Shortly after her standing room only appearance at UEA Live, Emma Healey took some time out to answer some questions for NewWritingNet. Her interrogator was Caitlin Arthur, currently a 1st year student in English Literature and Creative Writing.
Caitlin Arthur: Elizabeth is Missing is a brilliant book and has received absolutely rave reviews. As a prospective writer, a debut novel of this standard can seem threatening; was this the first novel you attempted, or are there many in your house that will never see the light of day?
Emma Healey: Thank you very much! I have been amazed by the response the book has had.
I wrote 40,000 words of a Mills & Boon when I was 16, but I don’t think that counts (it was mostly set in a supermarket which proves how completely I had missed the point). Otherwise, I had written bits and pieces before I began EIM, and played with the idea of an older protagonist, but not anything I could honestly call a finished short story. Lots of bits, ideas, plans, but nothing coherent.
CA: Before you came to UEA to do your degree you were already pursuing a career in the world of arts; what made you decide to give that up and turn to writing?
EH: I loved being in galleries, I found the work and the people interesting and engaging, but after four years I suppose I knew I didn’t have the same level of enthusiasm for that as I did for writing. I had been working on EIM for a while and really enjoying it, in fact I lived for my weekly workshop group, and I wanted to see if I was serious about it as a career rather than just a hobby, so applied to UEA. I felt if I could get on the course and study Creative Writing for a year then at least I wouldn’t regret never having done it.
CA: Elizabeth is Missing has already had huge success and been translated into other languages; is it hard to stay grounded when you are being so hyped up?
EH: Staying grounded is easy – I just expect everything to fall apart every minute. And I still can’t quite believe it, the reaction has been so unexpected. The story and characters have lived inside my head for so long that it’s difficult to think of them living in other people’s. But, of course, it’s completely brilliant too – it’s what you hope for as a writer and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone reading and responding to the novel.
CA: Which three books have influenced you most in your life and why?
EH: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe was a big influence – in fact I was pretty obsessed with all Radcliffe’s books when I was fifteen/sixteen, she was writing at the end of the eighteenth century, one of the most popular of the gothic novelists, and her books brilliantly use uncanny, seemingly supernatural, elements that are then cleverly explained later. The way the stories are written allow her (and the reader) to have her cake and eat it – all the thrills of a ghost story with the satisfaction of a perfect, detective-novel-style final reveal.
Another influence was Headlong by Michael Frayn. The way the information, all that background material on Breughel, is handled is wonderful. To set up a story about art history as a kind of thriller, with the theories about his paintings and the intrigue and peril in the present interweaving, without any of it feeling overly manufactured, is just fantastic.
Lastly: Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller. This is a brilliantly subtle book, one that explores loneliness above all (a theme which I think is increasingly important in our society) and the narrator is sympathetic despite being inherently untrustworthy. The plot unfolds beautifully, and the way the story is told matches the story itself perfectly.
CA: Alzheimer’s is a heavy and often disturbing subject; were you worried that this subject matter would deter people from reading the book?
EH: I didn’t consider that until quite late in the process. I had always had such good feedback from other writers that I hadn’t considered what a non-writing reader might think, until someone (a non-writer) asked me about the book and when I told him the subject he said: ‘God, how depressing.’ And I thought, oh yeah, it could be. I suppose I knew my goal was to show the humorous moments as well as the difficult ones and I hoped that would be obvious early on in the book. I also paid close attention to plot, knowing that any journey with a character living with dementia was going to be a hard one, and that because of this there had to be a pay-off in the form of a good mystery story.
CA: Can you describe your writing process?
EH: Being only one novel in I’m still discovering this, but something that seems natural to me is to write lots of bits, some about the same character/situation, some entirely unrelated, and then when I’ve got about ten thousand words of something that might hang together I try to work out a plot and a structure that might fit with the voice and themes. I like to plan at that stage because I can’t write in chronological order so things would get very confusing if I didn’t keep a record. I’ve also recently changed my routine, or more accurately, have got into a proper writing routine, and I’ve found, much to my annoyance, that it really is better to write in the mornings.
CA: Do you have any tips for would-be writers?
EH: These are slightly contradictory, but first is to recognize your own excuses. If you tell yourself you need five clear hours every day, in a vacuum, with no contact from the outside world, in order to write you will never do it. Everyone has genuine pressures on their time, it’s important to learn to spot when you are coming up against a real writing obstacle and when you are just trying to wriggle out of doing the work. On the flip side it’s really important to save your will power. It’s a finite resource, and if you use it up on starting a new diet, giving up alcohol or forcing yourself into an intense exercise regime at the gym, how will you have enough to keep writing?
CA: Is there any one writer that you feel has informed and influenced your own writing style? In what ways have they done so?
EH: I find that a really difficult question to answer, but I can say that I read Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall within a couple of weeks of each other and both writers’ beautiful handling of the present tense really helped me in finishing and polishing Elizabeth is Missing.
CA: Do you have any plans for a second novel yet?
EH: I am writing bits and pieces at the moment and experimenting, but I admit it’s been difficult getting into a new project. Partly because I’m like a kid in a sweet shop – now I don’t have to write in Maud’s voice (which I loved, but which was sometimes restrictive) I can do anything I want and can’t decide what to settle on. Also there’s been a lot of publicity for Elizabeth is Missing – I’m in no way complaining about that, but it does make finding a new voice harder. Every time I start to get somewhere I am taken back to EIM through an event or interview. It’s like trying to get over a relationship whilst constantly bumping into one’s ex.