A couple of months ago I read How to be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman, a book that blew me out of my comfort zone and into the mind of Marta – a good wife who is coming to terms with her identity. Here’s a snippet from my review:
How to Be a Good Wife is a breath-taking, atmospheric read that caught me by surprise with its depth and haunting aftertaste. It’s like a short, sharp punch to the stomach.
You can read the full review here and an extract here. I was hoping Emma could be one of my Stories on Stage guests, but our timings haven’t worked, so instead, Emma agreed to answer some of my many questions. To find out more about Emma, make sure you visit her website.
Monique: Tell me a bit about how you became a writer.
Emma: I feel like I’ve always been one, whether I have written or not. When I was at university, I would tell people I wanted to be a writer: they would ask what have you written, and I would say nothing. I just knew it was what I wanted to do. I’m a much better person if I have the distraction of a fictional world.
Monique: Your first novel, How to be a Good Wife, was released in January 2013. What sort of feedback have you had from readers?
Emma: I’ve had great feedback both from readers and critics, which I am very grateful for. A few book groups have emailed me to ask me what really happened in the end, but I was kind of expecting that as I deliberately left it very open-ended. I know some people like firm resolutions so I wasn’t expecting everyone to like that.
Monique: Marta is a woman struggling to come to terms with her identity after years of marriage and now, an empty nest. How does her identity shift as the novel progresses? You’re quite a bit younger and with very different experiences to her – was it hard to put yourself in her place as you wrote?
Emma: Her identity changes as she reassesses the roles she has spent her whole adult life trying to fulfil. If she is not a WIFE, or a MOTHER, who is she? She begins to questions those roles and her husband, and it is up to the reader to decide whether her state of mind is disintegrating or revealing her true identity.
I did a lot of research into several psychological disorders, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder as a result of trauma. The character of Marta is far from my experiences in many ways, but I also think she represents and explores many of the issues I have struggled with as a woman. Expectations of us versus what we want, and whether those two are the same.
Monique: The novel was set in Scandinavia. What made you choose that setting? How important is the setting for this story? Would the story have a different feel if it was set in another country, say Australia?
I have travelled extensively in Scandinavia. I also felt that the vast unpredictable landscapes surrounding Marta and the long darkness of the winter mirror and heighten Marta’s entrapment. These are things she is unable to control, and as a controlling person, it is difficult for her to be in this environment.
Monique: A book Marta was given as a wedding gift left a lasting impression on her. Why do you think she played by the ‘rules’ according to the book? What would be your reaction if a similar book was given to you?
Emma: Marta plays by the rules as they are what are expected of her by those around her. She is also damaged and easily manipulated at the time of her marriage.
I am getting married this July, and unless this book appears as a joke, I would be slightly disturbed. The rules in the book seem very archaic now, but its presence in the novel reminds the reader of the history of marriage and how women have been defined by a specific role for a long time. I think this can be damaging psychologically, as Betty Friedan articulated in the 1950s in ‘The Feminine Mystique’.
Monique: What do you think Marta would think of you? Are there any similarities between you?
Emma: Interesting question! I have spent so much time grappling with what I think of Marta that I’ve never considered it the other way around. Of course, Marta came from me, and I think she was a vehicle for me to explore my own fears and concerns about marriage and a woman’s role. I am more of Katya’s generation I suppose: interesting to consider what she would have thought of me if Kylan had brought me home!
Monique: Tell me a bit about your publishing journey. Any highlights/lowlights?
Emma: So many highlights. It’s really lived up to my expectations, which were pretty high. Getting the quotation from Hilary Mantel was a great moment, as were the wonderful critical reviews. I was lucky to have an agent I trust who worked on the novel with me for two years before it went to publishers. I have a wonderful editor at Picador who has kept me in the loop with everything and made publishing the novel as exciting as I hoped.
Monique: How does it feel when someone refers to you as an author? Has it sunk in yet? Do you recall a moment when it sunk in for you?
Emma: It’s an amazing feeling. I hope it never sinks in.
Monique: What’s your writing process like? Do you have a particular writing space? Do you need complete silence or can you cope with noise. How do you get into the “zone”?
Emma: I learnt to write anywhere I had a few moments while writing How To Be A Good Wife as I was working full time and didn’t have the luxury of ‘letting it happen’. If I had an hour before work, I had to use that time. That doesn’t mean I didn’t procrastinate and then get frustrated with myself. My new book is happening much more languidly as I have more time.
Monique: I understand your next book is about a war photographer in Vietnam. How’s it going? Can readers expect something radically different?
Emma: It’s going well. I wanted to write something totally different from How To Be A Good Wife, but I can see similarities creeping in. The protagonist is a male character and it’s about war and it’s impact: but it still concerns how a big event in someone’s life affects them and whether you can be the same person afterwards.
Monique: If someone wanted to start creative writing, what advice would you give them?
Emma: Find something that interests you, almost to the point of obsession, and go with that. It’s a long process, and you’ll need that interest to continue. Keep faith, which is easy to say, but sometimes impossible to do. The most difficult thing about writing is the uncertainty that it will ever come to anything.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Emma: Another great question. I think I’ve learnt not to push myself too hard. I remember one occasion when I was working on How To Be A Good Wife and I had made myself work and work for days and still nothing seemed to be happening. I spoke to my fiancé, and he listened quietly to my grievances and fears about the novel. I thought he was going to tell me to pull my socks up and get on with it: he’s very pragmatic. But he just said, “You’re not a tap.” And it was the best advice he could have given me. You can’t force it: sometimes you just have to be patient, and I have found that difficult. Now, if I get stuck, I turn to research or read a novel, something unrelated, and eventually I find my way back into the book.
Monique: What do you look for when you read fiction? What other genres attract you?
Emma: I love many genres of fiction. I think voice is important: anything that can draw me in and pull me along with no effort is my kind of book. The most recent book I read like that was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn which was totally engaging and very, very clever in its plotting.
Monique: Five things that mean the most to you in life?
Emma: 1. My partner. Family. Friends. (All these three are really the same category for me). 2. Writing and reading. 3. Being an adventurer and having an appreciation for my surroundings.
Monique: What would you call your memoir?
Emma: Ask me again in forty years. I’ve got a lot of life to live before I feel close to being able to answer that.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Emma: Two of the Missing, by Perry Deane Young. It’s a book about two war photographers, Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, who went missing during the Vietnam War. It’s brilliantly written: a searing exploration of the types of people who do this job, and what happens when they push their adventurousness to the limit.
Monique: Which book do you think all young women should read?
Emma: Difficult to choose one, but What, No Baby? by Leslie Cannold had a big impact on me. It explores the problems facing women of this generation, torn between wonderful careers and having a family. It’s great that we have so many choices now, but these raise their own questions.
Monique: What your favourite treat to eat while reading? And which bookish treat do you think best suits How to be Good Wife?
Emma: Chocolate. Always.
Monique: Lastly, how do you think someone can be a good wife?
Emma: I think that a good marriage allows two people to be themselves, to become the best they can be as individuals. They should be more together than they are apart, not less. I think both partners should strive to allow the other to reach their potential.