01st Mar2012

Interview with Emylia Hall

by Lloyd Paige

Emylia Hall’s debut novel The Book of Summers is out on March 1st published by Headline. The coming-of-age novel was inspired by her own childhood and weaves a tale of discovery, love, and secrets. Emylia set some time aside to talk to me about her new book, and her journey as a writer.

1. Your debut novel ‘The Book of Summers’ is inspired by your childhood holidays in rural Hungary, how much of yourself have you put into the main character Beth Lowe?

Actually very little, I’m rather grateful to say. I can’t imagine how I would react if I experienced any of what Beth goes through; the sorrow, the regret, the bitterness. I do see something of my childhood self in Erzsi though, the way she responds to being in Hungary, how she falls in love with the place and carries the time she spends there around in her heart. Like her, I’m easily smitten. And I’d have loved to have met a boy like Tamás at that age – unfortunately he’s also a fictitious creation.

2. The January 2012 issue of ELLE magazine named you, along with two other writers Naomi Wood and Morgan McCarthy, as three of 2012’s “most anticipated debut novelists”. Does a compliment like that put you under more pressure to succeed?

It was fantastic to be in ELLE, as it’s a magazine I’ve always loved, and it started my 2012 off on a wonderful footing. As to pressure… I worked in advertising agencies for eight years before writing full-time, so I’ve become quite used to being under pressure. Back then it was about juggling crazy deadlines, testy clients, more than one or two big egos. Now, any pressure that’s connected to my writing, and my own career as a writer, I embrace because it’s precisely that – mine. It’s a joy and a privilege!

3. What was the hardest part of writing your book?

I spent a long time working through the different emotions that flow through the story. It was really important that the characters felt well-rounded, and that their reactions came across as believable, particularly as I was dealing with intensely emotional subjects. And as with any writing, I perpetually strove to keep a balance between allowing myself to get swept up in the story, while maintaining a cool, critical distance. Self-editing is one of the best, and trickiest, skills for any writer to learn.

4. How long did it take you to write it?

I first had the idea for the story nine years ago, but I actually began writing The Book of Summers in 2007. Most of the work, however, was done in 2010, when I quit my job to go on a sort of ‘writing sabbatical’, living on a shoe-string budget and demolishing then rebuilding my manuscript, piece by piece. I knew it needed a lot of work, and I wanted to make sure it was in the best possible shape before I began looking for an agent. That year made all the difference. I dared to ask difficult questions and not quake in the face of the answers; it’s easier to delete great tranches of your writing if you know you have given yourself the time, and the courage, to write them better the next time.

5. As a debut writer, how does it feel to be waiting for your first publication day?

It feels both completely out-of-this-world, more marvelous than I could ever have imagined, and… entirely normal! That’s how I’ve felt from the moment I received the call from my agent, with news of Headline’s offer. I thought I’d be in pieces because my dream had finally come true, but in fact I felt strangely level-headed about the whole thing. I’m delighted, of course, and slightly giddy, and probably nervous too, but it feels right.

6. What’s the most valuable lesson that you’ve learned along the way?

Follow your heart, but keep your head. Throughout the writing of my book I made decisions that felt momentous at the time (ditching the ‘first’ novel I was working on to write one I really believed in, quitting my job at the height of the recession in order to create more time to write the book I wanted, running away to Vegas to get married…!) but I always had faith in my reasoning. I knew that whatever happened with The Book of Summers, I wouldn’t regret the time I’d spent writing it, nor the ways I’d changed my life to make that experience more productive and enjoyable.

7. How important has it been to have an agent such as Rowan Lawton behind you?

Rowan is a dream agent. Right from the beginning her enthusiasm and belief has been incredible, and while she was always positive about the book’s chances of getting published she tempered that with a good dose of realism. Before Headline made their offer, all I knew was that I had someone great in my corner. Someone whose opinion I respected, who had been incredibly helpful throughout the editorial process, and was great fun to work with.

8. What are the three books that have influenced your life most, and why?

I could answer this a hundred different ways, but here’s one…

I first read Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome when I was about nine. I quickly consumed all of Ransome’s other books, and was completely seduced by the world he created. They weren’t just stories about children having adventures, they were stories about imaginative children having adventures; children that pretended they were on the high seas, in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, with a case full of grog, when really they were messing about on an English lake with a bottle of ginger beer. From my landlocked Devon garden, it was all pretty amazing. I believed in the power of imagination above all else.

When I was sixteen I read The Catcher In The Rye, and fell in love with Holden Caulfield immediately. Teenage boys were a mystery to me at that age, and suddenly I was right up inside the head of one, realizing that contrary to all of my beliefs, we felt the same way about a lot of things, after all. I adored the intimacy of the first person voice and the informality of the prose. And just as Holden says of the best authors, after reading it I wished that J.D. Salinger was a ‘terrific friend of mine’ who I could ‘call (…) up on the phone whenever I felt like it.’

I read The Secret History by Donna Tartt in my mid-twenties. I was living in London, and working long hours in a job that I was falling out of love with. Over the course of a wintry week I read The Secret History every evening, curled up in a leather armchair, nursing a glass of whisky. I was utterly transported by its dark and claustrophobic world and the clarity of the writing, sparse yet lyrical, impressed me no end.

9. What do you think makes a good story?

Hemingway talked about creating living people, not characters, and I believe wholeheartedly in this. Any story with people in it, written truthfully and told tenderly is compelling. I also like a touch of lyricism, an obvious (but not too obvious) delight in the English language. And heart. Above all, I look for stories with heart.

10. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I love snowboarding; for the exhilaration of speed, control bordering on lack thereof, as well as being in the fresh air and in some of the most beautiful surroundings possible. Cooking… every morning I look forward to the meal I’m going to make that evening. Cooking always feels creative, to me, even if I’m just whipping up a simple pasta. And I’m a mean table-football player.

11. Based on your experiences so far, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Read voraciously. Read well. Read widely.

Read like a writer. Get swept away in the story, sure, but pay attention to what the author’s doing with the narrative. Learn from it.

Then… write the book that you would like to read. One that would keep you up at night, and that would stay with you long after the are closed.

To visit The Book of Summers website, click here.


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