Kate Davies has the first smash hit of the summer. In at the Deep End is full of hilarious and sexy relationships that will have readers laughing as they rapidly turn pages.
The debut novel follows Julia, a woman who is completely over sex. She’s over hearing her roommate have it. She’s over seeing it on television and in advertisements. She’s over it until she meets a woman at a party who invites her into a sex-filled world. Now she can’t get enough of it.
Davies has a sharp eye for friendship, desire, and humor. I corresponded with her via email about how she wrote such a smart, sexy, and sensual book.
I’ve read comparisons of your book to Bridget Jones’ Diary and then a friend mentioned it in relation to Fleabag. Do you see the connection to either one of those? Or both?
Yes, absolutely. Bridget Jones’s Diary was one of my favourite books when I was a teenager and it had a huge influence on me – I wanted to be Bridget Jones, but with better underpants. The first draft of In at the Deep End was actually written as a diary, but when I re-read it, it felt a little too light: it was funny, but it didn’t feel truthful enough. Then, in 2015, a new law was introduced in the UK, criminalizing ‘coercive or controlling behavior in an intimate or family relationship’ and I realized I didn’t want to write a straight forward romantic comedy: I wanted to write a book that was warm and funny but also honest and a little dark, something that explored the power dynamics in same-sex relationships.
I wrote most of In at the Deep End before Fleabag was broadcast but I’m very, very flattered by the comparisons – Fleabag is stunningly brilliant. I think In at the Deep End is part of the same wave of popular culture. Both Phoebe Waller-Bridge and I write really honestly about what it’s like to be a young woman living in London, we both balance humour with darkness, and we’re both particularly frank about sex. When I write something I’d be afraid to say out loud, I know it’s worth writing – when you see your darkest, most embarrassing thoughts, feelings and experienced represented in a book or on television, you feel such a rush of validation. That’s what Fleabag gives me and that’s what I hope In at the Deep End will give other people.
The book tackles sex and sexuality head-on. Were these topics something you’ve been thinking about and writing about for a while?
This is my first novel – before this I worked in children’s publishing, writing and editing children’s books – so it’s the first time I’ve written about sex and sexuality. Before I came out as a lesbian, I wasn’t really sure what queer women actually did in bed. There isn’t much honest representation of lesbian sex out there, and I know lots of people still don’t think lesbian sex really counts because there isn’t a penis involved. When I first having sex with women I was AMAZED and DELIGHTED by how wonderful it was, and the variety of things queer women can do together (fisting! Amazing!). As a fan of accessories of all kinds, I was also very excited at the prospect of picking out a strap-on, and the idea you could have several for different occasions – like a Kelloggs Variety pack, only not suitable for children. I wanted to celebrate lesbian sex and to write about it frankly and unashamedly.
What is the key to writing good sex?
Be direct. Don’t use euphemisms, similes or metaphors – just describe exactly what is happening. And be honest – write about the awkward, embarrassing stuff as well as the good stuff.
A lot of sex in books either is written poorly by men or written by women but relegated to “romance” genres. Where do you see sex in literature heading towards in the next few years?
Shows such as Girls, Fleabag, Dear White People and Sex Education and books like In at the Deep End, Queenie (Candace Cartey-Williams), Normal People (Sally Rooney) and The First Bad Man (Miranda July) are ushering in a new era of frankness about sex in popular culture. I think people are more and more thirsty for books, films and television that reflect their own experiences honestly, so I think it’s a trend that will continue.
The relationships in your book feel so honest. What was your approach like to creating these characters, but also the relationships between them?
I’m so glad you think so, thank you. I definitely use my own experiences when I write, because I want my work to feel authentic, so many of the characters are based on people I’ve met or observed. There’s quite a lot of me in Julia, but also in Alice, and a bit in Sam, too. The parents are combinations of my own parents, my friends’ parents, and teachers I had at school and university. Eric, Julia’s 96-year-old pen pal, is based on the second world war veterans I interviewed when I was researching a children’s book about the war. The way he writes is inspired by the way my grandmother used to speak. She would have been 102 this year, and she used phrases you don’t hear any more, like, ‘I’ve been in the wars,’ and ‘Would you like a drop of milk?’, and ‘Errol Flynn was smashing’ (she was a very big Errol fan).
The humor in this book is spot on. Have you always written with humor or did that come on later in your writing career?
Thank you. I’ve always used humour in my writing. I started writing seriously in 2011 after falling in love with 30 Rock. I wanted to be Tina Fey, so I started taking improv classes and writing sit com scripts with a writing partner (none of them ever got made – they featured too many badgers, and some quite unconvincing nuns). I started writing In at the Deep End soon after that, and I knew it had to be funny – I wanted to write something I’d want to read, and I’m usually drawn to warm, uplifting, funny novels. I’ll always use humour in my work, but the more I write, the more I realize not everything has to be funny – it’s important to pull back and let dramatic moments breathe. If you try to make everything funny, that can undermine the emotional impact of a scene. But using humour can make serious scenes more powerful, I think – they catch readers unawares and pack more of a punch.
Sexy and sensual books released during summer can get the label of “beach read.” The term itself can mean a lot. What does it mean to you? Is your book a beach read?
I’m not sure what a beach read is, exactly – a book you enjoy on vacation? I suppose if people read my book on a beach, then it’s a beach read, but I hope it’s more substantial than that term implies. There are all sorts of reasons why people might not take my book as seriously as others: it’s by a woman, featuring mostly female characters, and it’s marketed primarily at female readers. It’s funny, too – and, for reasons I’ll never understand, comic writing is hardly ever given the credit it deserves. That’s as true in screenwriting as it is in literature. I’d argue that good comic writing is much harder to pull off than ‘serious’ writing, but it’s inevitably seen as light and fluffy. And then, of course, there’s the fact that my book features lots of sex. It’s not erotica – it’s just honest about what it’s like to be in the early stages of a particularly passionate relationship. There’s still so much squeamishness around sex in literature, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t write about it when it’s such a huge part of most people’s lives. I think there’s quite a bit of misogyny at play here, too – are Philip Roth novels considered ‘beach reads’? Are Ian McEwan and Alan Hollinghurst novels marketed as sexy or sensual? I’m not claiming that my novel is high literary fiction, but it’s important to be aware of the double standards. Meg Wolitzer writes about the difference in the way novels by men and women are perceived in a brilliant 2012 New York Times article. She asks: ‘If The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?’