Finding the right form for the story

Sally Emerson
Opinion - Books Thursday, 15 June 2017

Sally Emerson on how she has used various narrative techniques in her novels, which are reissued this year by Quartet


Over the course of writing my six novels I have chosen different narrative techniques. Part of the joy of writing a novel is the challenge of inventing the right form to suit the story. An original form is entertaining to write and to read, though there is no point in choosing one for the sake of it.

In Fire Child, the story is told in the alternating diaries of the dark heroine Tessa, whose smile can make any man fall in love with her, and of Martin, a dangerous young man who likes to play with fire. Tessa behaves in such an outrageous way - from the age of 12 she coolly seduces and destroys men - that if her story were recounted in the first person we would not identify with her. But the first person diary can be very persuasive. Once we know someone, as we know Tessa and Martin from their diaries, we are drawn into their world. We know what they eat, who they love, who they seduce and why, what they fear. We become intimate with them. As I wrote the novel I could see Martin, aged 20, red-haired, scruffy but sexy, sitting at a table writing his diary about how he was looking for the one woman he needed, while just a few streets away Tessa was writing hers. This is the darkest of love stories, but seems innocent enough at first, partly because the young protagonists confess faults: "I have gingery hair and no money and bad habits like eating cold baked beans out of the tin," writes Martin. Tessa's first lines express remorse: "I am very thin and find it hard to eat. Sometimes I think I'm starving myself to death because I'm tired of existing. I don't like myself. Ever since I killed my father I have lost hope. That was five years ago. I was just 15."

Whereas the savagery of Fire Child was best served by the diary form, my worry about Separation was the innocence that is central to the story. I felt the literary establishment's prejudice about "womanly" subjects might prevent people taking this story of women separated from their children seriously. It was far more difficult to work out a way to express the particular glory and power of babies without charges of "sentimentality" than it was to write about the nature of evil in Fire Child. It turned out to be one of the bestselling of my novels, and won critical acclaim.

While in Fire Child I went for the close up, the style of Separation is much more crisp and distanced, as if watching a film, and the often short chapters move fast but the passion and emotion builds up only gradually until the last third is almost unbearable. The first chapter begins, for instance, "The first scene to show you is a familiar one: a woman leaning over her sleeping baby in its cot." Every now and again I give a sense of perspective: "Let me stop a moment to introduce a little known character, the chief character in so many real-life scenarios, although severely neglected in literature and plays... THE BABY is a figure of enormous consequences never to be underestimated. This particular baby, Kate Richardson, is certainly no exception. Ravishingly innocent, momentously tiny, she is making her steely mother into her slave, or trying to. Her mother is attempting to fight back. It will be interesting to see who wins, and to judge whether whoever wins really has won."

I knew I was doing something difficult in writing a sophisticated novel with a baby and a child and the emotions of their mothers separated from their children at its core. Even now, anything describing babies is considered somehow not serious even though babies can teach us more about life in a day than philosophers can in a year. Babies are the beginning of things, what we are before life twists and turns us. The TLS wrote: "Emerson conveys the magical indefinable attraction of babies in descriptions calculated to unleash strong feelings in the least maternal of readers." In the story, it is a child who gradually becomes the powerful figure and the catalyst for the dramatic and tragic ending.

Whenever I write a novel it is with the highest of ambitions. I want to have fun, and to find the right form, and to surprise myself. In my first novel, Second Sight, my heroine, an introvert in an extrovert world, talks to the poet Shelley and the restoration playwright Aphra Behn. She sees them. She is more comfortable in her imagined world than in the real one. The novel is written in the third person but always - apart from an occasional lapse - from the point of view of the young heroine, Jennifer Hamilton. By choosing that point of view, I was able to show Jennifer's moments of priggishness and self-deception while maintaining affection and respect for what she was going through: her competiveness with her mother, fear of death, her first lust for her wild mother's boyfriend. Her emotions shift from the freedom of childhood's imaginative empire to the intense and uncontrollable feeling of the real, adult world. Because we feel close to thoughtful Jennifer it doesn't seem odd when she imagines scenes from the past - for instance Aphra Behn locked up in jail. I still love this haunting novel set in Westminster, reminding me of my own transition from child to young woman. As the novel gains momentum, it is Jennifer's character that blazes through.

Heat, set in Washington DC, is on the face of it more conventional in narrative technique. The main thread of the novel is a third person account of Susan Stewart's alarm when an old lover turns up in town. ("All your old loves come back, in the end, in dreams or in reality. Choose lovers carefully because you'll have them forever.") In this novel more than any other I enjoyed building up a sense of the danger of the outside world, with the giant moths beating against the windows of the sprawling house, in a city built on a swamp, as the eroticism and the threat to Susan and her family intensify.

Second Sight, Separation, Fire Child and Heat are published by Quartet at £10. Second Sight and Separation are out on 22 June; the other two are available now.

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