Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Interview with Emma Darwin

tmolbyemma.jpgemma.jpgThe Mathematics of Love, by Emma Darwin (published by Headline Review) has had terrific print and blogosphere reviews and since the author just happens to be a Bookfox, Lisa and Leena set to work with their best Paxman-esque questions.

For Emma’s thoughts on historical fiction, sex and transgression, read on…

For Jackie’s Vulpes Libris review of The Mathematics of Love, click here.

The Guardian’s review is here. The Independent’s review is here.

The New York Times review is here.

lisasequinonsea.jpgLisa: What made you decide to write a dual narrative? Do you think that having two strands made it more difficult to maintain tension? Or less difficult perhaps? (I should say that midway through I was racing through the book, as I’d get caught up in one story and then the novel would switch to the other strand, which I’d then get caught up in, and so the pattern would repeat.)

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: I found myself writing a parallel narrative because history for me isn’t just wallpaper and nice frocks, it’s one of the things I’m writing about, just as I’m writing about particular places and people. Whether it’s love or war or transgressive sex that you want to explore, you can’t explore ‘then’ without exploring ‘now’ or a different ‘then’. And of course as soon as you’ve got two times, the reader’s much more likely to be adding their own ‘now’ into the mix. I did build the two strands so their individual narrative tensions work on their own. I never just switched in order to set up a cliff-hanger: there was a logic to breaking the story at that point anyway, and the other story then kicks in. I know that some readers loved the switching from the off, and others took a while to get into it, but until someone works out how to enable our brains to absorb two stories simultaneously, switching is the only way I can do what I want to do in this kind of novel.

lisasequinonsea.jpgLisa: Perhaps you could talk about the narrative of photography, which was one of my favourite elements of the novel.

What does photography symbolise for you and how on earth do you know so much about it?!

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: I’ve taken photographs passionately since I was given my first camera at ten. Then about twelve years ago I decided I wanted to study it properly, so I did an A Level, part time, studying the history of it for the first time, as well as the art and craft. And I realised I’d never read a novel that used photography as I knew it. Usually it’s just a glamorous profession for a character, or a way to get necessary photographs into the story. You almost never get all the really interesting things: ideas about voyeurism but also how it can help make sense of what you see, what war photography is for, what it does to the photographer, the way the light of a moment is trapped in the silver forever so that an image really is a kind of ghost, the ideas of light-dark and negative-positive, the thrill you still get after years when you slide a blank exposed paper into the developer and see the picture appear… I could go on forever, so I’d better stop there!

leena3.jpgLeena: Comparing a work of fiction with its historical sources can be disillusioning, but I’m curious how you go about doing the research. Where do you start? What kind of sources are best, in your opinion, when it comes to world-building? Do you prefer to do just enough research to cover the story, or do you find a surplus of information necessary – or something else?

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: I start with books about my characters’ lives, I suppose: a book on all the aspects of Wellington’s army for The Mathematics of Love, for example. When I originally researched Elizabeth Woodville there wasn’t an up-to-date biography of her, just a 1920s masterpiece of sexist hearsay: now there are two, but as I’d already done the research I avoided reading them because I so didn’t want to write a biography-with-conversations. I just used them for fact-checking after I’d written what needed writing. What attracts me to a period in the first place is my sense of that world, so then it’s a matter of researching enough to write that world in as much but no more detail as I’d write my own. My shelves are full of cultural histories of things like food, clothes, women ‘s lives, transport, ships, London, medicine and so on, so I pick all the bits I need out of them. But in the end you’re not giving a history lesson with illustrations, you’re re-imagining: it’s not about knowing that a sloop has three masts (unless your narrator is a sailor) it’s all about feeling the deck sticky under your feet with blood. I read round the politics and culture in a rather casual, un-note-taking way while I’m finishing whatever the previous job is. Then in theory I do just enough research before I start to make sure the story will work, and then leave it till the first draft has shown me the gaps that need filling. In practice it depends on practicalities like when I can get to the places I need to go, and whether the book’s got to go back to the library or I can afford to buy it… I don’t deliberately try for surplus information, but of course you explore lots you end up not using, and when you start researching you stumble over all sorts of stuff you didn’t know was there .

leena3.jpgLeena: Now, this is something you recently wrote about on your blog (the ‘I’ll not be back, I think’ entry). You said that you write about whatever era takes your fancy, and you just know when it feels right. Where do these ‘fancies’ usually come from? Do you ever read biographies or books about history wondering whether there’s a novel in there, somewhere? I found the blog entry somewhat surprising because I’ve always felt that we are personally more ‘comfortable’ with certain periods of history than others, and it makes sense – to me, at least – to write about those periods because you can bring an ease, a flair to that writing. But, reading your blog entry, it occurred to me that there’s a lot to be said for fresh challenges as well. Can you elaborate on that? Is the freshness of the undertaking especially important to you?

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: I suppose my fancies come from a lifetime’s reading history and fiction: a good biography, say, will catch the essence of a period and I find myself thinking, ‘Ooh, I wonder if I could put my finger on what that time felt like?’ just as you might start wondering what it would be like to be a particular character. I don’t go deliberately hunting for fodder for my own work, but freshness is implicit in my interest in trying to pin a period down. The Mathematics of Love started with an image of a soldier in the Peninsular War, which I knew from A Level History and Heyer’s The Spanish Bride. A Secret Alchemy started because I wanted to write about Elizabeth Woodville and I was attracted to a period which has all the violent glamour of the Tudor age, but is much less well-trodden ground. The new, nameless novel springs from Rozsika Parker’s classic of women’s history The Subversive Stitch, which I read years ago and have wanted to use ever since. I don’t think I feel more comfortable in one period than another, though the further back you go the harder it is to get the mind-set right, and to find the right voice. I don’t know how much further back I’d go than 1450 or so.

lisasequinonsea.jpgLisa: Emma, I was particularly interested in Lucy Durward, who seemed to me an independent-minded and feisty woman.

Did you ever feel there was a danger of making her too feminist, too modern for her time, in order to make her more attractive to 21st century readers?

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: Well, it’s always something you have to look out for. I felt I pushed it as far as I could, without actually being anachronistic. You do meet unconvincingly liberated women in historical fiction: sometimes I think it is the author’s fear of making them unattractive, but often it’s just ignorance in writers who write historical fiction purely because they like the frocks, or extrapolate backwards from Victorian ideas of female behaviour, which are very different. The point about Lucy is that she isn’t constitutionally rebellious and she’s not a mouthpiece for feminism, it’s simply that she’s too busy with her art to notice when she steps over some social line, in a world where women are hemmed in by such lines. An artist friend of mine said how at school she used to enjoy sports, leaping around in the fresh air, until some wretched teacher would stop the whole game to tell her that she’d broken some rule or other. Lucy’s like that: not feisty, just oblivious. And, actually, there’s nothing she does, until her big transgressive act at the end, that you can’t find a thirty-year old gentlewoman doing in some novel or history of the period.

lisasequinonsea.jpgLisa: My other question relates to fifteen-year-old Anna.

Did you meet any resistance to your depiction of Anna’s sexual relationship with sixty-year-old Theo?

Were you ever tempted to make Anna older, to put her over the age of consent?

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: We’re back to the parallel narrative thing again: it’s so hard to get modern readers to feel the real shock that Lucy’s contemporaries would have at her actions (think Colonel Brandon’s ward in Sense and Sensibility) that I had to parallel it with something that would be equally shocking to readers now. The Mathematics of Love is all about transgressive love and sex, and I had to find a relationship for Anna which was as transgressive for 1976 (and for us now, which isn’t quite the same thing) as Lucy and Stephen’s is in 1820. I had to go a long way for that, and decided that she would have to be just under the age of consent, though I did carefully make her sexually experienced. I have had one or two readers who simply couldn’t cope with it at all, but as far as I’m concerned that’s to do with their issues, not my book. One meaning of ‘the mathematics of love defy arithmetic,’ is that simple sums about ages (or partners, or anything else) don’t begin to describe the endlessly complex patterns of love and sex. The point about Anna isn’t that she’s having sex, it’s that she’s falling in love.

leena3.jpgLeena: Your genre could be described as ‘romantic historical literary fiction’: but more than that, The Mathematics of Love feels like the writing of someone who knows what kind of a novel she wants to write, and is confident about her ability to do so. It doesn’t feel tentative at all. And it makes me wonder how long it took and how you finally found your genre – or found yourself as a writer, as it were. How did you come to write in this particular genre and did you try other things on the way? Do you see yourself continuing in the same vein, or would you like to try something wildly different one day? (I don’t mean in terms of sticking to a certain ‘formula’, but simply having a particular ‘romantic-historical-literary’ balance in your writing; writing a contemporary thriller or a lighthearted chick lit piece would obviously call for a different kind of self-definition.)

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: History kept creeping into earlier things: a novel came out too short so I wrote diary entries for the grandmother, leading back from now to world war two, then later Stephen’s letters, and I had this huge sense of coming home when I wrote them, though I was daunted for a while longer about researching and constructing a wholly historical novel. I think I’ll probably always write things with a strong historical dimension – that’s how I read the world – and things where the prime movers of the plot include love and sex and strong feeling, if you want to call that romance. ‘Literary’ depends how you define it: I do expect books I read, as well as those I write, to have more to yield on a second and third reading, and to have some originality about the writing as well as the subject and themes. Is that literary? But I wouldn’t preclude writing a thriller for a minute, or indeed something lighthearted about modern love, if they encompassed all these aspects of my writerly self.

leena3.jpgLeena: Then something for the writers in the audience…

Do tell us about something that has been especially wonderful in your experience as a debut author.

And what has been disappointing or not quite as you expected?

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: The first wonderful thing was just how passionately my publishers have backed me and my work. I’ve worked in the book trade and I know what usually happens to debut literaryish novels by people no one’s ever heard of: there simply isn’t the time and the money in their expected sales to do much promotion. Not so with The Mathematics of Love: they put huge amounts of both into it, including buying the front and inside front cover of The Bookseller to advertise it, and getting a lot of media coverage, and so on, and it’s really paid off. Another wonderful thing has been getting emails through my website from people to whom the book spoke in some very personal way, often something that I hadn’t specially set out to make special or important at all. The ones that moved me most I couldn’t quote to you: they’re painfully personal and private. I suppose the only disappointing thing is having been on four prize lists and not having won one. But the more champagne receptions you go to, the more you realise that prizes are so contingent: the winner is the book which that set of judges, on that day, can agree on being the winner. Doesn’t mean it isn’t a good book, just that on another day another book would have won, maybe yours, maybe not. The money would be nice and so would be the congratulations, but nothing to do with prizes has ever made me write a word differently from how I would have anyway, and in the end that’s what matters.

lisasequinonsea.jpgLisa: You wrote some of TMOL on your Creative Writing MA, I think you said, and you’re now completing your PhD. There’s been a lot of criticism of writing courses, so tell us, can you be taught to write good novels or is it something you learn on your own, through trial and error?

Feel free to opt for a blend of both, if you so wish 🙂

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: It wasn’t actually an MA, which is a structured course usually made up of several modules, but an MPhil, which is more like a short PhD. You get it by developing a body of work – your novel/collection, plus a critical commentary – with a supervisor’s help, and then submitting it. It’s very little different from what you’d be doing with a very involved and experienced editor. But more generally, Creative Writing can’t be taught as you can teach someone to do long division, by learning rules to get a correct result, though there are plenty of weak teachers who cling to just such sets of rules, and impose them on writers still insecure enough to be grateful for it. By contrast, good CW courses don’t teach, they help you to learn, to make sense of your intuitve understanding of how writing works, and then understand more. They sharpen your perception of your own and others’ writing, they enlarge your toolkit of techniques to try, they help you towards a discerning confidence in your work and its possibilities. They can’t make a writer out of someone who isn’t built to be one, but they can make any writer a better than they are at the moment. There’s still trial and error, and the only way to find out if you can write a novel – let alone a good one – is to sit down and write one. But with a good course the trials can be more useful ones, and the errors more educational: it’s a fast track through the same process, not a substitute for it.

lisasequinonsea.jpgLisa: Can you tell us about the new book? Is it dual narrative again, and which period/s is it? (if you don’t mind revealing that).

How did writing this one compare to writing TMOL? Easier second time around?

Sorry, lots of questions rolled into one there…

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: Yes, the new book, A Secret Alchemy, is another parallel narrative, and it’s due out in November. The backbone of the book is the interwoven stories of Elizabeth Woodville, who was the mother of the Princes in the Tower, and her brother Anthony. He was the older prince’s guardian, and was bringing him to London to be crowned when Richard III staged his coup. Interwoven with these is a contemporary story, which, again, reflects and explores these lives and that world. It was hard to write in some ways. The research was easy because I’d done most of it before, for an earlier go at Elizabeth, but the thing they don’t tell you about being published – let alone as TMOL was – is that it’s incredibly distracting. The sales conferences and the festivals and the interviews don’t take up much time in hours, but a lot in energy. And each time something good happens, you look at the new, raw, not-terribly-good-yet first draft of the new one and panic about whether it’ll ever do as well as your grown-up-and-gone first novel is doing! But in the end I think A Secret Alchemy benefitted from taking me quite a long time to write it: there are more elements to it, and they had time to stew down into something which I hope is really rich.

leena3.jpgLeena: Your mention of the media coverage made me think… Most writers either complain about getting barely any coverage at all, or shrink back from putting themselves forward, so it would be interesting to know a little more about your experience of these things as an author. Your drama background must give you the kind of confidence that many writers lack, but you say it can be tiring and distracting – so what is it like, doing readings and signings, book festivals, sales conferences, interviews, etc.? How much does it affect your day-to-day life?

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: It’s true that I don’t find standing up on my hind legs and reading my work at all alarming – no lines to remember, after all!. Some times it goes better than others, but basically I really enjoy it, and love talking to people who’ve read my work. I’m learning how to do actual talks about writing, but a good lecturing technique – that develops an argument properly but seems lively and spontaneous – takes practice as well as confidence. You’re always keyed-up, though, however straightforward-seeming the job. Even trade dinners are a performance: who are you talking to? How do you connect with them? (Booksellers a different conversation from journalists, Tesco different from an academic Waterstones) What do you say (and not say) about your work? How do you leave them with the impression that you really appreciate their end of the business, and hope your book/interview will do well for them? It helps that Headline Review are brilliant at looking after me, though it’s weird when they come and move you on from one table to another to do your performing bear thing all over again with the pudding. What with getting ready before, and the post-performance hangover it does take up more mental space than you’d think. But in terms of days in the year, it’s really quite few. I think it’ll take at least one or two more books before I really feel I’m ‘doing the circuit,’ and then I’ll probably wish I wasn’t. But there’s nothing in the world to beat a reader coming up and telling you what, exactly, they loved about your book!

leena3.jpgLeena: Another thing that intrigues me is how you plan your novels. The structure of TMOL is very complex but gracefully handled, and I feel it must have taken a great deal of work prior to getting the words on paper. Do you outline, and how many drafts do you normally end up writing? And was there anything that you didn’t do when you first started out, but have since found to be helpful, or even necessary? (In other words, any tips to us aspiring writers would be much appreciated!)

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: I make a sprawl of notes and diagrams and lists when I’m researching and thinking, but usually don’t look back at them much: I let my memory digest what’s needed, so what gets into the novel is my words not a text-book’s. Then I make one master-plan of the action on paper, in pencil, tracking all the different strands in parallel to each other. I write the first draft furiously, long-hand, making notes when I hit a problem and re-writing the plan if things change. Then I type the first draft up, sorting it out and incorporating any new research I hadn’t known I’d need, then I print it all out and read it, marking it up to sort out on screen. If that’s the second draft, I probably do one or two more rounds of the same process before it goes to my agent: she’s a brilliant editor, and my most trusted reader. I think the big thing I discovered is that it’s fatal to fiddle. You need to decide what process you’re doing today – taking your magnifying glass to the writing in Chapter Three, checking whether the cogs of a subplot mesh properly all through – and do that properly, without being side-tracked. It’s always easier and more appealing to go back and fiddle than push on, but then you lose all sense of the overall shape and pace of the novel, and you’re less likely to spot holes in the plot and other idiocies.

lisasequinonsea.jpgLisa: Now a question from our fellow Bookfox, Jackie, who reviewed The Mathematics of Love here:

Why did you choose to open the book with such a violent incident? It was a startling way to start things out & have the characters meet. It affected the way I looked at the main characters through the rest of the book and gave such a strong flavor to the setting. Was that the main intention or were there others?

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: At the beginning, Stephen is emotionally frozen and resigned (sort of) that his life won’t change: he lost just about everything fighting Napoleon – health, friends, peace of mind, love – but he believes it was a necessary war, worth giving everything for. The riot on St Peter’s Field was nicknamed Peterloo by the Manchester Guardian, as it was then, in ironic reference to Waterloo: massacring the innocent and undefended was something that Britons had prided themselves only happened in the tyrannies they’d been fighting for twenty-odd years. ‘And now what we gave is betrayed,’ Stephen says, and it’s the first crack in the post-war life he’s constructed for himself. As someone pointed out to me, in The Mathematics of Love every single character is affected by war in one way or another, even Anna. Starting with Peterloo meant that I could have one, concrete example of the violence that otherwise colours the whole book without actually being present. Then, too, sharing that night nursing Tom creates a bond between Stephen and Lucy, throws them together, even though they don’t talk about anything very personal, so that their friendship can then keep going by letter. I confess, though, that the original idea for starting the story there was the old adage that it’s a good idea to have a body on page one. Well, page two, in this case. So I tried it out, and discovered that it was a good idea for this story. With Peterloo I could bring in all sorts of themes that were emerging in the book as a whole: lost children, voyeurism and portraiture, battle as an industrial machine (factory workers, used to operating as part of a larger system, were known to make better rank-and-file cannon fodder than country people), and Doctor Robert Darwin as the link I needed to Tom Wedgwood the photographer.

Please recommend five books and tell us a little about the choices!

emma_darwin.jpgEmma: David Lodge, The Art of Fiction. The best kind of how-to-write book, which doesn’t tells you how to write, just explores the real nuts and bolts of how great writers do it. Robert Nye, Voyage of the Destiny. The book that showed me just how grown-up and extraordinary historical fiction about real historical figures – in this case, Sir Walter Raleigh – can be. Jane Austen, Pride and Predjudice. Austen invented what’s most often called free indirect style, and writers ever since owe her a debt for that, as well as for everything else including one of the great realistic love stories. Marina Warner, The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. Cultural history at its very, very best and most illuminating. Roszika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch is another one. John LeCarré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. At its best I find LeCarré’s meshing of brilliant plotting with sophisticated psychology and a sort of scarred, cynical but undying romanticism about the human condition, absolutely irresistible.

For more information about Emma, go here.

And for Emma’s blog, This Itch of Writing, click here.

6 comments on “Interview with Emma Darwin

  1. Writer Girl
    April 2, 2008

    Lovely to hear from you Emma. Always something new to learn. WG

  2. marygm
    April 2, 2008

    Great interview, Emma, full of information and wisdom. Looking forward to the next book coming out.

  3. Jackie
    April 3, 2008

    This is probably the best technical description of how a writer works of any interview done yet on this site. All the details were fascinating, told in an interesting and often humorous way. The “dancing bear” image in the part about publicity was quite amusing. I really liked all the background info on the characters and themes of the book. I feel like reading TMoL again to see how all this new insight would affect the story. I was thrilled to find the answer to my question, too.
    Ms. Darwin is a very stable and down to earth person and obviously intelligent. I’m definitely looking forward to her future work. Thanks Leena and Lisa for spotlighting a very worthy author.

  4. Anne Brooke
    April 3, 2008

    Fabulous interview – very interesting indeed!



  5. Mhairi
    April 5, 2008

    I finally found the time to sit down and read this with the attention it deserves.

    It’s absolutely fascinating to be able to step inside your head a little, Emma, and hear your reasons for the decisions you make when writing.

    Thank you for answering so fully. (And well done to the two Ls for the intelligent questions … which always help …)

  6. Pingback: Interview with Susan Barrett - author of Fixing Shadows and The Inconstant Husband « Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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