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Interview: June 6, 2008

June 6, 2008

In this interview with's Alexis Burling, first-time author Lucie Whitehouse discusses how both her current home in London and childhood surroundings in the English countryside inspired her debut novel, THE HOUSE AT MIDNIGHT, and explains how the story has evolved over the course of her six-year writing process.

She also elaborates on some of the book's central themes --- like the influence of money, aging, and the differences between forgiving and forgetting --- sheds light on the nuanced personalities and relationships among her characters, and shares details about her next work in progress, THE BED I MADE. THE HOUSE AT MIDNIGHT is centered on a group of postgraduates/late twenty-somethings and (on a very basic level) their struggles with love and betrayal, finding suitable jobs, growing older, etc. Did you base the characters in this book on friends of yours, or are they completely products of your imagination?

Lucie Whitehouse: Happily, none of my characters are based on my friends, although I think there are elements --- fond elements --- of people I know and like in the book. I’m lucky enough to have two very close female friends, and I think that closeness is reflected in Jo’s relationship with Martha. The diffidence and kindness that is now Lucas’s at the start of the book belonged to a man I was fond of at university. The quicksilver elements of Danny --- the cleverness, his powers of attraction --- I can isolate to two or three major sources, but none of them is difficult or dangerous as he is.

BRC: You were born in the Cotswalds, grew up near Stratford-on-Avon and currently live in London. How did these environments shape the atmosphere and setting of THE HOUSE AT MIDNIGHT?

LW: Both London and the English country landscapes that I know well were hugely influential. The night that I had the first idea for the book, I was in a car driving out into the Oxfordshire countryside with friends for a drink at a pub by the river. It was an early summer evening and the light was just beginning to mellow. We were driving through lanes, which had verges that were lush with grass and cow parsley, and everything was verdant. It was a moment --- I have a lot of them --- when I was acutely aware of how beautiful England is and I thought, I want to capture this.

I grew up in a tiny village in the countryside outside Stratford-on-Avon, but when I had the first idea for the book, I was living in London for the first time. I love London with a great passion now, but to start with, I found it a culture shock. I was also travelling up to Oxford every weekend at the time to see my boyfriend, who was still at university, and I was torn between city and country. I think that tension comes across in the book.

BRC: You studied the classics while at Oxford. How did this background influence your writing?

LW: Studying Latin and Greek had a major impact on me. The myths and stories of those literatures are second to none. Everything is there: passion, love, jealousy, rivalry, murder. My favorite ancient writer is Euripides, and I love his plays because they are so psychologically accurate. I saw a production of Hippolytus when I was 16 and nursing a painful crush. I was shocked when, on stage, Phaedra --- a character written 2,500 years previously --- described exactly how I felt. That was a definite inspiration to me.

BRC: For the most part, THE HOUSE AT MIDNIGHT is told from Jo’s perspective. Did you ever consider writing it from Lucas’s? Danny’s?

LW: The narrator was always going to be Jo. One of the things that interests me is how young women now square their ambitions and plans for their lives with the sometimes contradictory claims that growing up and meeting a partner can make on them. I started writing the book when I was 24 and finished it when I was 30, and in that time, my own views of life changed a lot. I wanted Jo to experience some of that shift --- though, of course, she only has a year in which to do it.

BRC: I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” Given what your characters go through (especially Danny and Lucas), would you say that is one of the central themes of the book?

LW: Money is an important theme in the book, yes. I absolutely agree that money doesn’t buy happiness. Often, in fact, it buys unhappiness. Before he inherits Stoneborough Manor and his uncle’s other funds, Lucas is much surer that his friends’ affection for him is genuine. On the other hand, however, Jo’s job as a junior reporter with a local newspaper means she earns very little money and that is a source of tension for her. She feels not only that she lags behind her friends, but also that her financial status affects her standing in her relationships with partners who have more money than she does. However much we might wish it weren’t the case, money so often equals power.

BRC: As one of the only characters in the book who is older than 50, Elizabeth is such a dynamic character. She seems so poised, glamorous and together, yet judging by her actions (her relationship with a man 20 plus years her junior, for one), she doesn’t seem to be any further along in her development than the younger characters. In fact, her daughter, Diana, surpasses her in maturity and self-awareness. What was your inspiration for the relationship between these two? Do you see Diana as Elizabeth’s foil of sorts?

LW: Elizabeth came, I think, from my observations of women in their 50s and 60s whom I admire very much. I know several women that age who are very stylish and I wanted to write about that. At the same time, most of my friends who are in their 60s have told me that they are and probably always will be 25 on the inside. One thing I’ve learned is that getting older doesn’t mean that the passions that animate us when we in our teens and 20s fade away. We carry on searching --- for happiness and love and excitement --- all our lives. Unfortunately, this means that we also carry on making mistakes.

Diana’s relationship with her mother is interesting. Because her mother is not especially maternal, Diana has become mature sooner than many of her peers. She has seen her mother involved in a number of imperfect relationships over the years and has learned to cope with it. My generation was, I think, the first whose parents divorced in substantial numbers. Many of my peers’ parents split up when they were young, and I find it interesting that many of those parents are wild romantics while their children have learned to be more circumspect.

BRC: Of all the characters’ relationships, Lucas and Danny’s seems to be the most complex and open to interpretation. Some readers might say that the two broken men’s need for each other is mutually exclusive and self-destructive, while others might propose that Danny takes advantage of Lucas all along, and therefore should absorb all the blame for what happens in the end. Some might see Danny’s love for Lucas as erotic and homosexual, while others might interpret it as purely selfish. As the author, how do you want readers to interpret the feelings between these two, or is its ambiguity done on purpose?

LW: I think there is often a degree of ambiguity in intense relationships, and I wanted this to be true about the relationship between Lucas and Danny. If you asked either of them --- out of earshot of the other characters, especially Jo --- how they felt about each other, they would answer straightaway that they loved each other and were enormously close, but if they’d had a couple of glasses of wine and felt they were speaking confidentially, their answers might be less simple. What is true is that they need each other. Lucas needs Danny for his self-assurance and for the confidence he inspires in him. Danny would love to think he is emotionally independent of Lucas, but that is far from the case.

BRC: In THE HOUSE AT MIDNIGHT, many of the characters betray each other (Jo and Greg betray Lucas and Rachel, Michael is betrayed by Danny, Lucas is betrayed by his father). Thankfully, there are a few instances where characters are also forgiven (Martha forgives Jo, Greg forgives Lucas), but the particulars of the betrayal are certainly not forgotten. Do you see a difference between forgiving and forgetting? Which do you find easier to do?

LW: There is certainly a difference between forgiving and forgetting. Perhaps forgetting is the perfect form of forgiveness, but I think it is an ability that very few people have. I like to think that I am forgiving. When I do things I’m not proud of, I try to remember what motivated me so that if someone behaves towards me in the same way, I can understand. At the same time, if we are hurt, it is hard to forget, even if we forgive. Perhaps it is a human defense mechanism to remember where the hurt comes from.

BRC: In practically every review that’s been published thus far, THE HOUSE AT MIDNIGHT has been compared to Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY. Do you agree with this assessment?

LW: I can see why the book has been compared to THE SECRET HISTORY. There are certainly similarities: the group of characters whose intense relationships grow increasingly complicated and, of course, Classics. The books also share an intense atmosphere. At their cores, however, they are very different. My characters are 10 years older than those of THE SECRET HISTORY, and the issues that affect them are those of career, love and adult relationships. Another obvious difference between the books is that sex plays a major role in mine while --– rather like murders in Greek tragedy --- it happens off stage, if at all, in Donna Tartt’s. Anyone who hasn’t read THE SECRET HISTORY, however, should make it a priority: it is an incredible book.

BRC: Did the story change at all from when you first started writing it to its final draft?

LW: The story changed a lot in the writing, yes, and probably the major reason is that my characters aged with me. As I mentioned, I wrote the book over six years in my 20s when my views on life and how I wanted to live it changed radically. I wanted my characters to experience these changes, too.

Also, I’m someone who starts writing to see where the book will take me, rather than someone who sets out with a detailed plan. It’s an inefficient way of writing, I know, but I suspect that some of the things that I’ve learned about my characters without it. My subconscious works more freely when I’m writing than when I’m making plans.

BRC: What does Joanna look like in your head? Did your image of her change from when you first began writing THE HOUSE AT MIDNIGHT to the end?

LW: Jo has aged in my mind --- she has the beginnings of lines around her eyes now, though she thinks she isn’t bothered by them --- but otherwise she is physically the same. I deliberately didn’t want to describe how she looks.

BRC: Do you see yourself in any of the characters in particular? Who do you feel for the most?

LW: There are elements of me in several of the characters, probably because I feel happier plundering myself for material than I do my friends and acquaintances. Jo is probably most like me, though there are characteristics of mine in both Lucas and Elizabeth, too. I still aspire to Elizabeth’s poise, however. I feel for all of the characters in different ways. Although Danny is someone who almost all of my readers so far have told me they hate, I feel sympathy for him. For all his confidence and apparent indifference to what people think of him, he has a black hole in him, one that he has been trying to fill for years, and it is his inability to fill it that in many ways drives the plot.

BRC: Are there any characters who you want your readers to envision as purely evil and without any redeeming qualities? Or is there a reason to find compassion for all of them, each in their own way?

LW: I hope that, like me, my readers will find compassion for almost all my characters. As I mentioned before, Danny is the one who most people have disliked, but I think his behavior is understandable, if not forgivable. There is a worse character than him, and his actions are less easily justified. All of my characters are flawed to greater or lesser degrees, but I’ve yet to meet a perfect human being (my father tells me he’s as close as it gets, though).

BRC: While the ending is mostly resolved, there are a few loose ends that need tying up. Did you ever toy with having it all end differently? (And don’t give away what actually happens…your readers will want to be surprised!)

LW: Lots of people have asked me about the loose ends --- or end, probably --- that you mention. I think the answer is there, though! There could have been different endings, yes, but this one was right.

BRC: THE HOUSE AT MIDNIGHT is your first novel. Was your experience publishing a book anything like you expected it to be?

LW: I was a literary agent before I concentrated on writing full time, so I had a good understanding of how publishing worked. That said, publishing one’s own book is a very different experience to working on someone else’s. Writing is such a personal thing, and it is nervous-making to watch your book going out into the world, hoping that people will enjoy it.

BRC: Do you prefer to read a specific genre of books? What are some of your favorite books that you’d recommend to your readers?

LW: I read across the board, as I think most real readers do. The list of books I love is long, but among my favorite English classics are JANE EYRE, WUTHERING HEIGHTS and MIDDLEMARCH. I am not a great re-reader, but I have revisited THE GREAT GATSBY and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD several times. I love John Cheever and Graham Greene. My contemporary favorites include THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALER AND CLAY by Michael Chabon, WHAT I LOVED by Siri Hustvedt, TEMPLES OF DELIGHT by Barbara Trapido and DIRT MUSIC by Tim Winton. I am also in awe of the scriptwriters on "The Wire."

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

LW: I’m currently about a month away from finishing my second novel, THE BED I MADE. The story is about a woman, Kate, who tries to end an intense affair with a man who, it transpires, isn’t prepared to let her go.