Writers & Artists interview Emma Chapman, author of How To Be A Good Wife, on her debut novel, finding an agent and the benefits of writing courses.
Your debut novel, How To Be A Good Wife, was published recently. To begin with, could you tell those who don’t know a little about the book?
How To Be A Good Wife is an unconventional psychological thriller. Marta has been married to Hector for so long that she struggles to remember her life before him. She lives in a fog of domesticity, trying her best to be a good wife. After her son leaves home, she begins to feel unsettled: to see things around the house that unnerve her. Is her mind starting to unravel? Or is there something more sinister going on?
Have you always known you wanted to be a writer? What inspired your debut?
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an actress. I acted in a school play and I was terrible. However, the things I loved about acting – getting into the mind of a character – are the same things I love about writing. Except writing involves a more quiet, solitary process of improvement, whereas acting involves working towards that goal in front of other people, a process I found excruciating.
Can you tell us about your writing process? What’s a typical writing day for you?
I still feel like I’m learning my ideal writing process. I recently went to a talk by David Vann, author of Legend Of A Suicide, and was shocked to hear he only works for one hour each morning. Having previously been a bit of a slave to my desk, I decided to try this. So currently, I work focussed and uninterrupted until I’ve written about 1500-2000 words. I try not to look back and get tempted into editing– I find this slows me down and makes me doubt. I trust my subconscious. I spend the rest of the day guilt-free, working on marketing How To Be A Good Wife, blogging, or reading other things. It’s quite ironic really, because when I was writing How To Be A Good Wife, I was working full time and would work for about an hour every morning before work. I have returned to that routine now, as I found having unlimited time to write was actually hindering my process.
The long, hard search for an agent is infamous amongst aspiring authors. How did you find your agent? Did you have to deal with rejection first?
When I was studying for my Masters in Creative Writing and writing How To Be A Good Wife, I worked three days a week at Toby Eady Literary Associates, a wonderful agency in London. I did this as I wanted to work in publishing if my writing career wasn’t successful. They knew I was writing a novel, and when I finished my course and emigrated to Australia, they asked me to send it to them. I did (scariest moment of my writing life so far – tied with going to publishers) and luckily they liked it. I was happy to be taken on by them as I knew the agents who worked there as colleagues, and I trusted their judgment and editing skills.
Back to the book; without giving anything away, you leave a lot open to interpretation. What influenced your decision to do so? Do you have any tips on how to do this as successfully as you have in How To Be A Good Wife?
It was very important to me that at the end of the novel, the reader decides whether to believe Marta or Hector’s interpretation of events. The reasons for this were two-fold. First, I love books that provoke discussion and disagreement. Second, the book deals in part with a woman’s domestic role and raises questions about whether it’s enough, and I believed that by coming down on either side, I was reducing the power of those themes. One of my publishers actually asked for specific clarity in the ending, and I did struggle with the decision – you can read more about the process and decision in this blog post.
It’s a dark book and you’re dealing with so many difficult themes – as a writer, do you feel a sense of responsibility? If so, how do you deal with this?
I’m most interested in the psychology of experience: how people are affected by what happens to them. I felt a responsibility to create a realistic character for Marta, one that would do justice to people who had actually been in her situation (depending on how you interpret the book). As I haven’t experienced it myself, I dealt with this responsibility by conducting a lot of research – reading books, watching documentaries, meeting with psychologists – attempting to prepare myself as best I could to write Marta’s story with integrity.
You also look at wider themes of female identity and experience. What was it that drew you to this?
I’ve always been interested in this, mainly through my own experience. I think the first time I actively studied it was when I was allocated a course at university about 19th and 20th century women writers. I was struck by how much I empathised with their experiences, despite living in what I though was a more modern, equal society. I didn’t mean the book to be about this, but it was something that was very much on my mind while writing it: what being married means and whether it is limiting to an individual’s potential. These were questions that arose from my own life and that I was working through as a young woman.
How To Be A Good Wife is one of those books you can’t put down and, when you do, you’re still thinking about it. How did you maintain the eerie atmosphere of suspense throughout?
It’s a difficult question to answer. Marta’s voice was the element that propelled the book forward: it was the strongest element, and I think her detachment from the world around her allows me to create suspense. To be honest, I didn’t have a true sense of the creepiness of the book – even though people kept referring to it – until I heard the audiobook being read. At that moment, I thought – wow, I’ve written such a dark book.
You have an MA in Creative Writing. Would you encourage other writers to take these kinds of courses? Do you feel that it made you a better writer?
Before I took the course, I’d never shown anyone my work. I think that’s what the course offered me: it forced me to come up against my own work and not to live in a fantasy that what I was creating was perfect. It was a difficult process that ultimately resulted in improvement and led me to How To Be A Good Wife. There are other, less expensive ways to achieve this: short-term writing courses, writers groups etc, and all of these are great. The key is to get feedback, because without that, improvement is difficult. It also forces you to keep writing, as you need to hand work in.
Finally, do you have any advice for writers hoping to get their books published?
Firstly, focus on the work itself. Ignore the ‘rules’ of writing in a first draft, and ignore the doubting voice in your head. Just write the book you want to read. The editing comes later. Make it the best it can be: get feedback from people who aren’t already your friends. Only send it to agents when you’ve exhausted other feedback: when you can’t bear to look at it anymore and you have no perspective on what to do next.
Secondly, improve your chances of getting the book seen. Do work-experience at a literary agency. Don’t mention the novel. Target agents personally: research them and what they’re interested in. Twitter is a good place for this. Try to email them directly rather than going through an assistant or onto a slush pile. Learn about the industry. Prepare yourself. Remember that everyone is different, and if one person doesn’t like your manuscript, it doesn’t mean someone else won’t. If you’re lucky enough to receive detailed feedback, listen to it. Examine it from every angle, and improve. Don’t get defensive: this person is trying to help you.
Working with an agent will help you prepare it for publication. Keep working and keep the faith. It might be a long process, but if you give up, you’ll never know the outcome.
To read Emma's previous article for Writers & Artists - Being Delusional: A Guide To Writing - please click here. To find out more about Emma and her debut novel, please visit the website of How To Be A Good Wife.