where a character dies and then reappears on the stage, and I was like, “Yep, you’re allowed to do that.” Plus, there was this pervasive idea of just writing something that you would want to read — it seems like both of the writing programs I attended were good about that, about not trying to force anyone into any particular shape or genre.
You don’t have a huge social media footprint. You’re not on Instagram and I don’t think you were on Twitter before. Is that something that you were purposely not doing, or was it just that you hadn’t thought about it? I’m also interested in what social media means for you now as an author putting your book out in the world.
Yeah. Ah. It just, it never seemed relevant before I had a book coming out. I wasn’t publishing anything. I hadn’t published articles or stories, really. I was just kind of picking away at a novel. And that’s hard. I think the more calm you can have, the better. For me it can be distracting to hear about what everyone else is doing. And then, as soon as you publish something, it’s easy to start quantifying everything, so you start to quantify how many reviews you have on Goodreads and how many Twitter followers you have in advance. That seems pretty damaging, so I try to minimize that as much as I can.
You’re working on your second book at the moment, but right now you’re also promoting your debut. What’s it been like to inhabit both those spaces at the same time?
I definitely still feel like I’m living with the characters from Under the Harrow. I try to work on the new book every day, but I haven’t fully switched over yet. And there have still been bits of work to do — the last copyedits for the UK version were only finished a few weeks ago. My plan is to take a research trip later this summer, and then buckle down.