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ANNA BILLER

Screenshot 2024 02 12 At 13.06.05

Anna Biller was personally involved with almost every element in the production of her 2016 film The Love Witch, a hazy, Technicolor ode to love’s bewitching power – and a slyly subversive inquiry into power and violence – buttressed with elaborate costumes and dense scenography. Her first novel, Bluebeard’s Castle (2023), an adaptation of the French folk tale, continues this rigorously constructed, tonally ambiguous play. Telling the story of Judith, a lonely crime writer who falls under the spell of the mysterious, mercurial Gavin, the book is at once a lighthearted critique of romance novel conventions and a startling inquiry into the psychology of abuse. A film adaptation of Bluebeard’s Castle is currently in pre-production.

Interview by Matteo PiniPortrait by Barry Morse

MATTEO PINI Though it shows an appreciation for the romance novel, I read Bluebeard’s Castle as presenting its conventions as naive at best and actively damaging at worst. Would you consider this an anti-romance novel?

ANNA BILLER Yes. It presents as a romance novel at the beginning, but it’s also a critique of the conventions of the romance novel, especially contemporary romance novels, which conform to a rigid structure in which the heroine always gets her man, and the man turns out to be a wonderful person who was merely misunderstood – no matter how dominant, scary or abusive he is during the course of the narrative. This type of romance novel is called “dark romance”, and in these books, the heroine is always able to tame her wild beast of a husband. My book states that this is not always possible, and the romance turns into horror as the heroine slowly becomes aware of his true nature.

MP You were involved in all aspects of the construction of The Love Witch. How was the experience of writing a novel, where your vision is not mediated through the labour of others?

AB It was a dream. It was so much easier than making a film, with the same rewards on completion. I never really feel I express myself to the fullest in film, since so much is left to subtext, and often the audience projects all sorts of meanings onto the work that I never intended. It’s frustrating the way everyone focuses so much on the visuals in my films and ignores my stories and themes. I can express myself much more clearly in a book. For me, writing a novel was bathing in the luxury of words and ideas, which made me realise how conservative movies are. If you deviate one iota from convention in a movie, everyone instantly notices and it creates a huge disturbance, whereas you can be whimsical and puckish and bizarre in a novel and it’s still seen as conventional. Near the end of the editing process, I realised I could have gone much further and it would have made the book better, but at that point, my editors were snatching the book away and prohibiting me from writing another word. 

MP After losing her virginity, Judith muses “She was vaguely traumatised by the things he did to her, but it was exactly what she needed.” What informed your depiction of their sexual relationship?

AB Mainly, personal experience and introspection. Also, feminist philosophy and psychology. I tried to find novels where BDSM was depicted in a way that wasn’t celebratory or titillating, and I couldn’t find a single one. That shows you either that no one wants to think or read about sex in a way that isn’t purely positive, or that people write erotic books primarily to make money. 

MP You have frequently resisted a reading of your work as being informed by camp. Camp is sometimes framed as a utopian mode, yet there is nothing utopian about the abuse faced by Judith. What is it about this framing that you dislike?

AB Camp implies either a non-serious attitude by the author or a failed work of serious art. Since I’m not lampooning my subject and it’s not all some elaborate joke about the Gothic or about feminine women, calling my work camp means that it’s failed art, which I obviously object to. Also, camp is more or less a gay male reading of female excess, whereas I’m writing from a subjective place, as a feminine woman who is not laughing at myself or other women, but who takes my experiences seriously. There are better and more accurate words to describe what’s going on in my novel, such as Gothic, mythic, excessive, satirical, romantic, melodramatic, heightened. As you say, there’s also nothing campy or celebratory about abuse.

When we have fixed beliefs, we see them echoed everywhere.
The world is full of signs that point back to our own subjectivity

MP There is a passage in the novel where the authorial voice shifts to Gavin’s perspective, giving more insight into his nefarious character. What was the impetus for this shift?

AB For one thing, there’s no way to continue to tell the story unless we shift to his point of view because only he knows what he did and why. But the book has an omniscient narrator, so it only seems radical to shift to his point of view because he has been so opaque up until now. Suddenly we’re in a conventional thriller, and I enjoy showing the reader the difference between the female Gothic and the contemporary thriller – two genres in one book – which emphasises the brutality of the shift to a modern, masculine viewpoint. In many ways, it’s more comfortable to read his narrative because finally, we’re in a “regular” book. But what does it say about us as a society that this type of violence and misogyny is the normal, familiar voice?

MP At the book’s climax, Judith experiences what she believes is divine intervention, yet the guidance given to her by Mother Mary directly leads to her undoing. Could you expand upon the treatment of Catholicism in the book?

AB Judith found religion when she was a suicidal child lacking mother love, so Mother Mary is her real mother, and she trusts her above everyone else. But obviously, she’s speaking to a statue. The statue tells her that “Love Conquers All”, which is a cliché, and not a very helpful one. It’s also the cliché that romance novels are based on. But Judith believes it because she believes in Mary, and because she was raised on clichés like this from her romance novels and maybe also from her prayers and from the Bible. This isn’t to say that I’m anti-religious or that I’m making fun of Catholicism; its function in the novel is as a set of beliefs that Judith adheres to. Perhaps Mary really did tell her that; it’s not for me to say whether it was a delusion or a hallucination. When we have fixed beliefs, we see them echoed everywhere. The world is full of signs that point back to our own subjectivity.

MP Do you write with an angle towards liberation?

AB Yes. Fiction changes people, whether you plan it that way or not; that is, if you’re honest, and not just following a formula. Les Misérables and Dickens’s novels led to massive reform of the treatment of children in France and England, because they were some of the first works to show compassion for children and what they endure. Perhaps making people think about how so many young women are thrown away by society can change people too. A lot of people are derisive about the fact that my book has a moral, but I love morals in books! I love 18th-century fiction for this reason, and novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles. And the moral was necessary, because the power of internalised misogyny is so strong that I myself was almost tempted to blame Judith for what happened to her as I came to the end of writing her story. I was reminding myself as well as the reader that this is not another story about condemning a woman for her stupidity. Of course, that’s seen as bad literary form, but I don’t care.

MP The ending of Bluebeard’s Castle undercuts the reader’s expectations for a happy resolution for Judith, but the coda is cautiously optimistic as to the potential for women’s liberation from male violence. Why end with Abigail’s story and how do her acts of violence contrast against Gavin’s?

AB Abigail’s story is the conventional ending that the reader wants. It’s also the fairy tale ending, which reminds the reader that despite the realism in the story, this is a retelling of a fairy tale. Lastly, it’s a homage to Judith herself – she lives on in her writing. It tells us that she knew deep down that she was “coddling a monster.” Somehow I find this reassuring, although it’s also ghastly. I didn’t decide to end the book in this way until I got to the end, and then it just seemed like the natural way to end it was to go back to the fairy tale world of childhood wonderment. 

MP You are planning a studio-led film version of Bluebeard’s Castle. How will it respond to the book?

AB It’s a movie, so of course it will be more visual, and the pleasurable aspects will be emphasised; but maybe also the horror. The original screenplay didn’t feature a ghost, and there was no kinky sex; as a screenplay, it was also less introspective. Now that I’ve written it out as a novel, it’s much richer and scarier than the original screenplay, and I’m excited to bring this version to the screen. ◉