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The Riff Raff Podcast #15 - Emma Flint continued

As we mentioned at the end of Emma's podcast - we were completely gutted to cut things short while we still had so many burning questions about her incredible debut, Little Deaths. Fire alarms and studio booking times thwarted our plans to keep chatting for hours!

Fortunately, Emma kindly agreed to stick around and answer some more questions over a cuppa. When it comes to a writer who speaks as eloquently as Emma, we simply couldn't let her wisdom go to waste.

In this continuation of Episode 15, Emma lets us in on how she develops her characters, gives her take on writing groups and tells us why new writers should read everything – good and bad.

Emma Flint | The Riff Raff September meet up

With a book like Little Deaths, is there such a thing as doing too much research? Can you end up simply re-writing the facts?

You do risk losing the story. It becomes like non-fiction with a couple of characters floating through – that was definitely what my first few drafts were like. As a reader, you want pace, suspense and tension; you want the characters to be in jeopardy and to see them making decisions. In reality, someone [like Ruth Malone] who is accused of murdering her children is actually quite passive: she is just sitting around, waiting to get arrested, waiting to give interviews, waiting for things to happen.

That was a problem for me early on – she needed to be more active. It was one of the reasons I introduced the character of Pete [Wonicke]. I needed someone out there looking for evidence and other solutions..

In reality, people don’t always act how we expect them to, and this was the case in the real story behind Little Deaths. When it came to fictionalising it, how did you stick to the facts without making them seem too far-fetched for the reader?

You have to show everything in context. It was normal for Ruth to be wearing tight clothes and full make up, to be smoking a cigarette and not wake up until 10am, but the police only saw that one day so of course they wondered: why isn’t she red eyed? Why does she have brandy on her breath? Why didn’t she wake up earlier? It was because her life was really like that.

Alice Crimmins

You have achieved incredible success with Little Deaths. How have you found the experience?

I’ve been really lucky. I have a fantastic publisher and got a great deal but it’s not like I became a millionaire over night. I go along to writing groups, I go to workshops and go to talks by writers because I am still learning.

I write in the British Library and on the second floor there is a picture of Hilary Mantel – she is the only living person to have her image in the library. If I ever feel like, hey, I’m Emma Flint! I look at that picture or read the first page of Wolf Hall and I realise I am in kindergarten and she is PhD.

There are always going to be better writers than me and I think that’s good. That’s how it should be.

You are a big advocate of Arvon creative writing courses and been on several yourself. How have they benefitted your writing?

I found Arvon courses life-changing.

Throughout my twenties I had been writing a terrible, terrible book about a woman in her twenties who doesn’t know what she is doing with her life. Then I found a historical crime, wrote about 20,000 words and applied to go on an Arvon course.

It’s five days and it’s residential so you are taken out of your home life – no Wi-Fi, no TV, no distractions.

As part of the course you get two tutors, both of whom are always published novelists. One of my tutors said to me, “You’re a writer. This is what you should be doing.” I assumed he was being nice but he assured me he didn’t say that to everyone!

Having someone who knows what they are doing tell you they believe in you, that they take you seriously – and that you should be taking yourself seriously – that's what was life changing.

Interestingly, I later went on a couple of writing courses for beginners and they were 90 per cent female. Then I went on an advanced writing course: 50 per cent male.

You also belong to a writers’ group. Is that something you also recommend for authors just starting out?

I actually belong to two. Five of six of us from one course all live in London so we started a group. The second one I randomly found on Twitter.

Being part of a writing group has made me better at criticising my own work. I go to a meeting, hear someone talk about a character and think, ah, my characters aren’t doing that yet. But you also have to be good at giving criticism which is a very specific skill.

It makes you accountable. If you talk about your book then it becomes real; it’s like a child or a partner, people ask about how it’s doing, how it’s coming along, how much have you written.

You mentioned you have been writing since you were 10 – what kind of things?

When I was 10 my mum gave me my first Agatha Christie book and I got obsessed with them – then I got obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I love how predictable they become but that’s what makes them cosy. Even though the detectives are in jeopardy, you know they’re going to be OK, that the bad guy is going to prison; you know they will solve the mystery and at the end Miss Marple will be happily sitting knitting.

I wrote a ‘brilliant’ novel, set in an English country house, about a Frenchman with an astonishing moustache who solved incredible mysteries with his stupid English side-kick. It is as yet unpublished, for any publishers out there looking to pick it up…

I wrote some very, very bad poetry as a teenager that no one will ever see, then the semi-autobiographical book, but this was the first thing I finished, submitted and took seriously.

How did you come across the particular story that inspired Little Deaths?

I used to subscribe to a true crime magazine. My mum suggested Just 17, but no – I wanted to be a pathologist so I read a lot about autopsies.

I came across this story in that magazine. I recently found the original article at my parents’ house. It was so weird looking at it again.

You must feel like you know Alice Crimmins. Would you ever want to meet her and if so, what would you say?

Initially I thought I would like to but I only know the 28-year old Alice Crimmins who I fictionalised; in reality, she is an 80-year old lady who, whether she committed the crime or not, has had an enormous grief in her life.

She has worked really hard to be private and has never talked about the case since she came out of jail; I would hate to be the cause of her being forced to be public again. It’s her life I have written about; she is entitled to put a wall around it.

Besides, Ruth Malone is a fantasised version of Alice; she had 26 years of life before my book start about which I know very little.

Do you have a fixed writing routine?

I try and write every day. In an ideal world I would write as soon as I wake up, when my head is full of lines and images and ideas but stupidly, I turn my phone on and by the time I’ve read two emails I have forgotten my ideas.

I also live with two kittens so I can’t write at home because they think my pen is a toy and my laptop is their play area.

If I can’t write, I read something or try and think about an aspect of the manuscript that I am struggling with.

I might walk around for an hour or write something completely different that won’t go in the book. For Pete, for instance, I created a 60,000 word backstory: he was British for a while, he had a job in a book shop and an unrequited love in high school…

Sometimes I put my characters somewhere surprising. For my new book, which is also historical fiction, I have been struggling to understand the lead character so I put her on a beach to see how she would react to the flesh, to the nudity. I was surprised; I thought she was going to freak out but she didn’t.

Having characters based on real people can be a help and a hindrance. With Ruth, I had Alice’s face in my head the whole time so she had to look a certain way, and it’s the same with the character in my second book.

I went to the V&A to look at the 20s dresses and I saw a beautiful dress that I wanted to put her in but couldn’t because she has a big bosom and wouldn’t have fit.

The thing to do is have your character look at the dress and want it, and share your frustration.

Do you choose historical figures with whom you empathise?

Definitely. I started writing Little Deaths first thing in the morning; I wasn’t wearing any make up, and I sat down and wrote a scene about a woman putting make up on. Because I wear it, I think a lot about the reasons other women do, too. I started thinking about it as a mask you put on to face the world; the idea that you make yourself look different reminded me of the article I had read about Alice and how she wore make up like a mask. It made me wonder what she was hiding.

The depths you go to when developing your characters is incredible; it that your natural approach or is it something anyone can learn?

It is my natural approach now but it’s come from reading. I recently read A Little Life [by Hanya Yanagihara] – I couldn’t put it down. The author really gets inside his character and I grew to know him inside out.

With Ruth, I would walk into shops, see an item of clothing and think: she wouldn’t wear that. I could hear her voice so strongly.

There’s a part in the book where she goes out drinking alone to pick up men so I went out to a bar by myself. I sat watching single women at the bar trying to think about what’s changed since 1960 and now. Not much really.

What’s your advice for aspiring writers?

Try and find a writers’ group with people who are at the same stage as you. If you are just starting out, don’t join a group of writers who are published because it will put you off.

Find people who can give you honest, useful feedback – and by honest, I mean good and bad.

I initially found it really hard to take criticism because writing is really personal –you’re putting a part of yourself on the page. It has taken me a long time to understand: they are not criticising your writing, they are criticising the way you express it.

My other piece of advice is to read, but read critically. Find something you really like, take it apart and think about why it works. It’s equally important to find books that don’t work – it all makes you a better writer.

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