By Leslie Lindsay
How well do you really know your neighbors? How well do you know yourself? These are the overarching questions explored in this fiction debut by Helen Cooper.
WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS
ALWAYS WITH A BOOK
Helen Cooper & Leslie Lindsay in conversation
From the U.K., Helen Cooper’s background in teaching with an emphasis on Academic Writing. Her creative writing has been published in Mslexia and Writers’ Forum; she was shortlisted in the Bath Short Story Prize in 2014, and came third in the Leicester Writes Short Story Prize 2018. The Downstairs Neighbor is her first novel.
ABOUT THE DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBOR:
THE DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBOR (Putnam, Feb 16th 2021) is a delicious blend of family drama meets domestic suspense as an entire three-flat Georgian home is a-rumble about the whereabouts of a missing seventeen-year-old girl. Cooper’s writing is tremendous and strong, while she presents a cast of characters: a mousy woman living alone (or presumably so) with a pet hamster, the ‘perfect’ Harlows, Steph and Paul (and their missing daughter, Freya), the driving instructor and his wife.
It’s one house. Three families. Countless secrets.
But now, Freya is gone. The police are investigating matters and everyone who lives in the building may or may not have something to do with it. They are seem a little sketchy, have a bit of a motive, and then there’s this new twist about a similar situation from twenty-five years ago. Could the two somehow be linked?
THE DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBOR is a bit of a whodunit, but more so, it’s about casting blame, discovering the truth, reinvention, marital tensions, relationships—lies, secrets, crimes, and more. The cast of characters are quite eccentric, flawed, and authentic. You’ll relish in deciphering the puzzle.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Helen Cooper to the author interview series:
Helen! Lovely to have you. I am always curious about what ‘haunts’ a writer into a particular story. And this one is very haunting…it’s dark and clausterphobic with some lighter elements. What propelled you?
Thank you have having me, Leslie! The initial idea that began haunting me (and you’re right, it is just like a haunting!) was the image of a neighbor in a shared building, overhearing something unexpected from an adjacent apartment. It was sparked by a friend who told me she’d discovered (by accident!) that there was one particular spot in her flat where she could hear her upstairs neighbors crystal clear. That really struck me – the idea of suddenly having an earpiece into someone else’s life – and seemed like a great way into a story. Everybody hears or sees fragments of their neighbors’ lives sometimes, but I started thinking, what if those glimpses were disturbing or worrying, or you became obsessed with listening in, or maybe misunderstood what you’d overheard? That became the opening scene of the book, probably the one scene that hasn’t changed much through all the drafts!
When I write, there is often a character, place, or theme I am eager to explore—sometimes all at once! Was there a particular aspect of THE DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBORS that did it for you?
Prior to that idea of overhearing your neighbors, I’d also been thinking about the hidden histories that can exist within a family: your parents’ lives before they were your parents, or your spouse’s before you were together. It’s interesting how loved ones can seem as if they were different, unknowable people before your lives became joined. And we’ve all probably got things from our past we’d rather keep to ourselves!
The two ideas seemed to relate to one another – how well you know your neighbors, and how well you know those closest to you – so that became the main theme I was keen to explore. It was ideal for psychological suspense, really, because there were so many different (and sinister!) directions I could take it in. I decided to create a neighborhood of characters who all had their own stuff going on, but who’d been living alongside one another without needing to ask too many questions. Of course, I then needed a catalyst that would upset their coexistence. The disappearance of Freya, the teenager from the top floor apartment, changes everything for the residents of her building. I wanted it to cause suspicion and conflict, not just between the neighbors, but within the family units living on each floor as well.
I want to talk about the house for a bit because I adore houses and homes and architecture. It’s an old Georgian style home subdivided into three flats, with three different families. Can you describe it in more detail? Is it based on a real place? And also, so much can happen under one roof—things we are often not privy to. I think that’s what makes THE DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBOR such a voyeuristic read. Can you expand on that please?
The house became more important with each draft I wrote. I wanted a suburban setting, so I based the story in Kingston-Upon-Thames in southwest London, where my sister used to live. At first I pictured my sister’s two-storey building as I was writing (she lived in a ground floor flat like my character Emma), but as the plot became bigger, so did the house, and I ended up with a tall Georgian townhouse, a bit like the one my mum and dad now live in. It has four levels, including a basement and an attic, and original stone floors and sash windows, which I loved picturing as I was writing. In the book, as you say, it’s converted into three apartments – so although the house is quite big, it feels intimate and claustrophobic, which was what I wanted for the story.
In earlier drafts, I had my main characters all living in the same neighborhood, but only two of the families were actually in the same house. It was my editors who suggested they could all live under one roof – and I loved that idea; I realized it would make the atmosphere even more intense. Once I’d moved everybody in together, there was great scope to have them hearing, seeing, watching, and bumping into one another. It was fun to be able to zoom in on the three families on their different floors, and to compare the reality of their lives with the judgments of their nearby neighbors. And you’re right, it does feel quite voyeuristic – this idea of peering through windows, or listening outside doors. It was great to be able to play around with the misconceptions that can bring.
Another really fun aspect is how the house has become a bit of a symbol for the book. Both my UK and US publishers put images of the house on the book jackets, with Putnam choosing one that reminded me really strongly of the doors in my parents’ home! And Hodder had a miniature version of the house built by a model-maker to photograph for the cover. My very talented friend, who owns Paisley Pig bakery, also made the house out of cake to celebrate my publication day – with chocolate instead of secrets inside the walls!
“Lock your doors, close your curtains, and sink into this claustrophobic tale of families, neighbours and buried secrets. Tense and perfectly paced, this emotionally charged novel will keep you guessing right to the very end.”
― Emma Rous
Were there any characters—or their stories—that you had difficulty writing? Did you come to appreciate them as you developed space from the work?
The hardest characters to write were the ones with the biggest secrets to keep! It was tricky getting the balance right between allowing the reader into their heads, and their lives, but holding certain things back and retaining the mystery. Plus, I was trying to create a scenario in which readers would be unsure who to trust or what to believe. I’ve been massively influenced by novels like My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier, which is an absolute masterclass in characters you’re constantly revising your opinion of! It was a big challenge trying to keep that ambiguity, while also making sure the characters felt authentic and relatable enough – and, yes, it was definitely harder with some than with others. But again, having the neighbors living in close quarters helped, as I could use their judgments of each other to muddy the waters. In the second half of the novel, as the major reveals start to happen, it was really satisfying to peel back the layers of the characters and show their true motivations. Some of them really came alive at that point, so then my task was to go back and make sure they felt well-rounded and engaging enough in their earlier chapters.
Interestingly, my own daughter has a driving lesson tomorrow! She’s 16 and now I’m a bit terrified. In fact, there were quite a few themes in THE DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBOR that had me thinking: truth, reinvention, freedom—as in driving—were all of these intentional on your part? Do you write from an outline? Or allow the story to unfold organically?
Ha, sorry for planting dark thoughts about driving lessons in your head!! The character of the driving instructor was one I’d had in mind for a while, actually (though my own driving instructor was not at all shady, I hasten to add!). When I started planning THE DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBOR, I realized he could fit in really well – someone who drives the same repeated routes around a neighborhood, observing things, and has a range of people in his car with him, who might all know each other or live in the same area. Chris sees the neighborhood from a unique perspective as he drives around it, but he also feels conspicuous in his branded car – and he finds himself very much embroiled in the investigation when Freya goes missing after a lesson with him.
And you make a really good point, Leslie – themes related to driving or learning to drive are highly relevant to the story, like control and protection; independence and freedom. Some of the themes were intentional, some developed as I was writing, and some I only became aware of once I’d finished! One of the fantastic things about having an editor (and I’m lucky enough to have two extremely talented ones) is that they tend to spot the themes that are hovering and encourage you to bring them out even further. And I love that stage – when the plot and the characters are all in place and you’re going back through looking for opportunities to highlight your themes.
I do broadly plan before I write, so that I know where I’m heading in terms of the central mystery of the book, and can plant clues and misdirection along the way. But there are always curve balls once I start writing, or things that don’t work in practice. With THE DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBOR, I had to plan each character’s arc and the things I needed to reveal about them as individuals, but I also had to consider the overall sequence of events and the pace of the story as a whole. I did a lot of re-drafting, and made some pretty major changes to the original plot, which required a lot of unpicking of the different storylines because they are so intertwined! So, even with plenty of planning, the book had to be taken apart and painstakingly reassembled a few times! Now I’m at a similar stage with my second book and trying to remember how on earth I did it the first time around …
Helen, this has been so fun. Thank you for taking the time and providing a little glimpse into your process. Is there anything I should have asked but may have forgotten, or perhaps something you’d like to ask me?
Thanks so much Leslie, I’ve really enjoyed it! Great questions! Nothing to add from me, except all the best with your own writing and thanks so much for reading THE DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBOR and inviting me onto your brilliant interview series.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Helen Cooper is from Derby and has a MA in Creative Writing and a background in teaching English and Academic Writing. Her creative writing has been published in Mslexia and Writers’ Forum; she was shortlisted in the Bath Short Story Prize in 2014, and came third in the Leicester Writes Short Story Prize 2018. The Downstairs Neighbor is her first novel.
Helen has also co-authored two books on academic writing for university students.
She loves reading and running, and lives in Leicester with her partner and his daughter.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online.
She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, soon to become an audiobook from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
You can learn more about HERE.