- Post by Molly Odintz
Flynn Berry’s debut novel, Under the Harrow, is a powerful novel about women, their choices, and their relationships with each other. Nora, London sophisicate and ex-party girl, takes the train to Cornwall, expecting a nice, bucolic visit with her sister Rachel. Upon her arrival, she finds her sister murdered. Her vacation away from the stress of the city turns into a nightmare of rural secrets and resurfacing traumas as she seeks her sister’s killer.
Under the Harrow has received a ton of praise this summer, all of it well deserved. RT Book Reviews, in just one of many gushing reviews, called the novel “the stuff of classic crime fiction, but this is deeper than a caper—it is the story of a woman working through her stages of grief.” My favorite blurb comes from author Claire Messud described Berry’s debut as “like Broadchurch written by Elena Ferrante,” which I took to mean the novel does not sacrifice pace for feminism, or vice versa. I also must admit that while I hate recommending books as “beach reads,” I did read most of Under the Harrow at the beach, and the dark atmosphere of the novel provided a perfect antidote to the hot, hot sun.
Flynn Berry joins us Saturday, June 18th, at 6 PM to speak and sign her debut. She was kind enough to let us interview her before the event.
“The “girl” trend is funny, but so understandable. Publishing is hard, and if you have a shortcut to get a reader’s attention, it makes sense that there’s pressure to use it. I also like that “girl” is now shorthand for “dark and twisted.” That’s so satisfying.”
Molly Odintz: Under the Harrow is your debut, yet it perfectly mixes mature themes and a nail-biter of a plot. What was your writing process for the novel? What advice would you give writers starting out in the genre?
Flynn Berry: I spent a year writing Under the Harrow. Then there was another year of revision and copyedits once it was with the publisher. My writing process is that I write longhand, while listening to the same few songs on repeat. I try to write for three hours a day. But I was also working, so often it was less.
And the other thing is that I wrote two full novels before this one, that I didn’t send out. I loved working on them and was committed to them, but they weren’t quite ready.
So I think my biggest piece of advice is to be patient. And to just always keep nudging it forward, even if all you can do in a day is write one sentence or figure out a character name.
MO: It’s so rare to find women avenged by other women in crime novels – usually a man goes out to seek revenge for the death of a woman. In fact, I can’t think of a single crime novel where a woman sets out to avenge the death of an adult male figure. What was your inspiration for the women in this story, and why do they seek their own vengeance?
FB: That’s so interesting—I’d never considered it before, but you’re right, I can’t think of one either.
I was really angry when I started the book. There had been a few awful crimes against women in Austin that made me furious on behalf of the victim.
So the book is sort of a revenge fantasy. And I kept asking what I would do next, and that led Nora further and further into obsession.
MO: Rachel and Nora, the novel’s two sisters, take plenty of risks, yet are valorized for their courage and moral compass rather than slutshamed for their partying ways. Things don’t just happen to Rachel and Nora – they fight back, pursue their own goals, and bravely take on risk to help others. What was your inspiration for the sisters’ dynamics?
FB: That’s fantastic to hear. The sisters’ relationship is based really closely on my friendships. And those bonds are partly built on the time we’ve spent together in bars or at parties or drinking. Often in fiction, women go out at night to meet men, but that’s such a tiny percentage of what happens in those nights.
So I wanted to write about how women really interact, and that mixture of hilarity and pleasure in each other’s company, and how they sort of egg each other on.
Especially in my early twenties, it seemed like my friends and I would go on dates or go out at night for the express purpose of then telling each other stories about it afterwards.
And hearing those stories is the best, especially when they’ve been reckless. Sloane Crosley has a great quote about how she’s much more careful about her possessions than herself: “I’d never liquor up my grandmother’s vase and send it down the West Side Highway at night.” But she’ll do that to herself.
So I wanted to reflect back the women that I know and adore, who are brave and have integrity and take risks.
And I was aware of what happens sometimes with a female victim, both in fiction and in the media. The murder wasn’t somehow a punishment for going out or drinking or being promiscuous.
“I was really careful never to use the words “beautiful” or “pretty” in the book. That comes once from another character, but never the narrator. It drives me crazy how often in fiction women are described as “beautiful.” Especially in books by men. Even a passing character—a waitress, a doctor—is often immediately categorized by her looks.”
MO: Under the Harrow, in one particularly striking scene, has a male character ask Nora if she felt jealous of her sister’s beauty. She replies that her sister would much rather be alive than beautiful. This scene emblemized to me how women are frequently encouraged to compete with each other over surface accomplishments, rather than stand in solidarity and mutual admiration. Did you set out to write a fantastically feminist novel?
FB: I’m so glad to hear you call it feminist!
I was really careful never to use the words “beautiful” or “pretty” in the book. That comes once from another character, but never the narrator. It drives me crazy how often in fiction women are described as “beautiful.” Especially in books by men. Even a passing character—a waitress, a doctor—is often immediately categorized by her looks.
And it’s so beside the point. I think that Nora and Rachel can look however the reader imagines them, without changing the story.
I definitely wanted a sense of mutual admiration between the sisters. I think there are often layers of envy or covetousness in a close friendship, but there are so many more interesting things to envy about Rachel than her looks.
“The sisters’ relationship is based really closely on my friendships. And those bonds are partly built on the time we’ve spent together in bars or at parties or drinking. Often in fiction, women go out at night to meet men, but that’s such a tiny percentage of what happens in those nights.”
MO: Asa Larson, in a fascinating piece for Huffington Post “On Dead Women in Crime Fiction,” discusses crime fiction’s blase attitude toward the fictional murders of women and her fans’ upset reactions to murdered animals. What kind of reactions have you gotten to the fate of Rachel’s dog? Do you think audiences are more sensitive to the fate of animals than to the fate of vulnerable human characters?
FB: I loved that article. And it’s so funny, because people have been really indignant about the dog. But not about the other forms of violence.
The dog was one of the first images I had for the book. When I was in Austin, I fostered dogs through AAC and the Humane Society. They were all pit bulls, and having them in the house made me feel a little safer, the way Rachel’s German shepherd might.
So if something happens to the dog, it’s the most frightening thing.
MO: The Oxfordshire setting of Under the Harrow is wonderfully eerie. How did you settle on this area? Did your setting inform the plot?
FB: I think setting is so important. In writing, you’re sort of building a hallucination for yourself and the reader, and I wanted it to be beautiful. I’ve always wanted to live in England, so that also made the writing easier—I think it’s good to create a world you want to retreat to every day.
And the setting definitely informed the plot. Building the landscape—the aqueduct and the ridge—led to certain events happening in it.
And it was such a pleasure to create a town, and figure out the pubs and the buildings and the local mythology.
MO: A theme in Under the Harrow is small-town secrets that aren’t really secrets. Does it take an outsider’s perspective to address and acknowledge the skeletons of a small town?
FB: I think so—you don’t want to believe the worst of your neighbors, so you might ignore certain things.
And a small town seems like a really good setting for a mystery, because there are all these people that you know by sight, but not well enough to know their true character, or what they might be capable of.
MO: The title of Under the Harrow is so evocative! What was your inspiration? How do you feel about all those books with “girl” in the title?
The title comes from C.S. Lewis’s book A Grief Observed, which he wrote after his wife died. He says, “Come, what do we gain by evasions? We are under the harrow and can’t escape.” I’d never heard the phrase before, but loved it, and could guess at what he meant—that we’re all at risk.
And it turns out that “under the harrow” is an old phrase that means to be distressed or in danger. (A harrow is a sort of plough with sharp teeth, something you don’t want to be underneath.) So it fit.
The “girl” trend is funny, but so understandable. Publishing is hard, and if you have a shortcut to get a reader’s attention, it makes sense that there’s pressure to use it. I also like that “girl” is now shorthand for “dark and twisted.” That’s so satisfying.
MO: What’s next? Do you plan to stay in the “literary/psychological thriller” genre?
FB: Yep, I still have a lot of thoughts about violence and revenge and atonement. So the next book is in the same psychological thriller territory, though with a different texture—more about anger than grief.
MO: Who are some of your writing inspirations, crime fiction or otherwise?
Some of my favorite books have crimes and others don’t, but there’s always an urgent, obsessive quality to the writing. I loved A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor, which is really propulsive and noirish.