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Emma Darwin Interview

Posted on 14 October 2005. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
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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'.

A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Emma Darwin is represented / published by:

Comments by other Members

Nik Perring at 15:15 on 14 October 2005  Report this post
Thanks Emma. Very interesting.


rogernmorris at 18:39 on 14 October 2005  Report this post
Emma, I'm really looking forward to reading The Mathematics Of Love. It sounds great. By the way, I'm with you when it comes to books about writers or writing. And I hope you manage to get Headline out of your head!

CarolineSG at 19:51 on 14 October 2005  Report this post
God, I loved that 'skinned' description!
I know exactly what you mean by that.
Thanks, Emma.

ashlinn at 21:08 on 14 October 2005  Report this post
Good luck, Emma. It's great to see success coming after all that hard work.


Shika at 02:46 on 15 October 2005  Report this post
Great interview and advice to new writers. All the best.

EmmaD at 11:04 on 15 October 2005  Report this post
Many thanks everyone. It's a very odd feeling, being interviewed, even by email, but nice to know it's being read by friends!

lang-lad at 00:22 on 16 October 2005  Report this post
Hi, Emma,
Very inspiring interview. Thanks. Did you manage, I wonder, to get any kind of sponsorship or funding to help you through your PhD and did you suggest your own research proposal or what? If you don't mind my asking, of course.

lang-lad at 00:23 on 16 October 2005  Report this post
Hi, Emma,
Very inspiring interview. Thanks. Did you manage, I wonder, to get any kind of sponsorship or funding to help you through your PhD and did you suggest your own research proposal or what? If you don't mind my asking, of course.

EmmaD at 00:38 on 16 October 2005  Report this post
Eliza, thank you
You couldn't get funding for the MPhil when I did it, because it was part time. I think you can now, tho' it's very competitive. For the PhD, I decided to do it too late to apply for AHRC (Arts & Humanities Research Council) funding before I started, so I'm doing it self-funded and part time, and will apply next Spring for full-time funding. Apparently they're keen on practice-based research at the moment, but they still only give awards to about 20% of applications. It would be a help to be funded for this year, but I know I'll be able to write a much better application after I've done some of the work, so perhaps I've improved my chances. I don't know if there are any other kinds of sponsorship - I haven't heard of any.

My research proposal was based on what I knew wanted to do - a novel, and a critical paper which the University of London said should divide 70,000/30,000 words. (What they'll say when my novel comes out much longer, which it probably will, I don't know!) The forms and things were quite helpful about what you had say about your proposal - setting out a question you're trying to answer, and something about the context of the subject, and a sort of personal statement about why you want to do it - though Creative Writing never really fits criteria evolved for scientific research - and Blake Morrison who runs the CW department looked it over before I submitted it.


aruna at 08:00 on 16 October 2005  Report this post
Interesting interview, Emma, and I can relate to a lot of what you say - especially that "skinned" part!
Good luck with the launch and I'll be among the first to read it when it comes out.

Cornelia at 15:50 on 16 October 2005  Report this post
Emma, this is all very interesting. Good luck with your Goldsmiths Course.


EmmaD at 12:30 on 19 October 2005  Report this post
Thanks, Sharon and Sheila.

I'm interested that others can relate to the 'skinned' thing. I thought it was just me. Most of the time I welcome it, but I find it rather alarming that it can also be triggered by extreme lack of sleep, or perhaps more understandably, some kinds of emotional pain. Also once by hunger - (which was the first time I understood a little bit of what's going on with some kinds of eating disorder). That way madness lies...


Anna Reynolds at 13:16 on 19 October 2005  Report this post
Emma, yes, the extreme lack of sleep thing triggers it for me too, also any kind of hormonal state can make your writing peculiarly bright or sharp or at least it feels that way. A writer friend said that for a year after the birth of her two children she was in that skinned state and wrote like a demon, and looking back on the work she churned out she still feels it was in some ways, her best period work-wise. But not much fun always..

EmmaD at 22:04 on 19 October 2005  Report this post
Alas, I found pregnancy and childbirth made my brain feel completely fog-bound for most of the time. I do find that what I write from a skinned state is often some of my most spontaneously good stuff. If it works at all, it's right, so I know what your friend means in that sense.


Myrtle at 22:13 on 19 October 2005  Report this post

Very much enjoyed this interview. The history of how you got where you are is fascinating. I'm with Anna's friend on childbirth stirring something creative...well, not childbirth itself, I didn't take my laptop into the birthing pool or anything, but a year afterwards I started writing and have produced more since then than ever before in my life, with this feeling of hyper-awareness.

What was it like seeing the jacket for The Mathematics of Love, Emma?


EmmaD at 22:53 on 19 October 2005  Report this post
I was nervous of seeing the jacket (only I notice they all call it a cover - the death of the hardback is ever more imminent!), because that's the moment when you discover exactly in what terms your editor is planning to market it, which even after several conversations, I wasn't quite sure of. I took three deep breaths and clicked on the attachment, and joy! It's absolutely stunning. And REAL.

Being sent the cover copy was a pretty good moment too. Compared to that, the page proofs, which I got back today, are less of an excitement. Not least because they're Work, but mainly because they're only my words, looking nicer but still in a stack of A4, not someone else taking my work and reading it and thinking about it and making it look like a grown-up book.

If this all sounds slightly hysterical, that's because I am at the moment. However, after page proofs, there's nothing much else for me to do for six months or so.

Zigeroon at 16:17 on 20 October 2005  Report this post


Fantastic success. Hope it sells and sells. Thanks for the insight into the process.


EmmaD at 16:36 on 21 October 2005  Report this post
Andrew, thank you.


Gulliver at 10:31 on 20 November 2005  Report this post
When will 'Mathematics' be available? I've tried to pre-order on Amazon but, as of yet, there's no trace of your book.

EmmaD at 22:01 on 20 November 2005  Report this post
Gulliver, I know. Headline Review seem to be keeping very tight control of what information gets out where and when, and I have to bow to their expertise! Bound proofs have gone out to reviewers and foreign publishers for rights sales though (my agent has sold the US rights to William Morrow), and I know the other main use for bound proofs is to show the big buyers, so maybe soon? My copy arrived a week or two ago, and I have to admit to being so excited that I took it to bed with me that first night!


Account Closed at 16:00 on 27 November 2005  Report this post
So it is possible to have children, do a degree, go to work, write a novel and get published.

I'm in awe of Emma.

But having read about her creativity despite the daily grind, I have no excuses for slacking off myself any more.

Best of luck with you new book, Emma.

EmmaD at 16:16 on 28 November 2005  Report this post
Many thanks, Jago. Not that I'm averse to people being in awe of me, you understand, but in strict accuracy, I ought to point out that I got my degree by writing the novel, and I don't work full-time.


steve at 08:44 on 19 April 2006  Report this post

This is way late on the thread, but I've been busy writing and have neglected the site to a high degree, so I'm just catching up again.

I feel for your love of history, although I think my time periods differ from 800-1000 AD and then 1600- to middle 1800s, before hitting WW2.

I found if difficult to get anywhere with historicals, as it was/is such a tight market, so I had to come up with something to mix it with contemporary life. Hence 'past life regression' in my novel Pathway of Shadows due for release 6th May 2006. I have since used my in depth knowledge of criminal law, to write a crime thriller, with the sequal almost completed. I didn't think I would enjoy it but I have, although I do want to return to the historicals.

At the mo' I'm waiting on an agent for an historical novel, 'The Burning', set in the 1600s, which deals with 'cunning women'. Anyway, fingers crossed.

my site is


if you have five minutes, have a peek.

Good luck with your future works.



dadzie at 11:37 on 30 January 2007  Report this post
Just read the extracts on your website. Good luck with the book, I shall add to my list!

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