In April 2014 I was working on a piece about the treatment of Amanda Knox, who was, along with Raffaele Sollecito and Rudy Guede, arrested and convicted of the murder of Meredith Kercher in 2007. Knox and her boyfriend were then acquitted and later re-convicted. The case read like a witch hunt, and intrigued me with its social and legal complications. I had written two pieces for the Huffington Post about the case when Katie Crouch’s Abroad (Sarah Crichton Books), found its way to my desk at my former publishing job. I was immediately struck; the book magnificently approaches a fictionalized retelling of the Meredith Kercher murder while also being an incredible story in its own right. Abroad is the story of what strange darknesses might happen when young women travel far away from everything they know.
Crouch’s characters shimmer, at times lost and naive and at times espoused with nuanced, worldly wisdom. The narrator is the deceased, telling her story from grave, or from some other-land comprised of ancient Etruscan wisdom; our narrator joins the ranks of women who were murdered, unseen and unheard in the unsettled land of Grifonia (Perugia).
While many fictionalized accounts of true crime cases fail by depending on obvious tropes or lazy recasting, Abroad reigns; Crouch deftly gives her characters autonomy from the real story and the prose is poetic and arresting. There’s a real sense of magic and gore and youthful glory, and it left me fascinated, not only as a reader but as a writer about the Kercher case.
I spoke with Crouch over email, where she openly shared her thoughts on the book and case.
Lisa Marie Basile: Abroad deftly deals with the inner mechanisms of female relationships, the search for identity and the dark dimensions of desire. You manage to do all of this without gratuitous sentimentality, and the characters are nuanced, gritty and almost intolerable. Even your narrator is naive and weak at times. I found it very hard to relate to her, but felt deeply connected with her life and death anyway. What was your modus operandi when writing these young women?
Katie Crouch: My main purpose as a writer is to create characters who are real to me. If characters are too perfect, or charming, or witty, or loveable, I instantly become bored, whether I’m reading them or writing them. That’s just not the side of humanity I’m interested in. I mean, we don’t love Emma Bovary for her good manners.
Real people are screwed up. They might hide it, but as I writer I’m not interested in artifice. Real characters make mistakes and say horrible things and hurt the people they love. Even humans with the very best intentions do that. As I surf around the flotsam of my real life, I don’t look for perfection in people. I look for flaws. That’s what makes me like them. So I guess I just create characters I like. They always behave badly.
LMB: What inspired you to write Abroad from the perspective of the deceased, and were you ever worried people would call the book “that story about Amanda Knox?”
KC: I didn’t worry about that latter question, because there are so many nonfiction books about Amanda Knox I found it kind of a moot point. There was also another excellent novel about Knox rushed to publication to pre-empt mine. So by the time my book came out, I wasn’t worried about Ms. Knox knocking on my door saying, what the hell? It was well-tread ground.
That said, my book is actually very different. The main focus wasn’t Knox at all. It was the victim. I was in Italy when I decided to write this, and all anyone could talk about was “Angel Face”, the beautiful American. And very few people could remember Meredith Kercher’s name. I found that fascinating, and alarming. Because as I started researching and interviewing people about the case, I found the most relevant answers to what happened always led back to her. She was the only one who knew the truth, but she couldn’t relay it. Which was a terrific place for fiction to begin.
LMB: You weave the mythos of the Etruscan society throughout the book, which gives it all this lush, ancestral hum. I went on to research Etruscology after reading it, and a prominent scholar, Massimo Pallottino, said something that very deeply rang true for the case of Kercher’s death and for the mystery of the Etruscans: “I don’t think there is any other field of human knowledge in which there is such a daft cleavage between what has been scientifically ascertained and the unshakeable beliefs of the public.” What was it about Etruscan history that spoke to you most, and do you still feel haunted?
KC: I was originally in Perugia studying Etruscan history. What 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 with real, beautiful existences cut short by needless violence. As a fiction writer, I felt it important to explore that. And it felt like a dangerous topic, which is what I’m interested in a writer. I don’t write sweet books with happy endings, much to my mother’s chagrin. To me, the most interesting questions in life lie in the shadows.
LMB: I felt I hadn’t read a book that dealt fairly with youth and femininity. It’s either too soft or too over-extended. Abroad was neither. For you, what takes a book from good to great? What makes you want to stay inside a story?
KC: It’s pretty basic. I read on a prose level. I love a good story, but if the prose is lazy, I have to put it down. This just happened with a big literary thriller I was really excited about. I love smart, well written mysteries, and I SO wanted to like this one. But everyone’s heart kept “racing”. And beating, and fluttering, and bursting. I know hearts are hard to write about, but if it sounds like Sweet Valley High, I’ve got to put it down.
That said, I’m a really forgiving reader. I read bestsellers, and things Oprah likes. I’m down with that. My partner is really snobby. He’s always like, “Why are you reading that?” and thrusting Mavis Gallant or Stendahl into my hands. I adore Mavis Gallant. Read every book. Yes, I should be spending the precious hours of my life dissecting her sentences. But sometimes I just want a well-written page-turner, you know? I’m a mother. I’m tired.
LMB: You manage very well to balance poetic, luscious prose with conversational, youth-speak. Did you find it difficult to go back and forth between inhabiting the magic of Grifonia, your fictional, strange Italian city and the superficiality of some of your main characters? I felt your transitions were seamless.
KC: Thanks for that. It can be dangerous to write young. Young people are incredibly serious, but they don’t always sound that way. I sat around listening to students for days in Italy. There were repeated motives: Booze. Sex. Seeing the coolest thing. Young people abroad are really afraid to miss out on anything.
But dialogue doesn’t do justice to the depth of a person. I say so much stupid crap. But I like to think that I am more substantial than the words that come out of my mouth. It was important to portray that easy language of youth, but when it would get too thin I would cut away to Taz’s inner thoughts, which were much more mature and meaty. I sort of cheated, because she’s dead, meaning she knows more than anyone else on earth. So she can exist among the mortals, but then step back and say these mind-blowing things that give the book a different tilt.
LMB: There was a point in the book when you suggest your narrator, Tabitha, felt she was in love with Claire, her roommate. While the story shows a fluid dance of desire, hatred, admiration and obsession between many of the female characters, I was caught delightfully off-guard with this line. What was your intention here?
KC: There are few relationships in life as passionate and searing as those between young women. I’m not speaking of sexual attraction, though certainly that comes into it sometimes. I’m speaking of the period between sixteen and twenty-five when our minds and bodies are as strong as they’ll ever be. We have feelings and abilities that are inhumanly intense. And women in particular have an ability to love that is almost mythological in its enormity.
Yet our ability to control emotions comes later. It’s very unfair, how nothing balances out at the right time. I wish I could combine my passion at twenty with my ability to reason at forty. But we can’t, and it makes for excellent fictional exploration. Friendship, as the characters in my book come to realize, its not all fuzzy kittens and daisies. If you truly love a friend, there is an edge of despair and jealousy. There is intense fear at losing your touchstone. And sometimes, if things go wrong, violence can follow.
LMB: Did you ever consider an alternate storyline for Abroad? And if so, can you spill the secret?
KC: I wrote a whole other version of Abroad, in which Taz, the narrator, is the killer. I thought it would be interesting to turn the story on its head. After all, we could all be killers, if put into the correct situation. But it turned into a novel of ideas, which is never great. So I went back to what I started with.
LMB: Your last line, “Maybe the wanting is yours” left me feeling like you really instilled the narrator – in death – with a peace, wisdom and freedom she never really knew she had. Did you always know how you would end the book and her life? Did you always want to put the reader in this position – of having to decide why they cared so much?
KC: I don’t ever know what my last line will be until I write it. I had several versions. In one I told the reader to go find a nameless statue in the Etruscan Museum and Rome and to stare her in the face. I liked that too, but as I re-wrote, the book became about all aspects of female desire. Not just sexual desire, but the hunger a young woman feels for something she can’t name. I feel very strongly that this hunger has fueled the enormous frenzy around this case. There is something primal about it. The air is thick with our wanting. I felt that nailed the book. But I also wanted to turn it on the reader, as we are the voyeurs. I’m basically challenging the reader to think about why he or she is so interested in this story. Perhaps the wanting is yours. It’s a call-out.
Katie Crouch is the New York Times bestselling author of Girls in Trucks. Her other novels include Men and Dogs, two young adult novels, and Abroad, a literary thriller set in Italy. Julia Glass wrote of Abroad: With uncanny psychological precision and a dark, dead-on wit, Katie Crouch explores how the casual follies of youth all too quickly turn tragic” Katie covered the Amanda Knox appeal for Slate magazine, and has also written for The Guardian, the New York Times, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Salon, and she has a regular column on The Rumpus called “Missed.” A MacDowell fellow, Crouch teaches at San Francisco State University and lives in Bolinas, California with Peter Orner and their daughter Phoebe.
Lisa Marie Basile is the author of APOCRYPHAL, which was ranked a Top-10 bestselling poetry release on Amazon.com. Her work can be seen in the Best American Poetry, PANK Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, Johns Hopkin’s The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, and PANK, among other publications. A recipient of an MFA from The New School in New York City, she edits Luna Luna Magazine and works as a teacher and writer. Her writing on the Amanda Knox case can be found here on the Huffington Post.