Today I’m pleased to welcome Sally Emerson to the blog. Sally is the author of Seperation, Fire Child, Second Sight, Heat, Broken Bodies and Listeners. All of her novels have been re-released by Quartet Books. Broken Bodies, a critically acclaimed love story, and the supernatural thriller Listeners are the final two and were published on 11 October 2017.
Sally kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about Broken Bodies and Listeners.
‘Broken Bodies’ is a story about passion. Two rival historians encounter each other among the swirl of the white marble sculptures of the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum and the whole book grows out of that first scene. Anne Fitzgerald and Patrick Browning are both involved in damaging love affairs as they research the tragic story of bewitching Mary Eglin, the wife of Lord Elgin who removed the marbles in the early 1800s. As the pace quickens, it turns out that it’s not just Anne and Patrick who are looking for Mary’s diaries and the secret they might contain but darker figures too. The novel weaves Mary’s diaries, based on her letters, with the present day story set in London, Edinburgh and Athens where the dramatic denouement takes place. It’s a tale of love, but of Mary Elgin’s love for Elgin’s best friend that destroys her, alike to the passion between the two rivals. The Sunday Express wrote that ‘Broken Bodies’ is a ‘wonderful book. The ending is unexpected and perfect.’
‘Listeners’ is an exploration of a young woman falling apart after her husband leaves her. She turns to a comforting plump spiritualist for support, so different from her elegant mother, but the comforting woman has another agenda and Jennifer’s life is in danger. The novel is savage on the pain of losing the man you love and takes the reader into Jennifer’s growing sense of panic. The figures around the spiritualist are disturbing except for fragile, odd Lily who tries to save Jennifer. ‘And now she lay awake until 3 a.m., afraid of the future, afraid she was going mad, afraid of the wind rattling the windows, footsteps on the stairs…The bogeymen of her childhood were all over the house whenever it was dark, creeping into the crevices of her brain, making her panic, pressing their faces against the black windows.’ The Evening Standard has called it ‘an absorbing supernatural thriller’.
2 What inspired each book?
It was seeing a girl in a long green coat standing in front of the broken bodies of the gods and goddesses of the Parthenon marbles which inspired ‘Broken Bodies’, a sense of a girl trying to understand their timelessness, how they somehow defeated time and death. ‘Listeners’ was written after my husband and I split up. Looking back now, it was a novel of someone in pain, though I had been the one leaving him for a handsome, funny, successful author who was wildly in love with me (I returned to my husband, thank goodness). In my novel of course my husband was the bad guy, I was the victim. Writers!
It is interesting that the earlier book is so much darker than the later one, ‘Broken Bodies’. My novels have become much more full of light, as my life has.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take out?
I see a central image and everything emerges from that. In ‘Broken Bodies’ it is the fluid girl in front of the stone bodies. In ‘Fire Child’ it is a girl looking up at a burning house. In ‘Separation’ it is a woman holding her baby looking out at the River Thames, which is both dangerous and eerily beautiful. In ‘Heat’ it’s a wild house set in the formality of Washington DC. Again and again there is in the central image something eerie and puzzling which the whole novel explores. I know roughly what is going to happen but I like to be completely enthralled and curious about whatever I read or write, so if I knew exactly what would happen that would be dull and the life would go out of the prose. I like to be amazed.
4. Having been through the publishing process a number of times is there anything about the process of creating a novel that still surprises you?
Oh, it all surprises me, and that’s why I do it. When I write – usually at night – I am so different from the person I am in the day, the normal person. Reading ‘Fire Child’ after a period of years startled me. There was that night person, with that darkness, but a wild darkness which was on the side of life. And even in ‘Separation’, one of my favourite novels, ostensibly about the pressures of a new baby, there is both darkness and joy. Nothing is quite what it seems. The reader thinks this will be an enchanting, funny book with a hint of danger but that’s not all it is. And nobody will guess the ending because it surprised and shocked me, though it is happy in its dark way.
As for the actual process of publishing, what surprised me this time was the standard of design. Quartet produced a set of six jewel-like books in their rediscovered classics series. Far from looking back nostalgically to earlier covers, I love these best of all. Just look at them!
5 What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I love houses, as you can see in my novels, and I think I understand and enjoy the romance of family. I also love to travel, and write about travel for the Sunday Times, the wilder the place, the better. I have no fear of anything, and wherever I go I think I could stay forever. I loved staying in the jungle of Guyana in South America. I like to feel fully alive, and I feel fully alive when I am writing and when I am travelling and when I am holding someone I love in my arms.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
7. I like to end my Q & As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q & As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
Why do you write?
It’s the only way I know to decipher the world.
About the books
Patrick Browning first sees Anne Fitzgerald in the British Museum in front of the Elgin Marbles – both young historians are fighting to uncover the secrets of Mary Nisbet, the notorious wife of Lord Elgin.
Anne thinks the present is frightening, but finds the past compelling; Patrick lives life at one remove, preferring the women in books to those in real life. Before long, their research spills over into an all-too-real rivalry, a rivalry charged with tension and attraction – a rivalry which twists their own scarred love affairs to breaking point…
Helen Dunmore has written “Welcome back to these dark, gripping and timeless novels.’