A brutal murder sits at the centre of Eliza Clark’s Penance. A group of teenage girls set another girl on fire. But the story doesn’t cause an outrage. It doesn’t hit the headlines. The Brexit vote is seen as a more pressing news item. Now, journalist Alex Z. Carelli has taken it upon himself to be the definitive chronicler of the arson murder in Crow-on-Sea. Clark’s novel is a metafiction, a pastiche of a true-crime book that includes witness interviews, extensive histories, podcast transcripts and more.
After the viral success of her first novel Boy Parts and a well-deserved place on Granta’s list of the Best Young British Novelists, Clark is set on proving that she is one of the country’s most essential writers. It’s something we can hardly deny. We caught up with the British author at her home in Crystal Palace to discuss true crime, the art of making shit up and early 2010s Tumblr.
Barry Pierce: I feel Penance is coming out at a perfect time because it feels we are somewhat endlessly in a cycle where people are questioning the ethics of true crime, be it through books or through Netflix series. Was that on your mind when you were writing the book?
Eliza Clarke: Yeah, it was when I was in the latter half of writing. The process of writing this book was really long and quite broken up. I wrote the first bits of Penance in late 2019 and then I didn’t really touch it until after Boy Parts had come out, so late summer 2020. Originally it was going to be long first-person accounts from each of the characters with interruptions from this journalist narrator, but it really wasn’t working, and I ended up deleting loads.
I don’t do a lot of planning. I tend to write and then think about what I’m going to do next. I stop and start and plan as I go. So, when I went back to it again in the spring/summer of 2021, it kind of came together more. It was over the second winter lockdown that I read a lot of good, high-quality true-crime books, just to get more of a feel for the structure because I’d read a lot of them before but never had the actual structure of them in mind. And it was after reading a lot of high-quality reporting and then going back to the odd podcast here and there that I ended up finding them pretty much unlistenable. The lack of objectivity, the judgement, the shitty reporting, the pumping out of content. They’re basically like reading a Wikipedia page but it’s broken up mattress adverts.
BP: One aspect of the book I really liked was just how unreliable you made your narrator. The whole thing is basically framed as a work of unethical and biased reporting, which is something you get a lot of with true-crime podcasts. It’s funny that for a genre so focused on investigation and going over every detail, rarely is the lens ever turned on the person writing.
EC: Yeah, and sometimes the stuff I find the most interesting about reading non-fiction is how much of the narrator’s personality comes through. I really like Jon Ronson’s writing, I’ve read all his books multiple times, and part of it is I think they are just really interesting character studies of Jon Ronson. I was struggling a lot with the voice of the narrator, even relatively late in the process. I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and I was really knocked back by it because it’s such an impressive technical piece of work. And then I was reading about Capote and how much of In Cold Blood was just fabricated and about how much fabrication was just an element of his career. I became interested in the act of making shit up.
BP: I want to hear about how you created the town of Crow-on-Sea because, genuinely, I feel I could draw an accurate map of the place. There is a level of detail in your description of this town through its history, its buildings and its inhabitants that is just not seen in contemporary fiction anymore.
EC: Well, I pinched a lot of stuff from Scarborough. My partner lived in Scarborough when he was a teenager, and his parents still live there. So, there are bits and bobs that are pinched from anecdotes and local news stories, like the donkey strangling stuff, that happened in Scarborough.
BP: Wait, the donkey strangling was real!?
EC: That was real!
BP: Oh my god, I was laughing so much at that because, I don’t know, the idea of donkey strangling is just so funny.
EC: Very funny. It’s just two very funny words to put together. Actually, it was the donkey strangling that led me to giving the novel this British seaside setting. Also, the guy shooting seagulls with a crossbow, that was Scarborough.
BP: This is mind-blowing.
EC: It’s basically a lot of these local news stories that I heavily embellished and stuff I made up.
“I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and I was really knocked back by it”
BP: The central crime in the book is very brutal. And I like that you made it about these young girls who just took things way too far. What led you to this specific crime and this specific group of girls?
EC: My two main inspirations were the Shanda Sharer murder which happened in the 90s in the States, which is probably the most direct comparison [In 1992, 12-year-old Shanda Sharer was tortured and burned to death by a group of older teenage girls]. And there are some aspects that are drawn from the Suzanne Capper murder, which also happened in the 1990s, but her murder coincided with the Jamie Bulger murder trial, so nobody has heard of that case even though it’s very extreme and very awful. That’s where the idea of a crime getting buried by a story that is dominating the news cycle came from.
BP: One thing I really loved about Penance was how much of early 2010s Tumblr you put in there. All the creepypasta stuff and references to Slenderman. I feel that was such a huge part of the adolescence of our generation.
EC: Yeah, I think the first creepypasta I remember reading was the Pokémon Black one, which is so old that it predates the actual Pokémon Black game, but it was about this cursed black Pokémon cartridge that had all this creepy music and weird Pokémon in it. There was also that TV show Channel Zero that adapted, like, one creepypasta per season and they did Candle Cove which, in my opinion, is the best-written creepypasta.
“Actually, it was the donkey strangling that led me to giving the novel this British seaside setting.”
BP: There’s also all the weird serial killer stuff that was on Tumblr though, like I remember the Jeffrey Dahmer flower crowns and the weird fandom around the Columbine dudes. Remember when everyone thought the Boston Bomber was really hot? Like what an insane time.
EC: Yeah, I only peripherally remember the true crime stuff, like every now and then you’d see a post from the weird side of Tumblr, and you’d be like, oh, OK. Luckily for me, Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites came out halfway through when I was writing, and it ended up being very influential on me because I was not quite sure what I wanted to do with Dolly at the end of the book. Monroe has a whole section on the Columbine fandom which really helped me get more of a handle on the kind of personality who is drawn to that stuff.
BP: To end on a little bit of promo, a theatrical version of your first novel Boy Parts has just been announced for the Soho Theatre, how does that feel?
EC: I’m really excited about it! I haven’t read the script yet, I think they’re still in the process of putting it together, but I know it’s going to be a one-woman show and they’re going to draw mostly from the book. I’m really interested to see how they stage it and see what bits they use.
Eliza Clarke’s Penance is out now via Faber & Faber.