Emma Darwin interview
by Shanta Everington
Emma Darwin was born in London and studied Drama at university. After various jobs including publishing social work books, driving a sandwich van and selling musical instruments, her first novel The Mathematics of Love was published in 2006, and her bestselling second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. She’s now writing her third, and teaching Creative Writing for the Open University and elsewhere.
Hello Emma and welcome to The View From Here. Let’s start with your debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, which was very well received. It was described by The Washington Book Post as combining the ‘murky moral chaos of the 1970s and the rigid formality of the genteel class in the early 19th century.’ Did you find one era easier to write about than the other?
I was alive in the 1970s, though a bit younger than Anna, so there wasn’t as much research to do, though still some. The 19th century is basically Jane Austen, who I grew up on, so it came fairly naturally. I was thrilled with the Washington Post review, but I must admit that wasn’t the way those two eras felt to me as I was writing; I was mostly aware that if you’re trying to build parallel stories around transgressive sex, then the list of people you’re not supposed to go to bed with in 1819 is much, much longer, which makes plotting much easier, while the time that letters and coaches take to get places complicates things.
Can you tell me a bit about the book’s route to publication?
An early version of The Mathematics of Love was rejected by an agent who’d come to talk to my MPhil group, on the grounds that she doesn’t like parallel narratives and they’re hard to sell – which they are. But that was what the novel was and I knew that it was working, so I kept on and finished it, praying that not too many other agents felt that way. One nearly took it on, but realised, thank goodness, that there was too much about it she didn’t love, which to me were all the things which made it really interesting. And then I sent the usual chapters-and-synopsis to ten agents, and had two or three rejections, and then one asked to see the whole thing, and not only loved it, but loved it for all the right reasons. I signed with her and the next day whizzed down to Glamorgan for the viva for my MPhil, then set to on some revisions which my agent felt the novel needed, and then she auctioned it, and Headline Review offered a two-book contract for UK and Commonwealth rights. She then sold it separately in the US to William Morrow.
I got to use my academic brain as well as my creative brain, which is hugely important to me, and I got support and structure for my writing life, a workshop full of thoughtful, sophisticated writers, and tutors who really, really knew what they were talking about. And having the degrees has been useful in finding my way into teaching, which was something I always knew I’d want to do alongside my own work. What I explored in the PhD underpins a lot of my thinking and talking about historical fiction, too.
The Mathematics of Love got onto several prize lists, including the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book. Did you feel any pressure following that up with your second novel, A Secret Alchemy (which reached the bestseller lists)?
The external validation really disconcerted my creative brain: it made me horribly self-conscious. Whatever is happening to the novel that’s out there in the world, it’s difficult when you go back to the rough, not-behaving-today book on your desk. If good things are happening, you fear the new one will never measure up. If bad things are happening you fear the new one will suffer in the same way. But there’s nothing you can do about any of that – all you can do is shut out the industry clamour, and write THIS book the best way you can.
And is there a third novel on the horizon?
I’m just finishing a new one, in the teeth of a lot of teaching commitments.
Ooh, we look forward to hearing more about it soon! You recently tweeted about completing a Writing for Radio course. Can you describe how it felt hearing your play performed by professional actors for the first time?
It was fascinating, because as an ex-Drama student I have a very strong sense of how my prose reads, and read everything I write aloud at some point. And yet their skill is to inhabit the words – become the characters - as I can’t. I realised that actors make themselves deliberately into a blank canvas: I was looking to them to bring my words alive with all the things I would have put in if it had been prose. But they were looking to me to tell them what sort of life the words needed.
Many of your tweets also focus on your passion for photography – which features as a metaphoric device in The Mathematics of Love. Would you say that your love of photography has influenced your writing style?
It’s made me very aware of “framing” – who can see what, and how moving through a setting changes how it looks and what a character can see; setting always works best when it emerges through character-in-action. And things like who notices the light on a cheek or coming through the washing on the line, or the colour and angle of light at different times of day.
Well I attempted to get published from the first I wrote, but I’m so glad I didn’t succeed. I think it’s immensely helpful to have written an awful lot before you’re faced with a contract and reviews, and the need for a new novel. You have a sense of your writerly self, and can judge what’s right and what’s wrong for you better. I have friends who got the first novel they wrote published, and then there’s REAL terror about whether they can write another. And they have to do their writerly growing-up in public, and that’s also difficult. But in many ways your debut novel does become your “first novel”, because when you get published you have to discover how to be a writer all over again in this new setup.
Your blog, This Itch of Writing, has lots of marvellous advice for other writers. What inspired you to start blogging?
I knew that it was a good idea to have some kind of online presence, but didn’t know what I would blog about – writers’ lives are actually very boring, and you have to have something to say, about a topic which you can sustain. Then I realised that I do spent virtually all my time thinking about writing, and hanging around on writers’ forums, and teaching writing. I started to get a sense of what we all spend our time fretting about, and different ways of tackling the same problems, and it grew from there. I can’t believe the blog’s just had its fifth birthday.
Delving on your blog, I discovered that in 2009 you had a story in an anthology of erotic fiction by women writers, In Bed With, published by Little, Brown. What do you make of the current frenzy surrounding women’s erotic fiction following the release of Fifty Shades of Grey?
I’m all for it – and not just because on the back of the frenzy Little, Brown have e-booked In Bed With. Anything that makes people realise just how powerfully fiction can affect you must be a good thing.
Your exploration of creative thinking in the Darwin family has taken you to universities in Spain and Mexico. To what extent do you think your ancestry has shaped you as a person? Does being the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin affect how people relate to you?
You’d probably have to ask someone else the first question. Being born into a family which takes education and brainwork very seriously is useful, in that there’s never a sense that you “couldn’t” do what you want to do: it just takes hard work and concentration. On the other hand someone in the family tree has almost certainly done it already, plus it’s a bit daunting if you’re hit a patch of your own life not going so well. I do find it a bit odd when people are impressed by my connection with him. I mean, it’s interesting, but it’s just an accident of birth: it’s only 3% of my genome and there are 151 other great-great grandchildren. And if his surname had been Smith, no one would even ask if any of us were related to him.
What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing the third novel now, and then I want to jump a book about writing off the blog, so that’ll keep me busy for a while.
Thank you, Emma, and the very best of luck with all your projects.
For more information on Emma, her writing and teaching, please visit www.emmadarwin.com.
Follow Emma’s blog at http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/
Or on Twitter at Emma_Darwin