An Interview with Emma Darwin
Emma Darwin is an esteemed novelist, short story writer, and creative writing tutor specialising in narrative technique and historical fiction.
Tell us a little bit about your background as a writer and writing tutor?
My debut novel, The Mathematics of Love, was written on an MPhil in Writing, at what is now the University of South Wales, but it was actually the sixth I’d written: the other five are no longer even under the bed! While it was being published, I started working for one of the editorial agencies, doing appraisals of aspiring writers’ novels, in parallel with doing a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. As my PhD novel, A Secret Alchemy, was being published I got a job as an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at the Open University. By that time I was also blogging at This Itch of Writing, which is still where I go to work out what I think about writing, and I was also giving workshops at events like the York Festival of Writing. Eventually, I gave up the OU job to freelance as a writing tutor and mentor, and my new book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction was published by John Murray Learning in 2016.
What interests you about historical fiction?
As a child reader it was always historical fiction that was special to me – Geoffrey Trease, Mollie Hunter, Gillian Avery – and as an adult I discovered Peter Ackroyd, Georgette Heyer and Hilary Mantel. As a writer, I’ve been known to say that writing historical fiction is the ultimate challenge, because you’re not only trying to do what any fiction does, which is integrate what actually is, with what might be, to make a convincing story. With historical fiction you’re also trying to do what any historian does: connect the past with the present, to make something relevant and involving for modern readers.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I do a lot of ‘reading round’ to absorb material about the period, place, themes and specifics. I don’t make reams of notes: just jot down any ideas about possible plot and story things if they occur to me. It might be a year or more before it feels time to actually plan something like a story. I never write worse than when I’ve got the textbook or my own factual notes in the other hand, so I then stop researching, and as much as possible write the first draft without it, letting the draft draw on what I’ve read as naturally it draws on anything else in my life. That draft will throw up a lot of specific queries and problems, and I’ll sort those out as part of working on the second draft. I usually go to the relevant places when life allows it, but I usually want to go back later!
What is ‘psychic distance’?
It also gets called ‘narrative distance’, and it’s the idea that in fiction a narrative can take the reader as deep into a character’s consciousness, or as far out to survey a whole battlefield, as you, the writer, choose; you and the reader can also slide (or jump) to and fro along this spectrum. But what I realised, when I discovered the concept in John Gardner’s classic The Art of Fiction, is that thinking in terms of psychic distance brings together and solves all the separate and vexed, ongoing questions writers struggle with, because everything about how you write something is affected by how much a particular character’s personality and physical experience colours the text at this moment, or whether the narrator’s voice and point of view dominates. Once you’re used to thinking in these terms, then the voice and tone of a paragraph, what to show and what to tell of a scene, the pace of the scene … all of these decisions answer themselves.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Believing whoever said ‘show don’t tell’ (you need both) and ‘don’t change point-of-view’ (just learn to do it well – and psychic distance helps here.). Over-explaining everything, so the reader is never drawn into the story by having to intuit the maths. Forgetting that story is king, but it’s the characters that make any story worth reading.
What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel or non-fiction book?
I’ve always loved Marge Piercy’s Gone To Soldiers, a wonderful panorama of the Second World War around the globe, and find that not many people know it. But my favourite unknown novel of all is Miss Mole, by E H Young; she was the same generation as writers like Elizabeth Bowen, and was re-published by Virago Modern Classics, and it’s both technically masterly, and also very funny and touching.
What book are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished a creative non-fiction project which is out there trying to find a home, and I’m now working on a novel set in the sixteenth century.
Many thanks to Emma for answering our questions.