When Dugdall’s book was first published in 2010, it sold 40,000 copies, surpassing the expectations of both its publishing house and its author. With no broadsheet coverage, the book had sold primarily through word of mouth. On October 31st of this year, the title is being re-released, complete with a new cover, additional chapter, mini-essay and author-interview.
But why would Dugdall chose to do this? The book has been released, sold well and is gladly sat on bookshelves across the country. When I speak to her on the phone, Dugdall says it was the publishing house that suggested a new addition. “They thought a new addition would attract a new audience and reviewers who wouldn’t review indie books. They wanted to put something new in to attract people back to it, so they suggested a new chapter. I wasn’t sure because for me, the novel ended where it ended, and I had to get back into Cate’s head and Rose’s head.” She tried a few things before finally creating the final chapter which became the selling point of the new addition. Something which she had found her audience struggled with was that the book originally seemed unresolved. This wasn’t an issue for Dugdall, who claims to prefer haunting, thought-provoking texts to clear-cut plotlines anyway, but, she says, “there’s something about British and American readers. They don’t like ambiguity, they like certainty.”
Once hailed as the British Jodi Picoult, Dugdall’s novels are dark, sinister, interesting. She is not afraid to climb into the disturbed minds of her characters, set up camp there and present readers with full-blown accounts of her narrator’s troubles as though they were completely natural. “They said there was room in the market for a British Jodie Picoult, and that that could be me. They then decided I was too dark,” Dugdall tells me, laughing. So why is it that she chooses to write such distressing, ‘dark’ narratives?
I ask her, already knowing the answer, whether she truly believes in the importance of discussing topics such as murder and assisted suicide, or whether she simply sees them as the foundations of a compelling plotline. “It’s not a choice, it’s not something I choose to write about, it’s something I’m drawn to. That’s not about me as a novelist, it’s about me as a person. I’ve always been drawn to darker stories, I’m interested in human behaviour that is odd, deviant.” Dugdall says she can trace this right back to her childhood, when she would befriend children with difficult home lives, and spend time conversing with her mother, then a nurse, about the sick children on her ward. “One of the criticisms for my writing was that there wasn’t enough redemption, or enough likeable characters. For me, I don’t have to like a character to be interested in them, and I don’t need redemption at the end of a novel to feel satisfied by it. I think the European appetite is more open to being in a state of discomfort. As a reader, there are crime novels that I’ve gotten half way through and thought of as being a bit too sanitized, when I know that it’s all going to be neatly resolved at the end.” Dugdall, then, doesn’t like novels which read too much like novels, I suggest. She laughs, “that’s exactly it, I don’t read books to be entertained, I want to be left thinking, or unsettled or something!”
The Woman Before Me certainly fits the bill of Dugdall’s choice reads. Rose’s character is very unsettled – I wonder whether she’s mentally ill, or just a victim of her circumstances? Her decisions seem to be fuelled by her troubled childhood, her neglectful parents, her low self-worth. When I ask Dugdall how she sees Rose’s character, she responds diplomatically – “she’s definitely got a mental imbalance, but with women in the criminal justice system, it’s easy to say ‘oh she’s mentally ill,’ but it’s usually a combination of things. She’s definitely mentally unstable, but I think it’s a combination of things.”
While reading, I saw similarities between The Woman Before Me and Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, but the obvious difference was in the way Rose’s past was explicitly revealed. Through Rose’s letters, we learn about her character, and the experiences which have moulded her. It’s why, I think, I was able to relate to Rose. Although I didn’t necessarily like her character, I felt a sort of empathy with her, I felt sorry for her. “It’s something I think about a lot – where the pain has come from, why is this person doing this? If I read a crime novel or watch a television programme, and those questions aren’t answered, that’s what I find frustrating.”
To read the full interview, follow the link.
Pre-order the book from Legend Press in paperback or ebook here.