READ CLOSE: She’s a Killer tackles themes and ideas most of us are aware of, but mostly spend time avoiding: climate crisis, inequality, who deserves to survive catastrophe. Alice’s story forces us to face them head on – did you aim to write a novel that delves into our worst fears?
KIRSTEN MCDOUGALL: Absolutely. I was speaking with climate change scientist Dave Lowe yesterday. His memoir, The Alarmist, came out this year – documenting the past fifty years he’s spent measuring the rise in the atmosphere’s carbon. He wrote that book to tell the story to a wider public, to reach beyond scientists. He wrote it partly out of anger. He’s known the science intimately for decades, we all know the science now, but nothing is happening fast enough to make real change. I laughed and said, that as writers we have rage in common as a motivating factor. I began writing She’s a Killer when Donald Trump was still President. While writing it I continued to read stories of homelessness and poverty in our own country, wildfires in many countries around the world. Writing She’s a Killer was my reaction to all of this.
Although the premise is grim, She’s a Killer is hilarious. We don’t see a lot of comedy in literary fiction – tell us about the use of humour in this novel and how you balanced serious and funny to create your gripping novel.
Well, we all sometimes turn the page rather than read yet another report on how dire the climate crisis is. I knew that if I was going to write about climate and economic disparity, and how we often take a head in the sand approach to all the hard things in our lives then I needed to offer the reader something else. Two of my favourite comedians are Stewart Lee and Reggie Watts. Both use humour to slyly dig a knife under the ribs of the comfortable audience. I admire that kind of art immensely. I’m digging in a knife through She’s a Killer, but I’m also trying to entertain you. I think entertainment and serious ideas can coexist in literature. If we’re to survive the coming years, we’ll need our sense of humour.
Alice has an imaginary friend in the novel, the quietly meticulous Simp. Why did you use this literary device in the novel to reveal Alice’s character? Did you have an imaginary friend growing up (or do you still have one??)
Simp is the part of Alice that stops her from becoming a full-blown sociopath. She is her last scrap of empathy and rational behaviour, but because Alice is so divorced from her feelings, empathy is a concept for her, in the shape of an imaginary friend. I did have an imaginary friend as a child. Her name was Simp. The Simp in the book is fictional. My Simp was real.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Elizabeth Knox: ‘be bloody-minded’. This is the best advice because it’s practical and has nothing to do with vague ideas like inspiration. It reminds you that you’ve got to dig your heels in, do the very best work you can do, and then stand by that work.
I like to think of novels sitting in conversation with each other. Could you tell us two or three other books you would like She’s a Killerto be in conversation with, books that would augment and inform a reader’s appreciation of your novel?
Other people might be better placed to answer this question. As I’ve gotten older my influences have become a big soup in my head. Two writers I’ve admired for years for their humour and insight are Grace Paley and Alice Munro, but my writing is nothing like their writing.
What are you reading now? What is on your TBR pile?
On top are: a reread of The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton; The Pink Jumpsuit by Emma Neale; a few issues of Irish literary magazine The Moth; Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price.
What music did you listen to while writing or that inspired the story?
Early Britney. Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. A lot of LCD Soundsystem. Underworld’s ‘Bruce Lee’, ‘Tesla’ Omar Souleyman Version. Beats, anger, humour, pop.