Jessica Moor: 'It would have felt dishonest to deliver perfect justice in the ending'
We spoke on the day that the Domestic Abuse Bill was voted through by the House of Commons, bringing with it hugely important changes. Moor’s debut crime-thriller novel The Keeper delves into the darkest depths of domestic violence through an innovative perspective and narrative.
Having lived in Berlin for the last two years before which she was living in Amsterdam, Moor describes her apartment as definitely from the Soviet-era, while on video call pinned to the wall behind her was a map of the Berlin metro. She describes enthusiastically how “bookshops are my happy place; they have a calming effect for me” going on to say that “it's amazing being a writer. It's all I’ve ever wanted. But it does mean your hobby has become your job”.
“The relief is when you realise the best feeling is when the writing is going well – that’s as good as it gets, and you have to remember that. And that’s wonderful because you’re not in control of it, you can’t make it go well when it’s not, but you’re more in control of it than you are over reviews for instance.”
What do you do when you’re not writing? Reading she says hesitantly, apologising for its typical nature, with a laugh. “I try to put as much stuff in as possible, I treat stories and things about the world like a compost heap, if I keep putting in books, films, ideas and different thoughts, hopefully that will rot down into something helpful.”
The excitement of being asked about formative reading memories, smiling she fondly recalls the circumstances in which the first book I read to myself was Fantastic Mr. Fox and reading it in one evening and it being a life changing experience. She then went on to impart that the reading of Their Eyes Are Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston “brought back why I loved books which was so important to me, re-reading it often.” While the book Why be Happy When You can be Normal? by Jannette Winterton, was extremely important to her. Particularly, she exudes, “the section about people’s right to pursue happiness which is compared to salmon swimming upstream - the point isn’t to get somewhere but to develop a muscularity and purpose from the pursuit.”
Living in Berlin, Moor takes a great deal from the creativity of the city, providing vignettes of visiting parks where people take part in dance fighting or jazz dancing for instance. “I don’t feel weird or lazy wondering the streets and cafes idling looking at things”, she says fondly. “It’s a really creative place, and a huge amount of creativity is having time and be bored and letting things settle in your brain.”
She goes on to explore how Berlin is a fascinating city in itself because history and politics are always with you. “It’s totally accepted, and you can’t get away from it and you don’t try to” she explains. Moor relates this to the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations and statue removals across the UK and the reckoning with history which is taking place. In Berlin she says, “there's a project called Stumble Stones” which involves marking the former homes of concentration camp victims. Poignantly she says “you can be walking down the road and you suddenly stop seeing these tiles, and for a second you reflect. History and memory and not confined to one place but are always present and you accept and metabolise it.” Moor emphasises that the UK has a huge amount to learn from these similar processes, an engagement she has personally felt as influencing and subtly shaping her own perspective. Ultimately, she says with purpose “I hope to carry with me that creativity and political awareness going forward.”
Moor wholeheartedly believes that politics and literature are inseparable, “whether it knows it or not” she says emphatically. “You need to know your politics because your politics will come out in your writing.” Drawing upon the example of the Berlin artist Käthe Kollwitz, who has proven emblematic, “she was a deeply political artist, when people look at her work and art in Berlin, it’s obvious that you can’t disentangle the politics from the work.” Critically she states that “saying art and politics should be separate is often the mantra of those whose politics represent the status quo anyway.”
Positioning herself firmly within the feminist tradition, Moor foregrounds how “to be a feminist writer or other marginalised groups, there’s the content of your work but there’s also the circumstances in which you can create your work.” "To try and artificially divorce art and politics is impossible", highlighting how the more resources required the greater inequality is amplified.
“To try and artificially divorce art and politics is impossible.”
What does feminism mean to you personally? Moor roots the construction and development of her feminism within violence against women. “What I felt was that there were structures in place some of which are political, some are economic, some are baked into the stories we tell and the way we tell them, in particular in crime fiction or true crime.” There has been a gradual reckoning with these tropes over the years she explains that dead or brutalised bodies of women are treated as entertainment.
“Writing about domestic violence, there is an idea, and it tends to be women, that people who remain in that position are passive or masochistic. It's difficult to tell a good story about a passive character. In narrative theory there is the idea that a character as a strong need or driving force, the hero's journey and active principle. So, when somebody appears to accept their condition it can be hard to reconcile that with what were attuned to in terms of storytelling. There's a challenge there of trying to tell a story but in a new way so that it doesn’t just reinforce hackneyed ideas. An idea of victimhood and hero on the part of law enforcement when my experience from working in the sector taught me that can be the source of the villainy, that failure on behalf of the authorities to do something. Women who remain in these positions as victims are demonstrating extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness and are doing what they need to survive. It's a story which needs complete reevaluation.”
What does it say about us that we accept these untrue narrative tropes of female victimisation? “Most murder victims are male, but most women are killed by someone they know”, she says. “So, I knew that even though there are these TV shows showing these Barock murders of women for dramatic effort. But the banal truth is that in the UK two women are week are killed by a partner or former partner. That is the reality, but it is totally unrepresented. So, I wanted to convey some of that banality because often the killers in these situations are depicted as fascinating and complex individuals.”
Moor started writing her novel before the #MeToo Movement had truly taken flight. She says that “by the time I found a publisher we were in a totally different space than the one we were in, in 2016.” With “the dam having been broken” she delineates how a “host of new stories are being told.” She feels fortunate in successfully finding a publisher who supports the foundational nature of feminism within her thriller novel. “Part of this is because publishing has a lot of women in it who are keen to make a change.”
If you were to recommend one particular feminist resource to somebody what would it be and why? Looking towards her bookshelf for inspiration, laughing she admits that “if I don’t have my bookshelf, I can’t remember a single thing I’ve read.” One crucial piece she’s read is Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, “she is a really interesting feminist who is articulating a lot of the specific cultural conditions which we’re dealing with now with feminism in the internet age and the new conversations which are being had at the moment about things such as consent.” Moor also highly recommends Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette, a production she describes as “full of rage and pain and humour and it’s structurally brilliant. You've just got to watch it and submit to it.”
Apologising for the yowl of her cat in the background, which she politely went to feed in the kitchen while remaining on the video call with me, Moor also talks of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan book series, which she describes as “genius”, through which “the position of women, economics, violence, lower expectations are perfectly articulated.”
Glancing over towards her bookshelf once again, Moor is prompted towards a further recommendation. “Another really good book is Angela Davis women, race and class – that takes as it’s starting point the position of African American women but it is one of the most concise cogent feminist texts that’s been written, very classic of the genre. It's good to take the work of someone like Angela Davis, who is maybe not as venerated as some of her white counterparts, but her analysis is so sharp and fundamental.”
Moor gained her Creative Writing Masters from the University of Manchester, during which her experience of working in the domestic violence sector for just under a year became the focus of her writing. “What the job did was give me a perfect view on attitudes and why so much of this continues. And it's to do with a lack of funding and understanding. We know what works, and what can keep women safe and this would be achievable if we put the money there. That was what made me angry.”
“When you learn for example that in family courts perpetrators have been allowed to cross-examine their own victims, as self-representing council. Anyone who finds that out is shocked. So, once you find that out you can’t not be angry at home the system works.” Her passion for the subject is palpable. She goes on to discuss how “until 1992 there was no legal understanding that a man could rape his own wife, because his wife was his property. Of course, we’ve still got hangovers from those legal systems. We have the residue that this is strictly a private matter.”
“I felt like a learned a lot in that time and I put a lot of that into the book. But at the same time the book is a work of fiction. The ways in which it is based on life are not necessarily in the ways people might think and the elements which are fictional are not necessarily in known ways either. If I’d wanted to write a non-fiction political book, that’s what I would have done, I chose to write a piece of fiction as I felt that’s what I had to offer. A sense of craft.” While taking pains to point out the disturbing nature of trauma becoming its own selling point both in the publishing and other media-related industries. “The victimisation itself becomes a form of entertainment” she asserts.
Fundamentally for Moor it’s the novels ability to contain complexity and ambivalence which is its value. “Learning to sit with things which were uncomfortable and not trying to respond straight away with a judgement.” She goes on to discuss how “we live in a polarised world and are constantly funneled towards making unambiguous quick judgements both in life and on social media, delineating our opinion on the strongest possible terms to which the novel can be a rebuttal.” Through The Keeper, Moor is not seeking to demonise or sanctify people, but just present them as humanised. Combatting through the mode of the novel the language of the domestic violence sector which is often bleached of all nuance. What she euphemistically describes as “industrial strength language, geared towards functionality.”
Seen as the novel deals with the legal structures of patterns of behaviour and coercive control, what Moor describes as “crimes against somebody’s liberty”, she felt it required a story to make sense of it. My book deals with a new law which is about coercive control, which was only introduced in 2015 or 2016, which is the idea that a pattern of behaviour can be abusive even if none of the individual actions within that pattern are abusive in themselves. It's not a crime of violence against the body it’s a crime of violence against somebody's liberty, depriving them of socialisation, financial independence and psychological freedom. “When the law is about a complex psychological relationship it is totally different. It is so important to understand that. Apart from anything else it is open to misinterpretation and subjectivity. The personal intimacy, and it is all that seems the opposite of what is civil and legalistic and empirical. I think that is a difficult frontier to feminism. It is difficult in terms of consent, psychological terrorism.”
Moor’s chosen crime-thriller genre to address issues surrounding domestic violence, draws upon the close associations with terror, suspense and entertainment. “You can use a good story as a trojan horse or the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down”, she says. “I had something I wanted to say with this book, and I wanted it to reach as many people as possible. That meant rolling my sleeves up and making sure the plot really worked. I did want to at various key points in the book to subvert the expectations of what people would assume in a regular thriller in order to reflect on why that was done.”
In particular, she draws attention to the conclusion of the novel and how it “is not tied up in a neat bow, creating that ambiguity”, declaring that “it would have felt dishonest to deliver perfect justice in the ending.” This was a conscious decision made by Moor because societally we have not yet arrived at a place where justice can be delivered. “If I feel that reckoning becomes possible, I'll write a sequel. But not yet because it’s not the right time. Obviously, you could use fiction to act out the justice which isn’t possible in real life, but I was always going to leave it open. That was the only option which felt emotionally true.”
Different voices are present within Moor’s debut novel, each with distinctive styles, which aim to convey the reality of domestic violence and its psychological impacts. “That was all carefully calibrated to the individual characters” she says, recognisable from the hard-boiled noir construction of the detective in contrast to the protagonists’ close observations of coercive control which is very interior.
“Your style is you and a product of what you’ve read. I am more influenced by the writers in terms of a larger project regarding what the novel is trying to do rather than on an individual sentence level. That comes down to personal conditioning and preference. There are some styles which are strongly associated with a specific politics. Such as between Virginia Woolf and Hemingway. Hemingway’s style is often considered very masculine and something more feminine about Woolf’s, I don’t necessarily buy that, but I accepted the argument.”
In terms of books which Moor posits as overtly influential upon her, she emphasises Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which she sees as capably pulling of a bold and brilliant experiment, by creating characters which the reader comes to care about profoundly. “Respect for your reader and investment in character really influence me” she declares, suggesting “that's less feminist and more humanistic.”
Moor’s novel weaves complex and non-linear narratives, conveying a sense of rootlessness and an inability to trust in one’s own judgement. These notions she says provide “self-exacerbating perspectives, which don’t just line up but make each other worse. It might be more pleasant and comfortable to read a narrative which is surer but that doesn’t mean it’s true, it just means it’s assured.”
“I've always read, been a reader, it’s my favourite thing. It feels more like my real life than my real life sometimes. As long as I can still read books nothing can be too bad.”