Louise Doughty’s seventh novel, Apple Tree Yard, is about a woman who makes one rash choice that ends up putting her on trial at the Old Bailey for the most serious of crimes. But what is that choice, and what’s the (real) place on the map in central London called ‘Apple Tree Yard’ got to do with it? Part-psychological thriller, part-personal morality tale and part-courtroom drama, Apple Tree Yard really will have you hooked from the very first page.
The author recently spoke with the editor of the UK edition of her book, Sarah Savitt at Faber. This interview originally appeared on The Thought Fox.
[SS] The novel’s prologue had me on the edge of my seat. At first Yvonne seems certain that she will be found innocent of murder, but when she realises the barrister knows about Apple Tree Yard, she fears she will lose everything and be sent to prison. Was the prologue the first scene you wrote? Could you talk a bit about how you began to write the novel, what the genesis of it was?
[LD] Yes, in this case, the prologue was the first thing I wrote. It came to me hard and fast, at around 10pm one evening, a time when I normally just want to watch the news with a camomile tea and think about going to bed. I had a sudden idea for a novel opening with a woman being caught out on the witness stand at the Old Bailey – and I went to my computer and wrote the whole scene at once. As soon as the barrister mentions Apple Tree Yard, the woman knows it’s all over; she is about to be exposed and her life will be destroyed.
At the time I wrote that scene, I didn’t know the details of what had let her to court but I did know what had happened in Apple Tree Yard, which is a real place – a small back alley in Westminster. I was actually planning on writing a completely different novel when I wrote that prologue, but once Apple Tree Yard came to me, I was possessed by it and couldn’t write anything else.
Part of your research for the novel involved sitting though a murder trial. Could you tell us a bit more about this experience and how it affected the writing of Apple Tree Yard?
I managed to get special permission from a judge to sit in the well of a court throughout a three-week murder trial at the Old Bailey. I was embedded with the prosecution team and sitting right behind treasury counsel: I had access to all the evidence, including the forensics, and every lunchtime and coffee break I was hanging out with the murder squad who had investigated the case.
At the beginning of the trial, I had the bones of my story and had written quite a lot, so at first I thought I was just after authentic description and detail – but the whole experience was so fascinating, the legal and moral issues involved, that even though I already had my story, much of what happened at the Old Bailey really informed my plot. I also managed to wangle my way into the cell area and the judge’s chambers. I love research and I’ve always enjoyed bluffing myself into areas I’m not supposed to go. I think I’m actually a frustrated spy.
Apple Tree Yard is one on level a novel about an affair – like so many well-loved classic novels, for example Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. What is your favourite novel of adultery? Does writing about an affair in 21st century Britain, where divorce is so commonplace, have a different charge to it?
Well of course what Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina have in common is they both commit suicide – the classic fate of the adulterous, disturbed or immoral woman – whereas my heroine ends up on trial at the Old Bailey for murder. I guess we can call that progress. I was very keen that Yvonne should not be a victim and not turn her anger in on herself – she’s a grown up woman, highly intelligent and organized, a top scientist. She indulges in one impetuous act and her whole life spins out of control, but she makes her own decisions and some of them are morally dubious. She’s a very 21st century heroine.
Hilary Mantel has said this novel is about ‘the fine line women walk’ and I think that’s very true. Writing about adultery nowadays is certainly different from the nineteenth century. In theory women have much more freedom but with that comes more responsibility – and there is still a strong sense that a woman’s morality is judged in terms of her sexual morality. Yvonne is a good person, who has worked hard at a responsible job and raised a family but that’s not the criteria she gets judged by when she steps out of line.
Yvonne meets X, the man she has an affair with, at the Houses of Parliament, while she is giving evidence to a Select Committee, and much of their relationship is conducted around Westminster. Could you talk about why you set the novel in this part of London?
I really enjoyed setting a novel in the areas of London that people associate with the power structures in our society; the Houses of Parliament and the general Westminster area, the Old Bailey. There does seem to be something about those high octane, self-important jobs that makes people more prone to the drama of an affair. X is a man who needs excitement; he’s addicted to it. Yvonne has been organized and conventional all her life, but when she is offered that kind of thrill, she accepts immediately, in a way that suggests she has always missed it without knowing it. And the environs of Westminster, the parks and cafes and alleyways, are a gift to any novelist – particularly if you’re writing a novel about secrets and power structures of different sorts and how they affect our personal relationships
I love that this novel is both a compulsive thriller and an examination of the values we live by. How important is plot to you as a writer, and as a reader? Where do you start when you’re writing – with theme or plot – or something else?
I always start with plot and that’s something I’m quite unapologetic about, although I occasionally get the feeling that some of our literary critics would like me to apologise for it a bit more. My first drafts are always very sketchy and, to be honest, quite badly written – I’m just getting through the mechanics of the story. But there’s nothing I love more than re-writing, adding layers, complexity, really tinkering with the prose and the imagery, weighing every adjective and comma and licking it into shape. That’s the bit where I feel like a writer.
Thematically, it’s common for me to work out what a novel is really about quite close to the end – sometimes I’ve stopped in the middle of meal with a fork halfway to my mouth (only when I’m on my own, you’ll be pleased to hear) and said to myself, ah, that’s what it’s about. There is also a difference between what a novel is ‘about’ in the public sense, what you’ll admit to, the line you’ll use to intrigue someone into reading it, and what it’s ‘about’ in terms of what was going on in your head and your heart as you were writing it. I rarely admit to the latter.
Yvonne’s experience of the working world and then the criminal justice system is a thought-provoking and sometimes shocking exploration of how women are viewed, valued and judged by our society, what they are allowed and expected to do, and what happens when they break the rules. Do you see Apple Tree Yard as a feminist novel? Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes, and yes – of course yes. I actually think all my novels are political with a small p. I hope my viewpoint is hidden well behind character and story, but it’s always there. With Apple Tree Yard, the themes are more overt, because it has a woman character at the mercy of our criminal justice system. The more research I did, the more disheartened I became about how women are viewed within that system, whether as victims, witnesses or defendants. Stereotypical views of what makes a woman reliable, truthful, or conversely ‘bad’ still abound, and a woman is still seen through the distorting prism of her sexual history.
While I was at the Old Bailey, the Millie Dowler trial was going on in the next-door court and I saw her parents in the corridors from time to time. The way that family was treated in the witness box was appalling. The same summer, we had the Dominic Strauss Kahn case in New York and Kenneth Clarke’s comments on sexual assault on Radio Five Live. As Yvonne says in Apple Tree Yard at such times, it can become suddenly difficult to find your way around your own kitchen.
Yvonne was such a powerful character that I almost believed she existed by the end of the novel. How do you approach character when you’re writing a novel?
I tend to home in on the question: what makes this character different from me? That’s where the fertile ground is. In the case of Yvonne, it was important that she’s a scientist, a leading geneticist, a woman who has proved herself in very male, intellectual field. Creating her was something of a challenge when I only just managed to scrape an ‘E’ in O-level chemistry. I visited the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute outside Cambridge and had a tour of the premises and talked to Principal Investigators there, the people who run the labs. I even have a photo of me on the only occasion I will ever wear a lab coat. I took a geneticist involved in protein sequencing – Yvonne’s field – out to dinner, a woman who had been involved in naming genes as they were discovered during the early stages of the Human Genome Project. I read quite a few texts books where I scarcely understood a word.
What intrigued me, of course, was the human application of all this. There is so much about genetics that plugs into issues of personal morality: to what extent are we at the mercy of what we inherit and to what extent are we socially conditioned – and at one point does pure choice enter our lives? This isn’t a novel about science but it was very important to me that the main character was someone who has lived by science almost as a religion, as a way of making sense of her life: then something happens to her, a grand passion, that all her rationalities cannot explain.
I hope that readers will be sympathetic to Yvonne’s plight even as they are disturbed by her choices. In many ways, this novel is a plea for all of us to be less judgmental of other people but particularly of women who don’t necessarily fit the conventional idea of what a woman should be.
LOUISE DOUGHTY is the author of Apple Tree Yard. Her previous novel, Whatever You Love, was short-listed for the Costa Book Award and long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She is the author of several other novels and a book of nonfiction, A Novel in a Year, based on her hugely popular newspaper column. She also writes plays and journalism and broadcasts regularly for BBC Radio 4. Doughty lives in London.