Today it’s my great pleasure to be talking with another debut Western Australian novelist: Zoe Deleuil. Zoe’s accomplished psychological suspense novel, The Night Village, was shortlisted for the Hungerford Award in 2018 and subsequently picked up by Fremantle Press. (What a wonderful vehicle such awards are for unearthing new talent and exciting manuscripts!)
Zoe’s short fiction and poetry have been published in literary journals and anthologies, and she also writes feature articles for newspapers and magazines.
She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University in the UK, and currently lives with her family in Berlin.
When Simone arrives in London from Perth for a working holiday, a newborn baby is not on her agenda. But she is determined to be a good mother, even though she barely knows her boyfriend, Paul. Even though his apartment at the Barbican is grey and isolated. Even though she feels utterly unprepared for motherhood. When his cousin Rachel comes to stay, the claustrophobic apartment starts to feel even smaller, as Simone begins to wonder why Rachel has come, and what secrets the cousins share.
AC: Zoe, The Night Village is a psychological thriller, a tale that burrows into the darkness of what seems, on the surface, a domestic scenario. I must commend you: you do sinister very well! But I wondered where all of this came from.
ZD: It’s strange trying to trace the story’s development, as when I started writing I didn’t expect it to turn into a suspense novel. Looking back, though, I do remember visiting my local library a lot, accompanied by two rowdy toddlers. With no time to look for the perfect novel, I’d always take something from the Librarian’s Pick of the Week table, and most of those books were psychological suspense and thrillers—SJ Watson, Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, Susan Hill and more. So when I started writing The Night Village I had that style fresh in my mind. I always wondered which librarian picked the books, but when I asked one day I was told they all did!
Having said that, my imagination does veer quickly towards the sinister—anything from a closed shower curtain to a creaking branch can set me off. Writing a novel at least puts that tendency to good use.
AC: The novel is set in London, and in particular in the Barbican Estate, a large postwar residential complex in the ‘Brutalist’ architectural style. Could you please talk about what role/s the city and the estate play in the world of the novel?
ZD: With its soaring concrete towers and fortress-like design, the Barbican Estate is revered by many architects, but to visitors it can feel almost post-apocalyptic on a winter’s day. Simone can’t hear her neighbours through the thick walls, at night she looks out to empty offices, and the apartment itself is sealed and quiet and colourless. All these elements increase her sense of isolation and unease, and hopefully add to the spooky atmosphere.
London itself also drives the story forward, as Simone is constantly bumping up against strangers, both friendly and menacing. There’s a beautiful novel by Russell Hoban called Amaryllis Night and Day and much of the narrative is simply the main character wandering around London to his own unique map. As a new mother, Simone also creates a new map of the city, ending up somewhere very different from where she started.
That other country, Motherhood
AC: Motherhood is at the centre of the novel, and there is so much that could be discussed concerning your portrayal of Simone’s entry into this new world. I imagine book clubs are going to love doing just that! I’ll confine myself to asking about the issue of motherhood and gender roles—as expressed, for example, in the following passage:
[The use of valium in the 1960s and SSRIs today] made it easier for us to keep smiling and to keep doing and to not feel quite so very, very angry, because despite everything nothing had changed. We got to work, yes, but we still had to do everything else.
How much did this sense of ‘ordinary madness’ (I’m borrowing the term from Susan Midalia’s superb novel of the same name) caused by socially constructed parental roles play into the development of your characters?
ZD: For Paul and Simone, what had been a pleasant and undemanding relationship changes overnight with the arrival of an unplanned baby. After two weeks of paternity leave Paul returns to work, while Simone is left at home, holding a wailing newborn, her identity reduced to one word: mother. Add sleep deprivation, the impact of pregnancy and birth and her isolation in an unfamiliar city, and Susan Midalia’s wonderfully accurate ‘everyday madness’ soon descends. Simone feels isolated and unsupported, while Paul doesn’t really know how he can help apart from going out and earning money. It’s a dynamic familiar to many new parents, and in Paul and Simone’s case the tension is ramped up further by the fact that they don’t really know each other. From a storytelling point of view, it gave me a lot to work with.
When a character knocks on your door…
AC: Into the fraught situation of new motherhood comes a character who destabilises the already unstable. Could you talk, please, about Rachel (without, of course, giving away any spoilers)?
ZD: Rachel turned up at the door of the apartment, much as she does in the novel, when I was writing one day. Until that happened, I never believed writers who say that a character can just appear fully formed, but now I only hope it happens again. She felt like someone whose story I was getting to know as I wrote, and she’s a persistent and shadowy presence who is probably more than a little inspired by all the gothic novels I’ve read over the years.
AC: I loved your character Jennifer, who works at the V&A Museum of Childhood. She seems to play a pivotal role in Simone’s story. Could you tell us about her and what she represents?
ZD: Jennifer is a sixty-something woman who befriends Simone one day when she visits the museum with her baby. She makes Simone a cup of tea, sits with her, listens, and is a kind of substitute parent and wise elder when Simone’s own mother is far away. So much of parenting is simply being present, being there and nowhere else, and I think that’s the lesson that Jennifer brings.
Writing place from afar
AC: Zoe, I understand you were born and raised in Perth, went to London to live and work (as your character Simone does) and now live with your family in Germany. With The Night Village set in London, I was wondering about your connection with place. Is it a major inspiration for your work? And as someone who finds it easier to write about a place when I’m not in it, may I ask about your take on whether it’s easier to write about a place from afar?
ZD: Place seems to come first when I start a story, and then I think about who might live there and how they respond to their environment. I wrote The Night Village in Perth, and in some ways remembering London—the milky winter light, the warmth of buses and museums, the streets and sounds—was as good as being there.
I moved to Berlin, my husband’s hometown, in 2018, thinking rather blithely that I’d set a novel here. But the longer I stay, the less qualified I feel to write about Germany. I’m learning German and maybe, if I’m lucky, a story will come. Strangely enough, my imagination is now directed towards Perth. So yes, I am with you, Amanda, on finding it easier to write about a place when you aren’t there.
The title from within
AC: As a book editor, I’ve often had to assure the writers I’ve worked with that titles can be the devil, and that probably every writer, at least once in their career, has had to go through the agonising experience of discovering that the title they love and are wedded to has not found favour with the publisher’s marketing department. The Night Village strikes me as a very effective title for this story. Did it emerge organically, or was it a difficult one to get right?
ZD: This manuscript was originally called She Came To Stay, borrowed from the Simone de Beauvoir novel when I needed to quickly come up with a title before submitting it to the Hungerford Award. The Night Village did emerge organically, first as I wrote about the doll houses at the Museum of Childhood and then as I started to think about an unseen village of wakeful parents and children, all in their separate houses yet somehow connected across every sleepless night.
Image credits: author photo by Jan Radke; Barbican image by Max Whitehead