Welcome to the two hundred and seventieth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with historical novelist Emma Darwin. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Emma. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Emma: I was good at creative writing at school, but always wanted to be a historian. Then I studied Drama at university, and didn’t start writing fiction till I was pregnant with my first child. I went on writing, and when eventually I’d gone as far as I could on my own, did a Masters degree. It was the novel I wrote on that course which was published as The Mathematics of Love.
Morgen: What genre do you generally write?
Emma: I think that I write novels which are about history, so the book trade says I write historical fiction, which is fine by me. Though I do reserve the right to write a novel set purely nowadays, if one ever occurred to me.
Morgen: I’m the opposite. I stick firmly with now, perhaps because history was my worst subject at school but a couple of agents at last July’s Winchester Writers Conference told me they need more historical… and crime. What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first book on the shelves?
Emma: I’ve published two novels so far, The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy. I first saw The Mathematics of Love in a stack of thirty or forty copies in the entrance of the huge Waterstones Picadilly store in central London. A great moment.
Morgen: Have you ever seen a member of the public reading your book in any unusual locations?
Emma: No, I’ve never seen anyone reading mine, alas! Friends have and told me, but I’ve never been in the right place at the right time.
Morgen: Maybe if you’d loitered in Waterstones. (How tempted was I to put the old apostrophe there?) How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Emma: I’ve been lucky in having a supportive and energetic publisher, and mostly concentrate on finding opportunities for teaching and workshops – which sells books too, of course. But I have put a group of fellow historical fiction writers together – R N Morris, Maria McCann and Rose Melikan – as a ready-made panel for events, and we’ve done quite a lot that way, which is a lot of fun.
Morgen: I’ve seen a few panel events (including Mark Billingham and Michael Robotham who were fantastic) and they’re great because everyone spars off each other, especially if you already know each other well. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Emma: My first publication credit was in the Bridport Prize short fiction anthology for 2004; Jim Crace gave my story ‘Maura’s Arm’ third place, and I think it did help in approaching agents with my novel, to have done well in a major competition.
Morgen: Wow. That’s a perfect start! One of my writing group was shortlisted in the poetry and we’re still in awe.
Emma: The Mathematics of Love was long and shortlisted for four prizes; my agent says she thinks it’s the only novel ever to have been simultaneously shortlisted for prizes the Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Book and the Romantic Novelists Association Book of the Year. I think prizes can help to get attention for your work and your name, and anything which draws the attention of the world at large to books has to be a good thing when there are so many other things competing for their time and money. But the risk is that the prize lists become the way that books are promoted and judged, and that’s much too crude.
Morgen: They do take pride of place on covers, don’t they. Do you write under a pseudonym? Do you think they make a difference to an author’s profile?
Emma: I think readers accept what you present yourself as, and they also understand when a writer uses different names for different kinds of book. I write under my own name, and I’d be a bit daft not to, given what it is.
Morgen: That’s very true. Simple but definitely memorable. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Emma: I’m lucky enough to have an absolutely brilliant agent, who is also a wonderful editor as well as a deal-maker. I think it’s extremely difficult as a novelist to manage without an agent, from getting your first manuscript onto an editor’s desk to knowing how to sell foreign rights. An agent friend said that one of her jobs is to know lots of boring things about, for example, e-book contracts and the Google settlement, so her authors don’t have to, but can spend their time writing. Plus an agent is in it for the long term, and she’s the nearest thing you’ll have in the book trade to a friend.
Morgen: That is the downside to going it alone – too much time spent on anything but the writing. You just mentioned eBooks – are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Emma: My books are available as eBooks, but my publisher has dealt with it; I’ve had no direct input. I don’t really read eBooks yet, but I’ve got my eye on a touch-sensitive Sony e-Reader, not least because I really hope I could be able to upload my own manuscripts and annotate them in the same way as if they were manuscripts. I’m sure I’ll end up using it to read books too.
Morgen: I bought a Kindle a couple of weeks ago and I love it although I don’t really go anywhere so it’s still paper books at home (in the main). Who designed your books’ covers (they’re beautiful, by the way)?
Emma: My publishers. I didn’t have a great deal of input but have been delighted with the result. I know that’s not always the universal experience, and some of the covers of foreign translations have been… interesting.
Morgen: Ah, OK. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Emma: It’s still a thrill. My first was when my agent rang to say that Headline Review had offered a two-book contract.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Emma: Chocolate, shopping, alcohol, not necessarily in that order. But I always start a new project the minute the submission goes out, so by the time the rejection comes in I’m well onto something new and (so far) exciting.
Morgen: Good plan. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Emma: I’m working on a new novel which is set in the 1930s, and trying to find time to write the occasional short story.
Morgen: Ah, my favourite format. Well, if you ever have one you don’t know what to do with, I have a Flash Fiction Fridays page. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Emma: No, because other work has to be done, but when I have decided a day is a writing day, then I get on with it. I’ve probably written about 4000 words a few times. Usually I make sure I write 2000 in four hours or so, and then need to stop.
Morgen: Wow, that’s good going. I only realised the other day that 300 words daily is a 100,000 word novel in a year, that’s astounding (and I’m pretty good at maths!). What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Emma: I’ve never suffered from it seriously, although getting stuck is an occupational hazard. It’s usually because I haven’t really imagined outwards and in more detail and forward from the basic idea, until it’s fully conceived enough to start writing the actual prose. The cure is usually to step back from trying to get more of the novel on the page, and work at the imagining. I think writer’s block which is to do with the rest of life being really difficult, or a real loss of faith in your own capacity to write and sell your writing, is a different thing.
Morgen: A question some authors dread: where do you get your inspiration from?
Emma: The obituaries. Reading non-fiction. Radios 4, 3 and 2. It boils down to seeing or hearing something and thinking that perennial writer’s question: “What would it be like if you…?”
Morgen: I know I’m weird (or at least I write dark pieces) but I love the obituaries because they’re a potted life – ideal for character building. I listen to Radio 2 in the mornings then Classic FM throughout the day and Radio 4 if I don’t have to concentrate on anything else (rarely, unfortunately, although I do subscribe to their podcasts) but not tried Radio 3 yet. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Emma: I know where I start, and I know what the end is: which comes first varies. Then I work out the big moves – say a few words describing a 15,000 word chapter – which will get me from one to the other. But I do that imagining in pencil mentally and physically, so I can be completely relaxed if the story turns out to do something different.
And before I sit down to start a new chapter I imagine it in a good bit more detail, and jot that down, so that when I come to writing the actual chapter I can concentrate on the prose and the particularity, without having to invent the plot wheels too.
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters and what do you think makes them believable?
Emma: I don’t know much about them – name, job, a handful of adjectives, perhaps some childhood stuff. What makes them believable is imagining them properly as characters-in-action. If what they do is the consequence of what they are then what they do will be believable. And if I need a detail – clothes, looks, taste in fiction or food – then as long as they’re present to me the right thing usually comes along. It also helps if I think about them in contrast to another character: then both characters seem more vivid.
Morgen: You mentioned earlier that you write short stories. Apart from the word count, what do you see as the differences between them and novels and why do you think they’re so difficult to get published?
Emma: I write short stories a bit. The difference is essentially one of scale, but that has vast implications for structure, plot, pace, and character development, and so for the writing process. I think they’re hard to get published because most readers want to enter a slightly or very different world, and stay there. They think they won’t be able to stay so long in each short story in a book, as a single story which is a novel. And in a magazine, they don’t want to stay as long as a short story demands of them.
Morgen: Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Emma: I’m an Associate Lecturer teaching Creative Writing for the Open University, and also run workshops and courses for Writers’ Workshop and elsewhere. I absolutely love teaching, and I would still do it even if I didn’t need to financially.
Morgen: Me too. I only run my writing groups but they sit there attentively and do everything I ask of them (in the workshops) and they’re there because they want to be there, it’s great. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Emma: First draft longhand, typing up at the end of each chapter and sorting it all out. When I’ve written to the end I read the draft on paper, marking up and making notes on everything from huge structural changes to a one-off metaphor being in a muddle, then do that work on computer. Then I repeat that process for as many iterations as it seems to need. The changes tend to get smaller and more like polishing in the fourth or fifth draft, but sometimes a little stumble turns out to have implications for something much bigger. So be it.
Morgen: Oh dear. I guess that’s why we need (and have) professional editors. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Emma: I listen to familiar music – music I don’t know well takes too much of my attention – but it mustn’t have words, because they snag my word-mind. Which basically means classical orchestral and choral music (Latin doesn’t snag my word-mind). Everything from Purcell to Piazolla, Chopin to Shostakovich. When they were doing roadworks outside my window last summer I recruited the noise-cancelling headphones I’d bought for aeroplanes.
Morgen: What a good idea. A neighbour’s building an (awful) extension… Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Emma: I have six novels under the bed, for a start, and I never go back to old writing. If an idea or a character won’t go away then I grow a new piece from that. Otherwise it’ll always be a patchwork of old stuff and new stuff.
Morgen: And it sounds like you have plenty of new ideas anyway. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Emma: Favourite? Just doing it. It’s my medium, my stuff, my head-space. It’s the only thing which makes sense of who / what I am. Least favourite is the loneliness, and the economic insecurity, both of which can be really corrosive if you’re not careful.
Morgen: It may be that I have a dog but I love being alone. I could easily be a hermit, but then social networking doesn’t mean you’re alone for long. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Emma: I see so much work which is only alright; it does everything nicely and competently. But it doesn’t show me a new world, or show me a familiar world in a new way. Be prepared to work harder, develop your writing further, put in that extra 10% of imagination and thinking and revising, to find that new world or that new vision of a familiar one, and show it to the rest of us.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Emma: I go through phases of taking photography seriously, but working at home means it’s horribly easy to let it take over my life. Being a writer is really very boring!
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Emma: If you asked me for a basic kit I’d recommend Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose, The Way to Write by John Moat and John Fortune, and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (although be prepared to argue with Gardner). For websites, essentially, Google, used with discrimination, for research.
Since writers have to promote themselves I ought to finish with a shameless plug for my own blog, This Itch of Writing, at http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting.
Morgen: Of course… not shameless at all.
Emma: As well as me blogging about whatever in writing I’m thinking about at the moment, it has a big resources section. There are posts on everything from prologues and a series on narrators and point of view, to books for writers and how to choose a Creative Writing course.
Morgen: Ooh great, I love resources. “Writing, reading writing, teaching writing and sometimes hating writing” I love it. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Emma: The forum that keeps me sane is WriteWords at http://www.writewords.org.uk, and I also hang out at times on The Word Cloud at http://writing-community.writersworkshop.co.uk, where I also sometimes teach courses. Twitter is a fascinating mix of friendships and networking: I’ve got gigs through Twitter, and solved research problems in ten minutes.
Morgen: Isn’t it great. I’m so glad I’m an author now when we have Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. I can easily (often) lose hours online.Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: It’s a very smart site. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Emma: A very rocky road indeed, while we find out what uses the digital century has for us: it’s easier than ever to get your writing out there, but it’s harder than ever to earn even part of a living from it. Eventually it will settle down, because people will always need stories, and be willing to pay those who can tell them really well.
Morgen: Let’s hope so. Thank you so much, Emma. I really appreciate you taking time to chat with me.
I then invited Emma to include an excerpt of her writing, and this is taken from ‘From A Secret Alchemy’.
Ahead the forest begins, and the warming sun breathes the smell of pines towards us, above the peat-scented mist that lies over the marsh and breaks into wisps about the horses’ legs. The road lifts to a bridge over the Fosse itself where Whitecarr Beck joins it, and as we clatter across a heron turns its head to gauge this new threat, then shakes out its wings and, with a few, quick steps, rises into the air.
The body has its own memory. My left hand shortens the reins before my mind knows it, and my right arm aches with remembering the shift and grip of my goshawk’s weight. She was big, even for a goshawk, and her name was Juno. When she bated on her block in the mews her wings were the best part of four feet from primary to primary, and my care for her, that summer, was such that any day I could have told her weight down to the nearest ounce and grain. ‘Goshawks are delicate,’ Wat the austringer would say. ‘They’ll not take much lightening, but if you overfeed her by so much as a field mouse, Master Antony, she’ll rake away and never come back’. My belly would quake at the thought of losing her. Even now I remember the steely blue-grey gloss of her back as if I could touch it, the soft, white speckled chest-feathers that she would let me rub when her mood was good, her long, strong legs that took possession of my fist like a conqueror.
Emma Darwin grew up in London, with interludes in Manhattan and Brussels. She studied Drama at University and had a variety of jobs after that, including selling musical instruments and driving a van full of sandwiches. The Times called The Mathematics of Love, “that rare thing, a book that works on every conceivable level. A real achievement”. Itwas shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ and Goss First Novel awards, longlisted for the Prince Maurice Prize and RNA Romantic Novel of the Year, and has been widely translated. A Secret Alchemy was described by the Daily Mail as “powerful and utterly convincing”; it reached The Times bestsellers lists as one of The Times’ 50 Best Paperbacks of 2009. Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths and lives in London; if asked, she will admit to being a great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin and his wife Emma Wedgwood.
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