INTERVIEW: Erin Kelly, Author of The Poison Tree

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
The Woodman Pub in the Highgate community of London was enveloped in a chill, soggy gray as British novelist Erin Kelly settled into a crackled leather sofa and a cup of coffee — no, not proper English tea — to talk about her debut novel, “The Poison Tree.” (Kelly will be reading from the book Wednesday, January 19, at Warwick’s in La Jolla.) It was the U.S. publication day of her psychological thriller, initially released to acclaim in the United Kingdom, and she was “a little bit nervous” about U.S. reviews.

She was also vivacious, in a reserved British sort of way, and she broke into a mischievous smile with her first comment:

“I feel personally responsible for the weather.”

But her smile belied the darkly foreboding tone of her story, a tale of twisted familial ties, of seduction and love and loss, of guilt and deadly retribution. Similarly, the wintry weather in Highgate, the predominate setting of her book, contradicted the novel’s enervating summer heat of 1997. This is the year Kelly’s protagonist and narrator, Karen, was brutally yanked from her post-college, freewheeling summer by the shattering murders of two people.

With a laugh, Kelly went on to describe the path that led her to a life of writing, inspired along the way by the works of such divergent authors as Daphne du Maurier, Thomas French and Rebecca Wells.

“I read English at Warwick University, a relatively new, but well-regarded university. It’s a hideous place; it’s modern and concrete. … I drifted for a couple years after college. Then I went into journalism, because people told me it was the best way to get published.”

Then she leaped from the recent to the more distant past — as she does in “The Poison Tree” — to reveal a bit more of her personal story.

“I can’t remember not wanting to write. When I was a child, I wanted to write and illustrate books at about age 7. I was quite a precocious artist at the age 7, but it never developed. Now I draw like a 7-year-old.”

Between Kelly’s childhood aspirations and the publication of her first book, she did the hard work of a writer, under some particularly challenging circumstances.

“I told a lot of people I was writing a book, and I joined a lot of writing groups, and I’d written no more than a couple of chapters. Then in March 2008, I decided to take it seriously. By the time I got pregnant I had four or five chapters, unpolished. I sat down and wrote it in six months, which sounds impressive, but you have to realize it had been brewing for years.”

Kelly submitted a partial manuscript to Pat Kavanagh, a formidable British literary agent, and Kavanagh asked for the full manuscript, but died before she could pursue it.

“Another agent in her company picked up the manuscript,” Kelly explained. “She pulled me into the office three weeks before I was to give birth. An egg of a woman turned up in her office, and she said, ‘We are on something of a deadline here, aren’t we.’ I did a lot of telephone interviews. I did do an interview with one of the publishing houses while I was in labor — put the phone down between contractions.”

Ultimately, Kelly had to revise the manuscript.

“I reworked it, all of this while nursing a newborn, of course, and with the rapid depletion of IQ and patience. We pushed the book out again in June 2009. It was a four-way auction with publishers.”

The tensions of Kelly’s early writing career reflect the well-crafted tension of “The Poison Tree,” in which Karen is seduced into a bohemian middle-class world that succeeds in capturing her soul. And Kelly has succeeded in capturing both the conflicted characters of her gothic tale and the class-conscious tone and textures of Londoners, with an astute and articulate flair that brings the reader into intimate contact with them all, from their fashions to their gutters.

Kelly said of her characters, “I’ve always been fascinated by that kind of fractured bohemian family. Until I went to university, I didn’t meet anyone who was middle class, solid. We didn’t really know writers or artists growing up, so I was always fascinated by the kind of warped confidence those kids seemed to have.”

Having drawn on much of her own experiences to craft her first novel, those of a student at a hideously modern university, a daughter and mother, an East End pub barmaid — “Once you’ve learned to back chat a market trader, nothing much else phases you” — Kelly is now drawing on her experiences as a successful author. Her completed second novel is heading toward publication and her third is in the works.

“I’ve got a list on my wall of things I can’t do in the third book,” she said. For instance, “I’m not allowed to have a sexual awakening in my third book because I have them in my first two.”

And Kelly is enthralled, in a restrained British sort of way, with the writer’s path she is traveling.

“This is a genre I want to stay in for a while. I’d like to write as regularly as I can —young family and all. But life is very lovely. You know, a nice little quiet life writing books,” she mused.

Then that mischievous smile erupted yet again.

Author’s website: Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books Binding: Hardcover Pages: 336 Price: $26.95 for hardcover, $12.99 for e-book

Crossposted at the North County Times.