Posted on 22nd August 2015

Posted by Sophie

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Q&A with Emma Jane Unsworth

EmmaJaneUnsworth_CoverHow would you describe Animals to a reading group?

It’s about how friendships change as you get older. It’s about whether people – especially women – should stop doing certain things and start doing others when they hit a certain age, OR ELSE. It’s also full of filthy jokes.

What inspired you to write Animals?

Several things. Conversations with friends. Gruelling hangovers. An urge to document the city I love. A love of bawdy, balls-out comedy. I’m old-fashioned like that. Also, personally, a sense of pressure to “calm down” and “settle down” and not turn into some kind of drunk old tragedy. I wanted to fight all that because I hated the idea of there being one way to live and be considered a productive or successful woman. So, rebellion in that way. There’s a great Jenny Lewis line that goes: “I am not my body, or how I choose to destroy it”. The story sprang from the voices of the two main characters – it came as a dialogue first and I filled my phone with notes for weeks, and when I downloaded the notes I had 16,000 words and I thought, okay, I probably have something here. Ultimately, I wanted to write a comedy double act who would riff off each other, have roguish adventures, and carry the whole thing along in a picaresque way – I gave the chapters titles for that reason, too. There’s a scene where I put Laura and Tyler in capes and masks in a karaoke bar because they’re outlaws. Albeit slightly ridiculous outlaws.

Animals focuses on difficult experiences in a lighthearted way, but what endures above all else is female friendship. How important is this theme in your writing?

I wanted to write about female friendship in a romantic way. Whilst romantic love is given all these markers and milestones in society, such as engagement and marriage for example, there is no ceremony for friendship. And yet your friendships can be the most durable and meaningful relationships of your life. Do we need a ceremony for a relationship? Well, a good question, and one worth exploring in itself. As part of that, I wanted to pitch friendship against romance. There are so many interesting grey areas to explore around the labels of ‘friends’, ‘lovers’ etc; the psychology of what’s really going on there, our attraction to other individuals at certain points in our life, the macro and micro power-shifts, the maddening complexity of love and desire. I started writing Animals knowing it was a break-up book but I didn’t really know what the exact nature of that break-up would be, and I wanted to keep the reader guessing until the end, too.

Animals Laura and Tyler’s friendship is forged through a love of poetry. Does poetry influence your own writing?

I live in hope that it does. I love poetry. The annual Salt anthology of Best British Poetry is something I look forward to, plus the Faber New Poets. I have bits stuck up around my desk, and I dip into old favourites like Yeats and Anne Sexton when I’m struggling with something. I find the form very calming – it makes me feel safe, and secret-y, which is what a novelist needs to keep going, I think. It’s that “little corner” Leonard Cohen talks about – you have to spend time there for things to hold firm. I read an interview with the poet Helen Mort last year where she said that you can’t paraphrase a poem; you can only write it or read it. There’s something beautifully sovereign about that.

What does it mean to you to be a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning author?

Lots. I’m very grateful for it. It’s a major honour to be on that list. I’ve already had new readers in touch who have picked up the book in WH Smith. And the prize money means time to write the next thing, which is the dream.

 Do you think there are any characteristics that define British fiction writing?

Not really.

Can you recommend a contemporary British fiction writer?

Everyone should read Glen Duncan.

And finally, do you have any works in progress that we should watch out for?

I’m writing a third novel and I’m adapting Animals into a screenplay, which has been the steepest learning curve of my life – at least since A-levels. Screenplays are MERCILESS. For example, you can’t just have a character wander off for three pages to look at a bush, or rhapsodise about cheese, like you can in a novel. Every line has to drive the action. But then there is comfort in good, solid structure – in the maths of it. And structure has never been my strength, so I’m keen to learn. I’m already a better plotter from studying screenplays.

Every winter I co-publish a short story anthology with a collective of artist and writer friends. We call ourselves Curious Tales. This year’s collection is inspired by the American writer Shirley Jackson and I’ve written a creepy story about a music festival. We’ll be touring the collection, Congregation of Innocents, around the UK from late October to January, doing readings and talks. I daresay there will be mulled wine. You can find us at www.curious-tales.com

Buy Animals here.

 

EmmaJaneUnsworthEmma Jane Unsworth is a journalist and won the Betty Trask Award for her novel Hungry, the Stars and Everything, (Hidden Gem, 2011) and was shortlisted for the 2012 Portico Prize. Her short story ‘I Arrive First’ was included in The Best British Short Stories 2012 (Salt). 

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