Jessica Moor grew up in south-west London. She has a BA in English Literature from Cambridge University and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester and lives in Berlin. Her debut thriller, Keeper, is published on 26 March.
1. Who were your literary heroes and influences as you were growing up?
I read the Harry Potter books so many times as a kid that I know them almost word for word. Nowadays I listen to the audiobooks read by Stephen Fry to fall asleep, and I can’t stop marvelling at the brilliance of J. K. Rowling’s plotting. I think those shaped my idea of what it meant to tell a story, to deliver for readers. I have this dream of teaching a course on narrative based entirely on Harry Potter.
The books I loved growing up are still the most important books in my life. Just William, by Richmal Crompton, for humour, Roald Dahl for justice. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, for voice and a sense of place. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott for tenderness and the love of everyday life. A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket, for a sense of absurdity and the importance of not patronising children. Dickens and Austen for everything.
2. Can you give Suffolk readers a brief flavour of what to expect from your new book, Keeper?
Sunday Times Style called it a ‘feminist whodunit’ and I think that’s about the measure of it – I’ve always called it a feminist novel dressed up as a detective novel. It’s a book about violence against women and what allows that violence to continue, and an examination of coercive control.
The body of a young woman, Katie Straw, is pulled from the waters of the local suicide spot in a small town in the North. The police decide it’s an open-and-shut case - a standard-issue female suicide. But the residents of Widringham women’s refuge where Katie worked don’t agree. They say it’s murder.
I was really inspired by what Kate Atkinson does with her Jackson Brodie novels, and that was probably what led me to play around with the crime genre.
3. Keeper is a very intense book which does not shy away from domestic violence and control issues. How did you get it to feel so authentic, and how did you step away from the subject matter when you were writing it?
I worked in the domestic violence sector for a while. I digested a lot of policy, a lot of studies and statistics about dead or injured women, a good number of domestic homicide reviews. I’d look up media coverage of women being killed by their partners and the headline would always be to the effect that she’d somehow made him do it. I’d go home and stand in the shower or run on the treadmill and not be able to think about anything else. I’d want to cry but not be able to.
So writing the book was a relief, a way of metabolising all that stuff. I still think about it a lot, but not in the same obsessive way. I didn’t really feel the need to step away – I felt calmed and focussed by the idea of doing something with all that anger and sadness.
4. In Keeper, you use ‘then’ and ‘now’ timelines. Did you have this structure in mind before you wrote it or is that how it developed?
That was always it. I was sick of the dead bodies of women being used as a sort of kickoff for a twisty narrative. There’s always a story before the story, and it’s only by going into that past that the victim can be centred and her humanity acknowledged. How did she end up like this? If I was going to write about a dead woman, I was going to give her a voice.
5. Is there anything you can share about your next project?
It’s about women and the things that happen to women, and it’s got a good story, if I do say so myself. It’s quite different to Keeper.
6. Have you ever read a book that changed your life or made you look at things differently?
When I had my first job in London I’d go to Kilburn Library and get books to read on my commute to my boring office job. I picked up lots of Jeanette Winterson’s because they were small and light; I could carry them easily in my handbag. Her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? changed my life. She writes about the love of life and the self – living ‘with a salmon-like determination to swim upstream, however choppy upstream is, because this is your stream…’’ I think about that a lot.
I saw that Winterson was the Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Manchester, so I applied to do a Master’s degree there a couple of years later. That was when I wrote Keeper. She taught me – I felt like I learned how to read all over again, to read as a writer - and gave me a quote for the book jacket. It’s funny how these things go.
7. Do you have a message for your readers here in Suffolk?
Firstly, enjoy having access to an English-language library! I live in Berlin now. Going to the library is one of the things I miss most about home. That and nice shop-bought sandwiches.
Secondly, if you’re worried about someone, if you think their partner is diminishing them, stick close. Don’t let them get isolated. If you think it might help and it’s safe to do so, say something. The national domestic violence helpline number is 0808 2000 247.
8. Can you tell us one thing your readers may not know about you?
I started writing Keeper when I was 23. My protagonist was older than me. But now she’s younger, and I feel correspondingly protective of her.
Also, I was born with one kidney.