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Interview: January 26, 2017

THE GIRL BEFORE is the first psychological thriller from JP Delaney, a pseudonym for a writer who has previously written bestselling fiction under other names. This enthralling novel spins one woman’s seemingly good fortune, and another woman’s mysterious fate, through a kaleidoscope of duplicity, death and deception. In this interview, Delaney talks to Carol Fitzgerald, the president and co-founder of The Book Report Network, about the mysterious house at the center of the story --- a minimalist architectural masterpiece with secrets of its own --- as well as how the book evolved over the 15 years he spent writing it. In THE GIRL BEFORE, the house plays a big role; in fact, with the secrets it keeps, it feels like a character. When you were writing, did you start with the concept of the house? And what was your inspiration for its design?

JP Delaney: Yes, the house came first. I came across a magazine article many years ago about a minimalist house in London, and was immediately struck by just how obsessive and perfectionist an architect would have to be to pursue that kind of aesthetic, where even the tiniest detail could ruin the whole effect. I started to visit minimalist houses, even though I didn’t know at that stage whether it might become a book. But I’ve always been a big fan of books with houses at their core --- REBECCA is one that jumps to mind --- and I started to think about the possibility of taking that gothic tradition and switching it around so the house is ultra-modern instead of old and creepy.

BRC: Are your home and office as stark and severe as One Folgate Street? Do you work better in a minimalistic setting or in a cluttered one?

JPD: Cluttered! (In fact, “Clutter” was at one point the ironic title of the book. Not a very good one, I soon realized.) I can understand --- and even feel --- the lure of a beautiful, empty, perfect house, but to me it’s a siren call, like the “cold pastoral” of Keats’ Grecian Urn. My house is full of animals and books and people and mess. To me, that’s what being human is all about. And, of course, one of the ironies of the book is that --- as Emma says at one point --- the characters can’t ever escape the mess that’s inside their own heads.

BRC: I found both Emma and Jane becoming more introspective as they moved throughout the house without distractions of physical objects. They both had more time for thinking and dealing with the issues that brought them to the house. Through this, their characters become more revealed. When we strip people of their possessions, do you feel that they focus more on themselves and their emotions?

JPD: Yes, I saw the house as a kind of crucible, where all the layers of pretense that Emma, Jane and Simon had muddled along with got stripped away. But we’re never quite sure if it’s their true character that’s being revealed, or whether the house is actually changing them.

BRC: Choice is a parallel to freedom. Once you have made your choices in this house, they are locked in place for you. Is there a moment that you changed the choice a character made to better suit the story?

JPD: Yes, often. I re-wrote this book many, many times over the course of about 15 years, with the characters of the two women only gradually becoming distinct.  

BRC: The architect, Edward Monkford, holds a lot of the cards, and you cleverly help him play them. Which character was the most challenging to write? Emma? Jane? Monkford? Which flowed the most smoothly?

JPD: I would say Edward was the hardest to write, but only because he has to remain both attractive and ambiguous --- we have to wonder what he’s capable of, without ever being quite sure. As for the two women, sometimes I was fonder of one, sometimes the other. The great thing about writing in this genre is that --- thanks to Gillian Flynn --- there’s no requirement to write one-dimensional characters anymore. People can be both good and evil, likable and hateable.

BRC: The book alternates chapters between Emma and Jane. Did you write it that way as well?

JPD: That was one of the things that most excited me about writing the book. Quite early on I found myself thinking about the well-known theory that sociopathic killers have a “pattern” --- they like to repeat the details of previous killings, almost like a writer retelling a story over and over again. I wondered if it was possible to tell the story of a murder victim as one continuous narrative, even though it’s being repeated with a different woman. So my narrators’ chapters flow seamlessly into each other as one continuous story, even though three years separates them.  

BRC: The title "The Girl Before," immediately implies that something happened in the past and sparks curiosity. How did you land on this title?

JPD: The book had several titles over the 15 years it took me to write it. THE GIRL BEFORE came to me about seven or eight years ago --- so, I suppose, after THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO but before GONE GIRL. I spent a couple of months last year thinking of an alternative, partly because another book was published with the same title, and partly because people were saying that readers were getting fed up with books with “Girl” in the title. But it just felt like the right title for the story.

BRC: Applicants to live at One Folgate Street are given a detailed questionnaire with 200 questions. I loved the survey questions included throughout the book and found myself wondering how I would be judged on the replies. Did you write those all at once or go back to insert them later? I would love to see that quiz all in one place and see how I would score!

JPD: The questions are indeed all in one place at (There’s no scoring system yet, though.) They were an aspect of the story that the very first readers and publishers all loved, so in the final draft I gave them more of a role. Many are adapted from real questionnaires used by psychologists.

BRC: Technology plays a big role in the book, which has its challenges since what would have been available to Jane, which is the “Now” part of the story, may not have been there when Emma lived in the house. Did you have to keep track of that as you were writing?

JPD: Yes, but I tried to make the technology slightly out of date, as this was a futuristic, cutting-edge house when it was built. But even by the time Emma lives there, it’s showing its age a bit. Almost nothing’s wireless, for example. And there’s no letter box, because when it was built everyone was predicting that email would make letters redundant. The sense that the technology might be unreliable is partly what makes the house so creepy.

BRC: You have written books under other names, but this is your first psychological thriller as “JP Delaney.” How did this writing experience differ from those in the past? Would you want to explore the thriller genre more in the future?

JPD: I wrote this book over 15 years, partly because I just couldn’t make it work. So I wrote other books, in other genres, instead, but kept coming back to this one each time I finished one of those. It only gradually became a psychological thriller, and since my previous books had been very different, it made sense to publish this one under a different writing name. But there definitely will be another JP Delaney book!

BRC: The ending of the story has an emotional twist that I confess I did not see coming, but I have learned that it is one that was very close to you. I do not want to reveal what happened, but did writing that ending feel personally satisfying to you?

JPD: Definitely. It took me a long time to work out why I was so determined to write this particular book, and why the characters and their predicaments meant so much to me. I only gradually came to realize that it was because I was both attracted to, and repelled by, the whole idea of trying to live a more perfect, beautiful life. My youngest son is autistic, and his older brother died of cot death. I eventually twigged that this book is, at its core, all about embracing the muddle and mess and preciousness of human relationships and prioritizing them above all else. If you have walls your kids can’t scribble on, you may have the wrong walls.