Like every reader, there are some books that come along that I must read, and in turn, I must interview the author. The Keeper by debut author Jessica Moor was one of those books.
Since my career in law enforcement began too many years ago for me to share, I’ve felt passionately about changing the way society views domestic violence and violence against women. I transferred into the Special Victims Unit on the police department to work for a specific sergeant, but when I got there, staying there to make a difference became my personal passion. When I was promoted, I spent time in patrol but went right back to the unit that had become my calling.
Today, I still feel passionately about the subject, I am disheartened when we take steps backwards, and heartened when we smash that glass ceiling as The Keeper sets out to do. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
Kym: Welcome to the Cozy Corner on Fresh Fiction, Jessica!
Jessica: Thank you! I’m feeling distinctly cozy already!
Congratulations on the release of your debut novel! In just a few sentences, tell us what THE KEEPER is about.
THE KEEPER is set in and around a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence. The body of Katie Straw, a young woman who works in the shelter, is found washed up in the local river. The police are inclined to write it off as suicide, but the women in the shelter believe otherwise. The novel follows the investigation, through the eyes of both the investigating officer and the women living in the shelter. We also delve into Katie’s history through flashback, and discover the void between who she seemed to be, and who she was. Really it’s a novel about violence against women, and the social institutions that allow that violence to continue and go unpunished.
The book is set at a shelter for women who have been the victims of domestic violence or abuse. You have worked in shelters yourself, how did that firsthand experience inform this story?
I mostly worked in the head office of a charity that supported victims of violence against women (I wasn’t a frontline worker) but I did visit quite a few shelters. A lot of what made it into the book was little details–the kids’ pictures on the walls, the way the heating was always turned way up. But also there’s this unique feeling of entering an underground railroad–a network of secret spaces that exist to keep women safe. You realize that women essentially have to go there because there are men who want to hurt or even kill them–and the police and the courts aren’t stopping them. I think that shook my faith in the social institutions of law and justice.
What other sources of inspiration were there for THE KEEPER?
I found inspiration within anger. There’s a line from Adrienne Rich that I always come back to “my visionary anger cleanses my sight.” I’m interested in the idea that anger can help us to see clearly, rather than clouding our judgement. Anger is often represented as a force that destabilizes women, in particular. I don’t think that’s true. Rebecca Traister’s book Good and Mad expresses this argument beautifully.
I was also inspired by a lot of the true crime narratives that I saw. I started writing this book in 2016, and stories like Serial and Making a Murderer had been very popular in the couple of years preceding. I take issue with the way we deploy female bodies as a narrative hook—I’m sure we can all think of examples of that. So it was a reverse inspiration; I wanted to do the opposite of those lazy depictions of women as silenced victims. I wanted to center women.
You received a cover quote from bestselling Scottish crime writer, Val McDermid that said, “Made me want to shout out in anger.” I’m not sure I can think of better praise for your book, let alone your debut novel. In The Keeper you’ve been able to reach an emotional level for the reader that every case worker, police officer, detective, prosecutor and loved one of a victim of domestic violence has felt many times over. Yet the systemic issues of funding continue to persist for every entity that assists victims of domestic violence. What do you think it will take to produce change?
On the one hand there’s a very clear financial case to be made for funding services. I’m not sure of the figures in the US, but I know that in the UK the cost of each domestic homicide is estimated at £2.2 million (and bearing in mind that an average of two women a week are murdered by a partner or former partner, that’s a hell of a lot). Overall domestic violence is estimated to cost the economy £66 billion annually. So clearly, even if you only care about the bottom line, it makes sense to fund these services.
But funding is never just a case of economic cost and benefit. There’s always an ideology behind it. If you don’t fund say, prison rehabilitation programmes, that’s less because you don’t think they deliver value and more because you believe that the purpose of prison is punishment, and you’re not interested in redemption. It’s the same with domestic violence. I suspect that a lot of it has got to do with victim-blaming. Instead of examining the practical reasons why a woman might not be able to leave a violent partner, a lot of people soothe themselves with the idea that the woman is somehow responsible for her situation. Maybe that she’s a masochist. That her situation is somehow inevitable.
I use the word ’soothe’ because when you can tell yourself that a problem, like domestic violence, can’t be changed, it takes away the onus to change it. That’s why we need better stories.
I’ve heard you are interested in the behaviors between men and women and how behaviors that are considered normal, healthy, and even loving feed into the social narratives that allow violence to continue and to go unpunished. What do you mean by this and how is that explored in the book?
Because of THE KEEPER, a lot of friends have started talking to me about how they’re worried about friends of their own. The story always starts with “you wouldn’t have thought it—he’s such a nice guy, and he loves her so much.” Yet often that charm and apparent love can mask control and manipulation. This can exist in all romantic relationships, of course, but there’s a particular script that exists in the dynamics between men and women. The idea that uncontrollable jealousy is a side-effect of love, that a woman will to some extent allow her identity to be obliterated. That’s writ large in things like the assumption that a woman will change her name, that she’ll stay home with the children, that she’ll do the cooking and the cleaning while the man gets to go out there and fulfill his destiny. I explore that in the book by honing in on those little details in a way that sees them not as part and parcel of being a woman, but as the result of a sustained pattern of control.
The typical crime novel detective is a hero, and maybe he’s brooding or troubled, but he’s ultimately on the side of justice. The reality is, that’s often not the case, especially for marginalized people like the abuse victims in this story. Can you talk a little bit about how you wanted to subvert that with your book?
It sounds cynical but I don’t think that the police are there to enforce justice, they’re there to maintain the established order. In America there’s this ongoing conversation about police brutality and maybe we need more of that in the UK. Who is considered credible or worthy of sympathy is often based on prejudice, and those prejudices are often reiterated through police, the justice system, the prison system.
I also think we’re very beholden to the archetype of Sherlock Holmes in crime fiction, as this may be emotionless but hyper-logical savant. But if every cop really were so talented, I don’t believe that two women a week would be killed in the UK by a partner or former partner. If something happened to a loved one of mine then I’d hope for a Sherlock-esque detective to deliver them justice, but I think in reality I’d probably end up with someone like DS Whitworth. Someone totally well-intentioned, but ultimately blinkered and beholden to their own prejudices.
I spent most of my law enforcement career in the Special Victims Unit working with victims, advocates, and prosecutors. From personal experience, I know a detective, social worker and/or prosecutor must have a calling to do the job, otherwise working a caseload of fifty to a hundred different victims every day will bury the very people who are charged with keeping the victims out of the grave. During the selection process for each one of these positions it can be difficult to weed out individuals who can’t handle the workload or stress of investigating family violence. What do you think is the most important characteristic these people must share?
Your experience sounds fascinating. I’d love to know what your answer to that question would be! Really I don’t feel qualified to answer that, because I was never on the front line myself. I was writing funding applications, very much behind the scenes.
With that said, when I was crafting the character of Val, who runs the women’s shelter, I drew a lot on the characteristics of people I met. First and foremost I wanted to honour the compassion and determination of those people – Val is not a particularly likeable character, but I believe that she’s a very compassionate one. She’s also a resistor. She knows that she’s fighting the status quo, and to some people that makes her unlikeable or unfeminine. She doesn’t care, she keeps going. I love her for that, and I love so many people on the front line for that.
I identified with the fact that Val wasn’t likable. Most victims aren’t. They’re in pain, emotional, with feelings of betrayal not only by their loved ones, but by the system. Most people, not just victims, aren’t likable when they experience even one of those circumstances. To expect victims to behave any differently is unrealistic and unjust.
Our legal systems are similar, but very different, yet problems persist with getting domestic violence cases to court no matter what country one considers. It is a global crisis that has yet to be addressed in a positive manner around the world. How do we educate our young women and children to demand more out of their relationships as they begin to date?
All our stories around romantic love are terrible. Fundamentally flawed. There’s so much airtime given to the idea of the whirlwind, the thrill of the chase, the extreme highs and lows. The experience of constant, quiet, practical loving commitment is rarely represented–maybe because it goes against the rules of narrative–that something needs to happen. Good love doesn’t necessarily make a good story.
But we need to try. Not least because with the idea of whirlwind romance and passion things like jealousy, control, even violence, can creep in.
There’s also a huge problem with young women being raised to see themselves first and foremost from an external perspective – how do I look? Do people like me? Am I making everyone else feel good? But we don’t teach girls to ask themselves – how do I feel? Do I like the people around me? How do I feel?
If you can’t ask yourself those fundamental questions, then sexuality becomes almost impossible to inhabit.
That’s a pretty diagnostic answer. I’m not sure what the answer is other than – new stories. Better stories.
Without giving blatant spoilers, the ending of this book isn’t neatly tied up with a bow; it reflects the shades of gray that often exist in justice systems. Did you always know how the book would end? Why was it important to you that it end that way?
Always. It was essential to me that the novel would end the way it does. Luckily I had an agent and editor who completely understood that, so I didn’t need to go into battle over it–but I would have, if necessary!
I felt that it would be utterly dishonest to write a story like this that ended neatly. At the same time, I didn’t want to be totally pessimistic–I really do believe that there’s hope if we can change attitudes.
I recently had an email from an early reader who had been in an abusive relationship, and she liked the ending because she felt it was honest. The reality is that these things do not end neatly, there’s always pain and there’s always fallout, and more often than not there’s the reality that the perpetrator may continue to wreak havoc in their victim’s life.
The book is such a propulsive read, in part because it interweaves two timelines: the final months of our main character Katie’s life, and the police investigation after her death. As a reader, I found it so suspenseful, unlike almost anything I’ve read, waiting for the moment those two timelines come crashing together and everything is revealed. What was it like writing this book and finding the balance between those two timelines?
Oh, thank you! I had to work damn hard on the structure–luckily structure is one of those technical things that you can educate yourself on and improve. I took a lot of feedback from the right people to get that balance. I believe that a great story can operate as a sort of Trojan horse; you can sneak whatever themes you like, as long as you get the story right.
I don’t think it was ever particularly difficult to keep the two timelines in balance because they were always informing each other. I wanted every part of Katie’s experience to be in dialogue with the experiences of the women in the refuge. I think they always stayed roughly in balance, because to me they were connected.
What was the process of writing THE KEEPER?
It took me two and a half months to write the first draft, and then two and a half years to edit the book into something that worked. For most of that time I thought that it was probably awful, but I kept going because I felt that it was a story worth telling.
What was the biggest challenge of writing the book?
The parts that came easiest were the moments of emotion–maybe it’s that visionary anger thing. Those were the bits that had stored up inside me and were just waiting to come spilling out. The tough part was the mechanics of storytelling, particularly because story is essential to crime. There’s nothing more disappointing than a great setup and then a mediocre payoff. In order to subvert some of the crime novel elements, I needed to understand what those elements were and how they work. It was no hardship–I read and studied a bunch of great crime novels.
There was also the challenge of flipping between a number of different narrative voices. My practical solution to that was to assign a certain song to every narrative voice, and listen to that song whenever I was writing that character so I could get into the headspace more easily.
What do you want people to take away from reading this book?
On the one hand, I don’t think it’s for an author to be prescriptive about what their reader gets out of their book. If a reader has any kind of meaningful engagement with something I write then that’s incredible, and the beauty of fiction is that there’s space for a whole range of interactions. With that said, the thing I love most about fiction is that it takes the things that we find cognitively true and makes them emotionally true. That was what I set out to do for myself I suppose–I knew about all these stories
If I had to sum it up in a sentence, I’d say that my hope for this book is that a reader would come away from it knowing that they’ll never again ask the glib question “Why doesn’t she just leave?” These questions are complex, and fiction is the space for exploring complexity.
Who are some writings who you like to read?
I read widely and don’t stick to a particular genre. The writer that most overtly inspired me in writing this book was Kate Atkinson–before starting THE KEEPER I had just read her incredible novel A God in Ruins and I think it’s one of the finest novels of the 21st century. I’m in awe of the way that she’s a total literary heavyweight and yet she can do story like no one else. You adore her characters, you believe that they’re real. And then when she pulls off some incredible feat of experimentation, you feel like she’s earned that right.
More recently, I really enjoyed The Need by Helen Phillips–a beautiful, subversive take on a home invasion novel that I can’t stop thinking about. On the nonfiction side, Jia Tolentino’s book of essays, Trick Mirror, was utterly brilliant. Her essay on rape culture at the University of Virginia helped so many things to click for me.
This is a debut for you as a novelist, will you stick to this genre? What’s next for you?
I didn’t specifically set out to write a crime novel. I wanted to write about violence against women and that means writing about the cultural stories surrounding violence against women, which means engaging with crime as a genre.
I think I might end up a hermit crab in terms of genre–a feminist hermit crab. I want to go into different genres, find out what the hidden assumptions and stories are within those genres, and try to bring them to light. In the future I plan to write books with compelling stories, and I plan to write with the view that the things that happen to women are as fundamental to the human experience as the things that happen to men. Beyond that, it’s hard to say.
Thank you for joining us on the Cozy Corner!
Thank you for your thought-provoking questions! I’ve had a blast.
A special thank you to Penguin/Viking and author Jessica Moor for not only providing a comprehensive Q&A, but allowing me to expand upon their interview with more questions of my own. They were a pleasure to work with.
Until next month when I sit down with USA Today bestselling author Callie Hutton, get cozy and read on!
An addictive literary thriller about a crime as shocking as it is commonplace
When Katie Straw’s body is pulled from the waters of the local suicide spot, the police are ready to write it off as a standard-issue female suicide. But the residents of the domestic violence shelter where Katie worked disagree. These women have spent weeks or even years waiting for the men they’re running from to catch up with them. They know immediately: This was murder.
Still, Detective Dan Whitworth and his team expect an open-and-shut case–until they discover evidence that suggests Katie wasn’t who she appeared. Weaving together the investigation with Katie’s final months as it barrels toward the truth, The Keeper is a riveting mystery and a searing examination of violence against women and the structures that allow it to continue, marking the debut of an incredible new voice in crime fiction.
About Kym Roberts
Passion. Mystery. Suspense. Catch the Wave! Because a little PMS can change your world!
Kym Roberts is a retired detective sergeant who looks for passion, mystery and suspense in every book she reads and writes. She can be found on the web at kymroberts.com, on Facebook @KymRobertsAuthor911 and on Twitter @kymroberts911.You can also listen to her podcast Romance Book Chat with Kym and Misty on iTunes & Stitcher. Her Amazon bestselling Book Barn Mystery #5, Killer Classics was a finalist for the Fresh Fiction Awards for Best Cozy Mystery & Best Book!