The Girl Before, a psychological thriller set in a minimalist house, is one of this summer's bestselling novels. Dezeen spoke to author JP Delaney about how obsessive architects "make for very interesting fiction".
The book, which is due to be turned into a movie by Cocoon and A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard, is set in One Folgate Street, an austere one-bedroom dwelling in London, and is narrated in turns by two different female tenants.
The first woman dies in the property in suspicious circumstances after starting a relationship with the architect, who had laid down exacting rules for his tenant. Three years later, the second woman begins to suspect she may suffer the same fate.
However it is the clinical house, which bristles with technology and appears to have a mind of its own, which has the central role.
"As an architectural style [minimalism is] obviously an expression of obsession," he said. "And that is a very interesting place to set a psychological thriller."
Read the interview below:
Marcus Fairs: Why did you choose to write about architecture?
JP Delaney: When I write I always start with an idea, and I want to write a book that is appropriate to that idea. The heart of this idea was absolutely a minimalist architect.
Marcus Fairs: Do you live in a house like the one in The Girl Before?
JP Delaney: Where I live is completely the opposite of minimalist. But I became fascinated by the idea that… I think with most architecture the finished building is a reflection of both the client and the architect, because they're working to a brief.
But minimalism is one of the few architectural styles where you have to completely buy into the architect's vision. The house that is produced is absolutely his mind made concrete. As an architectural style it's obviously an expression of obsession. And that is a very interesting place to set a psychological thriller.
I love books about houses. Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is the classic example. I thought it was interesting to take that gothic horror-house tradition that is so overworked and flip it on its head by having the gothic creepiness come from the fact that it's not dark and gnarly and cluttered but it's actually the reverse of that: blank and austere and beautiful but incredibly demanding of the occupant.
Minimalism is one of the few architectural styles where you have to completely buy into the architect's vision
Marcus Fairs: The asceticism, obsession and sexual power of the architect character, Edward Monkford, is reminiscent Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. Clearly the literary stereotype of the architect hasn't moved on much.
JP Delaney: Someone asked me if this was meant to be a book about totalitarianism. It wasn't meant to be but again it comes back to this idea that architects are obsessive. I know it's a stereotype that's not true of all architects, but it is true of minimalists. I think minimalists are a particular breed unto themselves and they can't be anything other than minimalists. And that's an interesting space to set a story in.
Marcus Fairs: How did you go about researching the book?
JP Delaney: I have some friends who are interested in architecture who took me along to architecture exhibitions and talks. I visited a few minimalist houses and I looked at the work of Peter Zumthor, Claudio Silvestrin and John Pawson. Those were probably the main ones, but a whole bunch of others as well.
I looked at some architectural magazines and monographs; I looked at Doris Saatchi's house in Battersea, which is very interesting because it's a very small minimalist house. There's this image of interesting houses in fiction always being very big; like manor houses. I quite liked the idea that this was a tiny, perfect one-bedroom house. Again it just felt like getting away from the psychological suspense stereotypes.
Marcus Fairs: The house features a lot of smart-home technology. Why did you include that?
JP Delaney: It seemed that technology is a very good way of making a place slightly creepy. As a society we're very interested in artificial intelligence, and we're also very interested in artificial intelligence going rogue. To be honest I put a lot of that in the book and then I took a lot out. There are a lot of books and movies about smart systems that go rogue. There was a Simpsons episode called House of Wax where they parodied the whole thing. So I felt that a little bit of that in fiction goes an awful long way.
I think minimalists are a particular breed unto themselves
I was also interested by the idea that when people first started building smart houses, there were no platforms like Nest that they could plug into. So everyone was designing stuff from scratch and it often didn't work very well.
I deliberately made the technology in the book slightly out of date. It was futuristic when it was introduced but it's been superseded. It's almost like watching a 1980s film that predicts the future but gets it wrong. So there's no letterbox, because someone was predicting that email would completely replace snail mail within a decade, completely missing of course the fact that now with all the Amazon and internet deliveries we actually need bigger letter boxes.
Marcus Fairs: Who is the architect character based on?
JP Delaney: I did hear a few stories about minimalist architects that I incorporated. Unfortunately I don't think I can name the individuals but there are definitely a couple of minimalist architects who have done some extraordinary things.
Marcus Fairs: Are you talking about the control freakery or the wanton sexuality?
JP Delaney: Both actually. Both. But I really shouldn't go into details! But actually the truth is he's a composite character. Control freaks make for very interesting fiction, but their control freakery becomes the least interesting thing about them because in a way that's a given. You can't have a character who's just a control freak – you have to make them a bit more three-dimensional than that.
Marcus Fairs: Monkford insists that his tenants obey a lengthy list of rules.
JP Delaney: Yeah, he demands that his clients live in the house in the way it was intended to be lived in. I imagine it must be quite frustrating for architects who build something a certain way and then the client remarries and wants an Aga and the whole aesthetic has to change. As a creative person myself there's something quite appealing about someone who goes one hundred per cent, goes the whole hog, on a project. That's the myth of the architect – that they have that kind of commitment.
Marcus Fairs: What drives that obsessiveness?
JP Delaney: One story I heard about several different minimalist architects is that the people who live with them say their houses are often empty simply because they can't make a decision. I use an anecdote in the book where the architect looks at the sofa and says, really we shouldn't have a sofa, we should have two chairs, but can't decide between ones by Piero Lissoni or by Le Corbusier. He is unable to make a decision. So they end up with nothing.
This is something I heard from several different architects: that because everything has to be perfect, it becomes almost impossible to commit to anything. It's a vicious circle whereby the less you have, the more important those things become, and therefore the less you can commit to anything that is real.
Architects are incredibly pleased when people write about architecture
Marcus Fairs: Talk through the plot for people who don't know the book.
JP Delaney: It's the story of two women, three years apart, who are not the kind of people who would normally be able to afford to live in a minimalist house. But for different reasons – one has been burgled, the other has suffered a stillbirth – need to leave the place they lived in. They get the chance to live in this beautiful but small minimalist house for low rent on the condition that they adhere to over a hundred rules that the architect has set. That's anything from no cushions to no pets and no pictures on the walls.
Each of them moves in and starts a relationship with the architect. Each starts to wonder what happened to the person who lived there before. The second woman finds out that the first died in the house and start to wonder whether her story is a rerun of the girl before.
It's a well-known fact that signature killers, particularly sexual signature killers, have a pattern. They like to repeat the details of their killings very exactly. They get a psychological satisfaction from refining and repeating murders.
Marcus Fairs: How has the book been received by architects?
JP Delaney: Architects are incredibly pleased when people write about architecture. A lot of them feel they exist in a bubble that is slightly ignored by the public. I have some architect friends and they're surprised and rather delighted that anyone's bothered to use architecture as the central theme of a story.
Someone who saw the manuscript quite early on said this is a book about four characters and the strongest character is the house. It's the most dominant character. So I took that and tried to make it even more so. So for example I always call it by its name, One Folgate Street, rather than "the house", as if it were a character. The architecture was absolutely central to the story.
Marcus Fairs: It's going to be made into a feature film.
JP Delaney: Yes. Ron Howard is attached to direct the movie and he's promised me he's going to be faithful to the design aesthetic of the film. It's not green-lit yet but it's been optioned by a studio. I had a conversation with Ron in which he said he's agreed to keep the setting in London and the aesthetic of the house will be a very important part of the movie.
The Girl Before is published in the UK by Quercus Books.