On the day her novel How To Be A Good Wife comes out in paperback, Emma Chapman tells us about her journey to publication…
When I was at university and I’d tell people I wanted to be a writer, they would inevitably ask me what I’d already written.
“Nothing,” I’d say. “I just know it’s what I want to do.”
Usually, they’d look at me like I was a terrible fraud. But it was the truth. Apart from adolescent diaries, I hadn’t written much of anything before I enrolled on a Masters course after my undergraduate degree.
How did I know with such conviction that writing was for me? It was an odd, overwhelming feeling I would get from reading: a desire to achieve what those storytellers had. I wanted to make people feel the way I felt when I got lost in a brilliant novel. I was also attracted to the freedom of being a writer: the flexibility of working for myself and being able to travel.
When I arrived in London at the beginning of my Masters course, I was buzzing with anticipation. I looked around at the seven other people in my group, and wondered which of us (if any) would end up published. (Four out of eight of us have deals to date, and the others have agents – not bad going.) I wanted to get on with it: to learn the skills I needed to give myself the best chance of success. We all set to work. We were taught about point of view, voice, character, place, and a million other technical terms. We were sent away to write, and then brought back to be critiqued. This was the most daunting: the exposure of finally been held accountable for things I had written in secret.
In my interview, Andrew Motion – the then poet laureate – told me that I would probably find the year challenging. He’d read my short stories, hastily written to submit for acceptance to the course: and he said I had work to do. I nodded eagerly, my heart beating fast in my chest. I’ll do it, I thought as I left, I’ll do whatever it takes. I applied myself, listened to critiques and tried to improve. Over the course of that year, my novel – which would one day become How To Be A Good Wife – started to take shape.
I also worked three days a week at Toby Eady Associates – a small, delightful literary agency near Hyde Park – where I learnt about the business side of publishing. I learnt the realities of what it meant to be a writer: how they got paid, how to make up contracts, what foreign rights were and how they were sold. I did a lot of filing in that office – after all, I was still a student – and every time I would slip a royalty statement into someone’s folder in the filing cabinet I would hope against hope that one day there would be one with my name on it.
After my Masters, I went to Australia to ‘visit’ my boyfriend. When I finished my manuscript, I sent it to Toby Eady Associates. It was perhaps the most terrifying moment of my entire writing career. At that point, I had no idea if I was any good at all, or even whether I had the potential to be. I only had the words of my creative writing group, which meant a lot, but easily became twisted in my mind until they were little more than smoke. I’d seen so many submissions come into that agency, and so many end up in the recycling bin. Plus, I’d got to know these people: they were my colleagues, and I really wanted them to like it.
When I met with them a month after I’d sent the manuscript, they were very positive. Over lunch, they talked about ways the manuscript could be improved. But they never came out and said they wanted to sign it. I thought perhaps they were being polite: giving me pointers before sending me on my way. On the way back to the office, I asked them straight out. Will you be taking me on as a client? They laughed. Of course, they said, did we not already say that?
I walked home from that meeting in a state of airy disbelief. I’d climbed one step on the ladder, I thought. Although I knew there were changes needed to the manuscript, it felt like everything else I’d wanted couldn’t be that far away.
Fast-forward two years. I’m living in Australia: working in a gift shop full time, and editing the book before work and at the weekends. My agent has just told me he thinks we’re ready to go to publishers with the manuscript. Did I imagine it would take this long? I knew it might: three years is a normal length of time to spend writing a novel. But I’d hoped, as I’m sure everyone does, that I would be some sort of genius exception. That perhaps all that ‘hard work’ wouldn’t be applicable to me.
Then came the second terror-filled moment. Close to the anxiety-inducing intensity of first sending the book to my agent, submitting to publishers was nerve-racking. At every moment, you know that someone could be reading and liking (or not liking) your manuscript. Someone with the power to make something happen. And there’s not one tiny thing you can do about it.
We heard within forty-eight hours that someone liked it. But I didn’t realize that it’s not enough for an editor to like the book: they then have to convince the rest of the publishing house – sales, marketing, PR etc – that it’s a good investment. There are meetings and people need time to read it. It took two weeks in total, and every day felt like a year. The only things I found took my mind off the fear were romantic comedies and Bikram yoga. In that sweaty room, I couldn’t think about anything except my own aching muscles.
Of course, this story ended happily. Picador pre-empted the novel, and I accepted their offer. But it so easily could have gone the other way. If none of the editors we sent it to had connected to it, or had connected but not quite enough. If the other people at the publishing house had said no. I know how lucky I am that it did work out, and I remind myself of it, every day.
When you hope for something for so long, there is a strange period of disbelief after it has actually happened. A blankness, which is broken every time you remember, and you are thrilled to the very core. I never thought that ‘being published’ would become normal: in fact, I was determined for it not to, to keep appreciating it. And today, as we reach another milestone and the paperback is put out on the shelves in bookshops all over the country, I’m sure I will feel that surge disbelief, amazement and happiness, and I’ll ride it as long as it lasts.
About the author:
Emma Chapman grew up in Manchester. After attending university in Edinburgh and London, she travelled in Scandinavia, then moved to Perth, Western Australia, where she lived for four years. She now lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. How To Be A Good Wife is her first novel, a ‘creepy little chiller’ (Hilary Mantel) about a terrible secret between a husband and a wife.
About the book:
” ‘I know what my husband would say: that I have too much time on my hands; that I need to keep myself busy. That I need to take my medication. Empty nest syndrome, he tells his friends at the pub, his mother. He’s always said I have a vivid imagination.’
In How To Be a Good Wife, Marta has been married to Hector for longer than she can remember. She has always tried hard to be a good wife.
But now Hector has come home with a secret. And Marta is beginning to imagine – or revisit – a terrifying truth.”
You can find out more about Emma and How to be A Good Wife at www.emmajchapman.com and www.howtobeagoodwifebook.com
How To Be A Good Wife is published in paperback by Picador and is available from Amazon and book shops now.