Writer's Block with Emma Healey - The Gloss Magazine

Writer’s Block with Emma Healey

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author EMMA HEALEY about CREATIVE SPACES, BOOKISH DESTINY and the HIGHS AND LOWS of writing …

Photograph by Emily Gray

It was almost an inevitability that English writer Emma Healey would publish books of her own, for she is seldom far from them. In fact, the bestselling author has worked with books for much of her adult life; starting with her BA in bookbinding from the London College of Communication, after a year’s foundation course with the prestigious Central St Martins art school. She has since been gainfully employed in no less than two libraries, two bookshops, two art galleries and two universities. Emma had initially aimed towards a career in the visual arts, before realising her vocation of storytelling. She eventually moved from London to Norwich in 2010, where she completed the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

Her debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing (2014) has been a roaring success. It became a Sunday Times bestseller, won the Costa First Novel Award, and was shortlisted for the National Book Awards Popular Fiction Book of the Year. Emma Donoghue has stated that Elizabeth is Missing “will stir and shake you.”

Her second offering, Whistle in the Dark, has already received encouragingly positive reviews across the board in its short shelf life. Drawing from her own traumatic experiences as a teenager who battled depression and suicidal thoughts, Emma’s new work skilfully captures how a mental illness impacts not only a young mind, but the family unit. Whistle in the Dark shows the threads of a traditional mystery novel, but with the soul of a tender domestic drama. One of Emma’s most impressive attributes is her knack for clever but natural dialogue, displaying superb comedic timing throughout. Among the many notable words of praise bestowed, Kate Hamer has said, “This novel is a beautiful and rare thing – a page turning thriller with all the pain, warmth and humour of authentic family life portrayed. I absolutely loved it.”

Emma Healey lives in Norwich with her husband, daughter and cat.

Whistle in the Dark (€14.99) is published by Viking and available from all good bookshops.

On home 

I’m really lucky because my street is right in the centre of Norwich, but is also very friendly – I know most of my neighbours and we have a street party every year. There are lots of independent restaurants, bars and pubs near us. Our local pub does an amazing lasagne and I went there often while I was writing my second novel to talk through edits with my husband. We’re also not far from an excellent pizza place where we ate several times a week when I was pregnant – it was the only food I could stomach. Norwich is big enough to have lots of things going on – there’s an arts festival every year, lots of cinemas, several art galleries and museums, and theatre/concert venues, but it’s also small enough to feel friendly and safe. It’s easy to get out into the countryside or to the coast, too.

On roots

I grew up in Battersea. Our house backed on to the railway, so the sound of trains passing reminds me of my childhood. Wandsworth Common was a two-minute walk and the smell of cut grass makes me think of summer at home. One vivid memory from my neighbourhood is going to a local café with my mum after school. I would eat white toast with melted butter and drink milky tea with sugar and my mum would argue with the Greek Cypriot owner about politics – they disagreed about everything, but laughed a lot while they argued. I spent a huge amount of my childhood in the art galleries and museums of London, they became completely familiar and still feel like home to me.

On creating

I have a little study at the back of the house, but I don’t always write there. I sometimes prefer to be in the sitting or dining room, working on my laptop. The study has an art deco partner desk – one of my favourite pieces of furniture – a bookcase, lots of books and papers piled up everywhere, corkboards where I pin reference materials and notes, a poster of the German edition of my first book, and two chairs. I have two chairs in there because my cat, Jupiter, has commandeered one. He’s a long-haired cat, so no matter how many times I vacuum the chair it’s always fluffy. When I need a change of scene I go to the café at my local supermarket or to the community café across the road. I don’t feel too conspicuous going there with my laptop.

On favourite bookshops

There are so many! So I can’t answer that. I’m constantly amazed by the passion and energy of booksellers.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I’m just finishing Sarah Perry’s Melmoth which I was sent – there’s been a lot of talk about it on Twitter, people have been very moved, so I was keen to experience it too. I’m also excited about the new Kate Atkinson, Transcription, as I’ve loved her previous books, especially Life After Life. Also on my pile is Little Eve by Catriona Ward. I studied with Catriona at UEA and loved her writing then. This is her second novel and I’m excited to read it. I was recently recommended Sybille Bedford’s books and they sound like my kind of novels – I like to try and balance new and not-yet-published books with forgotten classics.

On escape 

Because I do a fair amount of travelling for my job I really appreciate being at home. I love gardening and find that absorbing and relaxing. My garden is tiny, but there’s always something that needs doing and the physical aspect of gardening is part of the appeal – it’s a real contrast to writing. It also trains me to look hard at my environment, and to notice other things – smells especially – which feed into my writing.

On bookish destiny

When I was studying bookbinding and book arts at university I was quite against the idea of writing (I had turned my back on anything I considered “academic”) and avoided the creative writing module, but I was still fascinated by books in themselves, still revered them, and I read all the time. Then working in a bookshop made writing feel tempting – being surrounded by books and readers, seeing what excited people, what trends there were in publishing, and being able to discover less well-known books on the over-stocked shelves made writing feel possible again.

I’m not sure what I would have done if I hadn’t become a writer. I wonder if I would have done something completely different. I probably wouldn’t have moved to Norwich and met my husband, which is weird to think about. I might have ended up feeling a bit purposeless. I’d have liked to have been a professional gardener though – not a designer, just someone who went round pruning and weeding. Perhaps I could have done that in London.

On material 

A story, any story, always contains something of the writer. It’s impossible to keep oneself out of the text entirely, whether that’s due to verbal ticks, or long-held opinions, or general character traits such as optimism. For me writing is an opportunity to see something – an experience or circumstance – from the opposite perspective, and I suppose that can be cathartic as it makes me imagine life outside of my own experience. Perhaps that will take me to foreign lands or even galaxies one day, but it still feels like there is a lot of material to explore close at hand.

On highs and lows 

The best highs have always come from meeting readers who have connected with my writing. When someone says they’ve loved the story or character or felt that the subject spoke to them, that makes it all worth it. Winning a prize or two has been nice too! It feels like a stamp of approval. The worst low came after finishing my first novel and before I had worked out what my second novel would be. Not having a project I believed in, and worse, not having a clue what I was going to write next, was terrible. It was like looking into an abyss. And there was nothing I could do to change my situation – I couldn’t force myself to have a good idea, I couldn’t force myself to be interested in a subject. I also felt a lot of pressure from readers and publishers who I didn’t want to disappoint.

On what’s next

I’ll be doing quite a few book events and festivals over the next few months, so that will take most of my focus. After that I suppose I will start thinking about book three – looking into the abyss again!

@SophieGrenham

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