The Rumpus Interview with Katie Crouch
“Most times,” Caroline Leavitt wrote in her San Francisco Chronicle review of Abroad, “if you pick up a book by the best-selling author Katie Crouch, you know what to expect. The story will be smart and scathingly funny, and though it might have moments of tragedy, the blazing sunniness of its Southern locale, coupled with the spunk of its belles, make for a relatively happy read.”
Well, not this one. After covering the Amanda Knox appeal in Italy for Slate in 2012, Crouch went on to pen a literary crime thriller set in in the fictional Umbrian town of Grifonia. And though it would seem impossible to come up with a fresh take on this media zeitgeist, covered extensively in at least twenty other books, Crouch zeroed in on the voice that had never been heard: that of the victim.
Told from a first person point of view from beyond the grave, the story is touching, terrifying, deeply mesmerizing, and impossible to put down—a coming-of-age tale from the girl who never grew up. Interspersed throughout are violent vignettes from Etruscan history, which both ratchet up the mood of dread and give the novel a gripping, cinematic feel. There are no fuzzy endings in this novel. While Crouch stands her ground that this novel is purely fictional, she does provide an answer to the mystery she’s created—which, of course, only spins us all into another round of what-ifs.
Crouch lives in Bolinas, California with the writer Peter Orner and their daughter Phoebe. We spoke while walking our enormous Bernese Mountain Dogs, Daisy and Rocky.
The Rumpus: I don’t want to give anything away, but your book ends in a way that definitively shows who committed the murder. Is this what you imagined really happened that night in Italy with Meredith Kercher and Amanda Knox?
Katie Crouch: Absolutely not. There is no way the version I wrote could have happened, because all of the characters were fictional. There were many elements in my novel that didn’t exist in real life.
That said, my version wasn’t any wilder than what the prosecution made up.
Rumpus: When I read the book it seemed clear that Taz represents Meredith Kercher, Claire represents Amanda Knox, and Ervin represents Guede. Is that how you saw it?
Crouch: Yes and no. Initially, that’s where I started. But I don’t know those people, and I know my characters as well as I know myself. I made up characters and put them in a situation similar to what those three people went through. But I don’t find Claire very Amanda Knox–like, and I could never attempt to recreate someone who has died.
Certainly, I thought a lot about Meredith Kercher as I was writing this, as she is the one voice we’ll never get to hear. She haunts me. But Taz is not Meredith. Perhaps Ervin is a bit Guede-ish, as they both came from broken homes and had terrible childhoods and were mentally ill. But again, it’s fiction. I have a lot of empathy for Ervin. I have much less for Rudy Guede.
Rumpus: Why Amanda Knox? Were you following the case previously?
Crouch: I wasn’t. I was in Italy with my family. Peter was working on something, and I was poking into Etruscan history. We were at dinner at a table of writers and artists from all over and her name came up. I had read something while in line at the supermarket, but really didn’t have an opinion. It was striking how vehemently people disagreed about the case, and how little concrete information they had about the incident. That’s what fascinated me—not the truth itself, but the rabid frenzy of fiction that can arise around a story like this.
Rumpus: How much research did you do for this book? Did you travel for it? Did you purposely veer towards any particular facts of the real story? Did you purposely veer away from any facts?
Crouch: I felt a great responsibility to know as much as I could about the actual events. Not that anyone will actually know the truth. Those involved who are alive give widely varying accounts. But to write a novel based on a story, you have to know everything about that story.
I was living in Italy when I started the book. Later, I went back. I interviewed everyone I could. I read the reputable nonfiction books. I read the translated testimonies. It was a bit of a rabbit hole. Yet once I had a very good handle on the various accounts, I felt my responsibility to adhering to the facts ended. I became an “expert,” and then wrote and wrote until the characters felt real in my own mind. The only truth I was interested in was emotional truth. Once I got there, I kept going.
Rumpus: What were the books—fiction and nonfiction—that you turned to for inspiration?
Crouch: I read every good novel I could get my hands on about young, impressionable people living abroad: lots of Henry James—Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, The Golden Bowl, Wings of a Dove—E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore, as I adore the way she portrays relationships between young women.
In order to learn about the case and Italy, I read The Italians by Luigi Barzini, The Fatal Gift of Beauty by Nina Burleigh, an unpublished book about Perugia called Home Street Home by a wonderful writer named Zach Nowak, and The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi. I also read a lot of graduate theses on Etruscan mythology and history. There’s not a ton out there about the Etruscans, because so little is known about their civilization.
Rumpus: At the end of a few chapters throughout the book you include stories of other women who were murdered when the secret society, La Compagnia, was involved. Why did you find it important to include these deaths and connect them to the story?
Crouch: I was originally in Perugia studying Etruscan history. I wanted to write a novel about an Etruscan woman, which totally wasn’t working, but I loved the idea. Perugia is an absolutely fascinating city, with thousands of years of intense history. And the stories are quite sensationalist. Here is where a woman was sacrificed to the Sun God, I would read in my guidebook while walking around the city. Here is where a woman was flayed alive. Meredith Kercher became one of these stories. But these deaths were more than stories, all of them. They were real people. As a fiction writer, I felt it important to explore that.
Rumpus: Did you ever feel uncomfortable writing someone else’s story?
Crouch: Wow. That question kept me up at night. What will the families think? Do I have a right to write a novel based on a real person’s experience?
In the end, I had to shut off my brain and find my writer balls. As Roxana Robinson so eloquently wrote in the New York Times last Sunday about her novel, Sparta, based on soldiers in Iraq: “We’re doing what fiction writers have always done: trying to investigate the world, explore human experience, render precisely what it means to be alive. We’re trying to give voice to everyone on the planet.” I loved that essay. The book felt dangerous to write, and I knew that was where I needed to be. Fiction is about learning things we can’t learn through everyday life. If it doesn’t feel uncomfortable, what’s the point?
Rumpus: In the aftermath of the Amanda Knox trial there was a lot of anti-Americanism in Europe. In this story you represent the American, Claire, as doing no wrong and simply wanting to help her friend. Are you trying to somehow redeem Amanda Knox and America in general through this story?
Crouch: That’s a great question. No one has asked me that. I would have to say the answer is no because I never write with any political agenda.
That said, I don’t think the anti-Americanism that arose over Kercher’s death has much to do with Amanda Knox. Knox was a catalyst to a sentiment that has been brewing for a couple of centuries. It’s important to remember that Italy is very, very different than the United States. There’s been plenty of clashing. And many pundits see the Italian justice system as unfair. But it’s a system that has evolved over hundreds, even thousands, of years in accordance to their history and culture. I believe Knox said and did exactly the wrong things during the days following November 2, 2007 in the eyes of a country that is incredibly conservative in many ways. She was the indiscernible earthquake that causes the tidal wave.
Rumpus: Do you think Amanda Knox did it?
Crouch: I’d like to think that she didn’t. She seems like a smart, nice woman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the time, she was very young. But I’m a novelist, so her real story doesn’t have anything to do with me. I just play with the shadows.
Rumpus: Last question. What are you working on now?
Crouch: A book of essays probably called Lonely Is A Dirty Word. Or maybe it’s not called that. But essays. I’ve been writing that book for eight years.
Also, I’ve started an intensely creepy novel about a mysterious death at a girl’s sleep-away camp. It’s the Henry James, I think. I’ve crossed the ghost story line and can’t seem to go back.
Featured image by Piro Patton.