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On the night of the Brexit referendum, in a tiny town on the English seaside, sixteen-year-old Joan Wilson is doused in gasoline and set on fire by three other teenage girls. The crime goes largely unreported. Alec Z. Carelli, a journalist disgraced for hacking the phones of dead children, takes it upon himself to tell her story.
Framed as Alec’s nonfiction book, Eliza Clark’s sophomore novel, “Penance,” is a mishmash of interviews, news articles, Tumblr threads, stolen diary entries, and fictionalized prose. Partially inspired by the 1992 murder of Shanda Sharer and the controversial crime writing of Truman Capote, “Penance” is an unreliable narrator’s account of a grisly murder and a glimpse into the vicious experience of teenage girlhood.
Clark, whose debut novel “Boy Parts” achieved viral success and who was named in Granta’s 2023 list of the Best Young British Novelists, sat down with The Harvard Crimson to discuss her latest novel.
“Penance” is a bold experiment in both content and form, as well as a biting satire of the modern true crime industry. The novel’s satirical element originated from Clark’s dissatisfaction with what she calls “trashy true crime” — the kind of insensitive, sensationalized reporting that permeates mainstream true crime commentary.
“To see the rise of the Netflix version of true crime was really, really obnoxious,” she said.
In addition to tackling the true crime industry, “Penance” also takes a deep dive into online true crime fandom and the culture of mid-2010s Tumblr. The book’s main characters are passionately involved in serial killer fandom (which is exactly as messed up as it sounds). In the novel, they’re known as “creekers” — fans who are dedicated to shipping the two male perpetrators of the fictional Cherry Creek school shooting.
“I think a lot of the impact that Tumblr has had on broader online culture isn’t given the credit that it’s often due for how much of an effect it did have on things like how we talk about social justice,” Clark said. “And I think a lot of that online stuff has been washed over from Tumblr in a way that’s quite interesting.”
Clark herself was active in fandom spaces in the early 2010s, when online fandoms were starting to switch from disconnected LiveJournal forums to centralized social media platforms such as Tumblr — a change that she believes created a hostility in fandom, particularly between teenagers, that “Penance” depicts.
“It was a really fun thing to mine, and a funny thing to revisit. Sometimes it was quite exhausting,” she said. “I had a chat with a publisher, who I won’t name, about possibly getting me to write a YA novel for them. And I just thought, I can’t cope with thinking about teenagers again or anymore or in depth, because it’s already so draining.”
Writing about fandom, for Clark, was also a way to explore the social dynamics of high school. There’s no shortage of teenage bullying in “Penance,” from targeted harassment at school to anonymous online hate. The two situations, Clark says, naturally bleed into each other.
“I think fandoms are an interesting microcosm for recording teenage behavior in the way teenagers deal with power dynamics, because power dynamics do quite quickly form in fandoms — which I think are very reflective of schools, and of people who are a bit low down on that social hierarchy in school taking the opportunity to be quite cruel online,” she said.
Where does that cruelty come from? Clark, who describes herself as an introspective child, remembers observing power dynamics in school and thinking about the ways in which students who are picked on can end up bullying others.
“High school is quite feral and almost uncivilized,” Clark said. “It almost reminds me of the way that chimps have really specific social dynamics. I think human beings are quite like hierarchical apes naturally. To a degree, people grow out of that when they get older, but also I think they kind of don’t.”
“Penance” carries a political dimension to it as well. The murder in the novel takes place on the night of the 2016 Brexit referendum, and subsequently receives very little news coverage in comparison. The timing wasn’t originally meant to be political. Clark was inspired instead by the 1992 murder of Suzanne Capper, whose death coincided with the much higher-profile murder of James Bulger, and as a result went largely unreported in the news.
“I didn’t initially set out to write a State of the Nation novel,” Clark said. “But the more that I went into it, and the more that I worked with that, the more it became a stand-in for a general bad vibe. I talk a lot about tiny pocket hells in the book, and I was thinking a lot about the political climate in 2016 as a bit of a pocket hell situation.”
Clark started writing “Penance” in 2019 and finished it two and a half years later in 2022. In between, her debut novel “Boy Parts” — a dark comedy about a woman obsessed with taking explicit photos of mediocre-looking young men — achieved viral fame on TikTok.
“It went from being this indie press book that had done quite well, to being this huge, huge hit,” Clark said. “That was really strange both to witness happening, but then also to see the change of conversation around my work as well.”
After the success of “Boy Parts,” Clark began to find herself often referred to as a “sad girl novelist” and her work as a “feral girl book” — labels that she identifies as the result of readers’ “weird projection” onto herself as a young female writer.
“I think I got called a ‘cool girl novelist’ derogatorily in The New Statesman last week,” she said. “I’m nearly thirty. You don’t need to call me a girl all the time.”
This labeling partially motivated Clark to step outside the so-called “sad girl” genre of literature with “Penance” — a novel that, while still centered around female experiences, takes daring experiments with form.
“I was concerned about being pigeonholed as a particular type of writer who only deals with stories about young women and that kind of thing — the quite bland, pejorative stuff people tend to say about young women,” she said. “So I wanted to do something that was formally quite different.”
Clark has several projects lined up after the U.S. release of “Penance” on Sept. 26. “Boy Parts” is being adapted into a one-woman play at London’s Soho Theatre, set to premiere on Oct. 18. Clark is also working on a collection of short stories that will be released in the UK at the end of 2024, along with various projects for film and TV. No matter what comes next, it’s clear that Clark will continue to explore new ground, creating work that refuses to be labeled.
—Staff writer Samantha H. Chung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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