About The Author
Kate Murray-Browne was born and lives in London. She worked in publishing for ten years, previously at Faber & Faber, before becoming a freelance editor. She is also a visual artist and has exhibited work in a number of different galleries. The Upstairs Room is her first novel. Eleanor, Richard and their two young daughters recently stretched themselves to the limit to buy their dream home, a four-bedroom Victorian townhouse in East London. But the cracks are already starting to show. Eleanor is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere in the house and becomes convinced it is making her ill. Whilst Richard remains preoccupied with Zoe, their mercurial twenty-seven-year-old lodger, Eleanor becomes determined to unravel the mystery of the house's previous owners - including Emily, whose name is written hundreds of times on the walls of the upstairs room.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Sarah Watkins chatted to Kate about the gap between the stories we tell ourselves about the world and how we actually experience it, why 'imposter syndrome' is more pronounced in women than men and whether a building can function as an unreliable narrator.
Questions & Answers
The Upstairs Room is a wonderful novel about people and their relationships with the house as almost an additional character. What came first for you, the setting or the characters?
The house – I wanted to write about a house that made people ill, but I couldn’t get it off the ground until I knew who lived in it. I still remember the moment Richard, Eleanor and Zoe came into my head and how exciting it was. Three scenes, from each of their perspectives, came into my mind almost fully formed (though only two are in the finished book).
What was your inspiration for the house, and have you ever lived anywhere as unsettling?
Thankfully not, but like most people in London, I have moved a lot and lived in some quite unusual set-ups. Sharing intimate space with strangers and trawling through what previous owners have left behind is always a little unnerving, and that all fed into the novel. But my starting point was someone else’s experience: a colleague told me she’d had to move out of her house because it made her and her family ill. I was completely fascinated by her story and it happened to coincide with a time when I wanted to try and write something for myself.
I enjoyed the shades of gothic horror and uncertainty throughout the book; does this aspect of your novel reflect your own reading tastes?
I like all kinds of books, but ghosts were a big childhood fear – I was much more frightened by the supernatural than any other, more plausible, threats. So I’ve always been drawn to spooky stories, from classic ghost stories – M R James and Susan Hill – to more peculiarly unsettling books – We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Yellow Wallpaper.
As a Gen Xer I did read some generational divide into The Upstairs Room, despite (or perhaps because of) identifying more with Millennial Zoe than Eleanor. Were you very conscious of the perceived gap when you were writing?
Yes – the age gap between Zoe and Eleanor is not huge (less than ten years) but it’s magnified by the increasingly unforgiving nature of the city. I do think life has become much harder very rapidly, in terms of jobs, housing, salaries and debt, and Zoe and Eleanor’s different circumstances reflect that, as well as the different choices they’ve made along the way.
While reading your book, I was often struck by the space between appearance and reality. For example, Zoe judges Eleanor to be sophisticated, distant and together, which is not at all how Eleanor feels. Was this tension something you particularly wanted to explore?
I was conscious of the fact that it’s a very intimate novel – we learn things about the characters that they’ve never spoken about, even to those closest to them, and witness them presenting slightly distorted versions of themselves to those around them. I’m interested in the gap between the stories we tell ourselves about the world and how we actually experience it, and what happens when those stories become inadequate. Unexplained events are the heart of any ghost story, but sometimes one’s own life can feel like an unexplained event too, and both send us searching for some kind of narrative resolution.
I am particularly interested in depictions of motherhood in literature, and was struck by Eleanor’s ‘confession’ that she doesn’t think of herself as a mother but rather ‘like a person with a child’. Her discomfort with this makes me wonder if there is still an assumption that women’s identity must be subsumed by motherhood?
I think our society’s expectations of mothers are impossible to live up to, so no one is going to entirely escape that kind of discomfort. Eleanor is someone who’s prepared to go to some lengths to take on the demands of this role, and give up things she really cares about, so it’s particularly troubling for her when she finds it alienating.
Eleanor’s feeling that she is playing a role more generally leads me to ask whether imposter syndrome is a particular issue for women, in your opinion?
I think the roles women are asked to play are more demanding, embody greater contradictions and come under more scrutiny – whether it’s as a mother, a professional or a sexually desirable woman. So although I think imposter syndrome is a natural human reaction, it’s probably more pronounced in women.
The more I think about it, the more I think that The Upstairs Room raises some fundamental questions about relationships between men and women both on a personal and professional level. Are women still too often acting as helpmeets to men?
I think we collectively validate men’s dreams and desires more than women’s, and that’s a dynamic played out in the relationships in the book – both the male characters feel entitled to a degree of support from their partner that the female characters don’t. Women also tend to take on a lot of unseen and unvalued tasks in a relationship, and that accumulates subtly. It’s not that it’s impossible to pursue your ambitions while supporting someone else’s and doing the work it takes to keep a family and home together – or to reject the social pressure to do so – but it undeniably makes things harder.
To come back to the house and the role it plays in the novel, I’d like to ask if you think a building (or other object) can function as an unreliable narrator in a story?
One of the things I like about ghost stories is the way objects become charged and animistic – M R James stories often centre on a manuscript or an engraving that takes on a threatening life of its own (pity the man who purchases an antique dolls’ house at the start of an M R James story…) The haunted house is the most common of these, and I suppose they can be unreliable in that they mislead and conceal what’s really going on (I wonder if they can be called narrators, as such, but perhaps they function in the same way).