An Interview With Author Emylia Hall

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What gave you the courage to leave an advertising job in London and launch into writing?

After five years in London straight after university, I’d reached the point where I felt as though I really needed to make a change. I was caught up in a very busy day job, one that didn’t leave a lot of headspace for much else.

For quite some time I’d felt that I wanted to do something more creatively fulfilling, something that was more for myself, but it was a matter of choosing the right point at which to make the change, as there were things I really liked about my job, and London life. My husband and I have always loved snowboarding, and we’d talked idly about doing a ski season many times. Going to live in the French Alps, and working as chalet staff, was a great way to break from our old routine, and explore new horizons – literally and figuratively. That was when, and where, I began writing. I think when you make a decision that’s from the heart, but you’ve also really thought it through, it doesn’t feel like courage comes into it all that much.

What have you learned about the process of writing and the publishing industry since you first put your ideas down? 

While I was writing my first novel, The Book of Summers, my biggest concern was that it would get lost in the slush pile among all the other hopeful manuscripts, never finding its way into the right pair of hands. As soon as I had an agent on my side, the brilliant Rowan Lawton, I felt much more confident – I still knew that publication wasn’t guaranteed, but I felt like I was on the right path. When I got ‘the call’ with the news that Headline wanted my book, I was floored. The thing I’d been working towards for some years, and had wanted almost more than anything else, had actually happened. It felt like a dream. That was July 2011, and sometimes I have to remind myself of how incredibly lucky I am, and what a privilege it is to write full-time. It’s easy for it to feel normal, and I don’t want that to happen. It’s not normal – it’s wonderful – an extraordinary way to spend your days. But for all the joy, there are aspects that make writing a job like any other, days when putting pen to paper feels like a chore, and my daily word-count target like an insurmountable mountain. That’s when a well-timed and self-administered kick up the backside is just the thing. Be rigorous, be tough, and make yourself work even when you don’t feel like it. That’s what I’ve learnt. It might be my dream job, but it’s also very real work.

You have talked previously about poetry being an inspiration for your work. Do you have particular favourites or other key inspirations?

I wrote a piece for Book Slam recently on this very subject, which you can read here.

My favourite poem is probably Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas – I love the evocation of a rural childhood, and the melancholy of the poet’s ability to recollect, but never be fully able to return. A desire for some kind of time-travel, driven by nostalgia and longing, lies at the heart of much of my writing. I almost always start a story with ‘place’, and those places are often landscapes that belong to my past, or hold a particular kind of allure for me, mostly of the unreachable, or faintly exotic, kind. I live in Bristol, and I love it here, but I have no particular interest in setting a story in the city. That said, if I moved away I’m almost certain that I’d think ‘ah…. Bristol’ and want to do something with that feeling.

The Book of Summers, your debut novel, has been translated into eight languages and was a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club pick in 2012. How did it affect your profile as a writer? 

I think Richard and Judy probably made a huge difference, and certainly introduced many more readers to my work – for that, I’m hugely grateful. Having their seal of approval also gave me a wonderful confidence boost, it’s something to hold on to. I’ve always had great respect for their book club choices, and have found some of my favourite contemporary novels thanks to them. The translations of The Book of Summers are really exciting to me, it’s a real thrill to hold a foreign edition of your work in your hand, especially for a travel-junkie like myself. I’ve been to Hungary and Spain for promotional visits and literary festivals. One of Budapest’s biggest bookstores devoted an entire window display to The Book of Summers, which was a real thrill to see, and my Spanish publisher ran an amazing publicity campaign that included radio ads and an aeroplane trailing a banner in the skies above Malaga…. Surreal, and brilliant.

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Your next book, A Heart Bent Out of Shape, was published last month in the UK (and will be released as The Swiss Affair in the US in 2014). How did the books differ in the length of time that it took you to complete them and are there any similar threads running through both?   

I wrote The Book of Summers over the course of about four years, in quite a meandering fashion, most of the time writing alongside a day job. I did however take a clear six months off to give it ‘the final push’, and then another six months working part-time in a bookshop while finishing it. I burnt through my savings, but never regretted giving myself this kind of focused time on the book. It really worked for me. A Heart Bent Out of Shape was written under quite different conditions. It was the second book in a two-book deal, and I quit my part-time job in a Bristol marketing agency in order to write it to deadline. It took about a year and a half, from start to finish. During the process I sometimes wondered if I was trying to move too quickly, but then it all came together, and the last six months of work, with the wisdom of my agent and editors filling my sails, turned out to be the most pleasurable.

I share your love of the slopes but am happier on skis than a snowboard. How important do you think it is for writers to have passions that take them out of the writing process and away from their book?

I love what snowboarding gives me; it’s exhilarating in every way. I love the speed, the way sometimes you can scare yourself a little, but ultimately always feel in control. And the setting… I love the mountains, and the beauty of a blue sky and powder day is, in my mind, unsurpassable. I also have a big crush on alpine style; the architecture, the food, the rugged exteriors and the cosy interiors… it all comes together to be, for me, the perfect pastime. We spent two winters living in Morzine in the French Alps, and I had a year in Lausanne as a student, so the mountains never feel far away; there are seven snowboards in our house, and I’m a sucker for vintage ski art and old resort postcards. As to writers and their passions, I think the great outdoors is the best tonic for us solitary, desk-bound folk. A beautiful view can’t help but give perspective, and it’s good to feel your heart pumping and your muscles straining, giving your mind and body something else to think about. My third novel has a bit of a surf element to it, and I’m keen to take some lessons down in Cornwall.

Your books are set in Hungary and Switzerland. Is travel important to you and how do you create a sense of place in your work?

Travel is really important to my work. I love books that transport the reader, emotionally and physically, and give a real sense of place. They’re my favourite books to read, and therefore my favourite to write. So far I’ve chosen places as settings that I love and feel a real connection with, so conjuring the detail of them, trying to capture their essence, is a really enjoyable process and feels quite natural. Desk-bound travelling! The book I’m working on at the moment is set in Cornwall’s Far West, and the wildness of that landscape really appeals to me. I grew up in Devon, and so it doesn’t feel like a world away, but retains enough of an exotic edge to make me interested in writing about it. I think a lot of my obsession with writing about place comes from my rural childhood. I lived in the same cottage in a tiny village until I went away to university and moved to London, and as a child I always had a great curiosity about other places, and other people’s lives. We travelled quite a lot as a family, always driving across Europe each summer, and those trips have really stayed with me. I grew up holding onto the memory of one trip, and looking forward to the next, always savouring the details of our travels, and loving sharing them as a family. When I went to university I made sure that a year abroad was part of that experience, and I chose Lausanne, in Switzerland, which became the setting for A Heart Bent Out of Shape. I guess I have the kind of mind that holds on to the details of a place, and the kind of imagination that wants to do something with them.

Are there any books that have taken your breath away or left a lingering sense of another world?

Many, but to name just a few… The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  The White Woman On The Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey. The Silver Dark Sea by Susan Fletcher. Each conjures place so vividly, be it Congo, Trinidad, or a remote Scottish island, and I was utterly lost in their worlds. I really admire the writing of Daphne du Maurier, and love how central Cornwall was to her work, inspiring her life on the page, and beyond it. And Ernest Hemingway’s epilogue to Death In The Afternoon is, to my mind, a truly perfect piece of writing about place… the opening line ‘If I could have made this enough of a book it would have had everything in it,’ exactly sums up how I felt when writing A Heart Bent Out of Shape. My greatest desire was to do justice to my memory of Lausanne, to capture its beauty and convey that very particular feeling of being young, and abroad, and everything seeming full of promise. I wanted to write the whole city into that novel, every view, every scent, every sight, but in the end you have to step back, write what’s right, and keep the rest for yourself.

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After studying at York University and in Lausanne, Switzerland, Emylia spent five years working in a London ad agency, before moving to the French Alps where she began to write. The daughter of an English artist and a Hungarian quilt-maker, Emylia enjoys travel and snowboarding. She now lives in Bristol with her husband, also an author. Her first novel, THE BOOK OF SUMMERS, was a Richard and Judy Summer Book Club pick in 2012. It’s published by Headline in the UK, MIRA in the US & Canada. Her second novel, A HEART BENT OUT OF SHAPE (or THE SWISS AFFAIR, in the US) was published in September 2013 (Feb 2014 in the US). Emylia’s writing and short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including ELLE magazine, the Book Slam anthology, Too Much Too Young, and broadcast on BBC Radio 6 Music. She is currently at work on her third novel.

You can find Emylia on twitter and her website and blog.

The Power of Place

I have been buried in research for my book over the past few days and it has highlighted, for me, the impact of place on people’s thoughts and emotions. Some places leave an indelible mark on your psyche, no matter how distant the experience. I have been researching the histories of different people and places for various chapters and it has triggered many memories and experiences of the people and places that have had an impact on me and has changed the way I think and the way I view life.

I want to share some of these places with you and to talk about the impact and the memories they hold:

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. I visited while I was in Jerusalem and the power of the city as a place is indefinable. There was a palpable tension in the air as I passed guards on the ascent to Temple Mount, and as I stood looking at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the aqua tiles of the Dome of the Rock, with its golden dome and imposing stature. The view from the Mount of Olives was breath-taking and the churches passed en route to the top were full of symbolism and a deep sense of history.

But it was the museum at Yad Vashem which left the strongest imprint on my memory of the place. The atrocities of the holocaust are heightened by the collective photographs, paintings and sculptures; by the narrow walls funneling you through into the various rooms of exhibits. I have visited Anne Frank’s house (now the Anne Frank Museum) in Amsterdam and, although people say there is more power in the story of one person, I found the impact of the exhibits collectively much more choking. The final circular room, The Hall of Names, forces you to look up to the cone shaped ceiling displaying 600 photographs and fragments of pages of testimony commemorating the victims.

Yad Vashem is not a place you will ever forget. Memories of the museum pervade my thoughts from time to time along with memories of my Grandfather. Our family believe that he was Jewish, although it was never talked about and my Grandmother dismissed the idea. They met before the war and all that we know is that his family fled from Eastern Europe. A tall, slim, dark haired man, he was highly intelligent and intensely private. His quiet presence will never be forgotten. My memories of him teaching me to play Moonlight Sonata on the piano before I could read music are coupled with memories of him pulling funny faces at breakfast, somewhere out of my Grandmother’s line of vision. He was an accomplished organ player and a mesmerising pianist. When my mind wanders and fixes itself on the images I remember from Yad Vashem, it takes me back to my Grandfather and I wonder if I can trace his family tree back to Jewish, I wonder if he ever had relatives who did not survive.

Yad Vashem

Sistine Chapel

Rome is a frenetic city, full of tourists clamouring to reach the sites; a place with another unique history, a place tracing its roots back to the Roman Empire, it is one of the oldest cities in Europe. In amongst the traffic and bustle of people lies the Vatican, and on a rainy day several summers ago I queued in a long line of umbrellas for the fortuitous last Sunday of the month. I say fortuitous, as these Sundays offer free entry into the museums and the Sistine Chapel. I remember the relatively plain walls circling the museum complex around which several hundred people waited, sharing coffee and swapping stories of where they had come from.

Upon finally reaching the point of entry, we all walked slowly through the grand and elaborate complex containing the quiet halls leading in to the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s detailed frescoes of The Last Judgement and the Garden of Eden are undoubtedly a feat of immense skill and talent. The statistic of well over 5,000 square feet of panels painted in a mere three years is a dizzying thought. As we all looked up and around the side walls, the intensity of the blues and the tone and shading of the skin on the subjects made the images look three dimensional, giant, imposing.

What struck me was the vastness and the power of the images, the care and attention to detail of each and every section of the frescoes. I had visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and admired the paintings and sculptures collected by the Medici family, and drawings by Da Vinci; I had seen Michelangelo’s  famed Statue of David, but nothing had prepared me for the awe inspiring sense of beauty and greatness of the walls of the chapel.

Memories of the Sistine Chapel reminds me of the power of human endeavour, and of the capacity of art to bring beauty to a world where we are bombarded with advertising images and all that is temporal.

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The Khayelitsha Township sits on the Western Cape of South Africa. It is one of the world’s largest and fastest growing townships and is a reminder of some of the racial segregation and discrimination within South Africa and of it’s troubled history of Apartheid. Established in 1985, large numbers of black South Africans were relocated to the Khayelitsha Township.

What struck me as I met some of the families was not only the physical closeness of the homes, but the extended families and their  warmth towards each other. I remember images of grandmothers carrying babies and young children playing in large groups, making toys out of old tyres and various materials. I remember watching men gathering in large groups and of people, unnervingly, visiting the local witch doctor with his feathers and potions suspended from the roof of a tin hut.  Despite the poverty and the clear sense of displacement, there was a cohesion that I think many people search for and struggle to find in their own societies. I saw similar relationships and communities amongst the Badjao people in the Philippines and the Nubian communities along the River Nile in Egypt.


Valley of the Kings

How is it that we can build some pretty unattractive and unimaginative buildings with the most sophisticated modern day machinery, when the Ancient Egyptians managed to build elaborate tombs and pyramids, sphinxes and sarcophagi? I often wonder how, with the increase in technology, our architecture is rarely a match for buildings such as the temple of Rameses II, the Taj Mahal, the temples of Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the sandstone rock cut monuments of Petra. How did we end up propelling technology forwards at such a rapid pace, yet, conversely,  diminishing a passion for beauty, detail and grandeur?

Of all the sites in Egypt – the pyramids, the collections in the Cairo Museum, the temples of Luxor and beyond, Abu Simbel – the Valley of the Kings is perhaps the most impressive for its intricate paintings, and for the sheer ability of the Ancient Egyptians to tunnel deep into the rock structure and carve out the most elaborate tombs. The mystery surrounding the embalming and the burial rituals of this  ancient civilisation has captured people’s interest for centuries. I took a hot air balloon at dawn over the Valley of the Kings and it is possibly one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Although you cannot see the interior of the tombs from the air, the mist over the Nile, scenes of camels grazing along the banks and farmers pulling donkeys and carts, create a place that has remained relatively unchanged over the years since the tombs were built. The Ancient Egyptians were able to irrigate the land, growing similar crops to those seen today, and agriculture is still a primary source of income.

The silence of a cloudless sky and the view of the silver light on the river at sunrise is a picture that I have tucked away in my memory. Where many places change and evolve over time, the views along the Nile are very similar to the views of 2,000 years ago. Although tourism has changed the coastal towns, and brought with it an alternative source of revenue, the beauty of the Nile and the mystery of an ancient civilisation is what makes the country, in part, so captivating.

valley of the kings

 The power of a sense of place is an integral part of every story, the history and the atmosphere, the people and events. They all tie in to the actions and behaviour, affecting the emotions and thoughts of the people inhabiting the space. This, in any writing, can have an impact and intensity that deepens the reader’s experience.

Interview with Strange Alliances

This is just a quick post to let you know that my interview with Elaine Aldred is over at her blog, Strange Alliances: F.C. Malby. Literally Engaged With Her Writing. We discuss my teaching experience in the Czech Republic just after the fall of communism, and various aspects of writing and publishing.

Many thanks to Elaine for taking the time to interview me. She is a wonderful support to writers and her backlist of author interviews is well worth the read. Do leave comments and feel free to ask any questions.