Emma Darwin Interview
Posted on 14 October 2005. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to novelist and short fiction writer Emma Darwin about parallel narratives and the state of being skinned, among other things
Tell us all about your writing background- what you’ve written, what you’re currently writing
I write novels, with diversions into short fiction which I suspect will always be light relief. Having felt my way slowly, through several novels in contemporary settings, towards historical fiction, I suspect I'll stay there. It's nothing to do with fashion, it's just how I see the world; with all the layers of time one on top of the other. I write about history, as well as historical periods, if you see what I mean. That's why I seem to write parallel narratives; I can't think about a period - how people thought, felt, loved, fought - except against some other period, and by implication, against our own. My most recent novel, The Mathematics of Love, has one foot in 1819-20 and one in 1976.
I recently finished an MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan, and have started a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths'. I'd like to teach writing, and am just beginning to pick up bits of private one-to-one tutoring. I'm also very interested in practice - my PhD is practice-based - and hope perhaps to do some research into that. To pay the bills I do office work for anyone local who'll pay me, and I'm a single parent of two teenagers, so things are pretty busy.
How did you start writing?
I wrote stories as the fun, easy option as a child, but my passion was history. In my teens my interest in story telling and characterisation was diverted into theatre and acting, and I did a first degree in Drama at Birmingham University, then ended up working in academic publishing. When I was pregnant with my son I decided to try to write a novel, and did. That took five years and another baby, on and off. It got a some approving comments from an agent friend of a friend: enough to encourage me. I don't think I knew there were courses or writers' circles for novel-writing; I just started another with what I'd learnt. That got more 'no thanks, but we'd like to see your next one' from several agents, so on I went. The first course I took - the only one till the MPhil - was a fortnight on Skyros, taught by Mary Flanagan, and the novel I wrote after that was the one that got me my first agent.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
Shakespeare, Peter Ackroyd, John Donne, Raymonds Chandler and Carver, Jane Austen, Ian Rankin, Shakespeare, PG Wodehouse, Georgette Heyer, Rose Tremain, Henry James, Rosamond Lehmann, John Le Carré, Helen Dunmore, Christopher Meredith, Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare... I think it's about precision of language, not in the sense of it seeming prosy and self-conscious, but in being so carefully chosen that every word is there for a reason and so is full of energy - is really doing something - whether it's James taking pages to pin down the exact emotional movement of Isobel Archer's realising her husband is vile, or Ackroyd conjuring up malign ghosts in Restoration London in two sentences. And that the language tastes good - rhythm and sound and sentence structure are so important. And terrific story-telling - page-turners all, yes, even James. That's just the fiction, which I tend to avoid when I'm involved in a first draft; I read about 50% non-fiction, mainly history and some biography. Recent favourites have been Jenny Uglow's The Lunar Men, John Keegan's A History of Warfare and Roszika Parker's The Subversive Stitch.
How did you get your first agent/commission
My first agent was recommended to me by a friend who was publishing director at one of the big houses. He took on my fourth novel and kept me going, but sadly died before anything was accepted. My first publication was a story, 'Maura's Arm' which came Third in the 2004 Bridport Prize and was published in their anthology. I've never been commissioned, until now with the second book of my contract with Headline. I'm waiting rather nervously to find out how it feels to try to write something that I've already been paid for.
What’s the worst thing about writing?
Getting fat and unfit, because you get no exercise, and the kitchen's only feet away.
And the best?
Getting something just right, both in how it's written, and how it fits into the novel and opens up yet more possibilities. As Dorothy Sayers makes her alter ego Harriet Vane say, 'You feel like God on the Seventh Day'.
Tell us what kind of response you get from audiences/readers and if/how this affects/influences your writing
The first people who admitted they cried over things I'd written! I'll never forget that. I do listen when readers say they don't get something. Because I get everything - I invented it, after all - it's hard to know how elliptical and hinting you can be, what readers will and won't understand, and when you can leave things for them to do the math, and when you can't. And of course readers vary, in how much they share your references, and how much math they want to do. Workshops are so helpful over that kind of thing.
What was your breakthrough moment?
Emotionally, probably the Bridport - goodness, it was only a year ago! - because it was the first public recognition I'd ever had. But in career terms, it has to be being taken on by my present agent. I always knew I would be published some day, but that was when I realised that 'some day' was becoming 'now'.
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