Things have changed
Apple Tree Yard author Louise Doughty on her latest book and how TV changed her life
By Hannah Stephenson
There's been a buzz around Platform Seven, bestselling author Louise Doughty's ninth novel, and not just because her latest chilling tale is narrated by a ghost whose mysterious death forms the main strand of the story. Doughty, 55, had been a moderately successful novelist for 20 years until the BBC adaptation of her thriller Apple Tree Yard, starring Emily Watson and Ben Chaplin, catapulted her to new heights of fame and enabled her to become a full-time writer.
Up until then, she had supplemented her income by teaching creative writing, penning newspaper columns and occasional broadcasting. While her previous novels had been reviewed well and nominated for prizes, it wasn't until Apple Tree Yard that she became more successful commercially. "It made me less poor," she clarifies, smiling. "I still have a mortgage the size of a planet. What is the most boring thing I could have done with the money? I took out a pension for the first time in my life. My income had been so insecure my whole life. The mortgage debt was - and still is - enormous. When you have a good piece of luck you make yourself secure. Maybe I would need another big success to feel I could spend any of it."
That may be just around the corner, as Platform Seven has been optioned by a production company keen to bring it to the small screen. It's centred largely in and around the eponymous platform of Peterborough Railway Station, a bleak, cold setting inspired by her own experience of having to wait on many occasions at the station for a connection (from Leeds and East Anglia, where she went to university) to Rutland in the East Midlands, where her family lived.
"For the whole of my adult life, Peterborough Railway Station has been the transition place between the various stages of my life and my childhood. I've spent a lot of time there on cold winter nights with the wind blowing across the fens. I used to joke that if I'd have been really bad and died and gone to purgatory, I would find myself trapped on Peterborough Railway Station."
Which is exactly where her deceased heroine Lisa Evans finds herself, caught in limbo, a troubled soul unable to escape the location or circumstances of her violent death until her soul finds peace. "I don't believe in ghosts but I believe that they are real for people who believe in them," Doughty muses. "If you want to believe in something strongly enough, you can manifest it."
When the novelist's own mother died in 2014, just before she started the novel, Doughty certainly felt her mum's presence when she was clearing the house. "The house still smelled of her and gradually that drifts away. And I can vividly remember the first time I went when I thought, 'She's not here anymore'. It was something quite practical about smell and sense and the unoccupied house. It did spook me. I found it hard to be there alone after she'd died. That all fed into Platform Seven."
"It's ironic that I decided to write a novel set at Peterborough Railway Station at the point when my parents had both died and I actually no longer needed to go there," she continues. "There was a funny moment when I was sitting in Burger King in downtown Peterborough on a Friday night writing on my laptop and I thought of all the writing courses I've taught over the years and all the aspiring writers who have looked at me and thought that my life must be terribly glamorous. Welcome to my world - Burger King in Peterborough as the drunks come in!"
Lisa's is not the only death in the novel - in her ghostly state she witnesses another fatality at the station and questions arise among the living as to whether the two deaths are connected. Meanwhile, her life before her demise gradually unfolds to reveal how she died. This explores the other main strand of the novel, namely her coercive control relationship with a man who on the outside seems completely fine, but definitely isn't.
Psychological manipulation and 'gaslighting' (where an abuser manipulates information to make a victim question his or her sanity) all feed into the plot. "Accidentally, it couldn't be more current," Doughty observes. "Coercive control is very much in the air at the moment." Has she ever been a victim of that?
"Let's just say, I've had some relationships that I wouldn't want to repeat. There probably isn't a woman alive of my generation that hasn't been in a relationship with controlling or manipulative elements. I'm 55 and if you think of the mores I was raised by, I can remember there was still immense pressure for the kind of Heathcliff myth that men would be wildly romantic, that someone being possessive was romantic, that you should be pleased. We are a lot more sophisticated now in our view of relationships but I came to my sexual, political and intellectual maturity in the 1970s and that's a different era."
The daughter of an engineer, Doughty was raised in a working class family in Rutland in the East Midlands. Her father left school at the age of 13 but went to night school and got a PhD in his 50s. "He spent his whole life trying to educate himself. Me and my brother and sister were the first generation in either family to go to university."
Today, she lives in London with her partner, a BBC radio producer she met many years ago when Doughty was reviewing books, plays and films for radio. "We've never got round to the marrying bit. I moved in with my partner when I was 32 and we have two children together. Marriage never interested me. I never felt the need and I'm quite proud of that. It used to really depress me in my 30s the way the obsession with getting married still seemed so current. It made me a bit anti (marriage). I've got the whole package. I've got the big mortgage, the garden shed and the two kids (daughters aged 22 and 17). They still live at home."
After Apple Tree Yard was televised, her life - at least moneywise - became easier, she agrees. She was associate producer on the series, went on set and met the stars on numerous occasions. She thought they did a brilliant job. "I still couldn't tell you what an associate producer is," she says, laughing. "In practice, they let me do stuff I wanted to. I read the scripts before production, I went to the full cast read-through before filming started and went on set about once a week. It was a fantastic experience just to watch something be brought to life. Emily Watson was amazing. Once we got her, I knew we were home and dry. She came to my book launch for my following novel, Black Water. I haven't seen her since but I have a tremendous girl crush on her. Considering she's such a big star, she's not remotely starry. She just comes in and she quietly and calmly gets the job done. That feeds into everybody else's attitude."
As for the future, she's already working on her new novel while adaptations are in development and optioned respectively for her earlier novels Whatever You Love and Honey-Dew. And as executive producer of Platform Seven, Doughty is no doubt hoping to keep that belated pension pot topped up.