So Emma, A Secret Alchemy, who’s it for and what’s it about?
It’s about the people who brought up the Princes in the Tower – their mother and her brother – and the Wars of the Roses world they lived and died in. I suppose it has a core audience in everyone who’s ever seen Shakespeare’s Richard III on film or on the stage, or read Josephine Tey’s detective story The Daughter of Time. But it’s really for anyone who likes fiction rooted in real, ‘big’ history, or liked my first novel The Mathematics of Love.
Why did you write it?
I started with Shakespeare too: I saw the character of Elizabeth Woodville, the boys’ mother, onstage in Henry VI. She’s a minor character there, but when I thought about her situation – the ordinary widow who married a king – I knew she had to have her own book. I was never sure if I was going to be able to pull it off, but that’s what keeps me going during the long haul of writing a novel. If I knew I could do it, I wouldn’t feel the need to try.
What do you hope readers get from it?
I hope they get a terrific read – stories and people they really care about – and if they also pick up on the layers of ideas, images and echoes to and fro between the centuries, that’s even better.
This is your second novel, your debut being The Mathematics of Love, how do the two compare?
The obvious difference is that A Secret Alchemy has real historical figures in it, and at the centre of the story: Elizabeth and her brother Anthony are two of the three narrators, while the other is a modern researcher, Una Pryor. But both novels have feet in different eras, because there are always things I can’t explore about a time and a world, except when I’m standing somewhere outside it.
Was there anything you encountered while writing A Secret Alchemy that stood out as being particularly good or bad, easy or difficult, fun or particularly hard work?
Using real historical characters was hard in many ways: you have to work out a whole different set of rules about what you can and can’t invent. The Woodvilles are important in history, but the record of them is actually very patchy. I was painfully anxious not to write the kind of historical novel which is just a dramatised biography, dressing up the puppets the history books give us and putting stilted words into their mouths, but to make real, fictional characters.
How long did it take you write? Is writing the second book an easier proposition than the first?
It took me two years, which was the deadline in my contract with Headline Review. And then I re-wrote a third of it, the modern strand, because I hadn’t got it right. At one point or another I think I suffered most of the second-book woes. I’d never written under contract, and it was weird feeling that someone other than myself was entitled to have opinions about the book, since they’d already paid me for it. And the more success The Mathematics of Love had, the harder it was to judge what I was writing that day by purely writerly criteria: ‘Oh, God, will this one ever get a review as good as that?’ was a frequent cry, usually accompanied by the sound of hair-tearing.
With all the research that goes with writing a piece of historical fiction, on top of the actual writing of the book, how do you keep the writing process feeling fresh?
I was lucky in that I’d actually had an earlier go at Elizabeth, in a novel which is now firmly under the bed. That meant I had the material in my head in the same way that I would modern material I know from my own life. My usual process is to do research before or after, but not during the first draft. I’m desperate not to get bogged down writing with a textbook in the other hand, which is when things get really stilted because it can be very difficult to do as Rose Tremain says and ‘leave the research behind’.
What is it that draws you to writing about the past?
I’ve always experienced the world historically: I can’t walk down a road or read a book without mentally fitting it into my sense of historical change. So writing novels about history as well as set in history is just an extension of that, really, because any historical fiction worth reading isn’t just about nice frocks and romantic settings, it’s about how history and memory work.
As a writer myself, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that I’m always learning. Who, or what, do you learn from?
Novels and writers I admire (LeCarré, Ackroyd, Unsworth, Gardam, Tremain, Ishiguro, Rankin, Heyer, Sayers), my wonderful editor Charlotte Mendelson, my hugely experienced ex-editor of an agent. But if it doesn’t sound too egotistical, I think one of the most important people to learn from is yourself. If you learn to tune in to the little voice which is telling you if advice or critiquing is worth listening to, when to stick and when to twist, what works in your writing and what was a mistake, then you set up a virtuous feedback loop of learning and growing.
I know there are a good number of writers who read this blog, anything you’d like to say to them? Any tips?
Keep writing, don’t give up, and don’t be derailed from the writing you really want to do by people telling you it won’t sell. It will if it’s good enough, but the less mainstream it is, the better it’ll have to be. So always be prepared to adapt your dreams to reality, not least because then you might see paths you didn’t know were there.
‘Emma Darwin’ is going to be entered into the OED and you can write its definition. What would it say?
Well, if I can write what I wish I thought it would say, not what I fear it would, it would go something like this: “Emma Darwin is (was?) a British novelist of the early 21st Century. Her fiction sprang from a continuing obsession with the relationship of individuals to history, and is notable for the bilingual dexterity of narrative voices, the convincing and subtly handled historical settings, and the compelling storytelling and characters.” Well, I can hope, can’t I?
What’s next for you?
I’ve just started a new novel, so the rest of life has sort of greyed-out by comparison, though I’m having to run the last stages of my PhD in Creative Writing alongside it. But I’m also increasingly busy with editorial reports, and I’m going to be co-hosting some writing workshops. And in August I’m going to the Galapagos Islands to give a lecture, so I’m really looking forward to that.
Anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for the interview, Nik, and best of luck with your own work!
Emma was born in London and brought up there, with interludes in Manhattan and Brussels. She studied Drama at University, worked for some years in academic publishing, and later took up photography while bringing up her two children. Her first novel The Mathematics of Love (Headline Review) was published in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers and Goss first novel awards. Her second novel A Secret Alchemy (Headline Review) was published in November 2008, and was written as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College. Emma blogs here and her website is here.