When videos about Eliza Clark’s debut novel “Boy Parts” started going viral on TikTok, she tried to ignore it, at first.
The book, which was published in 2020, follows a violent female photographer who likes to shoot explicit pictures of young men, and is a feverish exploration of how power, gender and beauty can intersect.
On a short-form platform like TikTok, though, “obviously people can be quite reductive” when making reaction videos about books, Clark said in a recent interview. Those snappy takes were “not really for me,” she said.
In a few months, the novel became a staple of “BookTok,” the book-obsessed corner of TikTok, where videos tagged #boyparts have been viewed more than 6 million times. A sudden spike in royalty checks was harder to ignore, Clark said.
Clark, 29, spent much of her late teens and 20s “really, really online,” she said. Now, though, shielding herself from internet reactions is just one of the ways she hopes to build on her early viral success and make a literary career with real longevity.
With the publication of her second novel, “Penance,” released Tuesday in the United States by Harper Collins, comes another intentional move: a genre switch. Whereas “Boy Parts” is “an extended dramatic monologue,” Clark said, “Penance” is a satire of nonfiction crime writing.
Before she had even released her debut, Clark wanted her follow-up to be a change of direction. There was a perception in the publishing industry, she said, that young, especially female, writers get book deals because they are easily marketable, but run out of ideas after their debut. “I knew that I needed to do something different,” Clark said.
In Britain, where “Penance” was released in July, it was eagerly awaited. A few months earlier, Clark had appeared on the literary magazine Granta’s list of Best of Young British Novelists. Released once a decade, the roundup selects 20 promising authors under 40, and has previously tipped names including Zadie Smith; Ian McEwan, who went on to win the Booker Prize; and Kazuo Ishiguro, who in 2017 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
“Penance” is set in Crow-on-Sea, a fictional British seaside town, and is narrated by Alec Z. Carelli, a crime reporter who feels sure he’s found the story to relaunch his flagging career. Nearly a decade earlier, a girl in the town called Joni was set on fire by three of her classmates, and Carelli retells the events that lead up to the murder, interspersed with transcripts from podcast episodes, newspaper reports and Tumblr posts about the crime.
There was “something quite innate and biological about wanting to hear about the ways other people have died,” Clark said, adding, “You can’t really help being interested.” In the novel, two of Joni’s killers spend a lot of time posting on Tumblr about serial murderers and school shooters, but Clark also shows that a voyeuristic interest in violence is centuries old. In Crow-on-Sea, there are walking tours exploring grisly spectacles in the town that date back to the Vikings.
The novel is a critical look at what the writer Rachel Monroe, whose 2019 book “Savage Appetites” focuses on women who become fixated on crime, called the “true crime industrial complex.” In an interview, she said that when it came to violent crimes, like murder, “these stories either get too much, or not enough, attention, and both are traumatic, in their own ways.”
In “Penance,” Joni’s murder is initially overshadowed in the news cycle, because it takes place on the night in 2016 that Britain voted to leave the European Union, but Carelli’s unscrupulous reporting methods and attention from tasteless true crime podcasts stoke interest in the case. “The way people make use of these stories, the darkness of it all — we’re all caught in that web,” Monroe said.
As a teenager, Clark was very aware of power and social hierarchy, she said. She grew up in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in northern England, the only child in what she called a “quite standard U.K. lower-middle class, working class” household. As a teenager, writing fan fiction was Clark’s main hobby, but she decided after high school to do a yearlong art foundation course, where she made sculpture.
After that, she came down to London to study at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, a school in a well-heeled district of the city. It was a “huge culture shock,” she said, and she lost confidence in making work in the studio. Instead, she found herself “working on original fiction, which I was incorporating into the art stuff,” she said, “almost as if I was a writer on an arts course.”
After graduating in 2016, Clark returned to Newcastle and began to take writing more seriously, meeting weekly with the crime author Matt Wesolowski through a mentorship program organized by the nonprofit New Writing North.
Wesolowski said that, even then, Clark excelled at depicting “the little corners of life that you feel, but you don’t want to look at.” The pair discussed short stories that Clark had written, one of which became “Boy Parts.”
Around the same time, Clark got a job at Mslexia, a magazine for women’s writing, where she learned about getting an agent and how publishing works.
“It was a very creatively fruitful time, where I was paid terribly,” Clark said, but it was possible thanks to cheap Newcastle rent, which her partner sometimes subsidized. At 25, she got a book deal with Influx, an independent publishing house, and in 2020 “Boy Parts” came out in Britain. (Harper Collins released it in the United States this past May.)
When Clark thinks about the “insane lineup of good fortune” at the start of her career, “it almost makes me feel sick,” she said. She now writes full time, and is working on several onscreen projects, including a TV adaptation of “Boy Parts,” and a short story collection, slated for a November 2024 release. After employing unreliable narrators in her first two novels, she said she was experimenting with writing in the third person for a third.
Clark said the author she most wanted to emulate was another alum of the Granta Best Young British Novelists list: Ishiguro. Recently, she had been thinking a lot about the shape of his career, she said, and how varied his output had been.
“That’s ideally what you want: a long career, where all of your books are really different, and no one thinks any of them are bad, and you get lots of awards,” she said, laughing. “That’s really what I’m aiming for.”