Thursday, 30 April 2009

Emma Darwin on The Writing Life

The Mathematics of Love was described by The Times as 'that rare thing, a book that works on every conceivable levelTo celebrate today's release of the paperback of her second novel, A Secret Alchemy, we asked Emma a few questions about her books, career and the writing life.

PWN: Thanks for coming, Emma. To start, could you describe your novels to us in a couple of sentences - something to whet the appetite of any readers who may not have heard of your work yet?

ED: At the moment I’m writing historical fiction. My first novel, The Mathematics of Love, is two love stories which go in opposite directions, one involving a Waterloo veteran in 1819, and one about a disaffected teenager in 1976. My second, A Secret Alchemy, re-imagines the story of the Princes in the Tower in the voices of their mother and the uncle who brought them up, and weaves it together with a modern historian who has her own mysteries and griefs. The work in progress is still under wraps, but it’s a bit of a challenge for me, in having both its feet in the same ten, fast-moving days.

PWN: What's your background? How did you come to writing?

ED: I was a bookworm as a child, but I didn’t write anything between school and my thirties. And then one day when I was pregnant with my first child I decided I wanted to write a novel. If there were courses and editorial services in those days I didn’t know about them, which I think was a good thing, on the whole: I think it’s important to develop your own sense of your writerly self and what your work’s all about, and have lots of flying hours under your belt, before you start trying to take on board feedback and teaching. Eventually, when I’d taken it as far as I could go on my own I did do a course: an MPhil in writing at Glamorgan, and it was that novel which became The Mathematics of Love.

PWN: But The Mathematics of Love wasn't the first novel you wrote? I get the feeling that the 'flying hours' you mentioned might describe a rocky road to publication?

ED: Yes, if the six novels under my bed count as rocks. But I knew an encouraging rejection when I got one (or two, or three), and that’s what kept me going. I’d only just started writing short fiction when Jim Crace gave me third place in the big Bridport competition, which was the first time I was sure that what I wrote made sense to total strangers, and it was my first publication credit. I got an agent with The Mathematics of Love and she sold it to Headline Review very quickly, and then to Harper Collins in the US. Since then the rocks have been more about coming to terms with the book trade and where authors fit in it.

PWN: Can you tell us a little bit about how you feel your background in drama helps with your fiction writing?

ED: I suppose doing Drama for my first degree meant I spent a lot of time thinking about character, storytelling and plot, but then any keen reader does that. I think almost more important were the things which novel readers aren’t so conscious of but playwrights and actors must be: how to reveal character and emotion in dialogue and action, because in a play you don’t have direct access to the characters’ consciousness. So subtext is crucial, stage business, space, choreography, gesture, gaze, timing and pacing of dialogue... they become doubly important. The negative help is that I didn’t spend my degree reading and dissecting the great novels. It means I haven’t read as many as I’d like, but I know people who read English because they wanted to write, and were too daunted to write a word of their own for a decade afterwards.

PWN: As an network for writers indulging at all levels from happy amateur to successful professional, we're really keen on writers of all kinds getting together. How important do you feel networking with other writers has been to your sanity, your creative development and your professional success?

ED: My MPhil was the first time I really mixed with other writers, and I wish it had happened years earlier. There’s so much only other writers understand (for instance, the nature of an ‘encouraging rejection’) and the validation you get from a tutor or a fellow-writer you admire has a quite different quality from the validation you get from your granny who loves you. I don’t have a writer’s circle, but I know writers for whom it’s the key to their success as well as their sanity. A Secret Alchemy was written as part of a PhD, which I’m about to finish, so I’m wondering whether to seek out some kind of ongoing feedback for the future.

Now my various groups of published and unpublished writer friends online and in the flesh are what keeps me sane, particularly in the very peculiar roller-coaster ride which is being published. You need others, one or two books ahead of you, to whom you can say, ‘Arrgh! Is this normal?’ And if I hadn’t gone to a Society of Authors reception I nearly didn’t bother with, I wouldn’t have got a commission to write a story for the erotic anthology In Bed With (Sphere), which has been huge fun to be involved with, and is selling like (ahem) hot cakes.

PWN: Any wise words of advice for budding writers/dramatists?

ED: Whether your idea of success is having a small core of passionate fans and a review in the TLS, or seeing your books chock-a-block in Asda, you need four qualities to succeed as a writer: talent, persistence, hard work and luck. Enough of any three of those can make up for lack of a fourth. Don’t pin every part of your self-esteem and identity on landing that contract, be realistic about how badly writing is paid, and don’t underestimate how it may change your relationship with your writing to be doing it to a deadline and for money.

And remember that in the book trade writers are like the animals in the zoo. The industry needs us in order to exist, and individual zoo-keepers (editors and agents), get very fond of individual authors and are willing to do quite a lot to keep our sales in good health. But in the end, a tiger’s a tiger and it doesn’t much matter to the zoo management and the visitors which one’s on display: if we sicken and our sales go down, no animal is indispensable.

PWN: As well as a novelist, you're a regular blogger and your blog often touches upon various technical or theoretical aspects of writing as a craft. You've also mentioned your Mphil and Phd. How far do you think writing can be taught, and if so, what are the best ways of learning to write? Reading a book or a blog, or going to a traditional class?

ED: I think writing can be taught as painting can be taught: you can’t give someone a talent they don’t have, but you can teach craft to help make the most of whatever talent they do have. And you can help with ways to find and grow the material in the first place, so that talent has something to work on. I don’t think there are ‘best ways’ of learning, they all have their pros and cons. It’s more a matter of trying things and getting to know what works for you, allowing yourself to be challenged but not damaged. Sometimes the things you resist are what you most need, but that’s quite different from meekly accepting and acting on unconstructive or brutal criticism.

PWN: And finally, as the man from News at Ten says, could you describe your usual writing routine to us? What helps you write? What hinders? Are there any 'enemies of promise' you've had to deal with in your own life?

ED: When I can arrange things how I want, I write every morn
ing for four hours, either the next 1300 words of a first draft, or on whatever the current job is on later drafts. What helps is that routine, and a good place to work, with space, books, tea, lots of natural light. What hinders is the need to earn money in between, with teaching and editorial reports and the like. Being a single parent hinders in some ways too, but on the other hand, it’s so much part of me I don’t know what kind of writer I’d have become, if any, if my life had gone a different route.

And thanks to Emma from PrestonWN. She's agreed to give-away one signed copy of her novel: A Secret Alchemy to the first person who can answer this question, either on the blog or by email to prestonwritingnetwork [at]

What three kinds of bird are mentioned in the extracts from my work at

1 comment:

  1. Great interview Emma! I've already got ASA though, so I won't enter :)